You can count on gifted children to keep teachers on their toes, Here's the latest on how to help the very bright truly shine
BY GABRIELLE BAUER and ILLUSTRATION BY RÉMY SIMARD
IT'S 9 AM IN THE GRADE 8 CLASSROOM of Rima Srinivasan, OCT. Peter* opens his math book and starts on an exercise. Bradley reaches for the newspaper. Scott has his head on his desk. Kiera asks if she can do some sketching for her manufacturing project. Josh and James, meanwhile, have launched yet another discussion about the evidence for God’s existence. The discussion soon gets heated, and a couple of kids roll their eyes.
Meet the Grade 8 all-gifted class of Jack Miner Senior Public School in Toronto. As this motley crew of learners exemplifies, there is no such thing as a typical gifted child (see “What is gifted, anyway?” p. 43). “The only thing gifted kids have in common is a superior ability to grasp concepts and make connections,” says Mary Slade, a professor in the Department of Exceptional Education at James Madison University in Virginia and the author of three books on gifted education. “Otherwise, the kids are as different as any group of kids.” Some have a lightning-quick facility with numbers; others struggle with math. Some write like university professors; others lose their bearings when stringing words together. Several have learning disabilities that mask their true capabilities – like Scott, who has Asperger syndrome, and John, who has a severe writing disability. In short, the stereotype of the calculator-toting chess champion doesn’t bear up to reality.
Veterans of gifted education agree that teaching these children is both a joy and a challenge. But do the kids really need the special attention? In a cash-strapped education system, it’s no surprise that media articles and reports sometimes question the need for gifted programming. Without the proper guidance and resources, however, “They’re likely to disengage from school,” says Slade. As Rosanna Del Grosso, president of the Association for Bright Children of Ontario, sees it, “Gifted ed is part of Special Ed, meaning education for a group of kids with special needs. Meeting these needs is part of our province’s education mandate.”
Consider the experience of Brendan. Within weeks of starting Grade 1, he became restless and disruptive. “He had epic tantrums – and I do mean epic – both in and out of school,” recalls his mother. “The school had him pegged as a behaviour problem.” As soon as he entered a self-contained gifted program in Grade 4, the disruptive behaviours vanished.
While grateful for gifted programming, the students themselves see room for improvement. In a recent survey conducted by the Peel DSB, only 56 per cent of gifted elementary school children felt that special programming matched their academic needs. Parents echoed their children’s sentiments, with 57 per cent agreeing that programming met their kids’ needs.
The approachWhat is the best way to teach gifted children? “It all depends on how each child learns best,” says Julian Kitchen, an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Brock University. Here are some proven approaches.
Acceleration:This can mean moving ahead to a higher grade level in some subjects or skipping one or more grades entirely. According to Nick Colangelo, director and co-founder of the International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa, acceleration is the best documented of any education strategy for gifted learners. Granted, it’s not for everyone, but “when students are up for it, there is nothing to be gained by holding them back,” he says. If full-grade acceleration isn’t an option, students can move ahead in their strongest subjects.
Compacting:This approach begins with a pretest to gauge a student’s knowledge of a subject such as math. If the student scores high enough on the test, she can work on independent projects rather than answering questions one to 10 in the textbook, says Yolanda Stevenson, an education counsellor with the Conseil scolaire de district catholique Centre-Sud. “It’s a model we recommend to our teachers.”
Ability grouping: This means putting learners in small groups according to their ability in a given subject area. “Don’t be limited by age peers,” Slade advises, noting that “a multi-age math class with flexible ability groupings might be the best fit for learners’ needs.” However, as OISE/UT lecturer Joanne Foster notes, “Some kids work better individually than in groups.”
Enrichment: Enriched instruction provides opportunities to go deeper and wider into the curriculum, rather than faster, and is the approach favoured by most Ontario school boards. “The student can be asked to read a more sophisticated article or story about the topic being taught or prepare a presentation on the real-life applications of the topic,” says Kitchen. Enrichment can also include co-curricular activities such as debating clubs, science fairs and model United Nations.
Withdrawal programs and congregated classes
Pullout programs take gifted children out of their regular classrooms for part of their school week, while congregated classes consist entirely of identified gifted students. These options give gifted children an incalculable benefit: time with their intellectual peers. “When they’re surrounded by other kids like them, they often blossom,” says Slade.
A 2011 survey conducted by the Association for Bright Children of Ontario revealed that only 13 Ontario school boards have the body count to offer congregated classes; most others provide withdrawal programs or enrichment within the regular classroom, and five report having no specific programming at all.
But geographical spread isn’t the only reason some boards and schools prefer to keep gifted children in the regular classroom. “I think our inclusive approach may have some social advantages,” says Jacques St-Arnauld, OCT, an elementary school teacher at école élémentaire catholique Le-Petit-Prince in Vaughan. “I’ve never seen the gifted kids being ostracized by the other kids in the school – they’re treated the same as everyone else.”
