Gifted Children: A journey to meet their educational needs

“They never talked about how far ahead he was in reading or other subjects,” said one parent of her son’s experience in first grade. “They never named it.  It seemed like there was an invisible line, and the teacher’s job was to make sure that all the students reached that line.  But anything that was above that line, they just didn’t notice.”

The first step that parents and educators can take towards meeting the needs of a gifted child is to acknowledge that the child is gifted. With this acknowledgment should come the understanding that this child has unique cognitive, educational, and social-emotional needs. “It takes a while to come to the understanding that really, it is a question of needs,” says a parent of two children who have been identified as gifted. “It is not a question of wants; it is not a question of ‘it would be nice if…’. As a parent, you have to keep looking for opportunities to address their needs.” In the publication, A Nation Deceived: How schools hold back America’s brightest students, leading researchers in the field of gifted education,  Colangelo,  Assouline, and Gross (2004), agree. “Doing nothing is not the same as ‘do no harm,’ they write of educating gifted children. “The evidence indicates that when children’s academic and social needs are not met, the result is boredom and disengagement from school” (1).

In order to keep a gifted child excited about learning, parents and teachers must work together to figure out how to best meet the child’s academic needs. When appropriate, the child herself can also participate in this conversation. The goal of the conversation is to create an educational plan that would keep the child appropriately challenged and engaged in the learning process.

Several methods have been identified of how to keep a gifted child academically challenged, with most of these methods involving some form of academic acceleration. “Acceleration is an educational intervention that moves students through an educational program at a faster than usual rate or younger than typical age,” Colangelo,  Assouline, and Gross explain. “It does not mean pushing a child… It means matching the level, complexity, and pace of the curriculum with the readiness and motivation of the student” (2). There are many different types of acceleration, including those that happen within the school setting (e.g. grade-skipping, single-subject acceleration, Advanced Placement courses), as well as those that happen outside of regular school hours, such as advanced extra-curricular activities, correspondence courses, and online programs. Not every type of acceleration is appropriate for every child; and not every type is available to a particular family or in a particular community. Given the range of options, however, it is my belief that some type of acceleration should be made possible for every child who needs it. Below is a brief description of the different types of acceleration that can be used with gifted students.

When hearing the words “academic acceleration,” two interventions that readily come to mind are early entrance to school and grade skipping. Many factors must be considered to determine if using these types of acceleration is appropriate for a particular child. It is important to remember that some non-cognitive factors, such as social-emotional maturity, attention and mental focus, as well as physical stamina, may not develop at the same advanced pace as a child’s cognitive ability. For example, a four year old may tire more easily than a six year old, or may not be able to sit still for as long as an older child (3). Since motivation is a significant factor in achievement, it is important to ask the child if she wants to skip a grade or not. In the case of early entrance to school, many public school districts simply do not allow this option. Nevertheless, research shows that for some gifted students, with careful advanced planning on the part of parents and educators, both types of acceleration mentioned above can be highly beneficial (1).

Another intervention that can be used with gifted students is subject-matter, or partial acceleration. This type of acceleration may be accomplished by the student either physically moving to a higher-level class for instruction (e.g., a third-grade student going to a fifth-grade Math class), or by the student using higher-level study materials without leaving the placement with chronological-age peers (4). Single-subject acceleration, although seemingly easy to accomplish, requires careful planning and thoughtful implementation, if to be at all beneficial to a student. For single-subject acceleration to be successful, teachers must have training in advanced levels of a particular subject, as well as a clear understanding of what is, and what is not, “more challenging” work. “If your child knows how to do double-digit addition, giving her 3-digit addition problems does not qualify as challenging her,” said one parent of a teacher’s attempts to accommodate her gifted child. Other factors to consider when providing individualized work for gifted children within their classrooms include making sure the students have enough time to complete the work, that their progress is carefully monitored, and that the materials supplied are continuously adjusted to their level of achievement.

