Article Page

Visitors to this website have full permission to reprint any article in this directory as long as articles are reprinted in their entirety, including any resource box and copyright information.

The Social, Emotional, and Academic Effects of Grade-Skipping on the Gifted and Talented

Copyright © Adam Waxler

When Tanya was in the fourth grade, it was apparent that she learned at a quicker pace than her classmates did.  Together, her family and school decided the best option was to have her skip the fifth grade and go right onto sixth grade, entering middle school one year earlier than many of her friends.  Six years later, Tanya found herself eagerly awaiting her graduation from high school, not so she could go on to the college of her choice, or to start a promising career, but rather so she would never have to go to school again.  At the age of sixteen, Tanya was barely holding on to a “C” average and in retrospect is surprised she graduated at all.  Today, Tanya works as a full-time nanny for two young boys in Amagansett, N.Y.  She plays an active role in both their academic and social lives.  She runs both the “tiger cubs” and the “boy scouts” using education and psychology principles without ever reading a single text on the subject.  She has the undivided attention of, not only the children she takes care of, but also the entire first and third grade at the Amagansett School.  Of all the people I have met in my life, including professors and fellow education students, she would undoubtedly make the best teacher. Unfortunately, at this point, Tanya could not write this paper by the standards set by graduate or even undergraduate work, nor could she pass the class it is being written for, nor would she want to.

When looking back at Tanya’s life one can not help but wonder how such a gifted child could become so disinterested in school and if skipping a grade could have led to social and/or emotional problems that might have been the underlying factor in her antipathy.  Granted, there was probably an assortment of factors that led to Tanya’s aversion towards school and she is just one of many children that have been labeled “gifted and talented”, therefore I am not suggesting, based on this one case, that grade- skipping should be abolished.  However, I believe that the inclusion of gifted and talented students in the general education classroom will reduce the likelihood that social and emotional problems will develop, while at the same time, provide gifted students with a better quality education than grade-skipping.  Through innovative programs such as cluster grouping, compacting curriculum, contracting, differentiated instruction, and integrated curriculum, inclusion gives teachers the opportunity to provide an education for the gifted and talented students that is more elaborate, complex, and in-depth.  An education that is more likely to produce a higher level of cognitive thinking with a more complete development of concepts and principles.

Admittedly, in some cases, accelerating a student to grades above his or her age group may be the only choice, but this should be seen as a last option, saved for when enrichment programs prove unsuccessful.  My reason for this is that I believe there is a greater chance for social and emotional problems to develop when children are advanced ahead of their same-age peers, and more importantly, their life-long friends.  However, while research suggests that gifted students are at a greater risk for developing problems in their peer relations, it seems to indicate that the effects from grade-advancement are either small or trivial (Dauber, 1990; Rogers, 1991).  Unfortunately though, even the experts admit, the research is limited and weak concerning the socialization and psychological effects of grade skipping (Rogers, 1991.  The problem is that many studies group grade skipping with other acceleration programs in which gifted students remain with their age-mates, often times making it difficult to distinguish between the two.  Therefore, we must sometimes “read between the lines” when researching the social and emotional effects of grade skipping.

First of all, there is the labeling.  Pulling students out of their class for gifted education, whether it is for part of the day or in jumping ahead a whole grade, clearly places a stigma on them.  As adults we may see this stigma as positive label, but as adolescents any label that makes them feel different is unwanted.  Labeling a student as “gifted” and then having him or her skip a grade may lead to the student being resented by old classmates and feared by new classmates.  Teachers need to develop ways to identify student’s needs without overt labeling (Tomlinson, 1995).

