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Teaching a Child Who Is Gifted in Math

Gifted and Talented Expert Advice from Rita Culross, Ph.D.

Q: Our six-year-old first-grader seems to have a special love of and gift for math. He is able to add three-digit numbers even with "carrying over" in his head.

His teacher and principal are interested in trying to determine what level math he is capable of doing and plan to construct a program especially for him. My husband and I do not "work with him" and have not explained the traditional way to add. He has his own way of calculating in his head.

My questions are: First, what is the best way to evaluate his ablility? Second, should he learn the traditional way to calculate, or continue using his own way?

A: Young children who are precocious in math have often grasped mathematical concepts well before the time those concepts are presented in the curriculum. Parents are often the first individuals to identify this talent, and the talent often continues as kids grow. Sometimes the children are also advanced in verbal and visual spatial abilities.

It's great that the teacher and principal also recognize your son's talent and are willing to develop a special program for him. A fuller understanding of young children's math abilities is gained through giving them individual intelligence and achievement tests. These tests can determine the appropriate instructional level for your son in math.

Instruction for young children who are gifted in math typically allows them to move at their own pace, and to work on challenging problems. The math instruction should emphasize concepts rather than procedures, allowing kids to construct their own ideas about how math works. Clustering gifted students together for math instruction also helps.

Good mathematical instruction, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, teaches children to become problem-solvers, to reason mathematically, to value math, and to become confident in one's own ability. It's also important that children be assessed frequently to monitor their mastery of concepts.

An accelerated math curriculum coupled with exposure to others who are gifted in and interested in math is the best way to maintain your son's motivation in math.

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Rita Culross is Associate Dean, College of Education, and Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction at Louisiana State University. Culross has served as the consulting school psychologist for a public school elementary gifted program, and has written a book and several journal articles on gifted education.

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