Jumping a grade isn't simply about academic talent

School was usually simple for Robin Bennett's oldest daughter. She skated through classes, often bored because the work was too easy. Then classes became hard in high school, and the teenager shut down.

"It made my oldest feel school should always be that easy, so it wasn't worth working for," said the Modesto mother.

When Bennett's youngest daughter showed above-average skills in reading, writing, comprehension and math, the family decided the 6-year-old should have challenges sooner rather than later. Last fall, Mia left kindergarten for first grade at Rose Avenue Elementary School.

"She's small for her age, about a head and a half shorter (than other first-graders), so watching her on the

big-kids playground was a little frightening for all of us," Bennett said. "They key was making sure Mia had a teacher who knew the situation and would help nurture her socially and emotionally."

Skipping a grade — or part of one — can benefit some children intellectually, parents and educators say. But academic acceleration is about more than harder math problems and bigger reading books.

"If a parent is considering skipping a kid and they know he's academically ready, they need to consider the breadth of development of that child," said Brian Leung, professor and director of the School Psychology Program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Skipping grades isn't as common as it once was, Bennett said administrators told her in meetings. She said parents should not consider skipping a grade lightly, and that support from principals and teachers is key.

When a teacher suggested Samantha McCarty's son move from first to second grade, the Modesto mom was confident Luke would do fine. But just in case, Luke sat in on a second-grade class at Muncy Elementary School for a few days.

"A lot of kids don't want to leave their friends, but I wasn't afraid of that with Luke. He's very independent and is excited about learning," McCarty said. Now 8 years old, Luke just finished third grade.

New York Times Magazine blogger Lisa Belkin speculated recently that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan skipped a grade.

"I know this because she is 18 days younger than I am, and yet she was a year ahead of me at our shared alma mater (she was also much smarter, for the record)," Belkin wrote.

And The Washington Post has reported that Supreme Court nominee Kagan graduated from high school early.

Not all children, though, are ready emotionally, physically or verbally to move ahead of their peers, educators say.

Requests often denied

George Olive, an education programs consultant for the California Department of Education, said grade skipping generally happens during the primary years, usually somewhere between second and seventh grade.

"Usually the district is not going to be real supportive of it," he said. "The parents may push for it, not fully realizing what they're asking for. ... More often than not that parent request is going to be denied."

There are less drastic ways to challenge a student academically, such as having the student take math or reading in a higher grade level or enrolling in Gifted and Talented Education classes.

The younger a child, the more egocentric they are, meaning they may want to get their own way and not share or take turns — the kind of behavior that can get a child pummeled on a playground full of older children.

Being a year younger also usually means the child is smaller, and if he or she can't participate in games and sports because of that, there could be social impacts.

"It comes down to looking at the big picture and determining what's in the best interest of the student," said Heidi Dettwiler, an assistant superintendent in the Eureka Union School District, which serves K-8 students in Granite Bay and a portion of Roseville.

Constantly being a year younger also can be wearing when it comes to milestones in a kid's life, said Leung, from Loyola Marymount. They'll go through puberty later than their peers, and be one of the last to get their driver's license.

"I think parents need to be honest and ask themselves, 'Am I skipping this kid for myself or my kid?' " he said. "Parents get a lot of mileage out of saying that their kid skipped a grade."