Leaps and Bounds

Why some students choose to get ahead in school--and what happens after.

September 28, 2015

 

Like VCRs, landlines, and boomboxes, the practice of having academically gifted children skip a grade (or several) is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Some students, however, choose to buck this trend. Myles Young ‘16, a sixteen-year-old senior, is one of them.

“I was really excited about the idea [of skipping a grade] because I wanted to look really smart,” he said. “My parents were more hesitant because they were afraid I was going to lose friends.”

Concern about the impact skipping a grade might have on a child’s social life is one reason parents might choose not to have their kid move ahead, even if they are academically ready. A Nation Deceived, Volume 1, an overview of research on academic acceleration from The Acceleration Institute, offers advice to that effect in its introduction: “There are at least 18 different types of acceleration and parents and educators may find that while one type is a good match for their child, another is not. For example, students who skip grades need emotional maturity as well as academic ability in order to be successful.” Perhaps because of cautions like this, parents and educators usually work together to determine the best plan for a particular child. Only a few decades ago, when University of Iowa professor Gigi Durham was in elementary school, the situation was different.

“I remember being completely surprised and not sure what was happening exactly, because, you know, I was perfectly happy in the second grade,” she said of her experience skipping a grade. “I do remember the principal calling me to his office, and that scared me. The only reason people got called to the principal’s office was if they were in trouble, so I was very intimidated by the principal. I remember going into his office, and then he told me I would now be in a different class and [I was] just taken to the third grade classroom. At the time I think it was all very surprising and disorienting.”

Although Young, who skipped fifth grade, and Eleanor Mildenstein ‘17, who skipped second, both recall doing very little to prepare for the transition of skipping a grade, they describe their experiences as being smooth, socially and academically.

“It was kind of something that didn’t really seem weird or out-of-place to me,” Mildenstein said. “I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Okay.’”

Mildenstein recalls the other children in her elementary school accepting her academic jump fairly easily.

“I remember in elementary school we had to line up in our grades to go inside, and everybody was [asking], ‘Why are you in this line? Did you skip a grade?’ And I said yes, and that was that,” she said.

Young remembers his situation being similar to Mildenstein’s.

“It was pretty much the same as the year before,” he said. “It wasn’t too difficult; people were pretty nice about it, and I didn’t get pushed into lockers or anything.”

For Durham, who skipped both second and fifth grade, the transition was much more difficult.

“Intellectually, it was probably a good thing for me and I did extremely well in school, so on the academic side it was very successful and it was probably the right thing to do. But I think socially it was a little bit more problematic for me,” she said. “The first time, I was a year younger than everyone else. Some of them were actually more than a year older than me because we had a few students in there who were kept back and things like that. So I tended to be very… I became, you know, more submissive, and I was bullied to some extent because I was not developmentally at the same stage as other kids in the class. That became worse after I skipped two grades because I was two years or more younger than other people.”

Even after a few years in classes with people two or more years older, Durham continued to feel socially out of place.

“By the time we got into highschool and I was two years younger than everyone else, the girls especially were moving through a whole different phase of life, not only physically, but I think also sort of their interests,” she said. “They were getting more interested in boys and those kinds of things, and I was still, you know, a kid, climbing trees and stomping in mud puddles and things. So it put me out of phase with my peers in a way that I think wasn’t socially helpful or good for me particularly.”

Although Young says he did not encounter any bullying because of his age and grade, he has dealt with social problems one step removed, in the form of stereotypes and assumptions that people hold about students who skip grades.

“[One stereotype is] that the people who skip [grades] are super antisocial,” he said. “Granted, in this case it’s pretty true, but people usually are pretty socially apt, even if they do skip a grade.”

Mildenstein also recalls dealing with misperceptions about what she and other accelerated students are like.

“I think people think that just because I skipped a grade I’m a super-genius. I’m not dumb, but I’m not a genius either,” she said. “Also, sometimes people ask me, ‘What grade are you supposed to be in?’ It just bugs me so much because if I wasn’t supposed to be in eleventh grade, I wouldn’t be in eleventh grade.”