Another possible problem with grade skipping comes form what James T. Webb (1994) describes as “uneven development”; when motor skills lag behind cognitive abilities.  I am not suggesting that uneven development is a result of grade skipping, but rather that the problems associated with uneven development are exaggerated when a student skips a grade. While grade skipping is an attempt to deal with a student’s superior cognitive ability, it often disregards the physical maturity level of an individual.  With uneven development a child sees in their mind what they want to do, but their motor skills do not allow them to do it, often times leading to intense frustration and even emotional outbursts (Webb, 1994).  If a child is grade-advanced, yet lacks the motor skills of the older group, the difference in physical ability will be even more apparent to both the individual student and his or her peers and frustration can only increase.  Obviously, one can argue that a student with uneven development should not be grade-advanced or if there were a problem in the new grade then the student could always be returned to their original grade.  However, this is easier said then done.  Since I.Q. tests, which are based on nothing more than verbal ability, are still the preferred means in which we label students as “gifted”, it is often difficult to know for certain if there is uneven development (Raebeck, 1998).  As for returning a child back to their original grade, I can only imagine the negative effect this can have.  The realization, not only by the student, but also of everyone else, that he or she has failed to live up to expectations.  Returning a student back to their original grade could have drastic ramifications.  That is why I believe grade skipping should be a last resort, only after all other options have been tried.   However, I must point out, that as schools become more wary of I.Q. testing and become more accepting of alternative means of assessment based on multiple intelligence theory (Gardner, 1995), the process of placing students into gifted and talented programs should become more accurate.  Nevertheless, while placement and labeling may become more accurate, that does not negate the fact there may be social and emotional problems associated with grade skipping.

Another emotional factor that must be addressed is the stress that these students are already under that, again, can only be increased through skipping grades.  Gifted and talented students have a heightened sensitivity to events, ideas, and expectations.  They are constantly striving to live up to the expectations they place on themselves, as well as the expectations of others (Kaplan, 1990). Trying to be the best at everything is extremely stressful.  With every new program or placement these students have questions about achievement and performance and the risk of being mediocre.  This stress is exacerbated when the expectations are unclear and having a child skip a grade is not exactly providing the student with clear expectations.  Is the gifted student placed in a higher grade simply supposed to learn more facts or is he or she supposed to perform higher cognitive tasks?

Gifted and talented students already feel somewhat different then their peers, and taking them out of their grade and creating, what must seem as, a drastic change in their lives, can only add to these uncomfortable feelings.  Separation from long time friends results in loneliness and fewer opportunities to relieve stress and finding a new peer group can be difficult (Kaplan, 1990).  Furthermore, studies show that students who skip a grade are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities (Brody & Benbow, 1987).  Unfortunately, all of this can lead to the student not trying, or failing on purpose in an effort to gain peer acceptance, or much worse, may lead to alcohol and drug use for the same reason.  Other severe problems that may occur are eating disorders and sleep disorders in an effort to gain recognition from their family (Kaplan, 1990).  Even Brody and Benbow (1987), whose in-depth studies of gifted and talented students revealed little social and emotional problems from grade skipping, did indicate one exception.  In their study, those students who skipped a grade were more likely to experiment socially than the gifted students who remained with their age-mates.  Since their study took place in 1978, it is understandable that not much attention was given to social experimentation.  However, in today’s day and age, with AIDS, the increase use of narcotics, and the increase in violence, social experimentation can have drastic effects.

Students that are gifted need to develop social skills just like anyone else.  Skipping grades does not make their social adjustment any easier.  In fact, it is quite the contrary.  That is not to say that gifted students will not experience these social and emotional problems if they remain with their age-mates, but the problems are exaggerated through grade-skipping.  It is easy for adults to think otherwise, but we need to put ourselves in their position and remember that despite their giftedness, they are still children and are still developing emotionally.  “Gifted youngsters are children first and gifted second” (Kaplan, 1990, p.29).

Despite my strong inclination that placing a gifted student with older students is a mistake, much research seems to indicate otherwise.  A survey by Daniel and Cox (1988), of students in the Las Cruces Public Schools showed that students welcomed the opportunity for early entry.  They viewed their years in accelerated classes as productive and challenging.  All of the thirty-seven students in the program said if they had the choice to make over again, they would still choose the accelerated curriculum.  For each of them the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages.

