Pre-K Small Group

small group tips

I have been asked by several readers about how I do small groups, and I felt it would be easier to go ahead and create a webpage about it to explain how I manage small group time. By the way, I am not an expert, this is just how I do small group in my classroom. These are answers to frequently asked questions.

What size are your small groups? How many groups do you have?

It depends on how many children are in my class in a given year. I have had enrollment numbers any where from 9-22! I think the size of a small group should be about 4-6 children. Depending on class size, that may mean you have 2 groups, or 4 groups, or more. I have had as many as 8 children in a small group, but 4-6 is more ideal.

If I’m able to split the class in half, I take one group and my assistant takes another group. If there are more than two groups, the other group(s) are independent groups. In my lesson plan, I have an activity for my group, another activity for my assistant’s group, and “independent activities” for the independent group(s).

The following day (and subsequent days), the groups would rotate, so that each child would work with me, my assistant, and independent activities.

What do you do during small group? What happens in small group?

I plan literacy, art, fine motor, science, math, and cooking activities. I do more literacy and math than any other skill, but I like to keep a balance and include all areas. Often, an activity integrates more than one skill (this is why, on my theme unit pages, I have not divided the pages into sections by skills, but rather labeled the skills in brackets under each activity, because many of them integrate more than one). I use small group time to practice skills that we have to cover like sorting, matching, counting, etc. We work with hands-on materials only; no worksheets.

Most of my small group activities are online. Look at pages like Themes, Math, Literacy, Art, Kid Recipes, etc. Use the navigation bar at the top of each page to find them. All of those pages include activities we do at small group. I do not designate on the webpage which activities are small group and which are centers because I often use an activity for both.

What that means– I sometimes do a small group/center activity like this: At small group, I set up an activity with the materials we are going to use. I present the activity to the children, show them how to use the the materials, and then let them use it. After each group has been introduced to the materials, I put them on the shelf for use at center time. For example, if we are working on sorting, I introduce the materials, show them how to use them, and then the kids work in pairs or individually. I assist children as needed. These same trays will be available in the Math Center for free choice time.

I have found that children are much more interested in Math and Literacy center activities if they have been first introduced to them in small group or large group.

Do you do small group during center time?

No. When I first started teaching Pre-K, I was trained in High Scope, so I still do a lot of things the High Scope way. In HS, they believe that small groups should not take place during center time so that children are not interrupted in their work. They believe strongly in uninterrupted free-choice centers. Also, anecdotal notes are very important, and this way the teacher is able to observe and take anecdotal notes while children are engaged in their centers. Observational assessment is much more authentic than pulling kids aside to “test” them.

Where do you get your small group lessons? Do you use a curriculum?

I don’t use a curriculum, so I come up with the lessons for small groups on my own. Some of them are ideas I’ve found online or in resource books or from fellow teachers, and some of them are ideas I made up on my own.

What do the other children do if they are not in centers?

The independent group(s) work with activities that have already been introduced to them. I might have them work with trays in our Math, Literacy, Fine Motor, or Science Centers. I might have them work with Legos, pattern blocks, play dough, drawing, bookmaking, or any activity they can do on their own without help from a teacher.

Is that when you do activities based on your theme?

If we are doing a theme, then our activity might be related, but it isn’t always. Just to give an example: we might do a science exploration with baking soda and vinegar– it doesn’t match a theme, but I don’t like to neglect a good activity just because it doesn’t match a theme.

Do you assess the children during small groups?

Yes, I often do, but it isn’t always necessary. When I do, I either take anecdotal notes, or I use the “Lesson Matrix” sheet from the Georgia Pre-K Program website.

Do you have assigned seats?

No, they can sit where they choose at the table. If necessary, I just ask someone to move to a different chair, but that is rarely necessary. In the past, when I assigned seats I found that children were too territorial of their “spot”, which caused a lot of arguing.

Just to clarify…

This is how a week might look with a  class than can be split into three groups. (This is not set in stone for every week of the school year, just an example.)

Group 1 with teacher – math
Group 2 with assistant – art
Group 3 independent – literacy

Tuesday and Wednesday: switch groups

Group 1 with teacher – science
Group 2 with assistant – literacy
Group 3 independent – fine motor

Friday and Monday: switch groups



  1. says

    This is the advice and guidance I was looking for as I try to redirect my large, half-day 4-yr old class into a better system for everyone! Thank you for sharing your experience and resources with us! I’m at a school where I am the one and only teacher for my level, so I am missing having a team to work with and seek guidance from when I’m not sure what to do. Thanks again!

