What Do Gifted Children Need?
Little Wolfgang Mozart and young Thomas Edison. Generations apart, both gifted. One an extraordinary and focused talent from toddlerhood; the other an academic and behavior problem until late adolescence. There is no unique characteristic or single factor that identifies giftedness.
Giftedness is often demonstrated by excellent memory, vocabulary, or attention span; sometimes by exceptional imagination and curiosity. It can be signaled early on by unusual ability in music or the arts. It shows up in unique powers of observation and in complex ways of processing information. One thing is clear: gifted children aren't a homogeneous group. They have widely different needs, strengths, and weaknesses -- as, of course, do all children.
Young and Gifted
There's no doubt that parenting a gifted preschooler is labor-intensive. Nevertheless, parents don't have to go out on a limb in order to accommodate their child. "We have no strong evidence that special preschools, early teaching, or computer technology significantly advance the development of gifted children," advises Dr. Nancy M. Robinson at the University of Connecticut. "They are at least as varied as any other group of children." The name of the game seems to be "responsive parenting" -- matching children's developmental pace and readiness with opportunities to explore their interests.
Getting Help at School
In an effort to screen kids for gifted programs and services, most school districts use one or more standardized tests to determine intelligence, achievement, or creativity. But tests are only a piece of the puzzle. Caregivers, teachers, and family members have insights about a child's needs, hopes, and interests that no test can uncover. The more information the school has about a gifted child, the better -- specific as well as anecdotal.
Advocates for gifted children say that high-ability students need a learning environment where teachers are supported in serving bright students, particularly those with behavioral problems. The defining characteristics of ADHD (inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity) turn up over and over in the biographies of highly creative people. In other words, difficult behaviors may indicate special abilities, which, in turn require expert help.
Parents on the lookout for this kind of help should ask if their child's school has a gifted education specialist. Does that person have opportunities to consult with the child's regular classroom teachers? Student needs are best met when there's this kind of collaboration and communication.
How do most teachers make provisions for gifted kids? Generally by assigning advanced readings, independent projects, and enrichment worksheets. Rarely do they modify their instruction to meet the needs of especially talented students. According to The Classroom Practices Study, conducted by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, a large sample of third- and fourth-grade teachers made only minor modifications in the regular curriculum to meet the needs of the gifted. This finding held true in both public and private schools, in urban, rural, and suburban areas all over the country.
It's clear that teachers need administrative encouragement and professional support to make classrooms better places for gifted students. Even small adjustments can help, such as permission to skip over material that some students have mastered. In the best programs, teachers have the latitude to provide opportunities for more advanced work and to allow kids themselves to determine how classroom time is allocated.
Although there's no consensus among educators about the benefits of ability grouping, most agree that gifted students do better in a setting that allows them to move along at their individual level and pace. Studies show that gifted kids in accelerated classes show improved attitude and behavior, probably related to their academic comfort level. But what if a school is committed to mixed-ability groups and cooperative learning? In that case, advanced students should have access to materials beyond their grade level along with occasions for individual pursuits during the school day.
One such opportunity is the enrichment cluster -- a block of time set aside each week to focus on student and teacher interests. For gifted kids, it's an opportunity to pursue open-ended investigations of their favorite topics, often with community members or parents as regular participants. "It was a lifesaver for Eliza," reports one mother. "She tackled concepts she never would have encountered in the regular classroom, and she worked alongside kids and adults who were right on her wavelength. Those weekly challenges made all the difference to her life at school."