Many educators agree, that while the most common worry amongst parents and teachers are the social and emotional problems associated with a child advancing a grade ahead of their age, that these worries are unwarranted.  Sharon J. Lynch (1996), a proponent of grade-advancement, asserts that if a student is well adjusted socially before being accelerated, they will adjust well after being accelerated.  She claims that the students will form two groups of friends, one group with the older students and one group with the same-age students.  However, I see obvious flaws in this theory.  If the gifted students form two groups of friends, the friendships are bound to be more superficial.  Having more friends does not necessarily lead to deeperfriendships.  The older group may think of the gifted student as physically inferior and may actually be threatened by his or her intelligence.  The group of friends that are the same age may feel resentment. The idea of two groups of friends implies dividing up time between each group.  Decreasing the amount of time spent with the same-age peers, many of whom are life-long friends, can only lead to less meaningful relationships.  Clearly, the more time spent together the deeper the friendship will be.

Furthermore, many gifted and talented students find it strange that the friends they enjoy being with and find perfectly compatible socially are excluded from them academically (Raebeck, 1998).  Barry Raebeck (1998), an educator who was also labeled “gifted and talented” as a child, claims that gifted and talented students find many of their “tracked” peers uninteresting socially and intellectually.  The only thing they have in common is their I.Q. score.

Still, there are many educators who believe in pullout programs and acceleration for students that are gifted and talented.  John F. Feldhusen (1998), author of “Programs for the Gifted Few or Talent Development for the Many?”, suggests that the inclusion movement, whether it be for students with learning disabilities or gifted and talented students, has lead to a “one-size-fits-all” mentality to teaching.  I am shocked that a Professor of Education at Purdue University can make such a statement.  To say that the one-size-fits-all mentality is a result or outgrowth of the inclusion movement is simply ludicrous.  I am not, nor is anyone that is in favor of inclusion, suggesting that one-size-fits-all.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  The inclusion movement has promoted the fact that teachers need to take the responsibility of using different teaching strategies to meet the different learning needs of their students, whether they are learning disabled, gifted and talented, or those who are “non-labeled”.  A one-size-fits-all mentality is an indication of poor teaching and nothing more.  Inclusionists or not, good teachers all agree that, “those whose talents are at levels exceptionally higher than those of their peers should have access to instructional resources and activities that are commensurate with their talents” (Feldhusen, 1998, p.739).  The only difference is the method they think this education should be provided and achieved.

The problem with having students who excel intellectually skip a grade is that they are simply being told to learn more facts.  The idea is not to have gifted and talented students learn more information, but rather to have them engage in higher levels of cognitive thinking.  Joseph S. Renzulli (1998), director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, states that one of the primary purposes of gifted education is to, “increase society’s supply of persons who will help to solve the problems of contemporary civilization by becoming producers of knowledge and art rather than mere consumers of existing information” (p 19).  Gifted education needs to focus on creative productivity rather than “lesson-learning”.  Therefore, gifted education models should focus on how our most able students access and make use of information rather than merely on how they accumulate it.  By keeping students with their same-age peers and implementing innovative teaching strategies, educators have the opportunity to enhance higher cognitive thinking while reducing the risk of social and emotional problems.

