Why Are We Holding Back Our Brightest Kids? The Truth About Academic Acceleration and Your Gifted Child

Think of some of today’s young talented celebrities: Lebron James, Taylor Swift, Dakota Fanning. These are people whom the country has deemed to have some sort of genius—athletic, musical, or dramatic. These are people who were given permission to reach their potential as gifted people at their own pace. Imagine someone telling Lebron that he couldn’t play basketball for the NBA right out of high school because he was too young – or because we were concerned that he wouldn’t develop good social relationships with his older teammates. Imagine telling Dakota Fanning (the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award) that she wasn’t ready to be an actor because she might not fit in with her peers on the set. It sounds ridiculous, right? Yet teachers, parents, and administrators express these types of concerns about our brightest young people and hold them back based on these same presumptions each day. Most educators deeply mistrust the idea of accelerating gifted and talented children, believing (often incorrectly) that acceleration will negatively impact kids socially and academically. Today's post will explore some really important information that you should consider carefully if you are a parent or teacher of a gifted child. The majority of this post has been taken from a paper I wrote in grad school a while ago, but the information still rings so very true. 

What is acceleration?

Acceleration occurs when students are allowed to “progress through an educational program at rates faster or at ages younger than conventional” (Brown, 1993). Acceleration can apply to a wide range of strategies, beginning as young as kindergarten, and continuing through college. It can apply to 18 different strategies, including skipping entire grades, early entrance to kindergarten or first grade, subject acceleration, in which students are moved to higher grade levels only for particular subject matter, “telescoping” curriculum—that is accomplishing 3 years worth of curriculum in 2, participating in fast-paced extracurricular classes, or entering into college early (Robinson, Shore, & Enersen, 2007).  Acceleration can also take the form of continuous progress, self-paced instruction, curriculum compacting, mentoring, correspondence courses, early graduation, concurrent/dual enrollment, advanced placement, credit by examination, acceleration in college, early entrance into middle school, high school, or college (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). 

Why accelerate?

The need for acceleration of gifted students becomes evident when we consider several factors that we know about gifted learners. First, these students tend to learn more quickly than their peers. They can absorb and process information efficiently. Second, Gifted students are able to comprehend information in greater depth than other students. Third, talented students come to class with readiness that is different from that of average ability students. It has been noted that they come to class already knowing between 50 and 85 percent of the prescribed material (Den-Mo, 2007).

There is not much documentation on the history of acceleration. According to Brown, acceleration is a recent educational option—stating that, “the idea that children should remain with their chronological peers was not widely held before the mid-nineteenth century. It was expected that student performance would mandate where students were placed and when they graduated” (Brown, 1993, p. 3). It was not until later when school attendance increased because education for all became a mandate, and psychological theories about child development led to the creation of a more formalized age-grade structure (Brown, 1993). 

What are the effects?

The good

Much research has been conducted on the effects of acceleration in any of its forms, with benefits shown in most cases.  In A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of studies conducted on acceleration and found that bright students almost always benefit from accelerated programs of study (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004, p. 29). On achievement tests, “accelerated students perform almost as well as their older classmates, even those with similar IQs—meaning that an accelerated 7-year-old with an IQ of 133 typically scores nearly as well on the same test as a 133 IQ 8-year-old who has had an extra year of school” (Cloud, Badowski, Rubiner, & Scully, 2004, p. 57). These same accelerated children far outscore their age-mates, who are equally gifted, but remained in their grade-level (Cloud, Badowski, Rubiner, & Scully, 2004). The meta-analytic studies conducted by the University of Iowa also showed that other provisions for gifted students were less effective than acceleration, with the average effect size being .41 for special programs of enrichment for gifted and talented students. The study also concludes that accelerated students are more likely to aspire to advanced degrees (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). 

