In all of my years as an educator and school administrator, one of the most consistent conversations I have had with parents, particularly those from a South Asian background, is about challenging their kids. In almost every case, parents wanted to find ways to help their children advance beyond what was being presented, usually because the parent felt that their children were able to do more. These are conversations that I still enjoy having with parents because I believe that children will rise to the level of expectations that are set and it is important to continue to raise the bar and keep them working hard.
That said, it is equally important to ensure that children are getting a balanced experience overall, and that challenge in one area is not happening at the expense of another. Much like working out, we try to achieve balance. While we may have parts of our body that are stronger than others, we don’t want to have over developed arms but no leg muscles to stand on. Additionally, it can be concerning when parents are asking for additional challenge before a student shows readiness or desire for more. This situation can be a sticky one—I have had numerous parents say to me that their child is not performing because things are too easy and she is making silly mistakes because she is not being challenged. On the other hand, it is difficult to justify providing more when a student is already struggling to keep up with what is being presented. In these situations, it is important to involve the student in the discussion to determine if they can commit to working harder or if more challenge would be too difficult and compromise performance.
In school, there two primary strategies that can be used: advancement (offering content above the current level, typically given to older children) and widening (offering content and experiences, like problem solving or alternative assignments, that allow students to apply and critically think about what they have learned.) Content area, as well as the age of a student, impacts how one uses these strategies and they often are used together. Elementary students are typically taught all subjects by one teacher while middle and high school students usually have different teachers for different subjects, making their schedules more flexible for advancement. Many middle and high schools also offer honors level courses in certain subjects as an option.
When it comes to math, advancement may be a good solution if a student demonstrates strong knowledge and the ability to apply information. Math is taught in a linear fashion and for the most part, skills build upon themselves, particularly before Algebra. After Algebra, the skills become more sophisticated and application becomes more important so students must truly demonstrate deep knowledge in order to have continued success, all of which requires high degree of widening through problem solving.
When it comes to other subject areas, particularly those that involve reading and writing, widening can be a preferred strategy as simple advancement may not offer enough and may not be developmentally appropriate. Children learn to decode very quickly and can ‘read’ pretty much anything that is in front of them. However, comprehension, the more important skill, is much more challenging, as is communicating their original thoughts through their own writing. Much of their critical thinking skills develop through experiences over time, something that cannot be rushed.
One extreme form of advancement that I often hear parents seeking out is skipping grades. I know that we are inundated with glorified stories of 12-year-olds going to college, and in our community, we seem to equate fast with smart, but is that the true reality? Does someone guarantee themselves success and happiness by finishing first or reaching milestones ahead of time? I implore parents to think very carefully before pursuing this option. Skipping a grade is big risk and many of the effects do not show themselves until much later in a person’s life. A student who skips kindergarten or 2ndgrade may be fine interacting with peers who are one to two years older initially, but as students age, that can feel like a much bigger gap, particularly as students begin middle school when developmentally, they are experiencing many changes. The gap continues to grow as they enter high school and the level of maturity and sophistication increase. Being 16 or 17 and on a college campus is a lot to manage, a fact that some colleges take into consideration during the admission process. In talking to people who skipped a grade, many of whom are adults now, I hear some say that they felt alone and isolated, not understanding how to relate to their peers and having few opportunities to interact with others their own age. It is not an option to be taken lightly and requires strong communication and involvement by parents, teachers and school administration. The same can be said for parents who push their children to finish college quickly. What is the rush? They have their whole lives to work; college is an experience that develops a student into the person that they will be. While it makes sense to be resourceful and prudent, particularly due to the cost of higher education, it is also important to use that precious period of life to grow, develop and mature as a human.
When considering whether your children are being challenged enough, try objectively observing them for a period of one to two weeks to gauge the level of rigor that they’re experiencing and to see if they are ready for more. Take a look at their work from school, watch while they do their homework, look ahead at what is to come in the next weeks and months and ask questions about how they are doing, both in classes and in general. Have a good sense of where your child is, how challenged they currently feel and what their overall school experience is like. They may be seeking challenges in other areas like sports or performing arts, so additional academic challenges may be overwhelming. As a family, you can work together to set priorities and determine what challenges are most beneficial to your child’s development and future goals.
If you feel as though you want to approach your child’s school about providing more opportunities for challenge, schedule a conversation with your child’s teacher. You can describe your goals of helping your child meet their potential and say that you would like to work with the teacher to provide more challenge. This type of approach puts the focus on the student and their potential and enlists the teacher’s help as a partner. It may help if your child is also part of the meeting (if it makes sense) or consulted ahead of time. Meeting student needs is a joint venture between students, teachers and parents, requiring everyone’s participation. You can share your observations and be open to their ideas.
Do not say that your child is bored—that kind of statement can make a teacher feel attacked or blamed and puts them on the defensive. We as adults sometimes project that feeling upon them, but in reality, kids are never bored because they always find something to fill their mind. What they choose to do may not always be positive and productive, but trust me…they aren’t bored.
Additionally, look into out-of-school opportunities for students to be challenged. As you evaluate those options, ensure that there is a match between what they offer and what your child needs. There are straight academic classes, but there are also problem-solving competitions and opportunities to perform on stage. One can never go wrong by prioritizing widening, comprehension and developing creativity as these skills continue to help students as they progress in school and in life.