Should gifted five-year-olds skip kindergarten and enter the first grade? Or can they benefit from developmental activities like storytelling, block building, painting, music, and finger plays in kindergarten?
Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar became more and more anxious about the first day of school for their vivacious five-year-old, Stephen. As he happily splashed in a pool with his two friends, he looked and behaved like a typical five-year-old. Yet a few minutes earlier he had recited a litany of battles from the Civil War, including the names of commanding officers and the numbers of casualties. “How,” the worried parents wondered aloud, “can he ever be challenged in a kindergarten class where learning will focus on letters, numbers, and colors?” The Dunbars decided to petition the principal to allow Stephen to skip kindergarten and enter the first grade. “But,” Mrs. Dunbar asked, “will he get along with older children? Can he complete the written seatwork he’ll be assigned each day?”
Placing a gifted child in an advanced grade because of superior intellectual ability is one way to meet his or her needs. It is one method of acceleration among several, including
- Early admission. Preschoolers can enter kindergarten a year early, at four years of age instead of five.
- Grade skipping. Stephen Dunbar, for example, may enter the first grade instead of kindergarten as a five-year-old. Many educators believe that the primary grades are the best time to skip a grade.
- Curriculum compacting. A child is evaluated to determine which skills have already been mastered in a specific chapter, subject, or grade level. An individualized program of study is planned, and the child works only on developing and learning new skills and concepts.
- Two-year or double-grade compacting. A child beginning the second grade in September is tested to determine which skills and topics he or she has not mastered. An individualized program of study is planned, and the child works at his or her own pace until mastering those skills—usually three to four months. The process is repeated at midyear, and the student uses the remainder of the year to complete the third grade. The next year he or she enters the fourth grade.
Most researchers believe that gifted children benefit greatly from acceleration. Studies dating back to the 1960s extol the advantages of early school entrance and early first-grade placement. These two approaches are widely favored, and recent studies confirm that, with proper screening and identification, the results are almost always positive.
Nevertheless, kindergarten and first-grade teachers often recommend against acceleration, citing problems of maturity and social adjustment. They fear that a five-year-old, despite his or her academic readiness, may be developmentally or emotionally unprepared to sit at a desk for long periods of time and may lack the fine motor coordination required for first-grade handwriting.
Dr. Brooke Walker, an educator and researcher at the Ricks Center for Gifted Children in Denver, urges parents and school officials to put the child’s needs first. It is imperative, she says, that candidates for acceleration be evaluated for academic, emotional, social, and developmental readiness and be confirmed as, indeed, intellectually gifted. Many children who enter kindergarten have already mastered the curriculum and are reading proficiently. Walker cautions parents, however, that early reading is not necessarily a sign of giftedness. She agrees with many teachers that children who enter school performing above grade level usually level off in performance by the second or third grade.
“Parents must also consider the child’s self-esteem,” counsels Walker. For instance, how will a child who is accustomed to being a class leader or who likes being the smartest in the class react when acceleration places him or her closer to the middle of the class in ability?
Above all, the child’s happiness and enthusiasm for learning must be considered. Intellectual stimulation is important, but childhood does not last forever. Professor David Elkind, a child psychologist and author, believes that parents often become obsessed with creating superchildren. “What intellectually gifted children need most,” Elkind says, “is not early formal instruction but . . . opportunities to explore and investigate.” The goal of parents, in his view, should be to provide young children with experiences that foster their eagerness for lifelong learning.
—Teri Cooper Brown
Teri Cooper Brown is a veteran educator and full-time freelance writer on gifted education, child development, family life, parenting, travel, and juvenile nonfiction. She is a former gifted/talented resource teacher and an advocate for gifted children.
- Ricks Center for Gifted Children
- The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, by David Elkind, Perseus, 1989