The most frequent refrain that teachers, parents, and administrators voice about acceleration is a concern for the social-emotional well-being of the children. While acceleration, especially radical acceleration (think 11-year-olds attending college), and grade skipping can come with potential issues, the research has shown that in general the benefits outweigh the negative effects—especially when plans are made carefully and several recommended factors are considered prior to moving the student. Researchers have found that there is almost no effect on the participation in school activities. Accelerated students participate as much in extracurricular and co-curricular activities as their non-accelerated peers (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). 

The (temporarily) not as good

There are several issues that may arise when a child is accelerated though they have usually been deemed small and short-lived in most cases. According to the University of Iowa study, the meta-analysis showed that students may experience a slight readjustment in their self-image because of the move to a more intellectually challenging atmosphere with academic peers. The authors note that this effect usually seems to be quite small and short-lived, but that it shouldn’t be ignored, and that the profound benefits of acceleration outweigh the social risks in most cases (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). Some researchers have found a little-fish-big-pond effect on the self-esteem on some kids, but again, the effect is usually small and temporary. It has been speculated that this effect may even be healthy for the egos of these super-talented kids (Cloud, Badowski, Rubiner, & Scully, 2004)! In a 2010 article, researchers note, “To be clear, there is no evidence that acceleration has a negative impact on a student’s social-emotional development” (Colangelo N. , et al., 2010). This is somewhat of a contradiction to what I had previously stated, however, it may be safe to say that there is little evidence that a child’s social-emotional development will be harmed in the process of acceleration, as long as their case is carefully considered prior to making changes in their educational plan. 

How do I know if the gifted child in my life is a good candidate for acceleration?

When it comes to deciding which students are good candidates for acceleration, several factors should be considered. Feldhusen, Proctor, and Black suggest that there should be a “comprehensive psychological evaluation of the child’s intellectual functioning, academic skill levels, and social-emotional adjustment by a psychologist” (2002). Following that, they make several recommendations about the child. They should have:
  • Intellectually, an IQ of 125 or higher or have a level of mental development above the mean for the grade he or she desires to enter. 
  • Academically, the child should demonstrate skill levels above the mean for the grade desired. If the child is high in several skill levels but low in only one, they child may be advanced to the appropriate grade level as long as private tutoring is provided in the area of weakness. Conversely, some children’s academic skill levels vary considerably. If they are far advanced in math, for example, but at- or below-level in language arts, subject area acceleration may be the most appropriate option. 
  • Socially and emotionally, the child should be free of any serious adjustment problems. Additionally, the child should demonstrate a high degree of persistence and motivation for learning. However, in specific cases, there may be serious adjustment problems caused by inappropriately low grade placement. In such cases, the problem may be alleviated by grade advancement. 
  • Physically, the child should be in good health. The child’s size should only be considered to the extent that competitive sports may be viewed as important in later years. The psychologist should determine that the child does not feel unduly pressured by the parents to advance. 
  • The parents must be in favor of grade advancement, but the child should express a desire to more ahead as well. 
  • The receiving teachers must have positive attitudes toward acceleration and be willing to help the child adjust to the new situation. 
  • Transitions should generally be made at naturally occurring points throughout the school year. 
  • All cases should be arranged on a trial basis, and the child should not be made to feel he or she is a failure if it does not go well. 
All bulleted information: (Feldhusen, Proctor, & Black, 2002, pp. 170-171) 

The Iowa Acceleration Scale (IAS), created by Great Potential Press, Inc. is on of the best tools to help determine whether a child is a good candidate for subject-area and/or whole-grade acceleration. This tool takes what could be a subjective decision, left up to anecdotal data and presuppositions about the child, and changes it into an objective decision by quantifying information such as the child's birth order, extracurricular involvement, his or her feelings about acceleration, his age, size, and many other factors. The IAS combines that information with scores from grade-level and above-grade-level nationally normed tests. 

