What Are Some of the Signs that an Acceleration Might Be Needed?
The most important signs are advanced academic ability, high aptitude, and strong achievement in school. Testing is essential to determine the student's level of ability and achievement. Above-level testing plus curriculum-based assessment (tied to the specific curriculum at your school) are essential before going further in the discussion about acceleration. Look at the test results and determine where your child is academically -- is she ready academically for a grade skip? Or does he have significant gaps in one subject, indicating that he might be better served by subject-matter acceleration rather than an entire grade skip?
In addition, good candidates for acceleration tend to have at least a few older friends. Having a friend in the older grade can make the acceleration easier.
Age and physical size are also important. Differences in size and physical development tend to be more extreme in the younger grades (even things like cutting skills make tremendous leaps in a year), so in some ways the acceleration can be more difficult in younger grades. However, when looking at the long term, skipping a grade earlier is easier than later because there is less concern about gaps and the socialization concerns are minimized because the young student develops a peer group early.
You might use the Iowa Acceleration Scale as an objective means of gathering the information you need to consider. Have an honest discussion with your child's teacher, principal, and others at school about your concerns. If your child is not being challenged in school, what are the alternatives? If you determine that it isn't right to accelerate now, you might still revisit the idea at some point in the future. The earlier you bring up the discussion about acceleration with school personnel, the better. We can't deny the importance of planning in this situation, and having a lot of time makes the planning easier.
The Impact of Acceleration on Social Development
As a group, accelerated gifted students 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.
The transitions aren't always perfectly smooth. Issues such as dating and being too young to drive do come up. However, in research studies asking college students to look back on their previous experiences with acceleration, the students reported that the small difficulties or discomforts were temporary, and most of them said "It was worth it."
Is there a "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. 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 the 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.
Helping Your Child Make the Transition to the New Grade
One of the major concerns about moving a student ahead in school is that there might be "gaps" in the student's background. Pre-testing can help resolve that problem. Give the student tests from the grade he/she is skipping to determine where the gaps might be. A teacher or tutor can work with the student for a brief period (maybe even just one or two sessions) to "clean up" the gaps. The student can also do some reading on his/her own.
The receiving teacher (the one who teaches the higher grade level) needs to support the idea of the student accelerating. If the administration is supportive but the receiving teacher is not, the student may be in a difficult situation. Ask the current teacher to share information with the new teacher. 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. Both your child and the receiving teacher would benefit from meeting each other before the acceleration occurs. The teacher can help prepare your child in terms of expected homework load, organizational skills needed, etc.
Before they accelerate, some students worry about being teased by other students in the new grade. Ask the receiving teacher, the principal or gifted coordinator to talk with the other students ahead of time. In addition, spend some time with your son or daughter discussing how to handle questions from other students about the acceleration. Consider rehearsing together the answers to some of the questions other students might ask. Find out if your child has any other concerns about the acceleration.
A few weeks after the acceleration occurs, meet with the teacher to "check in" and see how things are going. This is the opportunity to prevent small problems from becoming big ones.
Handwriting and Organization
Discrepancies between accelerated students and their older grade-mates are greatest when the children are the youngest. Handwriting is a bigger issue for accelerated 2nd graders than accelerated 5th graders. An understanding teacher is essential. Consider alternatives (at least some of the time) to writing everything by hand. Will it be acceptable for the child to type a book report on the computer, for example? Can the student record his/her ideas on tape rather than writing them down?
A younger student may also need extra help getting organized. Teach your child to write down assignments in a notebook and monitor assignments on the classroom website. When you're discussing the possibility of accelerating a student, approach the teacher for suggestions about helping your child be more organized.
Other Issues to Consider: Homework
An accelerated student should be ready to deal with the homework in the new grade. It's not unusual for an accelerated student to complain that the homework takes longer or is harder now than it was before. Expect a transition period where the student is adjusting to the level of homework required. In addition, your child may take longer to complete homework for age-related reasons, such as a shorter attention span, less-developed small motor skills, etc. Make sure your child's after-school schedule can accommodate the increased homework. Include adequate time for homework every day, and perhaps lighten up on the after-school activities until your child makes the transition to the new grade.
Should My Child Skip Another Grade?
For students who have already skipped one grade, sometimes it becomes obvious that a second grade skip is needed. Research shows that it is better to wait a year or more after the first acceleration, monitor the student's adjustment, and then consider the second acceleration. The same questions that guided the discussion about the first acceleration are appropriate here, including academic readiness, developmental factors, interpersonal skills, and attitude and support.
When the accelerated student is several years younger than the other classmates, the older students might view the accelerated 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.
When dealing with these "radical accelerations," 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.
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.
Even if a skipping one of the years of high school is the right decision for some students, it can have costs. Will the student miss out on opportunities for scholarships or perhaps on the opportunity to be admitted to a selective college?
A number of formal programs are in place for early entrants to college, such as PEG at Mary Baldwin College, 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 benefit socially from living in the dorms with other early entrants while they are able to take advantage of the academic side of college life.
Different Ways of Thinking about Acceleration
Acceleration doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing event. Students might skip an entire grade or they might skip ahead in only one subject. Some exceptionally talented students 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. The best way of phrasing this is finding the appropriate match: placing the student at different levels for different subjects in order to match the curriculum to the student's abilities and achievements. If a student is placed based on academic needs and not based on age, we're truly matching the curriculum to the student.
Trust Your Instincts as a Parent
It's important to know what the options are for your talented child and to think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of each. However, parents shouldn't feel obligated to have their child skip one or more grades because their child is intellectually advanced. In some cases, no acceleration is the best answer for a particular child at a particular point in time.
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.
Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. M. (2004). A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students. Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.