09/13/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Head of the Class

As educational philosphies go, it is far better to be at the head of the class than to be the one who is behind.

But is it far better to be ahead of the ones who are behind?

If your child is only struggling marginally, do you switch him to the lower track, or hire a tutor?

If you're child is exceptionally ahead, do you skip her to the next grade?

"I worry about my daughter being labeled, pigeon-holed, being held back by the administration because she's in the lowest track of the grade," confided a friend of mine. Her daughter will be entering a "Transitional Class" in second grade this coming school year.

Another friend confided that she loves that her daughter was in that Transitional Class this past school year because she's getting one-on-one attention in less of a fast-paced environment. "In the other second grade classes, there was one teacher as opposed to two and she literally flew! If you didn't finish your work in the classroom, you were stuck with a ton of homework. It's discouraging for the child who needs more individualized attention and the extra time to get classwork done properly."

In my own elementary school experience, I was placed in the lower track in first through fourth grade and I remember feeling stifled, knowing much more than the rest of the class and anticipating what the teacher was going to say before she said it. I wished that I could skip ahead to the next (a medium) track. When I approached the principal about it, he was a bit of a snob.

"I don't deal with placement. Your math teacher Mrs. __ does. You'll have to take it up with her." (Incidentally, this principal happened to be the same one who played basketball with the students, but only with the popular ones from rich neighborhoods, who just so happened to also be in the higher tracks... I'm just sayin'! Don't get me wrong: This was the 80s and I believe -- or at least hope -- things have changed.)

This was his "easy way out" as obviously, being the principal, he was the one to oversee Mrs. __'s decisions.

From what I've observed, I think schools today recognize students' accomplishments and are less hesitant to promote them to the next level.

Programs like Sinai (based in New Jersey) for special needs students encourage moving many of those students to regular school classrooms when it is determined that they are ready. Most schools that have a track system will follow a student's development and see to it that they are where they should be in time.

Some parents complain that their kids are way ahead of the class and should be moved up, others say that their kids can't keep up with what's expected of them. I think we have to keep in mind that just as much as we'd like our kids to be ahead rather than behind, being with kids that are far behind them can hinder them academically and socially.

"My son sometimes faces resentment because he's way ahead of the other students," says my friend Laura, whose son was in a regular classroom this year without tracks. "It has affected his popularity. Then there are other times when he can't get any of his work done because students are coming up to him to ask questions about the work, while the teacher helps others. I'm thinking of seeing if he can skip a grade, but then I risk his being younger both chronologically and emotionally, and possibly behind the other kids academically. It's a catch-22."

It really is.

Just like my Extra Bold Sumatran Reserve coffee this morning, some things are ideal. On the other hand, a lot of things aren't. You may find that your child is in the perfect class for him or her and you may not. It is crucial to keep the lines of communication open with the effective members of the school administration. Get to know that administration and make sure that they know each and every one of the kids in the school.

(It may be worth seeing who the principal plays basketball with... if you catch my drift.)