Furthermore, if a student is to skip a grade there will undoubtedly be gaps in his or her knowledge.  These gaps make it harder for any student in that they have less information in their memory to draw from when trying to make connections with new material.  Those who believe in grade advancement feel that these gaps can be easily filled (Lynch, 1996), but I find that hard to believe.  Teachers and students will find it substantially more difficult to fill the gap of an entire year of algebra, chemistry, or history, than it would be for them to engage in more productive, complex work in each of those subjects.  Actually, having student’s skip a grade is doing them a disservice.  Having student’s skip an entire year of U.S. History only to learn World History is an insult to their intelligence.  Much more productive would be to have gifted students read biographies for historical insight, or learn to apply the principles of economics, or even to create futuristic societies and tell how they are governed (Gallagher & Gallagher, 1994).  Likewise, the use of multimedia presentations would benefit not only the gifted student, but the rest of the class as well.  The same holds true for all the subjects.  For example, instead of having a gifted student skip a level of science, have him or her work on projects that involve the impact that science has on society, possibly integrating other subjects into the project as well.  We do not want our brightest students bogged down with facts, but instead we want them to learn how to apply those facts to the real world.  The goal of any good teacher for his or her students is lifelong learning, and to be able to apply what they are learning to new and unfamiliar situations.  To have gifted students, or any students for that matter, judge and question what they are learning or form new ideas and judge and question their own ideas is infinitely more exciting for a teacher and more valuable for a student.  By taking students out of their grade and advancing them in order to learn more facts is denying them their right to the best education they can receive.  The emphasis should not be on the grades they are earning, but rather on their understanding and application of what they are learning.

There are many ways gifted and talented students can engage in more productive work while remaining with their same-age peers and while remaining in the general education classroom.  Enrichment programs are one way teachers can achieve the task of actively engaging their students by providing them with information, materials, and assignments that enable them to elaborate on concepts being presented as part of the regular curriculum (Gallagher & Gallagher, 1994).  Through enrichment programs teachers can help gifted students examine the principles that underlie the content being learned by the rest of the class.  For example, after pre-testing gifted students on upcoming material, they can be given a choice of alternative assignments for the material they have already mastered.  Any concepts not yet mastered, the students are required to participate in.  Students excused from lessons are expected to take the unit tests with the rest of the class (Winebrenner, 1992).  It is important to note that such alternative assignments are in lieu of other work instead of additional work, the idea is not to punish, but rather to reward.

There are many other methods of teaching gifted and talented students within the general education classroom and I feel it is necessary to address some of the more significant strategies in order to emphasize the positive impact that teaching these students within the general education classroom can have.  Raebeck (1998) presents a unique idea on the subject that involves enrichment experiences that would be open to anyone based on interest. The program is called Additional Experience Option, or AEO, and is offered during the day or after school or both.  The program would offer high level thinking assignments that were integrated with the regular curriculum.  Since enrollment into the program is based on interest and open to anyone, no one would be hurt through labeling and pullout procedures and everyone has the opportunity to benefit, not just a select few.

Raebeck (1998) also promotes cluster grouping, another innovative strategy that is gaining more popularity among educators.  Cluster grouping is a mix of both acceleration and enrichment in which gifted students are grouped by ability, but within the general education classroom, while the other students are grouped by mixed-ability (Winebrenner 1992).  Cluster grouping acknowledges the many benefits of inclusion, but believes that gifted students benefit more from learning together and therefore, need to be placed with similar students in certain situations (Rogers, 1993).  Cluster grouping allows them to learn together while avoiding permanent grouping arrangements.  Proponents of cluster grouping believe gifted students are more comfortable and are more willing to face challenging tasks when there are other students just like them in the class.  Susan Winebrenner (1992), author of Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom, believes cluster grouping is better than assigning gifted and talented students evenly to all classes because it is extremely difficult to meet the diverse learning needs of all students and extremely difficult to provide adequately for everyone.

However, teachers must meet the diverse learning needs of all their students even if the gifted children are clustered into one group.  By clustering gifted students, it is suggesting to everyone that gifted education is somehow more important, when actually, gifted education benefits all students and should not be reserved for any single group. Therefore, I believe cluster grouping must be done carefully and on a limited basis only.  I am not denying that gifted students need consistent opportunities to learn at their zone of proximal development, but so do all students.  Gifted and talented students can be provided with this education even in mixed-ability groups.  For example, cooperative lessons that are open-ended and require critical thinking or Robert Slavin’s (1995) cooperative system called Student Teams-Achievement Divisions, or STAD.  In the STAD cooperative system students are grouped by mixed-ability and gain points for the group based on a comparison of their own test score to their own individual learning expectation, or ILE (which represents a student’s average level of performance).  This way all the students are competing against themselves and not each other.  Using a balance of cluster grouping by ability and mixed-ability grouping seems to be the best alternative.  Gifted and talented students will be given the opportunity to work together, but not exclusively, while still remaining in the general education classroom.