    • Stephanie says

      This is the aha I needed. I kept trying to figure out small group time so it wasnt during my center time and couldn’t figure out enough time in the day. I wasn’t thinking about each group only doing one center a day and rotating through. I love aha moments! <3

      • Antowah says

        Stephanie I was trying to figure out the same thing a few weeks ago concerning small group.. However, the students would play and their areas for 60 minutes.. And I didn’t want to tie my small group in with their interest areas.. Actually it didn’t seem enough time to be in small group which is 20 minutes.. And I wondering as well did they need to rotate but having reading Karen response, they didn’t need to be interrupted.. Provide me with some information on how you transition from interest area to small group.. You can email me as well..

  2. Rachel Freed says

    I had to start homeschooling my son and daughter due to the schools in ability to help my children progress and though one’s in pre-k and one’s in 3rd grade, using your techniques have helped me so much, i am not a teacher, just a mother trying to help her children have a brighter future. Thank you!

  3. Gabrella Hinton says

    Hi Karen, Thank you. These teaching tips were right on point. I feel the same way about centers and small groups. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Kim says

    You have been a blessing to my career for years. I’ve learned things from you, I’m yet to learn in any workshop,training,or conference I’ve attended. I have scored 4s&5s(5 being the highest) on classroom observations because of your wonderful activities. ECERS & ELLCO high scores because of your classroom ideas. Transitions, small groups, independent groups,differentiation in lessons have been great because of your website. You’re awesome !

  5. Denise Matula says

    Hi Karen! I love pre-kinders! What do you do if in small group a child needs more time with their activity? I find this happens during art time especially. I dont want to rush them but others are ready to move on. Thank you!


  6. Mae Raden Harder says

    Thanks Ms Karen for a wonderful tips. I’ve learned things from you, Group splitting is a great idea. More power and God bless!.

  7. Sarah W says

    Hi Karen,
    I enjoyed reading all of your great concepts for small groups. This is an idea we have been thinking about in our classroom and learning how well it works for you gives me inspiration. There is difficulty at times introducing new learning tools to our students and small groups, as you described them, seem like a wonderful way to present them. Your reasoning for not having small groups during center time also makes great sense. We are not familiar with High Scope but it sounds like a teaching method I need to learn more about hearing the success you have had. Thank you for sharing your success and giving me the push we needed to try this new idea of small groups in our classroom.

    • says

      I group them different ways. Sometimes I might group by ability: for example, if I have a group who needs more practice with AB patterns, and the other children don’t need more practice. Other times, they are not grouped by ability.

  8. Carol Bishko says

    I have classes that are only2:45 long,morning and afternoon .We have the problem that we can only do small groups during center time. I find when I’m trying to work with a small groups they all want to be with me . I feel so bad when I tell them they have to wait. Any advise would be great.
    Thanks so much

    • Sandra says

      I have the same issue. We are only 2hrs 30 minutes so small groups seem to only happen during free play time. We also have the challenge of a centre that is put up and taken down daily as we are in a community centre and when we leave looks like no one had been there.

  9. Jen Spencer says

    I absolutely love your website. I integrated your small group learning into my classroom last year when I took over the pre-K class and it has worked so well for us. I was very nervous to have the responsibility of getting the children ready for Kindergarten but your ideas made this transition so much easier and less nerve wracking for me. Thank you so much for all of your valuable tips.

  10. Julia says

    Hello Karen,
    I’m actually a student in college and I found this page so helpful! I have an assignment to teach an activity to a small group and this page has been my #1 reference. It’s great to see things from a teacher’s perspective! Thanks so much!

  11. Jan Mulroy says

    This is great. I have the same reason for not wanting to do small groups during centers. I find the children get distracted by all the activity during centers. Thanks for all your help. .

    • says

      Usually around 20-25 minutes. It think it really depends on the activities you do. Some might be shorter, some longer. My students usually want to stay at small group a long time, sometimes I can’t make them leave, lol. :) If I notice children are uninterested in an activity, I do not make them stay that long.

