Jump Start: Facing Fears and Facts About Grade Skipping
Experts weigh in on what research has to say about children leaping ahead in school
Erin Pinney’s 6-year-old son is a voracious reader who enjoys books well above his grade level. As a preschooler, he was so advanced that his father suggested skipping a grade.
“I was concerned about the social aspects, and his preschool teacher and principal agreed,” says Pinney, an elementary school teacher in Sioux City, Iowa. “Honestly, it turns out what we thought we knew was uneducated and based on fear and biases.”
A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, a seminal work on gifted education and acceleration, concludes that qualified kids benefit greatly from appropriate grade skipping. Enduring myths — that it harmfully pressures children or hampers emotional development — are generally unfounded.
“There is substantial evidence that there are a lot of academic and personal benefits to students who are academically accelerated,” says Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at Duke University who studies exceptional talent. Grade skipping is one way of achieving those benefits for qualified students.
Making sense of skipping
The Pinneys opted to enroll their son in kindergarten as scheduled, choosing a dual-language classroom to up the stakes. But even that proved too unchallenging.
“For a while, he spent 50 minutes a day in the first-grade room for reading,” Pinney says. “That was the only time when he wasn’t bored and getting into trouble. He would come home and say how much he loved that time and the conversations.”
After consulting with professionals who work with gifted kids, she and her husband chose to advance their son to first grade after the semester break. (For whole-grade skipping, a child must excel in subjects across the board.) Pinney also read A Nation Deceived, which was cowritten by University of Iowa psychology professor Susan Assouline.
“Grade skipping is for those kids who are currently performing excellently but also have the potential to continue being high achievers,” says Assouline, who directs the school’s Belin-Blank Center, an international leader in gifted education.
Assouline codeveloped the Iowa Acceleration Scale (IAS). Used nationwide, it outlines research, case studies, tools for assessing a child’s potential and guidelines for formulating an appropriate education strategy. Among the factors considered are age, emotional maturity, family background, other school options, testing results and the child’s personal feelings. The IAS is particularly useful for school districts that are unfamiliar with gifted education or do not have resources in place.
Some school districts offer advanced learning programs, which enable similar-age cohorts of students to work one or two grade levels ahead of the grade associated with their age. If you are considering advanced learning for your child, check with your school district to understand the programs offered and the requirements for entry.
A commonly cited worry about skipping is student burnout, but research indicates the opposite. Gregory Park, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed data as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University that tracked a total of 5,000 gifted children over a 35-year period. About 10 percent of participants skipped grades, most in early elementary school. Results showed that they excelled in later years.
“Grade skippers were far more likely to pursue graduate and advanced degrees,” Park says. “There was also evidence they achieved more once they earned their advanced degree: more patents, publications and citations. It was almost like grade skipping gave these kids an extra head start.
“I was fairly surprised,” he continues. “It seemed to make a meaningful difference in the long run. From the standpoint of career achievement, grade skipping is a positive kind of intervention.”
The skipping state of mind
Perhaps the most pervasive concern parents face is how skipping might impact their children’s personal development. Will they make friends and fit in? Are they at risk of missing out on a “normal” childhood?
“We know the benefits regarding academic achievement, but the social and emotional development also tends to be positive,” Assouline says. “If there are emotional concerns, that is not solved by holding them back. It needs to be addressed separately.”
For many children, behavioral problems are actually mitigated by grade skipping. Boredom can result in acting out, while an engaging level of learning stimulates and focuses attention.
“I definitely see him happier when he’s getting to really learn,” Pinney says of her son. “His stress and anxiety are higher when he’s not being challenged.”
The behavioral and social problems Pinney’s son experienced in kindergarten were often due to boredom. He did not identify with his age group’s level of play and conversation.
“Within two days of entering first grade, he started coming home and saying how much he liked going to school now. He’d also been having night terrors, and those immediately stopped,” Pinney recalls.
Duke University’s Wai has a newborn and understands the anxiety families may feel about grade skipping. But he personally supports the practice, when appropriate, because of the social benefits. In his eyes, the academic and career opportunities are bonuses.
“Of course I want my son to be successful — but I want him to be happy, and that’s about personal fulfillment and engagement,” Wai says. “A child loses out when they’re encouraged to be mediocre and not grow.”
Academically advanced students are often socially mature for their age, Wai explains. He references sources such as A Nation Deceived and another Vanderbilt study, “Top 1 in 10,000: A 10-Year Follow-up of the Profoundly Gifted,” which indicates that any long-term adverse social impacts of grade skipping are negligible.
“Most students [who skipped grades] reported 10 or 20 years down the line that if they’d done anything differently, it would have been to participate in more [acceleration],” says Wai.
Misinformation also contributes to hesitation about skipping. During her own teacher training, Pinney does not remember specific instruction in accelerated education. Having learned from experience, she now works with student teachers on the topic.
“As a parent, I would have done it from the start if I’d known,” Pinney says. “Now I understand how essential it is to identify our kids’ talents and help them develop those gifts to their full potential."