Other strategies for teaching the gifted and talented in the general education classroom that do not involve grouping of any kind are compacting the curriculum and contracting (Winebrenner, 1992).  Compacting curriculum was touched upon earlier and involves giving gifted students more time with enrichment opportunities once they have demonstrated mastery of new material.  Contracts are written agreements between teachers and students that outline what the student will learn, how they will learn it, in what period of time, and how they will be evaluated.  Contracts allow gifted students to actively engage in the decision making process about how they will be educated (Winebrenner, 1992).  One can not help, but notice the striking similarities that contracting has to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) which states the instructional services for individual students with disabilities.  Visionary leaders such Dr. Rosanne Westagte (1999), head of special education at Southampton Schools, believe one day all students, regardless of ability, will have an IEP.

The final instructional strategy involving teaching gifted children within the general education classroom that I will discuss is differentiated instruction.  Differentiated instruction is simply the use of a variety of teaching and learning strategies, some of which have been mentioned in this paper, so that all students can explore, understand, and demonstrate what they have learned (Tomlinson, 1995).  The differentiated class is designed in such a way that different learners receive different assignments.  It is not just varying the level of difficulty for certain students or grading some students harder than others, and it is certainly not having advanced learners do extra work after completing their “regular” work.  Asking students to do more of what they already know or giving them extra work is counterproductive.  Instead, differentiated instruction suggests that lessons be focused on concepts and principles (Tomlinson, 1995).  In doing so, both struggling learners and advanced learners, can grasp abstract principles.  The differentiated class stresses understanding rather than rote memorization.  In order to achieve this a teacher must use a variety of approaches to teaching.  It is important that teachers continuously provide assessment, not only of student performance, but also of student interest, providing support and adjusting assignments as needed.  Flexible grouping is consistently used with students working alone, in pairs, and in both homogenous groups and mixed-ability groups. Tasks are based on readiness, interest, and learning style (Tomlinson, 1995).  Differentiated instruction takes the constructivist approach that students are active participants in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher works more as a guide.  By having the students work together with the teacher to set their own goals, the students begin to take responsibility for their own work (Tomlinson, 1995).  By using an interest-based approach and having students understand their own learning styles, differentiated instruction gives teachers an opportunity to reach more students, including those who are extremely advanced, while keeping them within the general education classroom.

One cannot help but notice that the advantages of inclusion for gifted and talented students would also be advantageous to all the students.  Many people believe that certain individuals have been born with a “golden chromosome that makes them gifted persons”, but in reality, almost all human abilities can be developed (Renzulli, 1998).  We need to do away with the notion that that “regular” students are incapable of high level thought and complex learning.  By abandoning teaching practices that encourage a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and replacing them with a differentiated approach to teaching, educators have the chance to reach all students and provide an education that produces a more complete development of concepts and principles.  Research indicates that within class grouping produces substantial academic gains provided the instruction is differentiated, while only moderate academic gains were found for grade-skipping (Rogers, 1991).  By combining differentiated instruction with inclusion of gifted and talented students in the general education classroom, we increase academic gains, while at the same time, lower the risk of social and emotional problems that may occur as a result of grade-skipping.

There is a plethora of information on inclusive, enrichment programs and other innovative teaching techniques.  Therefore, I do not favor pulling a student out of their grade and placing them in a higher grade that offers a less substantial education and risks social and emotional damage to the child, unless, of course, these teaching strategies are not being used.  If the proper teaching strategies, that produce higher cognitive skills, are not being used in the general education classroom, then, I agree, keeping a student at their age level will be counter productive.  However, this is unfortunate and is a result of poor and inadequate teaching.  General education teachers should all be able to use a variety of teaching techniques to meet the varying needs of their students.

