Last month, school psychologist DR. KENNETH SHORE talked about ÒStaying BackÓ - giving advice to parents when the school suggests a child should be held back a year. This month, Dr. Shore discusses a situation that may require just as much consideration:
Occasionally a child is performing so far above her classmates that itÕs recommended she skip a grade. Children who do this typically enter a class two grades higher at the beginning of the next school year. In some cases, a child skips a grade by moving to the next grade during the course of the school year.
The decision to bypass one year of school is not an easy one. The school and the parents must make this decision jointly, weighing the risks. A very bright child who is being taught material that she has already mastered may be bored in class. Finding schoolwork tedious and unchallenging, she may become turned off to school and start to underachieve. Even if she does the work, it may be done in a perfunctory manner, with little learning taking place.
Yet skipping a child also has risks. A child who breezed through work previously may suddenly be faced with academic pressures for which she is unprepared. In addition, an academically advanced child may not be socially advanced to the same degree; a child who is moved ahead may be challenged academically but overwhelmed socially. She may be able to keep pace in the classroom yet feel out of place with her new classmates.
If your child is performing above grade level in all academic areas, she is not necessarily a candidate for skipping. Indeed, most classes have such students. Elementary classes typically have at least a three-year span of academic levels in any subject: some children are a year or more above grade level; others are on grade level; and still others are a year or more below. In some cases, students will perform several grade levels above their assigned grade on standardized tests. These results can be misleading, however. A second grader who scores at the fifth-grade level in reading should not be assigned to a fifth-grade reading class since she lacks the experience, knowledge base, and maturity of fifth graders.
The challenge facing the school and teacher is to provide educational programs which meet the diverse needs of students without moving them into socially inappropriate groups. The response of some schools to this problem has been to group students according to ability rather than grade level. For example, a reading class might have second and third graders. A more common approach is to group by ability within a grade. For example, one teacher instructs the higher-level students while another instructs lower-level students.
If you suspect your child is not being sufficiently challenged, contact the teacher to see what changes can be made in the classroom. She may be able to provide more advanced work for your child while relieving her of the more mundane assignments. This should be work which stretches your child's understanding of the subject matter rather than busywork on topics she has already mastered. If you pursue this strategy, monitor to ensure that the new work is not stressful or overwhelming.
You might also talk with the principal to find out what programs are available outside the classroom. Your child may be eligible for the school's enrichment or gifted and talented program. If your child is particularly advanced in one subject, she may be able to go to a higher grade for instruction in that subject. For example, a first grader might go to second grade for reading but remain in first grade for all other subjects. Your school may have other options that are beneficial for your child. This is the time for you to be creative in coming up with strategies the school might adopt to enrich your child's education.
After reviewing these school alternatives, you may still believe that your child should be considered for skipping. If so, it is important to compare her to children in the next grade on a range of variables. These include the following:
• Learning Aptitude: Your assessment of your child's reasoning skills should draw from your and the teacher's observations as well as testing results.
• Academic Skills: To evaluate your child's reading, math, and writing skills, review your child's report cards, work samples, and standardized test results.
• Work Habits: Does your child work well independently? Can she concentrate for a sustained period? Can she prepare for tests effectively? Is she conscientious about completing homework?
• Ability to Tolerate Academic Pressure: How will she cope with an increased workload? Will it upset her to no longer be the star of the class? How will she respond if she struggles in some subjects?
• Enjoyment of Learning: Does she enjoy learning new things? Will she pursue topics on her own that spark her interest?
• Social Maturity: Does she relate well to other children? How does she do with older children? Is she confident in social situations?
• Height: A child who is short, especially a boy, may have difficulty if skipped because the size difference will be even greater in the next grade. Also give weight to your child's views. If she is anxious at the prospect of skipping, she may not feel ready and may not be ready. If your child remains motivated in her present grade, is uncomplaining about the work, is comfortable with her classmates and is uninterested in advancing a grade, think twice about having her skip a grade. In general, let caution be your watchword in making this decision.
After considering what the school can do to stimulate your child, you may conclude that the academic challenge and enrichment will need to come primarily from outside the school. This means that you will need to make a special effort to find ways of cultivating your child's talents and abilities. Visits to museums, plays, exhibits, and other cultural events are of course great ways of enhancing your child's education. Look for weekend or summer enrichment programs. Make sure, however, that you do not force your child to do something she doesn't want to. A gentle nudge is okay but insisting that she go to an academic or cultural enrichment program when she is strongly opposed will generate more resistance than learning.
DR. SHORE is a school psychologist with the Hamilton Township (NJ) Public Schools. He has written four books, including ÒThe Parents' Special Education HandbookÓ (Warner); ÒThe Parents' Public School HandbookÓ (Simon & Schuster); ÒSpecial Kids Problem SolverÓ (Prentice Hall); and, most recently, ÒKeeping Kids SafeÓ (Prentice Hall).