It appears that the case for acceleration is very clear, supported by years of documentation of the positive effects. And yet, for the most part, general education practitioners often resist making this option available for their bright students, even though the research suggests that doing so is effective (Viadero, 2004). If we can’t provide children with neatly tailored educational packages designed only for them, then at the very least we should enable them to move ahead at a pace and to a level that meets their needs! Research finds little data to support the notion that people are affected negatively in the end. In fact, longitudinal research has shown that accelerated students attain advanced degrees, produce scholarly works, and contribute professionally at rates well above societal baselines (Feldhusen, Proctor, & Black, 2002). It is important to get the word out to educators and parents that acceleration is an option, and it is an option well worth considering. 

Success Stories

In my time teaching gifted children, I have been a part of acceleration teams in two different schools. We always used the Iowa Acceleration Scale, met with parents multiple times, had very open dialogue with the children in consideration for this academic intervention, and had honest conversations with teachers who would be receiving the accelerated children. I'm proud to say that (to my most up-to-date knowledge) every. single. case has been a success. I experienced the process both as a teacher sending the child up to a new teacher (or teachers) in the grade level above me, as well as a teacher on the receiving end of the acceleration, accepting the accelerated child into my class. Each time, I watched the acceleration play out just as the research has suggested it would. There was usually a period of adjustment in the beginning (going from the big fish/little pond scenario to the little(er) fish in a big(ger) pond),  sometimes the child was reluctant at first to have to work at learning, or disappointed to get scores on assignments or tests that were slightly lower than what they were used to getting. However, it wasn't long before the successes started happening. In each case, not only did the child quickly assimilate to the next grade level up, but they also rose to the top of that class as well. 

Do you have a success story? I would love to hear it! Leave me a comment below and tell me about your experience. 

You may be interested in reading more about people who have experienced the acceleration process. Here are some websites at which you can find more information: 
Whole grade acceleration success stories

Read more about acceleration, including the follow-up publication to A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students, titled A Nation Empowered How Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America's Brightest Students.  This website has all the latest information, including the poster below, which is an awesome summary of their research. 

Thanks for reading!


Brown, R. S. (1993). School acceleration: What does the research say? Scope , 2-9.
Cloud, J., Badowski, C., Rubiner, B., & Scully, S. (2004, September 27). Saving the smart kids. Time , pp. 56-61.
Colangelo, N., & Assouline, S. (2005). Accelerating gifted children. Principal , 62-62.
Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. (2004). A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students. Iowa City: The University of Iowa.
Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., Marron, M., Castellano, J. A., Clinkenbeard, P. R., Rogers, K., et al. (2010). Guidelines for developing an academic acceleration policy. Journal of Advanced Academics , 180-203.
Den-Mo, T. (2007). Differentiating curriculum for gifted students by providing accelerated options. Gifted Education International , 88-97.
Feldhusen, J. F., Proctor, T. B., & Black, K. N. (2002). Guidelines for grade advancement of precocious children. Roeper Review , 169-171.
Gross, M. U. (2006). Exceptionally gifted children: Long-term outcomes of academic acceleration and non-acceleration. Journal for the Education of the Gifted , 404-429.
Guenther, A. (1998). What parents and teachers should know about academic acceleration. National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented . Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., & Enersen, D. L. (2007). Best Practices in Gifted Education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, Inc. .
Vanderkam, L., & Whitmire, R. (2009, August 12). What ever happened to grade skipping? Education Week , pp. 30-36.
Viadero, D. (2004, September 24). Report urges acceleration for gifted students. Education Week , pp. 5-5.



  1. Great thought-provoking post! Our daughter was accelerated and we've never had to look back or second-guess that decision! It was the best solution for her!

    1. Hi Retta,
      So glad to hear another success story! Thanks for reading!

  2. I love all of the characteristics listed to know if your child is ready for acceleration. My mom accelerated past fifth grade and did very well! Thanks for the post.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by! So glad to hear your mom had a successful experience!

  3. I, too, love the list of characteristics... Thank you.


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