When Does the Academic Push Become Too Much?

We’re old enough to remember the academically over-achieving character from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, played by Anthony Michael Hall.  As the various stereotypes spend the Saturday detention together, he responds to the razzing by breaking down about the pressure that he’s under to perform academically and gain the grades.  I’ve seen similar – but less dramatic – scenarios first hand as the local state university permits qualifying high school students to take college level courses; these grades are included in the calculation of the student Grade Point Averages as the courses carry a higher weight than the standard high school class.  The upshot is that there are kids who take the courses knowing that not only can they earn transferrable college credits, but are able to pad the GPA so that they can graduate with a number higher than the previously perfect 4.0 of earlier generations.  Eldest was a student in this category as she took college courses during her junior year of high school.  But is there a point at which the academic push becomes too much and is actually detrimental to the child?

This was the situation faced by several children in Youngest’s elementary school.  Each of the kids had been identified in second grade as having advanced math skills and were accordingly allowed to take math with the class at the next grade level, so that when in third grade, they took fourth grade math and so on.  But the group is now entering sixth grade – the last year of elementary school in our district – and have already completed the elementary school math curriculum; what’s to be done for these kids?  The true sixth graders who are moving on to middle school are required to take a placement test during the spring of their year to ascertain at what level of math they’re to be placed in seventh grade: some will move on to Algebra I while others take the basic Math 7; the majority will wind up in Pre-Algebra.  The school district understood that these kids were in a different category and the decision was made that they should also take the placement test for middle school with the understanding that simply repeating that sixth grade math curriculum wasn’t an option in anybody’s best interest.  If the child scored high enough, then the placement would be made as though they were rising seventh-graders with the option to attend the middle-school for the first period with a bus returning them to elementary school for the remainder of the day.

This arrangement is workable in theory and the parents are appreciative of the district’s efforts to accommodate the kids.  But good intentions run headlong into physical reality in the details of the plan.  The elementary school begins the day at 9 AM and ends at 3:30 PM while the middle school begins at 7:30 and ends at 2:30; asking the sixth graders to attend the first period of middle school means that their school day is effectively 90 minutes longer than anybody else’s.  It might sound like sour grapes but it’s not a fairness issue at all since these kids are all at the edge of puberty, a time when the body’s chemistry generally begins to also alter their sleep schedules so that the body’s natural inclination is to go to sleep later and awaken later.  It doesn’t mean that things won’t work out alright, but the stage is set for a year of crankiness and angst as the kids are propelled into an entirely different – and sometimes unpleasant – world a year earlier than their classmates and doing so on less sleep than they’re probably going to need.  On an aggregate basis, the extra 90 minutes means that they’ll be attending an additional full day of school each week or about 36 days per year.  That’s an additional seven weeks of school.

Because I was familiar with the situation, I spoke independently with my older two kids – Eldest and Middle – who’ve already been through that level and their comments were identical: it’s just not worth it since taking Algebra I a year early isn’t worth the lost sleep.  That was something that I hadn’t considered either; Algebra I was – when I was in school – not something that was even considered until at least the eighth grade.  In our desire to push the kids, at least those who are willing to be pushed, we’ve made more available at an earlier age with the expectations that following this track will challenge the kids and help them play the GPA game, setting themselves up for college and potential scholarships.  It’s an understandable goal but we have to continuously try to balance that against the physical realities of childhood growth and development.

I don’t know how it went for all of the kids, but I do know that the school district has made arrangements for a gifted education instructor to provide a specific Pre-Algebra course at the elementary school for the students in question.  It’s an interim measure but one that’s greatly appreciated, reflective of the lengths to which this particular district will go to accommodate the kids.  It also means that even if the student did qualify for the middle-school Algebra I course, the parents have an additional option that makes their child’s life far more bearable for the coming year.  We want our kids to succeed and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for the great, wide world; but it’s also our responsibility to understand that they’re also still children with the physical parameters of a growing, changing body.

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