Making the Choice to Skip a Grade: How It Turned Out for One Kid

girl raising hand in classThe year I turned 16 was a big one. I got my driver's license. I got in my first car accident. I dated my first boyfriend. I broke up with my first boyfriend. I started dating the man who would become my husband. And I graduated from high school. The latter is something I don't often talk about. What do you think when you hear "graduated from high school at 16 years old?" Dork? Nerd? Super geek? I've heard it all in the years since I skipped the second grade.

But looking back on a childhood of always being the youngest kid in the class, of always being the smart kid who skipped a grade, I wouldn't change a thing.

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You don't meet a lot of people like me anymore. Not in a day when 11 percent of kindergartners have a delayed start. Red-shirting, a term stolen from sports, has become de rigueur for parents who are hoping to give their kids a competitive edge by keeping them home for an extra year to help them mature.

I grew up in the 1980s -- well before red-shirting -- but still, pushing a child ahead a year was not a common practice, particularly in a small school district. The fight to make my jump from first grade to third was one that many in the educational community remember to this day. Since I moved back to my small town post 9/11, I've become the woman parents refer to when skipping a grade is bandied about, the woman they turn to to ask, "should I skip my kid?"

My answer?

It depends. Are you ready to support your kid now for long-term success? Can you handle some tough times for rewards down the road? Can your child?

I'm honest with parents. It's not easy being the kid who skipped a grade. At times I carried the "smart kid" label around my neck like an albatross.

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It didn't help that I have a big mouth, and I was unable to sit on my hands and not answer questions. I often wonder if things would have been different if I was shy, uneasy about putting my two cents in on everything. Would the kids have been more welcoming to this interloper? Treated me more like a new kid, and less like that little kid who just ignored protocol and jumped up the ranks?

Would it have been better if, as a fourth grader, I'd kept my mouth shut when a couple kissed onscreen during a film about the American Revolution, rather than let loose the, "Ewwww" expected from an 8-year-old girl?

Those were the tough years. Third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth. I had friends. But I got a bra later, was OK'd to watch "naughty" movies later, was playing with dolls longer. I was never quite like them, always the little kid.

There isn't much science on the effect skipping a grade can have on kids because it happens so rarely, but scientists studying babies born in the summer have noted they tend to struggle in school because they're often the youngest in their classes, making them targets for bullies. My birth month wasn't the problem here, but I encountered much the same issues as an August-born kid in a school with a September 1 cut-off. My classmates were often more mature than I was because they'd had time to get that way, and it marked me as "different."

But the scientists who have studied summer-borns have noted that the age gap issue lessens as kids get older, and it did for me as well.

It was in the seventh grade when I was pushed -- again -- into a program that would put me ahead a year (for those keeping track, I was essentially two years past my age group), when I really hit my stride. In a small class of just eight kids taking both seventh and eighth grade courses, so that we would be ready to tackle ninth grade the next year, I found my place. We were all smart. Advanced. Different.

In a year, everything changed.

I bonded with the "different" kids, the kids I'd spend much of my time with for the remainder of high school. Because of the structuring of the special program I was in -- by the end of seventh grade, we'd completed two years worth of coursework and began to work one year ahead -- I was put into classes with a lot of students who were two full years ahead of me, and I made a lot of friends. By the time I was 15, the bulk of my friends were high school seniors and I, a junior, was facing an option to hop ahead yet another year, to graduate early.

I was tempted. Graduating at 15 was something special, something I could dine out on forever. It was an accomplishment that none of my elementary school critics could take from me.

But I didn't even have my driver's license, couldn't even get it in my state. I knew I wasn't ready to leave home just yet and go to college. I stayed in high school one more year, taking college courses and pursuing a school-to-work internship that would thrust me into journalism and change the course of my life. At the end of that year, I was ready to graduate, ready to leave home, ready to make my own decisions about who I would be.

More From The Stir: Why Starting Kindergarten Early Is a Good Idea

I won't deny that in skipping a grade I was forced to grow up faster than my peers. Being with older kids day in and day out forced me to give up on the vestiges of childhood at a younger age. I did many things I probably wasn't prepared to do simply to fit in.

At times, the pressure of keeping up good grades and being a success was so immense that I couldn't keep up. I spent a good portion of my teenage years bingeing and purging in a battle with bulimia that I will likely never fully kick.

So why don't I tell parents a flat out no, don't skip your kid?

Because being the kid who skipped a grade was one of the best things that ever happened to me

It empowered me. It made me realize that I could handle not just the more advanced coursework but constantly being a fish out of water. It forced me to work hard -- much harder than I was working as a first grader to whom everything came naturally -- and to actually earn my good grades. It made me a fighter who could roll with the punches.

So if you have a child who is sailing along in school, a child who could really use a challenge, and you're considering whether it's wise to let them skip a grade, I say know what you -- and they -- are in for, but don't be afraid. Your kid might surprise you.

How do you feel about red-shirting kids or pushing them ahead a grade?

 

Image © iStock.com/gilaxia

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