Unleashing Excellence

Dr. Jadis Blurton, Head of School


Gifted children face some significant challenges in school. Their natural ability to quickly grasp information makes it difficult to attend when that information is repeated many times.

Their penchant for looking at the larger picture or the logical next conclusion creates problems when teachers are introducing topics in single steps. Their curiosity can cause teachers to take offense, especially if the teacher is unsure of the answers to their questions. And even though they learn quickly, they find themselves bound to the progress of their peers. This is why, contrary to popular belief, many intellectually gifted or academically advanced children do not automatically do well in school. There is nothing more stultifying than to be held in one place  just because everyone else is there and nothing more demoralizing than to be shamed or blamed for asking questions.

Often, the most expeditious way to address this problem is to arrange for the student to skip a grade. I am always amused when, every few years, something pops up about another meta-analysis that has supported the advantages (both academic and personal) of acceleration. The reason I am amused is that the first of these was the study conducted at Stanford by Louis Terman in 1921. It is the oldest longitudinal study in psychology, lasting generations, an in-depth study of 1528 gifted children in California, affectionately called “Termites”. His finding that children who were accelerated ultimately had higher achievement has been replicated numerous times, and many studies also find a higher level of life satisfaction among adults who were accelerated. I myself began university at sixteen and graduated at nineteen. My parents both began university even younger, at age fifteen. (My mother was a Termite, and my father was a Hollingworth child.) 

There are many advantages to skipping ahead one grade, and without any doubt it is better than sitting and being bored all day, but there are also some related problems. I think it is fair to say that both my parents and I are grateful that we were allowed to skip ahead but also aware that the problem of being bored could have been managed much better in a perfect world. There should be other alternatives to crippling boredom.

  1. Grade skipping is imprecise. Many students are highly advanced in one area (such as math or reading) but not necessarily advanced in other academic, physical or emotional areas.  For example, the child who reads like a Fifth Grader when in First Grade might skip to Second Grade and find it very difficult to use a pencil as well as her older classmates. A math prodigy might struggle with reading or writing. A much more targeted approach would be to provide advanced math to the students who are advanced in math and advanced reading (and maybe less handwriting) to those who are advanced in reading.
  2. Grade skipping is limited and sometimes frustrating. Students usually only skip one or two years ahead over the course of their academic careers, so children who are already four or five years ahead in a subject area are still constrained by the limited new content of the higher grade. Further, gifted kids learn very quickly, at an advanced pace. If they skip a grade, even if they are introduced to content that is new to them (which is initially exciting) the pace of their classmates will very soon slow them down and they will find themselves in the same boring situation. A much better solution is to introduce advanced content at an advanced, faster pace, something that does not occur just by skipping a grade.
  3. Eventually, being young in grade places students in situations that may not be comfortable or optimal in terms of their social and emotional development. Usually, schools are responsible for addressing students' cognitive needs (through academics), physical growth (through sports) and social/emotional development (through clubs and class friendships). Students who are advanced in grade may need to have some of those needs addressed outside of school (through outside clubs or sports teams) and their parents often have to take on the responsibility of providing access to those activities. More importantly, other opportunities or experiences that come up just may not be age-appropriate. I had a young friend who was nine years old complain about her frustration and embarrassment when her 7th Grade Health class showed the girls how to check their breasts for lumps. Another young friend, who was fifteen and in his second year of university, found that he had to explain to his school friends that he could not accompany them on their cross-country road trip because he didn’t yet have a driver’s license. My own father, who you’ll remember went to university at fifteen, was placed on the Honor Roll in term one and, according to his university’s rules, Honor Roll students were not required to attend class because they had proven themselves to be scholars. My father took almost an entire term doing a Ferris Bueller-type trip to Chicago and New York (while his parents thought he was at school), returning only to ace the finals in each of his classes. (It’s a funny story but also one that could have been much less funny if something untoward had happened to him.) Everything from dating to drinking to driving to educational and occupational opportunities must be reconsidered and, if need be, adjusted if a student is very young in grade. A much less uncomfortable solution is to allow students to have stimulating and interesting content at an appropriate pace for them while still remaining in or close to their own grade level. 

So skipping a grade, which research shows is preferable to no solution at all, comes with a price (being young in grade) and also may not solve all of the problems facing gifted students. If the boredom could be better managed in a perfect world, what would that perfect world look like? We have had the opportunity at The Harbour School to try to find out, and this is what we believe:

It would be specific: At THS, we don’t assume that any child is uniformly talented, much less gifted children. We measure and address specific talents in Math and Literacy and, for students who are extremely adept at one or the other or both, we construct a program in which they are encouraged to learn at a pace that is appropriate for each of them. Students remain in grade, if possible, so they are with their age-mates for social and physical activities. (We sometimes accelerate a grade, but this is a holistic evaluation based on a number of factors rather than just a talent in one area.)

It would address both content and pace: Every child deserves to be challenged. At THS, we understand that the reason gifted students are already advanced in a particular subject is because they learn that subject faster. Rather than just providing advanced content, we use a variety of methods - some online and some in person - to allow students to progress at a pace that is exciting and interesting to them. This means that we have some students who are a couple of years advanced and some students who are five or six years - or more - advanced in their subject. In Literacy, for example, many entries in the primary students’ blog look like something any secondary school would be proud of!

It’s also important to recognize that many students who may not be extremely advanced might also benefit from advanced programming. Several recent studies have found that approximately one fourth to one third of upper primary school students are one year advanced in Math or Literacy. This proportion is reflected at THS where many students in each grade work with advanced material, not only those who are profoundly gifted.

It would eliminate stigma: Growing up, one of the first things gifted children learn is that it can be embarrassing or weird to think in an advanced way or be interested in advanced topics. This is another reason that skipping a grade can be advantageous: children who are young in grade know that they are different in age but feel less strange in their interests or abilities with older classmates. But what if they didn’t have to make that exchange? In a school that celebrates diverse abilities and strengths, children understand that their friend who is not great at math might be an amazing musician or sportsperson. Students learn that their own abilities in one area are not necessarily shared by all the other students but conversely the other students may have many valuable abilities that they don’t have, and that’s okay. Similarly, gifted students often find themselves frozen by perfectionism, afraid to try something new because their entire self-concept leans on their advanced abilities. At THS, an open acceptance of the strengths and weaknesses of all students encourages gifted students to see themselves more holistically, which allows them to risk failure - a skill that is essential to advanced problem solving and innovation.

Unfortunately, the stigma of being advanced is often exacerbated by teachers who do not understand or who feel threatened by gifted students.  It can be intimidating when an eight-year old knows more about microbiology than his Third Grade teacher. So an important part of the THS teacher training is helping teachers to gain an understanding and acceptance of the fact that their students may need extension activities that are beyond the teacher’s own understanding of a subject area. Allowing many pathways for extension and ensuring that teachers are confident in their own areas of knowledge and experience helps students to feel excited about explaining their knowledge to the teachers or other students.


Educators still argue about which approach is better for gifted students: should we focus on acceleration or enrichment?  We believe the correct answer is yes. Yes we should be providing enriching materials for all children. And yes we should encourage and provide challenging pathways for every child to proceed at a pace that is appropriate for that child and with material that is new and exciting. Isn’t that what schools are supposed to do?

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