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Gifted Ed. Students Are More Than Just Really Smart Kids

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Just this week, a teacher came to me to get advice about how to help a gifted student who is failing her class. Another teacher wanted suggestions about a behavioral plan for an out-of-control student who is gifted. “What do I do about a gifted student who won’t write?” asked a coworker.

True teacher concerns about meeting the needs of a special, but often misunderstood, group of students. Let’s be honest. Most of the discussion about gifted education revolves around identification and under representation issues. While these concerns are discussed and debated over and over again, the needs of the 3 million gifted students right in front of us are put on the back-burner. It’s time we started putting an added emphasis on meeting the unique needs of the current gifted population.

My experience teaching an enrichment program for students identified as gifted has given me important insight into gifted students and gifted programs. While policymakers and theorists ponder the future of gifted education, I strongly believe teachers could better serve gifted students now by following these recommendations.

Recognize That Gifted Students Are Exceptional-Education Students

For years, there have been debates about how to foster the development of gifted children. These controversial issues include skipping grades, creating full-time gifted programs, or employing pull-out enrichment programs. The truth is all service models have advantages and disadvantages. What I’ve learned is that teachers’ assumptions about gifted students are more important than a particular structure for teaching them. Unfortunately, many teachers who do not receive training about teaching gifted students believe gifted students are simply really smart kids. On behalf of teachers who teach gifted programs and parents with gifted students, I will say this is perhaps the most exasperating belief a person can have about this complex group of students. Last year, a parent of gifted children wrote a blog post that gets to the heart of this issue.

If you want gifted kids to be successful, you must believe that gifted education is exceptional education. Many teachers do extraordinary things to help students with learning disabilities be successful. However, when it comes to students who are gifted, some teachers are inflexible and resentful of the behaviors characteristic of being gifted. Not a week goes by when one of my students’ regular education teachers doesn't give me an earful about my students’ lack of organizational skills, continuous questioning of authority, or underachievement. I do understand their frustrations; however, these behaviors are actually characteristics of gifted children. Can you imagine teachers berating children with disabilities because of their characteristics? While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus on gifted students in the same way we focus on those with disabilities, it really makes sense.

Gifted kids have a host of complicated issues, including overexcitability, asynchronous development, heightened emotional sensitivity, and perfectionism. These issues need special attention and care. Simply put, gifted students have exceptional needs with their exceptional gifts. Treating gifted students as exceptional-education students goes a long way towards meeting their needs. In all honesty, simply remembering they are exceptional-education students can make your days with this difficult population more pleasant.

I know I would not have lasted this long in gifted education if I did not believe this. I once taught a student, Ethan, who was not only one of the brightest kids I ever worked with, but the most obstinate student one can imagine. Each week was a struggle. Intellectually, he was a precious gem, but behaviorally, he was a thorn bush! This student would opt himself out of any group work, crumble up papers, and talk incessantly. Eventually I made it a point to treat every interaction with this student from an exceptional-education perspective. I modified his assignments and used an individualized discipline plan with him. I am thrilled to say this shift enabled me to help this student flourish, as well as decrease my blood pressure.

Nurture Their Gifts

Gifted students do not excel in everything. Some seemingly excel at nothing. In today’s high-stakes education system, we over-focus on bringing students up to proficiency levels in math and language arts. Yes, these are important goals, but we need to start taking a broader perspective. Not every kid is going to be a rocket scientist or an English professor; however, they all will be citizens. Students who are gifted have the abilities to do extraordinary things in their talent areas—things that few other students may be capable of doing.

We owe it to our students and our society to uncover students’ gifts and nourish them. If a student has an outstanding ability as an actor but is terrible at math, then we should focus much more on acting than math. Wouldn’t you rather have a great actor than a mediocre engineer? In other words, much of our academic focus in gifted education should be on providing students with resources and support so they can become the best they possibly can be within their gifted areas.

I make it a point to find my students’ gifts. Sometimes it’s obvious; other times I need to actively search for them and stay opened-minded. I couldn’t quite grasp where Ethan’s gifted ability lay. Many gifted students are talkative, but he never stopped talking. Finally, it dawned on me that speaking was his gift. Instead of trying to squelch it, I channeled it. I was able to nurture his gift through vocabulary activities, literature circles, presentations, and group work.

Plug Them In

I teach gifted students who score at top levels on standardized tests. I teach gifted students who score at the bottom levels. Some are clumsy; some are terrific athletes. A few are great artists, and a few think crayons are like kryptonite. Many feel like they fit in nowhere. I know I truly cannot meet all their needs in my classroom. Instead, I try to plug them into an area that will give them a challenge, fulfillment, a sense of belonging, and excitement. When children have these opportunities in life, they are more likely to “grin and bear it” when asked to do something they find adverse. And they will let you know if something is adverse to them. Don’t the aspects that you love about teaching help you push through those that you don’t?

I have seen significant academic, social, and behavioral results when gifted students find their niche, and so will you. Aubrey was a painfully shy and quiet student in my class, which sometimes prevented her from reaching her goals. This all changed when she got plugged into an Odyssey of the Mind program. She found a place to express her creativity and quirky sense of humor in the club, which helped her open up in my class. Teachers should encourage students who are gifted to take courses they think might be a good fit, join after school clubs, participate in sports and weekend STEM programs, act at the theater, and enter art competitions. In addition, this a great opportunity to partner with parents. We should seek their input about programs in the community. I frequently use my email distribution lists as a means to share opportunities I learn about from parents, and I recommend you do the same.

Use the 4 C’s in Lesson Plans

One of the issues students who are gifted deal with is multi-potentiality. This means they can excel at several things and have difficulty choosing one on which to focus. My elementary gifted students have a multitude of academic and personal interests. One week they may want to be magicians or cartoonists, and the next week they want to be archaeologists or mathematicians. Even adults who are gifted are known to be “career switchers.” When students’ interests vary so much, teachers can’t modify the curriculum quickly or deeply enough to keep pace. The most important thing we can do is to provide them with the skills that will be valuable, regardless of what they eventually pursue.

In our 21st-century economy, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, or the 4 C’s, are considered to be the most valuable skills we can teach students. Much like a gifted student’s interest, our schools can’t keep pace with the ever-changing needs of our workplaces. It has often been noted that most of the jobs that will be available to our students haven’t even been thought of yet. Teachers need to ensure gifted students are proficient in the 4 C’s by providing opportunities to practice these skills in all curriculum areas. We need to ensure that most of our lessons include the 4 C’s as essential elements. Additionally, using these skills as a framework for differentiated instruction is an excellent strategy. One means I use to differentiate for my high fliers in math is to have them collaborate to create additional challenging problems to the ones they first complete independently. This way, I am reinforcing important math concepts while focusing on the higher-order thinking skills necessary for the 4 C’s.

In the end, the most important thing a teacher can do for gifted students is to add value to their lives and education. Teachers should appreciate them for who they are and find a way to nurture their gifts.

What are some more ways you are adding value to the lives of your gifted students?

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