Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Academic acceleration: When is it the right choice for your child?

Most parents of gifted children are familiar with research supporting the benefits of academic acceleration for gifted children. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, "educational acceleration is one of the cornerstones of exemplary gifted education practices, with more research supporting this intervention than any other in the literature on gifted individuals." Although some school districts still adhere to outdated policies that prohibit acceleration, and overlook large numbers of students who perform above grade level, others now acknowledge that acceleration is a cost-effective approach - a win-win for both the gifted child and the school.

But, as a parent, how do you know whether to request academic acceleration for your child? Is it the best alternative available? Or will it create more problems than it ventures to solve? 

And even if it benefits some children, is acceleration the right choice for your child?

Sorting out the options

Academic acceleration comes in a variety of forms - subject, full-grade, partial grade, or even multiple grade acceleration. It can range from early entrance into kindergarten to dual enrollment in college classes during middle or high school. Options often depend on what is available within the schools, the district's philosophy about giftedness and/or acceleration, and cost/convenience factors, in addition to what would be ideal for your child. For example, multiple subject acceleration in eighth grade might be best for your child's academic needs, but a scheduling nightmare in terms of arranging transportation between the middle school and high school.

What to consider

1. What are the potential short-term and long-range benefits and drawbacks?

Acceleration may provide an immediate, albeit temporary solution for alleviating your child's boredom in the classroom. It also might remove him from a situation involving social isolation or bullying. Placement in a new grade can offer a new start, and provide challenges with advanced material. Your child can make new friends and socialize with slightly older peers.

However, we bring who we are wherever we go. Your child may become bored with the new classroom material once he catches up, unless it is presented at a faster pace and with greater depth and intensity. In other words, if his learning needs as a gifted student are not addressed, a new grade may not help. And if he struggled socially in the past, he may have greater difficulty socializing with peers who are even more mature due to the age difference.

It is also difficult to predict how single or multiple grade acceleration will affect your child in later grades. High school is hard enough socially, but unless your child is exceptionally mature, assuming the role as youngest student in the class can be a disadvantage. He may not feel ready to engage in some of his peer's social activities, such as dating, or feel ready to leave home for college after graduation. Maureen Neihart has noted the potential problems inherent in acceleration for those gifted students who are socially and emotionally unprepared:

"Results from the broad research indicate that grade skipping, early school entrance, and early admission to college have socioaffective benefits for gifted students who are selected on the basis of demonstrated academic, social, and emotional maturity, but may be harmful to unselected students who are arbitrarily accelerated on the basis of IQ, achievement, or social maturity."

Nevertheless, profoundly gifted students may have little choice other than single or multiple grade acceleration, even if their social maturity lags; their boredom with school and desperate need for intellectual stimulation typically outweighs any reservations about peer relationships. And some gifted children prefer interactions with older children, and may feel right at home with peers a few years ahead - at least on an intellectual level. Children whose intellect is so far above the norm present a unique challenge to parents and educators, and moving them quickly through academic material can help quench their thirst for learning.

Subject or partial grade acceleration may offer the best of both worlds for many gifted children. In this situation, your child can remain with his peers for many of his classes, but receive advanced instruction in certain subjects where he excels. Despite potential scheduling snafus, many gifted children thrive when offered this compromise. It also may provide an added bonus when your child applies to college, as completion of advanced or dual enrollment college classes is a plus on just about any college application.   

2.  Should I enroll my young child early, on time, or late for kindergarten?

Making a decision about grade placement that can influence the next 13 years is daunting. Highly gifted students are most likely to benefit from skipping grade(s); however, a grade skip alone will not eliminate boredom if classes still move at a slow pace. Many parents who pursue early kindergarten entrance worry about how their child will manage in middle school and high school. And debates rage over the merits of red-shirting children (where those whose birthdays are close to the cut-off are held off from starting school, presumably to provide an academic advantage in school) vs. automatically pressuring schools for early kindergarten entry. Some take into account their child's height, gender and athletic abilities when weighing their options. Ultimately, a child's social/emotional maturity and intellectual needs should warrant the most consideration in this decision - not whether acceleration will offer an advantage years later for college admissions.

