Q: How can parents and educators ensure that they are not overwhelming or over-accelerating students?
Research has shown that acceleration, when used in schools, is typically done conservatively rather than “generously”, so over-accelerating is not usually a problem. However, the decision to accelerate a child is complex, involves many factors, and must be implemented carefully and thoughtfully. Above-grade level testing— e.g. 3rd through 6th graders taking the EXPLORE test (typically designed for 8th graders) and 7th through 9th graders taking the ACT or SAT (typically designed for 11th and 12th graders)– through CTD’s NUMATS program, is an excellent way to identify students whose reasoning abilities in math, science or reading are significantly above grade level and are, therefore, good candidates for subject or grade-level acceleration.
The key to successful acceleration is planning and managing expectations. Prior to acceleration, assessment of the child’s previous knowledge and skill level in the subjects he or she will be accelerated in is critical. For example, if a 6th grade child is being accelerated into algebra, a comprehensive test of pre-algebra and algebra can identify both gaps and areas of proficiency. It is important that both teachers, especially the receiving teacher, and parents, expect knowledge and skill gaps rather than perfect knowledge of the courses to be skipped, and work out a plan to address them. The plan might include some self-study over the summer or perhaps working with a teacher during the school year or using a flexible distance education program to fill in gaps (such as CTD’s Gifted Learning Links). If a student is being accelerated in language arts, the receiving teacher might suggest some specific literature or books for summer reading.
Another part of the plan for successful acceleration should be a timeline to evaluate the student’s adjustment and success in the new placement, using agreed upon criteria to measure these. Questions to ponder in devising a plan might include how long of an adjustment period to give; how often parents, students and educators should meet to assess progress and share perspectives on the placement; what the expected levels of academic performance, social integration with older students and independent study should be; and what is an alternative plan should the accelerated placement not work out.
Another component to successful acceleration is managing expectations of the teacher (e.g. that the student may not get everything correct and may have skill gaps, need time to adjust, be immature in some areas compared to the older students); of parents (e.g. it may be a rough start and the students may have an emotional reaction to an increased level of challenge and new social context); and of students(e.g. may feel under-prepared and lonely at first, may have to do some catch up initially). If full grade acceleration is being considered, one tool schools can use to determine if students are good candidates is the Iowa Acceleration Scale. It addresses many of the issues I have described, and helps educators and parents make informed decisions.
Not all gifted students are accelerated or choose acceleration as an option in school, but many do take on outside of school learning activities, extra-curricular activities, and additional courses to satisfy their interests and desire to learn. These are important activities for many children, giving them opportunities to connect with like-minded peers and receive instruction from enthusiastic and exceptional teachers. These activities engender motivation and build competencies and expertise. It is important to consider how much is “too much”, though. Growth in knowledge and learning, whether it is in a particular subject or in “non cognitive” areas such as organizational skills, result from the proper level of challenge and the right mix of challenge and support. Too much challenge creates anxiety and too little results in boredom and complacency.
What is “too much” is very individual and parents need to monitor and listen to their child for signs of distress, worry and anxiety that are excessive or do not dissipate over time. Parents and teachers also need to increase support for a student who has taken on a challenging course load or accelerates by actively listening to concerns and offering solutions, which might include adjustments to other aspects of a student’s schedule, assisting with communications with teachers and administrators, helping a student adjust expectations for achievement and friendships, and helping a student acquire study and organizational skills and effective coping strategies.
Time management is a critical skill to acquire and parents can guide children in thinking about what activities or courses matter most to them, require a greater investment of time and energy, or are critical to a future course of study. It is important that parents actively engage with their child in decision making regarding his or her choices for courses in school and outside of school programs and activities with the goal of helping them make the best choices and become independent critical thinkers and decision makers.