Why I WILL accelerate my daughter, but won’t tell you what to do with yours

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/)

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15 thoughts on “Why I WILL accelerate my daughter, but won’t tell you what to do with yours

  1. Christianne

    Thank you. I have taught high ability 4th and 5th graders for thirteen years now and am parenting a sixth grade daughter who was accelerated by a grade (officially skipping third, but more like just “smushing” together second and third into a single year). She couldn’t be happier and is well-adjusted in every way. When we first explained that we were accelerating her and what it would look like, we told her that school is supposed to be a place where you “learn new things” and even in her full-time self-contained high ability class with her same-age peers, that wasn’t happening. She had an excellent teacher, but was missing that “push” from her peers. We have never looked back. To NOT have accelerated her at that point would have been like holding her back a year in school. What I have explained to well-meaning friends and family members who question us with “But she won’t be able to drive when her friends do…she won’t be able to watch rated R movies when her friends do…she will be behind if she wants to play high school sports…etc.” is that our “choice” wasn’t between having a “normal kid” and a kid who is the youngest in her grade – we had to choose between having a girl who was the youngest in her grade…or the girl who was “freaky-smart.” Being the youngest is completely out of her control…but the other (or at least the appearance of the other) is not. I will take “youngest” over a highly-gifted underachiever every single time. So, thanks for your article. Acceleration definitely isn’t for every kid, but for some kids, it’s exactly what they need!

  2. T

    THANK YOU for this!!! So many people are automatically opposed to acceleration no matter what. There are times that it IS the most appropriate option and much needed for the reasons you outlined. I know some very successful adults who skipped a grade as a child and never regretted it. It’s not for everyone, of course, but it’s refreshing to finally hear a voice in support of doing it under the right circumstances.

  3. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful post. This bit, in particular, resonated with me:

    “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.”

    YES.

  4. Cyndi

    ALL the love for this article! This is precisely why we accelerated our son. We were questioned about it by our family and often our friends, but we did our research and decided for it. Our own concern was more based in a social aspect, but we found that the meta studies supported precisely what this author is saying – that gifted kids usually make friends faster when accelerated. And we found that to absolutely be true.

  5. Trill

    We had been considering trying to move our 7th grader up to 9th grade next year, but after I read this, I immediately sent an email to the high school guidance counselor to get things moving. Our son is exactly the kind of gifted kid you describe here and I think if we don’t do something to challenge him, he is going to get depressed (or worse). Thanks very much for this.

    1. Jana

      Hi, I am considering this for my daughter (who is the same age as your son was when you wrote this). Wondering how things worked out?
      Interested in what you have to say.

      1. lindamciver

        Hi there. She’s halfway through grade 4 now and we are quite confident we did the right thing. She’s much happier.

  6. Exactly! I was not sure about acceleration myself, because of such stories like Sackville shared… the few cases where perhaps acceleration wasn’t the right choice. Now having a child that truly needs acceleration, I know there isn’t a perfect answer, but staying with age level placement would not work for my child. Thank you for posting such a thoughtful support for acceleration. I am amazed at how in some places acceleration is more supported and encouraged, and in others, such as where I live now, it’s almost impossible to do. My child is now schooled at home because age-level placement wasn’t working any longer and acceleration isn’t done where we live. If more positive support for acceleration spreads, hopefully one day these cautionary tales will fade, and more will see that “acceleration might be crucial in some cases.” I found the Iowa Acceleration Scale to be really helpful in taking the feelings out of the situation, and making acceleration a quantifiable decision.

  7. Tina

    It all depends on the child.

    My older son has a working 2 grade acceleration and is thriving. He skipped K and went right into first and is now working another year ahead of that, participating in 7th grade when he by age should be a young 5th grader. That is with dealing with dysgraphia. The fit is perfect and he has a bunch of friends at school as well as friends closer to his age through scouts. I can’t imagine how we could have kept him back. He would be miserable and so would everyone around him! This way he actually has challenges and is learning how to fail and try again and is still in the A-B range. (He is in a non-graded charter program where he goes to a one room schoolhouse 2 days a week and homeschools the rest of the week).

    My younger son is doing schoolwork 1-2 grades above his age, but he has had no skips and is participating in school at his age grade (gotta love charter programs that allow this). He is on the autism spectrum and social interaction has always been harder for him. He fits in his age grade, but only because he is also in a one room schoolhouse when he is on campus.

    I have a friend who held her child back a year because she wasn’t socially or academically ready to move ahead. Her daughter is thriving with that choice.

    Pick what works for the child.

  8. Shame you didn’t tag me in this list or on social media so I could have responded. I only happened to stumble on your piece. Sadly, I disagree. Social development frequently does not equal intellectual development. Just because a teacher struggles to extend a gifted child (and I have a gifted child too) doesn’t mean it’s not the best option. I still believe actually checking with the child when they finish school is the clearest way to assess if acceleration has succeeded. What may look like success in years 2,3 or 7 may not be success in year 12 or beyond. You did not address the issue of very young school leavers who may be intellectually advanced but not mature enough to cope with independent life.
    In most areas there are selective high schools for bright and gifted kids, and OC classes in primary, so there are other options, at least in Oz, for extension.
    And as you point out, some 16yos are wild, some not. But you can’t see into the future, & I think propelling a child into a group of kids who are older, but not brighter, has the great potential to backfire.
    Hope sincerely your daughter’s experience is positive.
    Kerri’

    1. lindamciver

      My apologies for not tagging you, Kerri. I just didn’t think to. I was not intending to start a personal argument, but rather to address what I saw as misinformation. It’s certainly true that social and intellectual development are not the same thing, and some gifted kids may not relate to older kids, however the research shows that many do relate much better to older kids (and this is certainly true of both my girls). The most recent review of studies that I read actually measured achievement well after the end of school, and showed that accelerated kids had done much better. I can’t find that study off the top of my head right now, but if you are interested let me know, and I will try to dig it out for you.
      I didn’t address the independent life issue because leaving school does not necessarily mean independence, and you don’t have to start university the moment you finish school, there are plenty of other options. I just don’t see it as a concern.
      Sure, acceleration may backfire, but the point of my article was not to insist that all bright kids be accelerated, but to point out that not accelerating can also backfire. Quite severely in some cases.

      1. lindamciver

        To be fair, the findings in that article could be addressed by extension as well as acceleration. I completely agree that enrichment is better, but I strongly disagree that enrichment is readily available in Oz. It simply is not a regular feature of classrooms in most schools, or even in any school in some areas, and one OC class per week doesn’t compensate for regular classes that are demoralising and demotivating. Select entry high schools generally start at year 9, by which time a huge amount of damage can be done. I teach at a specialist school, I am familiar with the patterns.

      2. lindamciver

        From that article: “However, in a survey of SMPY participants at age 33, they reported having no regrets about skipping grades in high school or engaging in other activities to speed up their education, Lubinski said. Grade-skipping is good for certain bright kids who are gifted across all academic subjects and mature enough to handle it, he said; but if a child is super-smart at math and average in other areas, other options for acceleration are more ideal.”
        So they have actually gone well beyond the end of year 12 in trying to assess outcomes.

  9. HomeschoolDad

    I don’t consider bumping a kid up ONE grade level “acceleration” by any stretch. (My son started calculus when he was 7.) Kerri said in her piece that a kid will have trouble relating to kids a full year older than them. Okay, that may be true in a school environment. But that’s because they are still “school kids”, immature, unsocialized, bored, bitter, cliquey, etc. Really smart kids should be educated outside the system. (As should slower kids, average kids,….and everyone else!)

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