Intellectually gifted and academically talented students are capable of learning material quickly and deeply.  Those who argue against inclusive, enrichment programs believe that gifted and talented students receive little or no instruction appropriate to their level of learning.  If true, this is a sad and valid problem, but can be overcome with quality teaching.  If we deny students the benefits of inclusion because many teachers are not up to the challenge, and instead favor pullout programs and grade-advancement for the gifted and talented, and pullout programs and grade-demotion for the students with learning disabilities, we have gone right back to tracking our children.  “Tracking” implies all sorts of negative connotations, yet it appears that tracking is still very much alive in our education system, but under the guise of “gifted and talented” and “special education”.  There are too many who argue that if students fall below a certain average then they should be placed in one class with a special teacher, and if students are above average then they should be placed in another class, or another grade altogether, also with a special teacher.  A better alternative would be to have all our teachers special and keep all our students together.

Social and emotional problems for students who are gifted and talented are going to exist with or without grade skipping, but I believe advancing a student based on intellectual ability will only increase the likelihood that these problems will occur.  A survey by Southern and Jones (1989) of students and faculty, experienced in various forms of acceleration, predicted that harm could come to an accelerated young child as a result of his or her social or emotional immaturity.  However, the same survey revealed that harm could come from inadequate academic challenge.  While research seems to be mixed on whether or not grade skipping leads to social and emotional problems, it does seem to indicate only moderate positive academic benefits for grade-skipping.  Through the proper use of inclusion, and by creating a curriculum that is more elaborate, complex, and in-depth, teachers can academically challenge gifted students.  Innovative teaching strategies such as cluster grouping, compacting curriculum, contracting, and differentiated instruction, can increase higher cognitive thinking while at the same time lower the risk of social and emotional problems for gifted and talented students by letting them remain with their same-age peers.


Brody, L.E., & Benbow, C.P. (1987, Summer). Accelerated strategies: How effective are they for the gifted? Gifted Child Quarterly, 31, 105-109.

Daniel, N., & Cox, J. (1988). Flexible pacing for able learners.Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 298 725)

Dauber, S.L. (1990, Winter). Aspects of personality and peer relations of extremely talented adolescents. Gifted Child Quarterly, 34,10-13.

Feldhusen, J.F. (1989, June). Programs for the gifted few or talent development for the many? Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 735-740.

Gallagher, J.J., & Gallagher, S.A. (1994). Teaching the gifted child(4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gardner, H. (1995, November). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan, 200-209.

Kaplan, L.S. (1990). Helping gifted students with stress. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. (ERIC EC Digest #E488)

Lynch, S.J. (1996, August). Should gifted students be grade advanced? Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. (ERIC EC Digest #E526)

Raebeck, B. (1998). Transforming middle schools: A guide to whole school change (2nd ed.). Lancaster: Technomic Publishing Company.

Renzulli, J.S. (1998). The three-ring conception of giftedness.Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Rogers, K. (1991). The relationship of grouping practices to the education of the gifted and talented learner: An executive summary.Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Rogers, K. (1993). Grouping the gifted and talented. Roeper Review, 16, 8-12.

Slavin, R.E. (1995) Cooperative learning (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Southern, W.T., & Jones, E.D. (1989, Winter). Practitioner objections to the academic acceleration of gifted children. Gifted Child Quarterly, 33, 29-35.

Tomlinson, C. (1995). Deciding to differentiate instruction in middle school. Gifted Child Quarterly, 39, 77-87.

Webb, J.T. (1994). Nurturing social-emotional development of gifted children. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. (ERIC EC Digest #E527)

Westgate, R. (1999). EDUC 660: Teaching the Exceptional Student. Southampton, NY: Long Island University, Southampton Campus.

Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Adam Waxler is a middle school social studies teacher, teacher mentor, and the author of eTeach: A Teacher Resource for Learning the Strategies of Master Teachers. Adam is also the editor and publisher of The Teaching Teacher’s Newsletter. For more information about his ebook or to sign up for your free monthly newsletter log onto: