Hong Kong mother Lorna Chen realised her daughter Amy was different when, at the age of three, she began reading and showing a special enthusiasm for a set of non-fiction books purchased at the Smithsonian. “Amy could recite the Latin names of butterflies,” Lorna recalls. Her daughter is now nine years old and continues to do well in school. Most recently, Amy was recommended to participate in the Hong Kong Young Writers Awards 2014, but the task of keeping Amy adequately challenged is an ongoing process. Like so many mothers in her situation, Lorna has wondered if Amy should skip an academic grade but worries about the emotional ramifications.
Kelly Yang, founder of The Kelly Yang Project, a top after-school writing programme in Hong Kong, knows a thing or two about skipping grades. Kelly skipped four years of school and began university at the age of 13. She then went on to attend Harvard Law School at the age of 17. Parents often ask Kelly about her views on grade acceleration, and she says, “I tell them don’t do it unless you have expended all of your other options.”
Most educators agree that there are ways to keep our brightest young minds engaged without resorting to grade skipping.
Walk, don’t run
Fitting in at school can be challenging for anyone, let alone for a child who is the youngest in class. A student may be able to keep pace with older kids in the classroom but feel out of step with these same children out in the playground.
Gifted children may also be unique, not only in an intellectual sense, but in a social-emotional one as well. Lorna describes Amy as being very sensitive. She feels her daughter’s sensitivity contributes to her exceptional writing ability, but would also make grade skipping even more difficult on Amy.
Sheila McCarthy, a mother of two from Illinois, has also rejected grade acceleration for her son Gavin based on the potential for social issues. Gavin is taking eighth-grade maths as a fifth-grader and enjoys studying chemistry in his free time. Yet, Sheila explains, “Some of Gavin’s classmates are already on Facebook. I worry that he would be exposed to even more pressure to grow up quickly if he moved up a grade.”
Even the most emotionally mature grade-skippers encounter age-related problems. This was the case for Kelly during graduate school. She graduated from Harvard Law School before turning 21, the legal drinking age in the US. “A lot of my study sections were held in bars and I couldn’t go because I had no way of getting in!” she says.
Often, parents focus on the potential harms of not opting for grade acceleration, while the benefits of staying with their own year group are overlooked. Wendy Yu, a teacher at the Kingston International School, feels children lose the opportunity to learn in a social way when they skip grades. “When children grow up and enter the workforce, they will inevitably have to cooperate with people whose skill sets do not match theirs. Students who outperform their classmates learn patience, acceptance, and conflict resolution skills early on,” says Wendy.
A better way
How then are parents and teachers supposed to provide advanced students with the support they need? Children who find their schoolwork too easy may become bored or unmotivated. This outcome is problematic for everyone since these students have tremendous potential to become tomorrow’s leaders.
Gifted children should attend schools that are equipped to meet their needs. Finding the right learning environment can be tricky, especially since factors such as budget cuts and class availability limit the extent to which specialised teaching can be offered. Kate Langhart, a first-grade teacher from Colorado, admits, “I wanted to send five of my students into the gifted programme this year, but there were only two spots available.”
Fourteen-year-old student Stella Chan (not her real name) also feels limited by her school. “I’m already taking the highest maths course available for my year. Even the highest maths available in the whole school is too easy for me. I wish my school offered something that was challenging for me. I feel I’m wasting my time in maths class.”
Yet, there are schools in which grade skipping is less of an issue because teachers have the resources to adjust the pace of learning for particularly advanced students. Placement in upper-level classes, ability-based reading and maths groups, and modified assignments are all ways to effectively avoid grade acceleration. Katrina Duggan, a teacher at the Creative Secondary School in Sai Kung, feels her school has developed effective methods for handling mixed-ability classes.
“We use differentiation within the classroom to meet the needs of high-level kids. That way, students are kept interested and challenged without being separated from their peers,” says Katrina.
In addition to well-equipped schools, extracurricular activities can also be a valuable source of intellectual stimulation for children. There’s a wide range of after-school programmes in Hong Kong, so take advantage. As a teacher at the Kelly Yang Project, I have seen talented younger writers hone their skills in our Creative Writing and Critical Reasoning courses. Parents can help their kids thrive by identifying programmes in the areas that reflect their children’s interests and skill sets.
Parents can also encourage children to further their learning outside of school. This practice should not be a chore but rather, an opportunity for children to delve into the topics that inspire them. For example, when Kelly Yang was a child, her mother supported her daughter’s fascination with maths by coming up with practice equations for her at home.
While grade skipping is not ideal, it is not the end of the world either. Many grade-skippers, while being aware of the hardships, also feel that their academic path has allowed them to reach their goals faster. Aly Hite, a Peace Corps veteran from California, skipped second grade. She acknowledges that always being the youngest student was difficult, particularly in middle school because she was physically less developed than her classmates. However, Aly says, “I feel like I got a step up in life. I was given the chance to finish college at the age of 20 and this allowed me to explore exciting job opportunities sooner.”
Parents of advanced students are faced with the arduous task of striking a fine balance between nurturing their children’s love of learning and keeping them in an age-appropriate environment. But don’t fret over the situation too much! Gifted children are just that: gifted. They’ll find their way.
Michaela Steinbach is a senior English teacher at the Kelly Yang Project
(www.kellyyang.edu.hk), a leading after-school English writing programme for kids aged four to 17. At KYP, Michaela teaches Creative Writing, Public Speaking, Critical Reasoning and Grammar and Vocabulary. She enjoys helping her creative students improve their writing skills.