The Plight of the Gifted

Many see gifted children as fortunate and likely to do fine in school regardless of instruction.  This attitude presumes that gifted children will learn on their own (and they will) and that they'll master the content and get good grades.  But it does not take into account the reality for many gifted children that school can be hopelessly boring and disappointing.  All children should learn new things at school:  new skills and new content.

  • Every child has a right to learn new things at school every day.
  • Every child has a right to work with students who stimulate her to think harder.
  • Every child has a right to be intellectually safe at school.
  • Every child has a right to be able to demonstrate what she already knows and what she needs to learn.
If day after day, your child learns nothing new, it's time for some parent-teacher work.  This goes not only for those gifted in the core academic subjects, but gifted music, art or kinesthetic students as well.  I'll use academic examples however as they comprise the bulk of a child's school day.

Academic Issues

If your child entered school able to read, add, subtract and multiply large numbers, organize science concepts or similar, it's not okay for the child to be told that the curriculum is letter recognition and 2+2 this year and that maybe next year or the year after, the class will be learning what she is ready to do now.  Imagine how you would explain to your child that she has to wait 2 years to learn anything new at school!  Absurd.

Instead, the teacher may have noticed that she could use more practice in penmanship or paying attention or any number of things that justify continuing to pursue the regular curriculum with her.  Or the teacher may praise the child as a helper and tutor for others.  The school may offer enrichment experiences periodically for gifted students.  These are terrific but do not address the primary issue:  what is the gifted child doing during her 6 hours at school every day?  This is where the understanding but assertive parent needs to get involved.

What you can do

As a parent, become familiar with the laws about talented and gifted education in your state and policies in your district.  You can access Oregon's FAQ here and laws here and California's here.  Don't use the law as a hammer but rather as a help.  Let teachers and administrators know you'd like to help.  In Oregon, the key ideas are ASSESSMENT, RATE and LEVEL.

Make sure your child is assessed in the areas you believe she is gifted.  Discuss the specifics with the teacher.  Discuss the appropriate level of instruction for your child.  If she knows something already, she can briefly practice or reinforce that skill but should quickly move on to new material.  Discuss rate of instruction.  When something new is presented, is there appropriate pacing?  Or is she only given a "gifted activity" once a week or once a month?

Is she grouped with other gifted students and given more challenging work, not more work?  Gifted students benefit from homogeneous grouping.  They can also be in mixed groups for some activities but when with their intellectual peers, students stimulate and reinforce each other.  No gifted child deserves to be given more work however.  "She can do the new stuff when she finishes the regular stuff" is inappropriate.

Pre-testing is probably the key concept for gifted students in the regular classroom.  If before each unit, the teacher gives a simple (perhaps 10 item) test to all students to determine what they already know, all students benefit.  Gifted students who don't know the material need to learn it.  Regular students get a preview of what's to come and an opportunity to prove what they know and earn the right to do different work.  Gifted students who do know the material (80% is typical) are exempted from the regular instruction and assignments and offered a deeper investigation or more advanced concept.  Susan Winebrenner has wonderful tools for teachers in her easy to use book, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom.

Work with the teacher to set learning goals for your child:  monthly, term and annual goals.  Let the teacher lead if he's willing but ensure that the goals will mean genuine new learning.  Ask during conferences for updates on the goals.

Be prepared to assess your child's assignments based on Bloom's Taxonomy.  The levels of Cognitive activity are:  Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.  Depending on ability, gifted students over the age of 8 should spend half of their time doing Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.  Younger gifted students may not be ready for those processes but may need more Application and Comprehension.

Social Issues

Often the loneliest child in class is the gifted child.  Her interests do not coincide with her age group.  Her vocabulary is richer and she may be teased for being smart or eager to learn.  If she is seen as showing off, she will be ostracized.  The gifted child who generally meets acceptance is the gifted boy who is also athletic.

It is still not intellectually safe to act smart.  It is up to the teacher to ensure that the classroom climate is supportive of academic success as well as academic struggle.  Ultimately though, bringing a cluster grouping of gifted children together in the classroom is the solution to this problem.  The gifted child needs a soulmate or two.  For the profoundly gifted child however, this will still be insufficient.  The child who is one in a thousand will be treated to no others like herself.

As a parent, use the time away from school to connect your child with groups that transcend age and bring children with common interests together.  This is where the enrichment activities -- Brain Bowl, Odyssey of the Mind, Writing Workshops, Mock Trial, Math Teams, Destination Imagination -- can be helpful.  They don't replace appropriate instruction but they do bring gifted children together.  Locate or organize a Chess Club, a Scavenger Hunt or other activities that meet her interests.

Many gifted children enjoy time with adults more than with children their own age.  Keep in mind that interacting with people of diverse ages is a far more normal practice than only with those born the same year you were.  Age grouping is painful for gifted children.  If she is appropriate in her interactions with those she prefers to be around, don't fret that she's socially retarded.

Your gifted child also would benefit from knowing that there are many ways people can be gifted or talented.  Teach her to respect musical talent as much as mathematical talent, kinesthetic abilities as much as verbal ones, mechanical gifts alongside interpersonal ones.  Most of us have areas of talent and areas where others surpass us.  She needs to notice that and develop respect for all of the different talents others possess.