This fall, our daughter entered third grade after skipping second grade completely. Her birthday is in December, which placed her on the older side of first-graders here in Minnesota, where the cutoff date for entering kindergarten is Sept. 1. Based on academic testing and her desires, we felt she needed a challenge.
“I want to do harder math,” she told us, and she didn’t want it delivered online. She asked to participate in small math groups with friends. But that alone wasn’t why my husband, Matt, and I chose to accelerate her. We also wanted to give her the gift of believing in herself.
Conventional wisdom says redshirting, or delaying kindergarten entrance, creates an advantage — for those parents who can afford it — by giving children more time to develop. Older is better, right? One study estimated between 4 and 5.5 percent of children delay kindergarten, mostly white boys. While redshirting may help in sports, I think it can hurt some children — particularly those who are gifted — socially and emotionally.
A recent Johns Hopkins University study reported that between 15 and 45 percent of students perform above grade level. Yet according to a study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics, only about 1 percent of students skip a grade. It’s important for that statistic to start to change. Why waste tax dollars teaching children what they already know?
Halfway through my kindergarten year, I was grade-skipped. I walked into my first-grade classroom with a newfound confidence: I was smart, powerful, age-defying! I could do mentally stimulating higher-level work if I just applied myself. Admittedly being the youngest wasn’t always easy — sometimes I had to struggle to keep up, particularly in high school, given my shoddy organizational skills. But that brought on a mental toughness, an assurance that I could do it — despite my age — if I just worked hard enough.
My attitude got me through an Ivy League school. And that’s a lesson I want my daughter to carry with her: Age does not define who she is or what she is capable of. Our goal has never been to give her every advantage. Rather, we want to give her every opportunity to work hard, living by that adage, “If you’re the biggest fish in your pond, find another pond.” But in education, it’s not easy to change ponds. As Ken Robinson, a noted British author and educator, says in a TED talk, “Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.”
While children who are older than their classmates may have an early advantage — development ranges dramatically between 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds — it diminishes over time, and some recent studies, such as one done by a group of economists who tracked Norwegian children born between 1962 and 1988 until age 18, suggest redshirting may have a long-term detrimental effect on IQ. Use it early on or lose it, the theory goes. A 2013 study out of Vanderbilt University found that mathematically talented students who skipped a grade were more likely to write patents, publish and earn doctorate degrees by age 50 than their intellectual peers who didn’t skip a grade.
Some people are reluctant to skip children ahead for social reasons. Christopher Dougherty, a 39-year-old attorney who lives in Edina, Minn., started kindergarten at age 4 and then skipped second grade. He graduated from high school at age 16. He says his age put him at a social disadvantage, first as a 6-year-old trying to penetrate third-grade cliques, and then due to the awkwardness middle school brought on. “I was in a child’s body and they were all several inches taller than me,” he says. Now, as a parent, his guiding principle with his son has been to not rush through elementary school.
Other parents, such as Lauren Shive, a 40-year-old former educator living in a Philadelphia suburb, believes it’s time we untie age from education. Doing so, she says, will free younger children who aren’t ready yet for early escalating academics, while accelerating those who want more. From a young age her 12-year-old son was seeking the stimulation of learning. While many parents in her district consider redshirting a gift, she let her son start kindergarten early and then skip fifth grade. “You can give them the ‘gift’ of an extra year of preschool, but that may also come with the ‘gift’ of 13 years of boredom in school,” she says.
Research shows that many gifted students actually do better with older peers. A meta-analysis on grade-skipping by Karen Rogers, a professor of gifted education, reported grade-skipping had positive effects on social skills and maturity. So far that seems to be case with our daughter. Within a week, she had a new best friend, and they seem unaware of their 15-month age gap.
“Why can’t our kids develop academically and socially/emotionally at the same time?” asks Shive, pointing to her father-in-law’s rural experience in a mixed-age one-room school house where assigned work was tied to ability.
Susan Assouline, director of the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa, helped develop a tool called the Iowa Acceleration Scale to aid schools in deciding which kids would benefit from skipping a grade. She says parents should know there are risks to holding back carefully selected gifted students, too, as bored kids can lose their self-motivation.
“If you’re not engaged in active learning, then you can’t fully develop who you are,” she says. As a result, those children may become underachievers, and that comes at a cost to them as well as society.
It’s hard to know what is right for your child over the long haul, given the rapid rate at which kids change. I’m just trying to do my best to meet my daughter’s needs today.
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