Although intellectually advanced and gifted children need stimulation, many young children derive more benefits from play than from the structure of school. You may need to consider whether your child requires an extra year in preschool to mature and enjoy creative play time, or would thrive with the structure and demands of traditional kindergarten or first grade. Similarly, by assessing your child's current interactions with peers, and visiting the school(s) she might attend, you can make an educated guess about whether she possesses the social skills and emotional maturity to benefit from early entrance to kindergarten.  Although some school districts bristle when faced with acceleration requests, keep in mind that it is an easier problem to solve in later grades. When districts refuse to consider early entrance to kindergarten, you might find that it might work to wait until your child is in the school, and then advocate for a grade skip of first grade.

3.  Is acceleration preferable to other options that the school refuses to provide? And how will the school climate affect acceleration?

Acceleration is just one of several approaches for engaging your gifted child. While school districts that promote academic acceleration may seem progressive, they actually may be utilizing this cost-effective approach to avoid addressing your child's need for other forms of gifted services. It is a recipe for boredom if your child is grade or subject accelerated, but placed in a classroom with instruction taught at a slow pace. Don't allow academic acceleration to obscure the importance of ability grouping, clustering, and greater depth and faster pace of instruction. Flexible pacing, which considers a child's ongoing growth and development, and offers advancement as needed, is an ideal option.

The school climate and culture is also important to consider. Grade or subject acceleration can be an added emotional burden for your child if it occurs within a school or peer culture that is hostile toward intellectual giftedness. No child wants to be labeled "that genius kid" - especially when he is younger, smaller, and possibly less socially aware than the peers who are taunting him. School staff need to support the transition and ensure that your child adjusts to the new classroom; otherwise, he may have a target on his back, or at the very least, feel isolated. If he is advanced into another heterogeneous classroom, the use of clustering or compacting with other gifted or high ability children may help offset any potential inertia or boredom, and help him develop friendships with peers. Older children clearly benefit from acceleration into honors or advanced classes, where they are placed alongside other gifted or high achieving children.

4. Why do I think my child would (or would not) benefit from acceleration?

We all want what is best for our children. It is easy to get swept up in the latest research/fads/"expert" advice/neighborhood gossip/family pressure. It is much harder to make a sober, clear-headed assessment of what your child needs. How the heck do you know what's best? There are no do-overs. And you are faced with limited choices - what the school district offers, what you can or cannot afford (if you are considering private school or homeschooling), and your uncertainty about what really goes on in the classroom. It can feel like taking a stab in the dark.

But it is essential to be clear about your motivations, how achievement goals play a part, any of your own unresolved feelings stemming from past school experiences, and expectations you place on yourself as a parent. Advocacy in the schools is essential; however, there are limits to what can be accomplished within any given school district. You may need to pick your battles, find support, engage with those teachers who truly understand your child, and look elsewhere if all fails. If academic acceleration seems like a necessary option, it may be up to you to approach the teacher or school. Careful consideration with how to approach your child's teacher, an awareness of cost factors, and an eye for ease of implementation will help the school see you as a collaborative partner who considers the needs of the school as well as those of your child.

If you are researching acceleration for your child, the following links offer useful information about this topic:

Academic acceleration: Is it right for my child?

Guidelines for developing a national acceleration policy

Types of acceleration and their effectiveness

The effects of acceleration on high ability learners: A meta-analysis

A nation empowered: Evidence trumps the excuses holding back America's brightest students


  1. This is a great article and poses really important questions. As the mother of a son who skipped a grade in middle school, I now know that there is not one right solution for everyone. It was definitely a good solution for him--although as you say, the new content still moves at too slow a pace, but at least the child can get through it faster. Also as you mention, they will not suddenly be surrounded by like-minded peers, just older versions of kids who don't quite "get" them. One thing to keep in mind is that the grade-accelerated kid will go off to college early. He or she will take on the independence and responsibility of being in college at an earlier age. In addition to the college-level classes which will likely be much more satisfying, there will be the issue of how likely they are to advocate for themselves and take advantage of opportunities that require extra effort, such as getting involved with research. Not to mention being exposed to more mature behavior.

  2. Thanks, Christine. You make some great points, and highlight the positives and drawbacks of acceleration with your child's experience. It is particularly daunting once college approaches, as some accelerated teens are quite mature, and others are unable to manage the increased demands and independence. Thanks!