Feature

When many people hear talk of a 15-year-old student heading to college, their gut reaction is to wonder how a teen could miss out on high school football games and dances, or how a teen could ever fit in with students so much older.

But some psychologists' research shows that acceleration--skipping grades or working ahead in a particular subject--can be one of the best methods to meet the needs of gifted youth. While not a panacea, acceleration gives students access to true peers and challenging work, say a number of experts.

"Students need to be in the right place at the right time," explains psychologist Nancy M. Robinson, PhD, of the University of Washington and former director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars. "For some students, this means that high school would offer very little."

However, many schools are hesitant to accelerate students out of concern for their emotional development. While research by Robinson and others finds accelerated students who receive appropriate support don't suffer adverse social or emotional effects from moving ahead, others note that most of this research has been conducted with gifted students who are already achieving--not underachieving or unidentified students. Indeed, says Robinson, students can struggle when they are accelerated without effective study habits, access to similarly talented peers and a supportive family or encouraging mentor, such as a teacher or counselor.

That's why acceleration decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, say experts such as Susan Assouline, PhD, and Nick Colangelo, PhD, who have developed the Iowa Acceleration Scale, a tool to help parents and educators make such decisions.

For example, acceleration may not be right for a gifted student who is also a stand-out football player or isn't socially mature. And others may need acceleration in only one area, since many gifted children develop asynchronously.

Moreover, some caution against looking at acceleration as just moving ahead. Talented students--whether they skip grades, work ahead in one subject or stay with their peers--need enriching experiences, says Joseph S. Renzulli, EdD, director of the University of Connecticut's National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

"It's not just how far and fast one can run," he explains, "but rather what one can do to apply the material that one has learned in an environment that allows them to generate hypotheses, gather data, to write a play, poem or song."

But gifted students who don't receive some kind of enrichment--whether it's acceleration or a supplemental program--are less likely to excel. For instance, many gifted children spend 25 to 50 percent of class time waiting for other students to catch up. To make up for the boredom, gifted students may engage in self-stimulating behavior, such as counting their teeth with their tongue, tapping a foot or entertaining themselves by distracting other students--actions that look like problem behaviors to a teacher.

"From the child's point of view, it's an attempt to make an unendurable situation endurable," explains psychologist James T. Webb, PhD, founder of the nonprofit group Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. "The very characteristics that make these children what they are--curiosity, advanced intellect, intensity, sensitivity--can become problems at school or at home if they're not understood."

When teachers, parents and even mental health professionals mistake common attributes of giftedness for social and emotional problems, students can end up with misdiagnoses of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger's disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder and other problems, instead of an enriching education, says Webb.

And boredom has other consequences. If gifted students never meet a challenge in school, they may not develop the coping skills necessary to persevere through challenges later in life, notes Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, PhD, director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University.

--D. SMITH