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Tips for Teaching Gifted Students

Five strategies to meet the needs of students who are brilliant, but bored.

By Caralee Adams
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

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• Creative Kids
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• Khan Academy
Let students dig deeper into concepts with the help of Khan Academy’s online, and completely free, tutorials.

• Made With Code
Designed for middle school girls and older, Made With Code introduces students to the world of coding and programming. (Code.org has tutorials for all ages.)

As Katy Kennedy was planning a unit on astronomy with her fourth graders at Harper Elementary School in suburban Chicago, she knew one of her students almost could have taught the lesson himself.

“His area of intelligence was science. He knew everything already,” recalls Kennedy, who works in Wilmette Public Schools, which disbanded its gifted program 20 years ago.

Kennedy let the student research a related topic and share his findings with the class. He investigated black holes and created a three-minute video—a good option, since he falls on the autism spectrum and struggled with talking in front of a group. “He was extremely passionate about it,” Kennedy says. “He got into this professor mode and voice. He was in the zone of teaching.”

Six to 10 percent of K–12 students in the U.S. are classified as academically gifted, according to the National Association for Gifted Children, and many teachers, like Kennedy, are looking for creative and meaningful ways to challenge these students—often with limited resources and training. (While federal funding was renewed this year, just a fraction of the education budget goes to gifted programs: $5 million in 2014 and $10 million in 2015.)

People assume these kids will get by, says Susan Winebrenner, a former teacher and author of Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom. But they can check out or act out if they get bored. And without a challenge, some gifted students don’t learn how to work through difficult material until college, when they can hit a wall.

How can you meet the needs of gifted learners? Tune in to their individual needs, do frequent assessments, and differentiate instruction, experts say. This means not just giving them “more of the same,” but designing work that has more rigor and depth, says Diane Heacox, an education professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Read on for five winning ways to challenge gifted learners—and all ­students—in your classroom!

1 | Build community before differentiating. To meet the needs of various learners, use flexible groupings, says Krissy Venosdale, an innovation coordinator at the Kinkaid School in Houston. But first, create a sense of community through daily class meetings or quick team-building games. “It breaks down the idea that ‘I’m better
or smarter,’ and the kids start to celebrate one another,” she says.

Eric Carbaugh, who taught a sixth-grade gifted class and was a differentiation and curriculum coach before becoming a professor of education at James Madison University in Virginia, suggests talking about differences. He likes a shoe-swapping exercise to illustrate the range of students’ physical differences before discussing learning differences. Some students may be gifted in math and others may excel in the creative arts, Carbaugh says. Then there are kids who may have a learning disability but advanced language skills. Stay clear of labels and adjust groups for various lessons.

2 | Assess often. Kennedy does frequent “short and sweet” pre-assessments by giving kids a few problems or an entrance card. After checking their knowledge levels, they are sorted and grouped. While it takes time up front, the result is more targeted and meaningful instruction, she says.

Winebrenner suggests teachers start by presenting the most difficult concept first to allow advanced learners the chance to move on to deeper content. If a student understands the most challenging part of a lesson, there’s no need for them to learn the easier concepts that lead up to it.

“The language the teacher uses is critical,” she explains. “The teacher says, ‘I’m going to offer an opportunity for you to show me you already know the material. Anybody can try.’” Once those who have mastered the content are identified, the trick is to have something ready for them to do that will present them with a true challenge, she says.
For instance, if students have shown they understand area and perimeter in math, look for a real-life problem in the school, such as a playground renovation. Allow students to apply their knowledge and create a plan for the new playground, Venosdale suggests. “Suddenly, a simple concept is a real-world experience,” she says.

3 | Let students take charge of their learning. Using information gathered from a student’s pretest, the curriculum can be compacted for advanced learners. Winebrenner suggests meeting with these students to discuss a “learning contract” that will allow them to work through a chapter more independently and that will offer related extension activities.

“[Our relationship is] very interactive,” says Deedy Payne, a gifted math and reading teacher who until this year taught at Fireside Elementary in Phoenix. “They give me suggestions on things they think would work for what we are learning.” Students feel they are in charge of their own education.

Kids can also help develop a project’s scoring rubric, a process that can lead them to understand the effort required, Winebrenner says.

4 | Honor interests and allow for exploration. A gifted learner’s brain processes information rapidly, and he or she often thinks in more sophisticated, abstract ways. For this reason, Venosdale has found gifted students thrive with assignments that let them explore topics of interest in new ways. “Kids need to be challenged at their level to feel valued,” she says.

To engage gifted middle school students, educator Jeffrey Shoemaker says teachers need to find something meaningful with a “wow” factor. Authentic, hands-on projects are the draw for his students, who opt in to his pullout program at Ohio’s Lima West Middle School for one five-hour block each week. In a general classroom, Shoemaker says teachers can let gifted students research a new angle of a class topic. For instance, last spring, when eighth graders were learning about the Civil War, some gifted students who already had a basic knowledge of the battles researched the ways in which soldiers died. They explored injuries and medical treatment, and they learned about everything from amputation to infections.

“It was a cool project. The kids loved it,” Shoemaker says. “It [countered] the idea that history is boring. It was gory and totally different.”

5 | Involve parents. Parents can be powerful partners, and they are often vocal advocates. Angie French, a K–6 gifted and talented specialist at Timber Creek Elementary in Magnolia, Texas, says parents need to be informed about the resources the district and teachers have and be encouraged to work with their child’s teachers on enrichment projects.

Sometimes parents have insights that can help teachers. For instance, gifted children may seem focused in class but come home and tell parents they are bored, French says.

“There are multiple sides to these kids,” she says. “Girls might try to blend in because they don’t want to
be singled out as intelligent, and then go home and burst into tears.”

Although a teacher may have adjusted the curriculum for a gifted child, that’s not always visible to parents, says Dina Brulles, director of gifted education at Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix. She suggests sharing pre-assessments and lesson extensions with parents.

When Payne meets with parents, she tells them they are like bookends and the student is the book. “A lot of times that book is standing up strong by itself. But if that book becomes a floppy paperback, we have to [provide some support],” she says.

Adds Heacox: “All kids, including gifted kids, need daily challenge, and if they don’t get that challenge, they will sit back and not engage. We can’t afford to lose those kids.” 

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