Do Abilities "Even Out" in Third Grade?

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One of the obstacles parents of gifted children encounter when trying to get more appropriate learning materials and instruction for their children in school is the argument that “everything evens out by third grade.” They are told that although their children are advanced in kindergarten or first grade, by third grade the other children will have caught up, but is that true?

What's All the Fuss About?

The answer to the question is important because it can determine the way parents raise their children. Perhaps more importantly, it can determine whether a gifted child receives an appropriate education. So what is the answer? Do abilities even out in third grade?


There are two reasons that the answer to the question is “yes.”

Ability Is Equated With Knowledge and Achievement

Many parents today have gotten caught up in the “superbaby” syndrome and believe the earlier their child learns to read, play the violin, etc., the more advantages the child will have in school and in life. Lessons begin early for these children, with parents often using flashcards with their infants. Some parents don’t even wait until their child is born to start the teaching process; they begin by talking to the fetus through a “pregaphone.”

Even parents who aren’t trying to create a super baby, but are simply trying to give their children a “leg up” when they start school, may look for preschools to teach their children material and skills that will be taught in kindergarten or even first grade, such as reading. Or they may teach their preschooler themselves at home.

Children who are “hothoused” this way often lose any advantages their early instruction may have given them. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that such early learning has any long-lasting educational advantage. In other words, the other children catch up and “everything evens out.”

The Children Involved Are Average, or Non-Gifted, Children

Average children who are formally taught skills and information before they begin school may have an initial advantage over average children who have not received such instruction, but a child with average abilities is not going to become gifted as a result of formal early instruction, and unless that child continues to receive advanced instruction, early advantages will be lost.

The obvious solution is to continue providing advanced instruction, but that won’t work for most average children. A child’s brain is either developed sufficiently to allow the child to grasp some concepts or it’s not. A child can learn to memorize math facts in preschool, but that doesn’t mean that he or she will be able to understand algebra in third grade.


There are two reasons that the answer to the question is “no.”

Ability Is Not the Same as Knowledge and Achievement 

Parents of gifted children can get just as caught up in the “superbaby” syndrome as parents of non-gifted children can. However, in most cases, gifted children practically teach themselves or beg their parents for information and instruction. Gifted children may come to school knowing more than their age mates or they may not. It depends in part on their home environment, on whether or not they have opportunities that allow them to learn and nurture their abilities. Some gifted children come to school already knowing how to read; others learn to read when their age mates learn. Once they learn, however, they learn quickly, as they do with most things they are taught.

The ability gifted children have to learn and understand more advanced concepts than their age mates is a characteristic of their giftedness. They do not lose that ability to learn the more advanced material or to learn it more quickly than other children. A gifted child who at age four knows how to add and subtract will have little trouble learning how to multiply long before third grade when it is usually taught.

Gifted Children Are Cognitively Advanced​

The advanced cognitive development of gifted children enables them to learn and understand more advanced and complex material than their non-gifted age mates. The advantages come from the advanced ability, not the instruction. As long as they continue to receive material and instruction that is appropriate for their intellectual level, they will retain any academic advantages they have over their non-gifted age mates. Even if they don't get appropriate instruction, they will not suddenly become children with only average abilities.

Where It Stands

Although it seems clear that gifted children should continue to have advantages over non-gifted children, in terms of academics that is not always true. Gifted children who are not challenged appropriately in their first years of school may "turn off" and "tune out." That is, they lose interest in learning and can become underachievers. This loss of interest in school tends to happen at around third grade, the same time that "hothouse children" start to lose their advantages over other children, when other children start to catch up.

Bored and disinterested gifted children are then lumped together with those hothoused children who have lost their academic advantage and educators then believe that "everything has evened out." This is one of the reasons many gifted programs in schools do not begin until third or fourth grade. The students who continue to achieve are seen to be the truly gifted children, those needing supplemental or special instruction.

Schools often shy away from identifying children as gifted for fear that they will later have to tell the child he or she isn't really gifted after all. They want to wait until "everything evens out" and they can see who is left at the top of the academic achieving ladder.

The problem with this approach is that for many gifted children the first years in school can be critical to their later success. This is especially true for intrinsically motivated children, those who are motivated to learn for the love of learning, not for the reward of good grades.

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