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Accelerated learning: Skipping grades takes careful consideration

June 16, 2000|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Does your elementary-age child spout one-liners that crack you up yet fly over the heads of his or her classmates?

Not all gifted children earn As on tests, according to Sandra L. Berger, information specialist in gifted education with The Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va. But they share a highly advanced sense of humor.

"This is a really critical thing for gifted kids, for someone to laugh at their jokes," Berger said.

Unfortunately, many teachers lack training in how to identify gifted children, she said. Signs like a sharp wit and a need for in-depth learning often pass over the heads of teachers looking only for whiz kids, who make up just a small portion of gifted children.

Many gifted children are short-changed as a result, she said.

"To leave a gifted child in a regular classroom is truly a miscarriage of justice," said Berger, noting research showing that a gifted child usually starts a grade knowing about 65 percent of the curriculum that will be covered.

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While the needs of gifted children should be addressed, skipping them ahead in school isn't necessarily the answer, Berger and other educators agree.

A school system should have multiple options for gifted children, they say.

Options include moving up, or "accelerating," the child in grade, accelerating the child in one or more subjects, grouping the child with other same-age gifted children in an accelerated class and individual "curriculum compacting," whereby the child is pretested so assignments can be tailored to his or her academic needs and interests, according to Berger.

A child's individual situation needs to be carefully analyzed before a course of action is decided, she said.

"Acceleration works for some gifted kids some of the time," Berger said.

Eric Michael, superintendent for curriculum instruction at the Chambersburg Area School District, said parents have accused the school system of making them jump through hoops to skip their children ahead in school.

Skipping is rare because the school system requires parents to go through a careful process designed to ensure the move is in the best interest of the child in the long run, Michael said.

Report cards, test scores and recommendations from the child's teacher, principal and psychologist are considered, he said.

If all point to skipping the grade, the implications - not just academically but also physically, emotionally and socially - are discussed before the group makes a decision, Michael said.

Often, it's decided that participating in a gifted program will give the child the extra challenge he or she needs without the possible negative consequences of skipping ahead a grade, he said.

Sybil Schiffman, a counselor for children and adolescents at Blue Ridge Counseling Services in Martinsburg, W.Va., is wary of grade skipping.

"The schools are built on children's development, not just their academic work," said Schiffman, who cautions parents to look at all the things their child would miss by skipping a particular grade.

For example, if the child would miss the last year of elementary school to skip ahead, you need to ask yourself if the benefits are worth missing the experience of being on the top of the heap for a year, she said.

Parents also need to look at what the child needs to be successful in the new grade, in terms of skill mastery, physical expectations and emotional and social development, Schiffman said.

For instance, a second-grader is expected to have a great deal more coordination and maturity than a kindergartner, she said.

The decision is tough because if the child can't handle being in the higher grade, putting him back in the original grade can be traumatic, Schiffman said.

If a child is brighter than average and bored - not just an average child being pushed by parents - skipping a grade usually makes sense, said David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and author of "The Hurried Child."

Children who are good candidates for acceleration intellectually tend to fit other criteria as well, he said.

Research shows that brighter children also tend to be bigger, healthier and more socially advanced, Elkind said.

Elementary school is probably the best time to skip a grade, the earlier the better so the child can get used to being with the older age group, he said.

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