LEARNING CHALLENGES: 
Grade acceleration

There is considerable research on the topic of acceleration. The general consensus seems to be that acceleration is of benefit when the child is clearly able to master material more quickly and at a deeper level than their classmates and demonstrates the emotional maturity and social skills to handle the demands of placement in a higher grade.

Acceleration may be considered when the child’s level of achievement is clearly above the level of his/her classmates. This may be evident to the teacher who observes that the child learns material more rapidly and understands concepts at a deeper level. On standardized tests the child will generally score several levels above the present grade placement in all academic areas. A child who demonstrates such advanced abilities may become bored and consequently is at risk for excessive daydreaming, developing poor study habits or engaging in disruptive behaviour unless efforts are made to ensure that the curriculum presents an appropriate challenge.

When the parent, teacher and school principal have questions as to whether a student might be a candidate for acceleration, the case should be discussed at a case conference or school team meeting. At that time a decision may be made to refer the child for psychological assessment / intervention. A psychological assessment will determine the child’s level of intellectual functioning and academic abilities, and can address questions in the area of emotional maturity and social development.

The key questions to determine if a student will benefit from acceleration are:

  1. Is child able to master material at a rapid pace relative to age-mates?
  2. Does child understand concepts at a deeper level than classmates? Does child demonstrate the emotional maturity to handle the demands of an advanced grade?
  3. Does child demonstrate the social skills required to handle the demands of an advanced grade?
  4. Are the parent, child and teachers in agreement with an advanced grade placement?

A positive response to these five questions suggests that the child should be accelerated.

Addendum: very young children

There are some situations where great caution must be exercised in considering a request for advanced placement. Very young children have unique learning needs that must be addressed in a manner that acknowledges their need for nurturance and respects their developmental level. Accelerated academic learning in early childhood may force the child to rely on lower level processes such as memorization instead of developing higher level cognitive strategies.

With young children, the individual needs of each child must be addressed within an environment that is appropriate to the child’s interests and abilities. Respected psychologists and educators have cautioned against the dangers of hurrying (Elkind,1986) or hothousing (Siegal, 1987) young children. This type of pressure from educators and parents can rob children of a critical developmental phase. Learning opportunities presented at age three through five play a significant role in forming a foundation for learning that builds on confidence and curiosity.

Addendum: gifted children

Students who may eventually be identified as gifted may be at a significant disadvantage if they are accelerated. When programming for gifted students is offered on a withdrawal basis, a child who has been accelerated will be evaluated and admitted to the program based on age norms. However, the placement will be with other gifted students who are one year older. In this setting, the accelerated child will be comparing his/her reasoning abilities and products to those of older gifted students. This may impact negatively on the child’s self-esteem and result in a discouraged student who does not attain his/her potential in academic areas.

In summary, acceleration may benefit the student who is academically advanced and socially mature. Psychology staff may assist the principal and parent in this process of determining if this is an appropriate option for a particular student. There are significant dangers in accelerating very young children. Students who are likely to be identified as gifted may be at a disadvantage if they are accelerated.

 

Prepared by Dr. Fran Rauenbusch, Former Chief Psychologist, Toronto Catholic District School Board