Durham, like Mildenstein, believes that her teachers made the right choice academically, although for her the social implications were different.

“I probably would have gotten bored if they had left me in the grades that I was in,” she said. “[But] I actually do think I missed out on having just a more secure social life and being able to bond with my peers in ways that weren’t fraught with anxiety.”

In terms of their progress at school, Young, Mildenstein, and Durham all believe that they benefited from skipping a grade. But outside the classroom, all faced setbacks and difficulties that their peers who did not skip a grade avoided. For example, although Mildenstein is a junior, at fifteen she is still too young to have her driver’s license, unlike most of her friends.

I think people think that just because I skipped a grade I’m a super-genius. I’m not dumb, but I’m not a genius either.

— Eleanor Mildenstein

“Sometimes people have the misconception that I’m less mature because I’m a year younger,” she said. “But my age doesn’t equal my maturity. I mean, I’m probably not the most mature person in eleventh grade, but it’s not because I’m fifteen.”

Young also found that being younger has detracted from some extracurricular experiences.

“The most difficult part would have been probably just catching up in band and catching up in sports,” he said. “I was behind some people physically.”

Although both Young and Mildenstein consider their grade jump to be a positive choice, they don’t often choose to tell their peers about it.

“For me, it’s a weird thing to bring up and it sounds like I’m bragging or something,” said Mildenstein. “I don’t want it to be like that. I just want to be a normal eleventh grader.”

From the perspective of a parent, the possibility of future difficulties can be concerning. For Michelle Galvin, mother to Mildenstein, however, the problems her daughter might face if she did not skip a grade outweighed any other obstacles.

“I don’t want to say that [Eleanor] is brighter than everybody else, but she was a very early reader, and just everything we would put in front of her, whether it was, you know, reading, writing, math — she was going through these things very quickly,” Galvin said. “We thought at some point it would plateau, but she was just working at a much faster pace, and it was also in all of her subjects. One of the concerns that I had was that when she did get to reach something that she didn’t know, that she was learning for the first time and would be difficult, she wouldn’t know how to handle that. I didn’t want her, when she got into highschool and got into an upper level math class that was really challenging, to have that frustration because she had never had to work through something before.”

As a parent, Galvin faced social consequences of the choice her family made in having Mildenstein skip a grade.

“We had so many different parents offer their opinion, whether we asked for it or not,” she said. “Many of them told us that they thought we were making a mistake. It was all kinds of opinions that we never asked for. Everybody felt the need to kind of chime in on what was going on, but it was a very personal family decision.”

One answer on the Parent Q & A section of The Acceleration Institute’s website suggests that “the younger the student is when accelerated, the easier the adjustment.” In keeping with this model, Young, Mildenstein, and Durham were all identified early for their academic talent. In Young’s case, an employee of the Belin-Blank Center recommended that he skip a grade. Years later, he says he’s glad he followed that advice.

“I think it was good for me in the long run,” he said. “Mostly it just makes me look better on resumes, but I got to do some stuff faster, and my classes were a little more engaging.”

Everybody felt the need to kind of chime in on what was going on, but it was a very personal family decision.

— Michelle Galvin

Overall, skipping a grade went well for Mildenstein and Young, but less so for Durham. The pros and cons of taking that step continue to be researched and debated by experts. One thing they tend to agree on is that it’s not the right choice for everyone. As someone who’s been through the process of moving ahead in school, Young has advice for anyone currently considering it.

“I would tell them it depends on whether they have a lot of friends that they’re close to,” he said. “And how much they value sports and extracurriculars versus their education.”

Durham has had time to reflect on how her academic path as a child affected her adult life. Her conclusion?

“If it were up to me and I had to do it over I think that I would have just stayed in the second grade with my friends and just done everything the normal way on the normal schedule,” she said.

Although she doesn’t remember skipping a grade with much clarity — or perhaps because of that fact — Mildenstein has no doubts about her choice to move from first grade straight into third.

“I feel like there are so many experiences that I would have missed out on had I not skipped a grade. All the teams that I’ve been on, camps that I’ve done… I wouldn’t have done them with the same people,” she said. “Everything would have been so different, I think.”

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