Several years ago, some parents came to School Choice International because their child wasn’t succeeding in second grade. He wasn’t learning the basics, wouldn’t do homework, and didn’t cooperate with his teacher.
As we talked with his parents, we learned that the child was crazy about trains. He knew everything about the history of trains, train routes and schedules, and showed curiosity about how trains worked. While the parents feared that their child was unintelligent, he was actually gifted.
What is Giftedness?
Defining giftedness has become complicated, as concerns about labels and differential treatment of children as well as new research have entered the debate. In the past, the traditional way of measuring giftedness was solely through an IQ test, with those who score in the top 2 percent of all school-aged children — with IQ scores above 130 — designated as gifted. Today, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which he developed in the 1990s while teaching at Harvard University, has revolutionized how professionals view children’s learning, including that of gifted children. Gardner’s theory, which originally proposed six intelligences, has now been expanded to nine, and includes such areas as bodily kinesthetic, musical, and interpersonal intelligence, among others.
Each state has its own definition of giftedness, as well as its own methods of identifying gifted children. While IQ tests (such as the WISC-V) are still used, other factors — including academic achievement, performance in various settings, creativity, and behavior — are now taken into account, as well. It’s worth noting that many states and school districts struggle with allocation of resources for gifted education, since there are trade-offs between money spent on the identification process and actual programming.
Private schools may administer the Stanford-Binet test to assess giftedness. The test draws upon a child's skills in visual-spatial processing and working memory in addition to knowledge and analytic reasoning. Though costly to administer, the test is recognized for its well-rounded evaluation of intelligence beyond "book smarts."
The Difference Between Gifted and Bright
What separates gifted children from bright children? A simple, but often-used phrase in this field, has helped me understand the distinction: “A bright child knows the answer; the gifted learner asks the questions.”
Typically, bright children are assets at school. They follow rules, engage in class, and often show academic strength across the board.
Truly gifted children are difficult to teach. They rarely learn traditionally. They aren’t interested in school per se, but have strong passions that they pursue relentlessly. They may struggle with subjects they find mundane; to a gifted child, memorization or the repetition necessary to teach the rest of the class is excruciating.
The Paradox of Gifted Children
Admittedly, the notion of gifted children apparently struggling in school is counterintuitive. We imagine these students as intellectually advanced, high-achieving, and skilled in all academic areas. Yet many gifted children fail to thrive, even in challenging, rigorous schools. Here are some reasons why:
- Gifted children are highly curious and may have previously learned what their peers are studying.
- Gifted children are bored by traditional teaching methods.
- Gifted children can be threatening to teachers who may not know the answers to their questions.
- Gifted children often resist completing assignments because they understand the material intuitively.
- Gifted children may have uneven skill levels — brilliant in certain areas but delayed in basic skills in others.
- Gifted children — particularly those who are profoundly gifted — may have difficulty with social skills. They may struggle relating to other children, and may be perceived as braggarts or engage in behavior that other children find annoying.
- Gifted children may relate more easily to adults or older children than to their peers, and they can sometimes monopolize a teacher’s time.
The result of any — or all — of these characteristics is that gifted children can be disruptive in class.
Educating Gifted Children
All gifted children — across the spectrum of giftedness — need parents, teachers, and mentors who recognize their unique abilities and find ways to encourage them. To advocate for a gifted child, parents must understand — and appreciate — the child's needs and persevere with the school to ensure that they are met. And, in truth, the best teachers also love these kids for who they are and will help them develop their passions.
Strategies for Success
Access to experts or older students: Some elementary school teachers introduce gifted children to high school or college educators who can help them explore their passions in greater depth than the students’ grade-level teachers. Gifted students tend to have a greater capacity to establish strong working mixed-age relationships — including with adults and older students — than other children do. Having a mentor can be a source of significant intellectual stimulation for gifted children, and it gives both the mentee and mentor the opportunity to share and deepen a mutual interest.
Individualization: Gifted children need learning experiences that meet them at the level of their knowledge and skills. Allowing them to take part in science, math, or other subjects with older children — sometimes much older children — can engage gifted students while simultaneously advancing their learning. Some schools create partnerships with universities, as well as art, music, or science institutions, where children can find friends who share their interests, skills, and motivation.
