Ann Lupkowski Shoplik, Ph.D., Director of the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary Students at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted a seminar for parents of academically talented students who were interested in acceleration. Below are some of the points discussed during the seminar.
What Information Do I Need to Convince School Personnel that Acceleration Is a Good Option to Consider?
Make sure you have objective information. Sharing test scores that demonstrate that a student has already learned the current grade's material and is ready to learn more is essential. Ability, aptitude, and achievement testing is needed here. Also, curriculum-based assessment (tied to the specific curriculum offered in your school) is extremely useful.
Next, looking at other areas with school personnel helps them to realize you have considered all of the important factors. The other areas include:
Research shows that educators are hesitant to use acceleration as a tool for matching the curriculum to the student's needs. Over the last 50 years, an impressive body of research has been built up that demonstrates that acceleration is an effective tool in challenging gifted students. This research also shows that acceleration does not cause a negative impact on social/emotional development.
However, there is a lot of resistance to acceleration on the part of educators. For example, research shows us that teachers who knew that a student had been accelerated were more likely to blame difficulties on the acceleration than on normal variations in behavior. Some teachers of students who are being considered for whole-grade acceleration even feel a sense of failure, as though it's their fault that the student isn't challenged by the grade level material or they have been unable to teach those students.
Gifted coordinators and gifted education teachers are informed about the research and issues pertinent to grade-skipping, and they can be effective advocates in the decision-making process. The receiving teacher is also an important person in this discussion. That teacher's positive attitude about acceleration will help the student to make a better transition into the new classroom.
The Impact of Acceleration on Social Development
Research shows that gifted students who accelerate do just fine socially. They might have a short adjustment period where they no longer feel like the "big fish" -- suddenly, there are others around them who grasp the material as quickly as they do. They may no longer stand out as being the best in the group. It takes a little while to get used to that. After this initial adjustment period, they tend to be as well adjusted socially, or even slightly better adjusted socially as their chronologically older grade-mates. They feel like they "fit in" better socially, because they have more in common with the older students.
Should My Child Skip Two Grades at a Time?
Single grade-skips are sometimes not sufficient for an exceptionally talented student. Iowa Acceleration Scale research demonstrates that it is preferable to have a student skip one grade at a time, monitor the student's adjustment, and then possibly consider skipping another grade somewhere down the road.
In some cases, however, exceptions can be made, and a multiple-year skip may be considered. Parents and teachers should think about what kinds of "holes" the student will have in his/her background if skipping 2 or more years of school. How can those holes be filled in? Will the student have the services of a tutor during the transition? Can she be tested with the final exams from each grade level to determine where her gaps are? Could the tutor work with him to fill in those gaps and make sure he has the same background academically as the other students in his new classes the first day of school?
About the social side: when a child skips several grades, the accelerated student is so much younger than the other students in the class that they may view that young student as more of a class "mascot" and less of a threat. In these situations, the older students are often quite proud of the younger students. Of course, you'll want to think about the social issues (dating, driving, even what topics are discussed in the lunchroom!) that will affect your child. You'll have to think about how to prepare him/her for that sudden jump.
Take advantage of all the support systems you can at school. In addition, try to make sure your student has peers relatively close in age for at least some activities -- Scouts, music, church youth groups, etc.
When Is the Best Time to Skip a Grade?
Earlier is better, at least socially. It becomes more difficult as students get older and become more involved in activities -- it's harder to leave those old friends behind. This becomes a bigger and bigger issue when a student reaches high school. There are lots of kids who wait until high school to skip a grade, however, and they do it successfully.
There is some evidence that the best time to skip a grade is before a natural transition period. For example, if the middle school is 6th - 8th grade, it would be best to skip 7th grade rather than 8th grade. Why? Because students participate in transition activities during that 8th grade year that help them prepare for the next year and the move to the new building, to high school.
