Recently I read an article by Kerri Sackville entitled “Why you shouldn’t accelerate your child“. Now, to be fair, Kerri may not have chosen the headline for the article. But the article basically followed the headline pretty closely. And it was an anecdotal “It didn’t work for us, so you shouldn’t do it” style of piece. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But it disappointed me intensely, as a teacher of many gifted students, and the parent of two gifted kids, that it did not examine the research, nor consider the reasons why acceleration might be crucial in some cases.
Because here’s the thing: Bright kids, such as Kerri describes, may indeed not be well served by acceleration. But there is a world of difference between bright and gifted. And the consequences for gifted kids of never receiving the level of work they need in order to be truly challenged and extended can be dire. Truly. Dire. Not just “a bit bored”, but clinically depressed, even suicidal level of dire.
They’re not always dire. Some gifted kids will seek out their own challenges, and possess their own miraculous internal resilience such that they will cheerfully survive being bored to bits in class. I’ve taught these kids.
But other kids will find that they can’t talk to the kids around them – in fact they are frequently bullied for being weird. And they never learn what it is to try and fail to master some challenging topic, so they learn that everything comes easily to them. This makes the eventual appearance of challenge desperately threatening and unmanageable. I’ve taught these kids, too. And I’ve parented them.
The literature is full of stories of kids who went on to be miserable, and even delinquent, because they learnt that to be them, and to achieve praise, was to do things effortlessly. That became their defining characteristic. They learnt what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”, and never learnt how to tackle things that they didn’t yet know how to do.
Sooner or later we all meet something that we don’t understand (yet). For under-extended gifted kids, this can be a huge threat, and trigger a massive panic reaction. The research shows very clearly that gifted kids have high rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide. This doesn’t surprise me, because the other thing I know about gifted kids is that their unchallenged brains have to find something else to do. And for a highly analytical child, this can quickly turn into a spiral of “Nobody understands me, nobody gets me, I am a failure, I am worthless” that can fast become catastrophic.
This may sound extreme to those of you who have not had close contact with gifted kids, but the research clearly shows that gifted kids are emotionally intense, and consequently prone to depression. Kerri Sackville tosses off the casual comment that a good teacher will be able to extend every child in her class, and “they will no doubt achieve academically no matter what year they are in” so acceleration should not be necessary. But this is garbage. I have seen that from the teacher side. I have 25 kids in my year 11 class, and knowing exactly what every one of them needs at any point in time is a constant struggle.
When you are dealing with a huge spread of abilities at primary school level, or even at high school not every child is going to get what they need. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about a highly resourced, well funded private school or the local state school desperately struggling for enough money to buy a computer that actually works, there are going to be lots of times when the whole class is doing the same worksheet – because there is a physical limit to how much effort a teacher can put in, and in my experience most teachers, especially the good ones, are at the edge of that limit every single day, and still not doing things the way they think they should be done.
The point of acceleration for a gifted child is that it narrows the gap between the average classroom activity, and the work that child needs in order to be challenged. A gifted education conference I attended last year made what, for me, was a profoundly compelling point: Every child deserves to make a year’s progress for a year’s schooling.
All too often gifted kids are making progress in becoming depressed, but not much else.
Sackville also claims that teenage kids are so different socially that a 14 year old going to parties with 16 year olds is a world of horror, and here I have to argue that EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT. I’d tattoo that on my forehead if I thought it would help. Some 14 year olds will be fine at 16 year old parties. Some 16 year olds won’t. And 16 year old parties might be slumber parties with harmless videos or wild drunken sex fests. Every child, and every party, is different. But what I do know is that gifted kids frequently relate much better, and more easily, to older children, than they do to their chronological peer group. Place a gifted kid in his or her own year level and it quickly becomes clear that nobody gets them, which can lead to a demoralizing isolation. But if you shift them up a little, you narrow the gap between them and their peers. They are more likely to be reading the same books, playing the same games, and speaking the same language.
I’ve had my students tell me they spent their first few years of high school playing games, reading the following years’ textbook in the back of the classroom, or wreaking havoc, because they simply couldn’t see the point of school. These kids are beyond bright. They are gifted, and they have particular needs.
So I won’t place myself in opposition to Sackville’s article and say “You MUST accelerate bright kids.” Some kids need acceleration, some don’t. But I will declare that what you must do, beyond all doubt, is what you believe is right for your child. Not what a random, unqualified writer says didn’t work for her and therefore will not work for you. Not what a teacher, or a psychologist says is right, when you believe it’s wrong for your child. And certainly not what I believe is right for my kids. But what you, after careful research and deep consideration of all the available options, believe is right for your child.
(Interesting further reading, including reports on outcomes for gifted kids who were accelerated vs those who weren’t: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/04/what-do-we-risk-losing-by-not-challenging-gifted-kids/)