  12. Marie Wallmar says

    This is fantastic. I love your website and ideas. I have been telling the staff that small group is not only for art. You can use small group for all areas of the curriculum. I learned about the High Scope Curriculum and the small groups has a beginning, middle and ending. You can introduce a new toy or a book.

  13. says

    I love your idea on how to do transitions and think maybe it will work in my room. I am a first year teacher and feel like i can not keep my head above water and struggle to get the students to follow directions. How long do your groups last?

    • says

      Thanks Sara! My small groups last around 20-25 minutes, depending on the activity. What works in one classroom may not work in another, so just gauge your times according to how interested and engaged the children are in the activity. Usually, something like a science experiment is going to keep their interest for awhile and they may not want to stop. Other activities might be shorter.

  14. Susan says

    HI there. I just love your webstie and have used it for the past few years. I teach 4 year old preschool 4 days a week, half day. I keep trying to get my small group together, but find it hard because I have no assistant to keep a group. This year I only have 5 students, so that is pretty much my small group. What do you do if some finish what you are giving them before others? and any tips on kids that rush to finish “first”?

    • says

      With 5 students, you really don’t need an assistant for a group because the ideal small group size is 4-6 children. In your case, I would have one small group with those 5 students every day. You don’t have to rotate groups around, and you won’t have to do independent groups. It’s wonderful — those children will benefit so much and it will be easier for you. My early finishers go look at books or do puzzles. Sometimes I let them choose a math or literacy tray to work on. I don’t let them rush through small group. I have mine doing hands-on activities, not worksheets, so there’s really no way for them to say “I’m finished” like they could with a worksheet. With hands on work, I can ask them to continue working until I feel like they’ve done enough.

  15. Leanne says

    I am curious about your program. Are you half or full day? I teach a half day program for 5 yearl olds 4 days a week. What does your schedule look like as far as when you do circle times, small group and free choice or centers? How do you fit it all in?
    Thanks, I LOVE your website! Thanks for sharing so much valuable information! You constantly inspire me. :)

    • says

      Hi Leanne, I teach full day pre-k, 5 days a week in public school. Here’s a link to my schedule: I know so many pre-k programs are so different as far as times and the way they are run, so what I write here are just ideas. I know they won’t work in all programs. Best wishes in fitting it all in. I know it must be hard to do all the things you want to do in half day pre-k, but I’m sure there are advantages to that as well!

      • Thanh Ta says

        I really love the way you teach, I LOVE your website with tons of valuable information I need to learn. Especially, thanks for your schedule. I teach full day Pre-K ( mixed age from 3-5) without resting time. It is really hard for me to handle our class after lunch time (at noon). Do you have any suggestions for that? Love to hear from your smart idea.

  16. ann boushie says


    I also have been struggling with pulling small groups during center time. After reading about the way that you do small groups, I decided to try it. I made one change. We only have 3 groups, so I only do small groups on 3 days. Friday we do a class cooking activity instead. It is working well so far! Thanks!

  17. Shelby says

    One of the best small groups I do is to go around the centers and have a group “talk” about what you can do there (this is a good idea early in the year). I have found that instead of limiting their imagination it tends to give power to their depth of play. The days after we “brainstorm” fun things to do in pretend area their play is detailed and BUSY! It also helps to define what they should not do ahead of issues. I try to make it detailed and exciting and pretend that THIS area–no THIS area is my ultimate favorite spot!!!!! (and not a lecture session).

  18. Roset says

    I am currently using the high Scope program. I agree with you that in this program, they believe that small groups should not take place during center time so that children are not interrupted in their work. They believe strongly in uninterrupted free-choice centers. Also, anecdotal notes are very important. That way the teacher has the opportunity to observe and take anecdotal notes while the children are engaging in their centers.
    My question is: When can I implement the small group activity based on the Pr-K full program? Please give me some suggestions because I Am still struggling with that issue.
    Thanks for your guidance.

  19. Easther Carrington says

    I am so glad I found your information on Small Groups. At our school we are seriously paying close attention to Lesson Plans, and a question came up about the amount of activities in any one day for Small Groups. I am glad I was not wrong when I gave my answer and the reasons for my answer. I can go back to the team tomorrow and share your information with them and I am sure they will be glad for the confirmation in relation to our earlier discussion.

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