Last weekend, my son Ian graduated from high school. He turned 15 five days later. As you might imagine, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents wanting to know the “end result.” Was it a good choice to radically accelerate? How did it work exactly? Do we have any regrets? Was it hard for him? Was it good? What will he do now? Will he finally have time to “just be a kid?”
Radical acceleration is still such an alien concept, that these questions don’t surprise me, and in fact, don’t offend me either (though I will admit that last one can ruffle my feathers if I’m not in a particularly generous mood). And I would rather people ask me than to be afraid of asking “wrong” or insensitive questions. We can’t move forward with individualized education if we’re afraid. And I do so hope that we can move forward for all our children. So I’m going to answer these questions here, and more in the comments if you’d like to pose your own.
First of all, what is “radical acceleration”?
According to the National Association of Gifted Children, “radical acceleration” is defined as “a range of procedures leading to school graduation 3 or more years earlier than usual.” Here’s a link for more info.
Was it a good choice to radically accelerate?
For us, it was the only choice. When your kid is miserable in his age-based grade, and there aren’t any alternative school models available locally, you have to get creative. We tried keeping him in his age-based grade for his first two and half years of school. This was a horrible situation for him; he was bored and restless which led to great personal dissatisfaction and anxiety. My young boy, who was obsessed with learning in preschool, suddenly lost all joy in it. This wasn’t ok. So we accelerated him twice, and when that wasn’t enough, we jumped into our unique brand of hybrid education, in which he learned at home, online, with private tutors, and part-time in the public schools. He ended up jumping up a third grade later on, and could have actually done a fourth if he wanted to – he had the credits. But he felt connected to the peer group he was with, and stuck with the class of 2015.
So was it a good choice? Yes. Because the best anyone can do for their kid is to try to meet their unique needs with love and consistency. And every choice we made we 1) made with him, 2) made with his particular needs and interests at the forefront, and 3) evaluated and changed if it didn’t work. Radical acceleration was a good choice for Ian, because it was made authentically.
How did it work exactly?
Ok: quick sum. Here’s how it all went down.
- Normal preschool, kindergarten, and first grade.
- In the middle of second grade he jumped up to fourth.
- Did fifth grade still as a full-time public school student. None of this was working for him (he hated the worksheets, testing, desk-sitting, and slow pace).
- Sixth grade, we switched to homeschooling. He still took band at the public school.
- Seventh grade: homeschooled with band and Science Olympiad at the public school.
- Eighth: same as seventh, but added a public school science course, which he dropped at the semester – it was still too slow. Started taking private music theory lessons at the local university.
- Skipped ninth grade.
- Tenth: band at the high school, math at the middle school, music theory at the university, science through an online class, and humanities at home.
- Eleventh and Twelfth: full-time student at the public high school. Dropped music theory (his teacher moved away).
Do we have any regrets?
Of course one can’t see two end destinations of a crossroads. But gathering from Ian’s unhappiness in those early years, I imagine if we hadn’t grade-skipped and pulled him out of a traditional school setting, the rest of his childhood would have been more of the same. He would have kept receiving messages to be somebody who he wasn’t – to be still and quiet. To not speak up. To hide his intelligence. I didn’t want that. I wanted him to be who he was – to respect his peers but also himself. To not feel that he had to hide who he was. So no. We don’t have regrets, because in our constant evaluation of our educational path, if something wasn’t working, we changed it. And this dynamic quality kept us from sticking with unhelpful choices.
Was it hard for him?
Yes! Just like it’s hard for every teen in middle and high school. Ian’s particular challenges of course had to do with his age. Teens are very aware of age difference – even a month or two can give a kid a sense of power over his peers. So being three years different (almost four, because he has a late birthday on top of everything) was frankly difficult. And he had unique challenges that come with being a young kid who thinks about existential issues: the finality of humanity and the universe, the nature of violence and injustice, the inability of humanity to clean up after itself and take care of our planet and each other. Holy cow – these things give me ulcers. This is stuff that would weigh anyone down.