Innovative instruction: Gifted students do best in schools where teachers are attuned to their interests. An ideal teacher for the child who loved trains, for example, would be one who gave him reading material about how trains work, the history of trains, and the role of trains in different cultures.
Such an interest provides ample opportunities to teach math — through train timetables, distances, speed, weight, and so on. Designing instruction around the passion(s) of a gifted child often leads to engagement and achievement in academic areas beyond the child’s principal interest — for example, in reading or geography in the case of the child who knew so much about trains.
How to Find the Right School for Your Gifted Child
When you visit a school that you have identified as a possible fit, ask questions! No question is silly. Learn how the school meets the needs of gifted children to foster success. Ask about the accommodations the school provides for these students.
Questions for the School
- Do you offer social skills training with groups of students? These programs help gifted children learn skills to interact more effectively with their peers.
- What are your experiences with gifted children? Anecdotes speak volumes — and if school leaders can’t describe how they support gifted children, or if their descriptions sound inadequate, you may want to consider other options for your child.
- How many of your school’s teachers have been educated specifically to work with gifted students? While some graduate schools of education address gifted education, few offer programs exclusively focused on the needs of these students. State and district requirements for teacher preparation vary widely; a 2008 Fordham Institute study found that 58 percent of teachers had not received any recent professional development in teaching academically advanced students.
- Are mentorships between teachers or older children and gifted students encouraged or arranged? How are these structured?
- Do you allow gifted children to attend classes with students in upper grades when appropriate? How is this accommodation implemented?
- Do you assist families in identifying and applying to summer, weekend, or afternoon programs that cater to gifted children?
- Are your teachers flexible in adapting curricula and homework assignments to the interests and achievement levels of gifted children? What types of adaptations do you make? Too often, teachers give gifted children more work — rather than more interesting work. If a child is bored with one worksheet, having to do 10 will feel like a punishment.
For additional advice about picking a school for your child, read What to Consider When Choosing a K-12 School.
How to Meet the Needs of Twice-Exceptional Children
This term refers to children who are simultaneously gifted and have learning disabilities or differences. As mentioned earlier, many gifted children perform unevenly across academic areas. A fourth grader may be a whiz in science but not have learned to read until third grade.
Twice-exceptional children may not qualify for learning supports because they have the ability to compensate for their deficiencies; that is, their grades and scores, while possibly uneven, do not meet the criteria for identifying these students as learning-disabled.
If you have concerns that your child may be twice-exceptional, you may have to push hard to get the school to have your child tested and to obtain services. Read Noodle's guide to the special evaluation process for more information.
If you suspect that your child is gifted, one of the worst things you can do is to go into the school and say, “My child needs to be challenged.” Opening the conversation in this manner sets up an adversarial relationship. Instead, meet with her teacher to discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Describe learning environments where your child has been successful — as well as those in which she has struggled. Stick to the facts and build alliances; most teachers want their students to thrive, and fostering a partnership helps to ensure that you’re all supporting her growth.
For further reading on this topic, I would recommend checking out Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds.
A Final Word
Parenting and educating gifted children is challenging, and there can be painful moments along the way. Keep in mind that your child is likely to find school easier as she grows older; identifying a school with educators who appreciate her gifts — and advocating for the supports that will allow her to thrive — will help smooth this path for all of you.
Finding the right school often makes the difference between fostering a child’s love of learning and losing her interest entirely. Use Noodle's school search to explore educational options near you, and check the Gifted & Talented section for further advice.
Callahan, C., & Moon, T. (2014). National Surveys of Gifted Programs: Executive Summary 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2015.
Colangelo, N., Assouline, S., & Gross, M. (2004). A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students. The Templeton National Report on Acceleration, 1. Retrieved March 10, 2015, from The Templeton National Report on Acceleration.
Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2015, from Northern Illinois University.
Myths about Gifted Students. (2008, January 1). Retrieved March 8, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.
(n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.
Taibbi, C. (2012). The "Bright Child" vs. the "Gifted Learner": What's the Difference? Psychology Today. Retrieved March 10, 2015, from Psychology Today.