Although providing a child with advanced materials within their regular classroom can be a valuable component within gifted education, many parents I’ve talked to have found that this method alone is generally insufficient to keep a gifted child engaged and excited about learning. Mrs. Sarah Dorer, a gifted and talented coordinator and enrichment specialist for the Bedford Public Schools, agrees that some kind of pull-out services are necessary: “Gifted children need to have a space to come together and bounce ideas off of each other. These children often have a passion and a thirst for knowledge, and are driven to learn on their own.  What they need is an adult who can help facilitate their learning.” One way in which Mrs. Dorer accomplishes this goal is by offering gifted students a chance to work on an independent project, by providing a time and a space where students work on a self-selected area of interest, either by themselves or in a small group. Mrs. Dorer guides students in their work by helping them identify sources of information, bringing in a mentor if necessary, and helping them put together the final project. When the project is completed, the children can share it with their classmates. Mrs. Dorer stresses that this intervention can be highly successful, but only with students who have the motivation and the ability to work independently, as well as the ability to stick with a task and bring the task to completion.

In a 2001 report on the Education of Gifted and Talented Children, researchers found “overwhelming research evidence that appropriate acceleration of gifted students who are socially and emotionally ready usually has highly advantageous outcomes” (5). In deciding if, when, and how to accelerate a child, it is crucial to think of the whole child, and not only about his intellectual ability. A child’s social-emotional functioning is an important factor to consider in deciding how to best address his educational needs.   It is important to remember that giftedness can bring with it a unique set of social-emotional challenges that require understanding and support from parents and educators.  In the next part of this blog series, I will discuss the social and emotional issues that commonly arise in the gifted population, and suggest some possible ways for addressing these issues.

Below are some resources for meeting educational needs of gifted children:
1. Massachusetts Association for Gifted Educators: http://massgifted.org/
2. National Association for Gifted Children: https://www.nagc.org/
3. Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth: www.cty.jhu.edu
4. Advocacy Tips – Davidson Institute: http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10797

References

1. Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. (2004). Page 7. A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students (Rep. No. Volume 1). The Templeton National Report on Acceleration. Retrieved http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/nation_deceived/ND_v1.pdf
2. Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. (2004). Page 5. A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students (Rep. No. Volume 1). The Templeton National Report on Acceleration. Retrieved http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/nation_deceived/ND_v1.pdf
3. Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. (2004). Page 17. A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students (Rep. No. Volume 1). The Templeton National Report on Acceleration. Retrieved http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/nation_deceived/ND_v1.pdf
4.  Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. (2004). Page 5. A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students (Rep. No. Volume 2). The Templeton National Report on Acceleration. Retrieved http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/nation_deceived/ND_v2.pdf
5. Bailey, S. (2004) Types of acceleration and their effectiveness. In Core Module 6: Developing programs and provisions for gifted students. In Stan Bailey, Miraca Gross, Bronwyn MacLeod, Graham Chaffey, Ruth Targett and Caroline Merrick. Professional Development Package for Teachers in Gifted Education. Canberra, Australia: Department of Education, Science and Training. Retrieved from: www.davidsongifted.org

Google image retrieved from: http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-115026/Two-children-in-a-gifted-class-work-together-to-write

Acknowledgments

We want to thank all of the people who contributed to this blog series by sharing their experiences and offering valuable information on this topic.

This article was prepared with the invaluable help of:

Lindsay Rosen, M.A., a graduate of Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, who had interned at Growing Minds, LLC in 2015-2016

Jolie Straus, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Jolie is currently interning at Growing Minds, LLC, where she assists Dr. Dashevsky in gathering research-based literature on clinical issues and topics that arise throughout Dr. Dashevsky’s work with children and families

Mrs. Sarah Dorer, a gifted and talented coordinator and enrichment specialist for the Bedford Public School

Dr. David Henry Feldman, Professor of Chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University

Parents who have agreed to be interviewed for this blog series about their experiences navigating the educational system and continuously working to meet the needs of their gifted children

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