So those were his particular challenges. But if I’ve learned one thing from being the parent of a high school student, it’s that every kid feels different from all the rest and uniquely unqualified as a human being. And you know this, because unless you are far cooler than I am (which, I’ll admit, is very possible), you remember how you were terrified of everything when you were a teenager. Your parents mortified you, your clothes never looked right, your best friend suddenly liked somebody else more. Your grades weren’t as good as your friends’ or you didn’t make the sports team you wanted. You were never good enough. This uncertainty is an unfortunate but pretty common experience of transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
And so though yep, it was hard for Ian, it was also hard for his friend who came to terms with and came out as being gay. And for his friend who had experimented with sex and drugs because she didn’t feel she was worth more. And for his friend whose parents divorced, who was Muslim in a Christian world, who didn’t feel like his friends really loved him, who cut herself to make herself feel something – anything – who was so obsessed with accomplishments that he deprived his health and happiness. Everybody has STUFF. And actually, in the context of that list, Ian’s stuff wasn’t so bad.
You also have to turn the tables on that question, because though Ian had to deal with being a preteen in a teen’s world, how hard would it have been for him if he had been forced to stay in his age-grade? If you can’t picture that, then picture putting a 10 year old in 2nd grade, because that is the equivalent scenario. And that would have been much, much harder.
By calling him “gifted” are you giving him a sense of superiority?
Ok – nobody ever asked me this directly, but it’s an implied message when issues of giftedness pop up. And when you’re talking acceleration, you’re talking giftedness. And the answer is no. Being gifted isn’t better. It’s just different. It comes with extreme challenges, ones that most people don’t think of when they think of the word gifted. Gifted means you think differently. Often that means thinking more deeply, and sometimes that means thinking and learning faster. But life and learning is not a race.
You’re not a winner if you’re gifted – you’re simply gifted. Like that kid is athletic, and that kid is musical, and that kid is particularly kind, and that kid is tall, and that one is short, and that one likes to be outside, and that one prefers to be inside. It’s simply one of many traits. I know a lot of gifted kids who haven’t thrived at all – who struggle with depression, distraction, who drop out of school, who always feel like they don’t have peers who understand them. There are bright spots – amazing spots! – to be in the presence of a powerful brain kicking into creative gear. But like all good things, it should be celebrated, not criticized or seen as a threat.
And how in the world could I be so committed to individualization in education and not include this aspect of individuality?
Was it good?
Yes! Despite the challenges, Ian made some wonderful friends in high school whom he will stay connected to throughout his life. He feels a sense of completion to have the diploma, and though he wasn’t always a joiner in school activities, I do believe he will wear his Bismarck High School t-shirt with pride for years to come. The jazz band was his most beloved class, where he was pushed as a musician and made particularly deep friendships.
What will he do now?
Though acceleration has been successful for him through his primary years, we are not in a particular hurry (Ian included) to rush him off to college. Instead he will enjoy three “gap” years at home, pursuing music full-time. We are moving to North Carolina into a musically rich community with studios and listening rooms, tons of musicians, and great opportunities to both learn and perform. Basically it will be like returning to homeschooling, although this time, all the courses will be related to music and skills to support his business and home life. And we’ll learn. Because we love learning. “School” is out, but we are lovers of the world and all its math and science and history and stories. Now we can return to exploring all of this simply for the love of it, and not for a grade. I look forward to that.
Will he finally have time to “just be a kid?”
Yes. Just like he always has. The problem with this question is that it doesn’t account for the fact that all children are unique, and what “just being a kid” means for one child may look entirely different for another. We tend to bring in our adult nostalgia for times that never were, or we are afraid that somehow those times are made invalid by a modern child who simply does childhood differently. You rode bikes and played marbles and ate ice cream, and yes those things are valid, and no that is probably not a complete picture of your childhood. Ian plays in the ways that makes him happy, and sometimes that’s eating ice cream, and sometimes that’s touring as a musician. And yes, those are also valid things, and no, that is also not the complete picture of his childhood. Ian is who he is. He’s a passionate musician, a lover of video gaming, a voracious reader, a good listener, a deep thinker. He’s been that way since he was tiny – this is him being a kid. And he will keep on being that kid, even as he transitions into adulthood.
I hope this inspires you to be as radical with your own children, and to find the courage to meet their unique needs, even if it doesn’t fit in the traditional formula. What does that look like for you? I would love to hear your stories in the comments.
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