5 Ways to Support Gifted Learners at the Start of the School Year
Excitement is in the air as a new school year begins! Students find out who their teachers will be, discover which friends are in their classes, and of course, shop for new school supplies! But there is a particular group of students who might not be quite as excited as some of the others to start school, and that group might surprise you — I am talking about students identified as gifted.
Academics often come easy to gifted students, so why are some of our nation’s brightest minds less than thrilled with school?
Many educators rely on their gifted students to set examples for other students, to perform at the top of the class in all that they do, and at times, to peer tutor students in need of assistance. These expectations can put a lot of pressure on young people who are likely struggling to be and do all that is expected of them, be it by their parents, teachers and/or themselves.
Here are five important things to keep in mind this fall that can help set your gifted students up for success throughout the year — and for years to come.
1. More work is NOT a differentiation strategy
It is not uncommon for classes to be full of students with drastically varying abilities, therefore teachers must be selective in how they spend their time. Because educator time is so limited, gifted learners who complete regular assignments at a faster pace than their peers are sometimes given MORE of the same work to complete. More of the same does not provide opportunities for high-ability learners to work at an appropriate level of difficulty. For growth to occur in gifted students, educators must differentiate content, process and product options to ensure that critical thinking and problem-solving are required for completion.
It is critical that teachers offer respectful tasks for gifted learners, rather than using the “more of the same” method. All students have the right to grow in their academic intellect.
Administrators can support teachers in providing more creative and open-ended tasks by encouraging their staff to assume more of a “guide on the side” role with students who are able to work more independently. Work to develop a campus culture where teachers feel they can take risks and try innovative strategies that aim to help ALL students succeed.
Gifted does not mean gifted in every subject! Teachers and parents sometimes have unrealistic expectations of gifted students and that can put a lot of pressure on those kids. One student recently expressed to me that, when he doesn’t know something, he feels like he has let everyone (even his peers) down, because he is told they “expect more from him.” We see this scenario all too often. Our high-ability students are capable learners, but they don’t know it all.
In most instances, gifted learners do require instruction, albeit less repetitions than regular students. Pre-assessment prior to each unit of study is one strategy that teachers should utilize to determine what students know. The results should be used to guide instruction.
Pre-assessment materials are most useful when they are developed by teachers, the true content experts. Administrators can show support for teachers by offering them extended team-planning time to develop these instruments. Once pre-assessment occurs, encourage teachers to adjust instruction based on what students already know.
You might be able to build pre-assessments off of existing materials like quizzes or ancillary materials. Learn more about quality pre-assessments here.
3. Be on the lookout for imposter syndrome
Teachers and parents are not the only ones who impose unrealistic expectations on gifted students. Research states that about 20% of gifted youth have perfectionistic tendencies to the extent that negative consequences surface.
While we can all agree that we want students to strive to do their best, people who never feel “good enough” are often afflicted with anxiety, stress and depression.1 Gifted individuals who continually feel that they could have/should have done better sometimes suffer from a psychological phenomenon known as the imposter syndrome, a belief that one is inadequate despite evidence that indicates otherwise.
A growth mindset can help these students by taking some of the focus off the end result, rather emphasizing the work itself — the journey to get to the final product.
School staff can encourage a growth mindset among students by providing positive feedback relative to the approaches a child takes to tackle a problem. Avoid praising intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) or even using the phrase “Just keep trying.” While effort is directly aligned with growth mindset, some students tend to feel incompetent when their efforts do not yield the results they are seeking. Therefore, promoting a growth mindset among students will increase self-efficacy and reduce feelings that lead to the belief that one is a fraud, an imposter.
4. Decisions, decisions… guide students to make choices (or say no)
Earlier, we discussed that gifted students do not know it all. While that is true, many gifted students are both blessed and cursed by being good at many things. Multipotentiality is the term used to describe this concept.
On the surface, you might think “How can being good at so many things be bad?” The answer is, because being good at many things can overwhelm students by presenting them with too many choices. Kids who are talented in many different areas struggle with wanting to do it all and not knowing how to choose to spend their time. Students facing decisions with so many possible outcomes often feel stress and exhaustion.2
Adults who work with gifted students should reassure them that it is okay to say no to some talents. However, you can also guide students who have diverse talents to find ways to combine their options to create new paths. In this age of innovation, it is possible that today’s youth will one day apply their advanced skill set to craft a unique career showcasing the many gifts possessed by those blessed to be cursed by multipotentiality!
5. Exercise forethought when assigning group work
Today’s classrooms are often arranged with collaboration in mind. Desks are sometimes arranged in pods and students are encouraged to work together. Some teachers even award participation grades based on the frequency that students share out answers/responses.
This is great news for many of our students ― because networking is an important part of business and we are preparing students for the future, right? While that is true, it’s important to recognize that some students are more contemplative in nature and need opportunities for introspection.
One study that found that around 60% of gifted children and 75% of highly gifted children are introverts.3 While these statistics might not exactly reflect what you observe in your district, you may have noticed that some students require more time for reflection.
So how can you give gifted students who tend to be introverted more time to reflect? When creating instructional activities, consider planning moderate amounts of small-group work. Offering choice to students is another way to ensure that different learning preferences are being honored.
Gifted students often carry burdens that other students do not. Contrary to popular belief, this unique group of learners will not “be okay” sitting in classrooms with teachers who do not strive to meet their specific needs. For gifted students to grow academically, differentiated lessons must be offered at levels appropriate to student abilities.
Equally important is the consideration of the social/emotional needs of advanced learners. To maximize the potential of our brightest minds, we must all work to ensure gifted students learn how to develop healthy habits and perspectives, so they can become the next generation of critical thinkers and problem-solvers.
In the meantime, let’s strive to make our classrooms engaging so that ALL students look forward to going to school each day!
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Kimberly has worked in gifted education for over 20 years. She was an elementary Gifted & Talented (GT) specialist for 18 years and has served her district in San Antonio, Texas by providing instructional support for gifted programs at all levels since 2015. Kimberly holds a master’s degree in Teacher Leadership with an emphasis in gifted education.