In many schools, there is an increasing number of advanced students moving faster through the curriculum, skipping certain standard classes for more rigorous ones typically reserved for later grades. A math colleague of mine, while pleased with the overall success of this strategy, recently shared his concern about how some of these students are struggling to absorb the accelerated material. He said “acceleration is not for all advanced students,and we need to work to find more reliable indicators of who should or should not be pushed ahead.”
Well aware that many high achieving students become bored and lose interest when left alone, educators continue to search for the perfect situation that accommodates the needs of high achieving students.
Last year, a fifth grader was a student in my advanced seventh grade class because he took it upon himself to read the entire sixth grade text and passed the sixth grade science exam. At year’s end, he performed better than any of the other seventh graders.
Parents of high achieving students are advocates of their child’s abilities, commonly at the front lines to ensure that their child has the opportunities for growth. Most often they are correct. But when does nurturing and accommodating become pushing? Carol Bainbridge, a gifted child expert says “nurturing is child-centered, while pushing is adult-centered. When we nurture we follow the child’s lead, but when we push, we ask the child to follow us, to do what we want him or her to do.”
Pushing can be found in a number of areas.
Hothousing involves the intense study of a topic in order to stimulate a child’s mind. “How can I make my child smarter?” is not a new concept. Following the 1963 release of Glenn Doman’s Teach Your Baby to Read or How to have a Smarter Baby, educational hothousing became a trend. Today hothousing is commonly associated with tiger parenting — an approach that combines hyper-disciplined parenting and an intense focus on achievement and performance. Although both practices claim to be essential for intellectual achievement, critics say it can lead a child to shut down and cause other issues.
These critics feel that instead of creating free thinkers and makers, we are churning out anxious children who are being fast-tracked through their school days. They feel that instead of helping the whole child succeed, hothousing and tiger parenting seed resistance, academic anxiety (or apathy), low confidence, sleep problems and parental disconnect.
Acceleration is the placement of students in subjects ahead of where they would be in the regular school curriculum. Acceleration is most often used to accommodate the learning needs of gifted and talented students.
Jessica Lahey, in her forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, shares data about how schools often utilize acceleration to meet the intellectual needs of gifted children. She says if we are to teach the whole child, and honor their emotional and intellectual development, we need to give them the gift of time. Time to develop, time to grow up and time to feel secure in themselves and their achievements.
For some gifted students, acceleration can be a great way to give them the challenges they need and crave, but for socially and emotionally immature students, academic acceleration may become a weighty burden. It is up to the parent and educator to determine the appropriate path.
Within the school system there are various ways to accelerate students from kindergarten to high school.
▪ Early entrance to school: A gifted child who shows readiness to perform schoolwork can enter kindergarten or first grade one to two years earlier than the usual beginning age.
▪ Grade skipping: A learner is double-promoted to bypass one or more grade levels.
▪ Nongraded classroom: A learner is placed in a classroom undifferentiated by grade levels where he or she works through the curricular materials at a pace appropriate to individual ability and motivational level. This would be similar to the Montessori method.
▪ Curriculum compacting: The learner tests out or bypasses previously mastered skills and content, focusing only on mastery of deficient areas, thus moving more rapidly through the curriculum.
▪ Grade telescoping: A student’s progress is reorganized through middle or high school to shorten the time by one year. (middle school may require two years instead of three; high school may require three years instead of four).
▪ Concurrent enrollment: A student attends classes in more than one building level during the school year — for example, high school for part of the day and junior high for the remainder.
▪ Subject acceleration: A student bypasses the usual progression of skills and content mastery in one subject where great advancement or proficiency has been observed. The learner will progress at the regular instructional pace through the remaining subject areas.
▪ Advanced placement: A student takes courses with advanced or accelerated content (usually at the secondary level) in order to test out of or receive credit for completion of college-level coursework. (Although one such program is actually designated “Advanced Placement,” several such programs exist — for example, International Baccalaureate.)
▪ Credit by examination: Through successful completion of tests, a student is allowed to receive a specified number of college credits upon entrance to college. (Advanced Placement and the College Level Examination Program are two examples.)
▪ Early admission to college: A student enters college as a full-time student without completing high school.
According to educator and therapist Dennis O’Brien, schools that fail to meet the academic needs of their gifted and advanced students are one of many reasons talented children underachieve. Likewise, parents who care too much and push too hard can also create problems by complicating their gifted children’s ability to rise to their potential. Fervent but misguided parents who push their children solely for top grades and high SAT scores are mistaken that this will assure university access and a guaranteed professional career.
In her book, Taming the Tiger Parent: How to Put Your Child’s Wellbeing First in a Competitive World, Tanith Carey shares how she got caught up in the Baby Einstein/Mozart frenzy with her own children. While her daughter watched lava lamps, wind-up toys and glove puppets dancing to xylophone renditions of Mozart, studies began to show that instead of strengthening cognitive abilities of babies, the videos might be stunting them.
She says that even today, parents are made to feel that it is never too early to get their baby ready for algebra. One example is a skipping rope that comes with flashing lights in order to teach the times tables, which can then be tested on “target mode.” However, studies show that educational toys not only provide little academic help but can actually deprive children of the time and brain space they need to learn more vital skills, provided by open-ended and imaginative play.
In a related article Parenting in the Hothouse: A Slow Parent’s Perspective on Fast Education, Carey says that parents need to acknowledge the impact of a child’s well-being when caught up in the hot-house atmosphere of today’s mainstream education and that ultimately it’s mental equilibrium, not A’s or stars, that should be the real measure of parental success. Without well-being, exam success adds up to nothing much at all.
She suggests these practices to grow strong and self-reliant children:
▪ Show them how far they’ve come: Tell children there is only one person in life who is truly worth besting — themselves. Take time to go through your child’s exercise books to show how their handwriting has gone from giant shapes to well-formed cursive, scribbles have morphed into carefully crafted drawings or their first tentative notes on an instrument have turned into music.
▪ Eat together: Simply eating together on a regular basis not only bonds parents and children Kids who eat four meals a week with their families have been shown to higher levels of self-esteem.
▪ Restrain the cheerleading: As much as you may want to show off your child’s talents to the world, be aware that you risk making your child self-conscious. You may think you are being encouraging by plastering every scribble they do on the fridge – but let them decide what they want to share.
▪ Encourage your child’s love of learning, not high-scoring.
▪ Show your interest in what your child is learning.
▪ Encourage your child to develop personal interests that go beyond the school curriculum.
▪ Encourage group activities as well as solitary pursuits.
▪ Encourage your child to participate in enrichment activities outside of school.
▪ Encourage your child to pursue non-academic interests.
▪ Allow your child’s interests to change.
So what is a parent to do?
Today’s children are being raised in a competitive society, encouraged by culture, government and schools. Do we challenge our kids and continue to push them upward? Is it important that our country conquer global education rankings?
Or do we forgo the ideals of being the best, the fastest and the smartest and let the brightest simply enjoy a carefree childhood?
It will be an interesting journey.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.
Last week’s column about the STEM to STEAM movement miscredited the opening quote. It was actually Stephen Beal, President of California College of the Arts, who said “We need artists, architects, designers, curators and writers to find new ways to see, feel and create meaning in our world. We need creative people to form productive collaborations with scientists, educators, and technologists to make a positive impact on the world. We need artists to keep asking the questions.”