In contrast, some experts suggest that a student skip the last grade in a given school (in my example, that would mean skipping 8th grade). In the high school, many students going into 9th grade are "new," and it is less likely that the accelerated student will stand out just because he/she skipped a grade.
Motor skills are another item to consider, especially for younger children. These include both small motor skills (writing, drawing, cutting) and large motor skills (running, skipping).
Physical development has an important impact on a child's self-esteem. If he/she is constantly comparing him/herself to others who are physically more developed (just because they are older), the child might feel inadequate or less capable. It doesn't have to be a big issue, but it is one more thing to be aware of when planning an acceleration. It might be very helpful to have the student participate in one outside-of-school activity (for example, soccer) that groups children by age rather than by grade.
If a child has less-developed motor skills than the children in the new grade, it isn't a good reason to stop an acceleration. It's so easy to make accommodations for the student: allow the student more time to complete an activity, cut out something ahead of time for the student, allow him/her to dictate a story rather than require writing it down. However, this requires awareness and flexibility on the teacher's part. These small motor issues become less of a problem as the student gets older.
Different Ways of Thinking about Acceleration
Something that seems to work well for some exceptionally talented students is to put together a "patchwork quilt" of classes. That might mean being in 1st grade for a few classes, 3rd grade for some other things, and with a mentor working at 6th grade level in something else.
Consider accelerating one grade level (say, from 1st grade into 2nd grade) so that the child's "homeroom" is now in the higher grade. If the child has a specific talent in one subject (let's say math), he/she can be moved up to an even higher grade for that class.
This is a good illustration of how acceleration doesn't have to be all or nothing; sometimes a partial acceleration (subject-matter) or a combination of types of acceleration (some grade skipping plus some subject-matter acceleration) is the best thing for a particular student. Sometimes, a multiple-year skip is the best thing.
Helping Your Child Make the Transition to the New Grade
The receiving teacher (the one who teaches the higher grade level) needs to "buy into" the acceleration. The receiving teacher may be the most important person in this whole equation. The receiving teacher needs to be a member of the team making the decision about acceleration. Asking the current teacher to share information with the new teacher will be helpful. The receiving teacher would benefit from seeing the child's work samples and things your student has done at home that show his/her interests and abilities.
You might want to spend some time with your son or daughter discussing how to handle questions from other students about the acceleration. You might consider rehearsing together the answers to some of the questions other students might ask.
Early Entrance to College
College admissions officers advise that students should complete as many of the challenging courses the high school offers as possible before going off to college. They prefer to see that a student has taken the most rigorous program possible before going to college. That's an argument for accelerating at a younger age or for extremely careful planning for the high school years, so the student is able to complete those challenging courses before entering college.
If the student skips a grade at an early age, the student will be younger than other students in 12th grade. However, that student would have the benefit of four years of high school to take challenging courses and participate in extracurricular activities.
What is difficult about early entrance to college is if the student skips one of the last few years of high school. This is the right decision for some students, but it can have costs. If the student skips the last year of high school, will the student miss out on opportunities for scholarships or perhaps on the opportunity to be admitted to a selective college?
Talk to the admissions officers at the colleges your child is considering. Tour the campuses and get the answers to your questions if you are considering having your student enter college early.
There are several formal programs in place for early entrants to college: Mary Baldwin College accepts girls as young as 8th or 9th grade. Co-ed programs include: Simon's Rock of Bard College, the Texas Academy of Math and Science at the University of North Texas, the Early Entrance Program at the University of Washington, and more. Young students in these programs have the social benefits of living in the dorms together with other early entrants, yet they are able to take advantage of the academic side of college life. They have the luxury of taking college courses while being in an environment that is constructed especially for their age group.
What if we decide not to have our child skip a grade? What are the other options?
Assouline, S. G., et al. (2003). The Iowa Acceleration Scale: Manual. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Southern, W. T., & Jones, E. D. (1991). The Academic Acceleration of Gifted Children. New York: Teachers College Press.
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