In an ideal world, schools would have several gifted programming options, because the best choice for one child may be the very worst for another. Take Tara and Gabrielle, two friends who met at a congregated gifted class in Toronto. Tara says the Grade 4-8 program “saved me from social misery. I tried to connect with some kids in the regular program but had nothing in common with them.” Gabrielle, meanwhile, learned that “I don’t belong in an all-gifted classroom.” Despite having verbal skills worthy of a trial lawyer, she “didn’t like the one-upmanship and competitiveness in the program” and became much happier after transferring to a regular classroom in Grade 8.
Of course, an approach is only as good as the teacher delivering it. What’s the most important attribute? Flexibility. “It takes a lot of courage to abdicate control,” says Stevenson, “but a controlling approach won’t work with these kids because they resist being told what to do without being given a good reason. They don’t like to be moulded.”
Another thing experienced teachers agree on: Use the child’s interests as a launching pad. St-Arnauld meets with his gifted students at the beginning of the school year to find out their interests. In his experience, hands-on science projects get the thumbs-up from virtually all of them. To inspire the more verbally oriented ones, he integrates word challenges into his science assignments. “I may ask them to make a list of 10 adjectives to describe cotton balls or to come up with analogies, like ‘as fluffy as a newborn chick.’”
Foster says she saw a recalcitrant young boy go to town with a project when allowed to choose his own topic. “He loved trucks, so that was the topic he chose. Not only did he share his research and teach everyone else in the class, but he arranged for a truck to come to the parking lot of the school. The driver explained what everything was, and the kids took turns getting into the cab. A simple research project became a whole lot more.”
Of course, an approach is only as good as the teacher delivering it. What’s the most important attribute? Flexibility.
In a similar spirit, Natalie Lévesque, director of Teaching and Learning Support Services at the Conseil scolaire public du Nord-Est de l’Ontario, encourages teachers and students to take their projects beyond the classroom walls. “Have them present their work in other schools and in the wider community,” she advises. “It makes the work more exciting and real for the kids.” Walter Morose, OCT, who teaches the Grade 7 gifted class at Jack Miner, capitalizes on his students’ attraction to high-tech media. “I moved the writing program almost entirely to blog,” he says. “It seemed to help the reluctant writers get stuff down on paper.”
Even if you do know the answer, be prepared to have your thinking tested. “You can’t feel threatened by challenges if you’re going to teach gifted kids,” says Otto Schmidt, OCT, a Toronto-based gifted programming consultant with 35 years of experience in gifted education. “You have to address them head-on if you want to earn their respect.”
When Tara was nine, she attended a summer program with a teacher who evidently hadn’t received that memo. The teacher told the group of children to write a few words about “Why you feel proud to be a Canadian.” Tara raised her hand. “What if I don’t feel proud to be a Canadian?” she asked. “How could you not feel proud to be part of such a great country?” the teacher retorted. Tara explained that while she felt very grateful to be living in Canada, she didn’t feel proud, because “pride comes from something you accomplished, and I just happened to be born here.” The teacher did not consider this an acceptable answer and went on to complain to Tara’s mother about the child’s “attitude.”
For all their surface bravura, many gifted students expect more of themselves than any teacher does. The word “perfectionism” often comes up on lists of gifted traits. “They’re so used to doing things well that they become fearful of not succeeding or making a mistake,” says Shannon Empson, OCT, who teaches withdrawal gifted classes in the Avon Maitland DSB. “Some of them even worry that if they make mistakes they’ll no longer be gifted!”
Still more of a challenge is the underachieving gifted child who sits stonily at his desk. “These are the kids who interest me the most,” says Cindy Carlson, OCT, who teaches pullout gifted classes at Stratford Central Public School. “I always start by asking them what turns their crank,” she says. When she put the question to one of her disengaged Grade 4 students, he fessed up to a passion for panda bears, an endangered species. “We brainstormed ideas, and he decided to raise money to help pandas. He made posters, organized a high school bake sale, had some older kids bake cupcakes with a panda motif and raised $300 for the cause. The experience turned him around.”
The social network
Gifted children are often thought to be socially awkward, but Slade says this is misguided. “Put them together with their intellectual peers – gifted kids or supportive adults – and the awkwardness disappears,” she says. “It’s when they lack such peers that they feel out of place.”
That’s where the teacher comes in, says William Morton, OCT, who teaches gifted elementary school students with the Ottawa-Carleton DSB. In his all-gifted classes, he has his students role-play answers to hurtful salvos they might encounter in the schoolyard. “I teach them to stand up for themselves without coming across as tactless or know-it-alls,” he says.
The one-two punch of giftedness and puberty often widens the gap between gifted students and others. At this point many gifted children start to hide their abilities, says Morton. “All it takes is one raised eyebrow from another kid, and the child starts dumbing down.” Other gifted children, like Tara, find they have more trouble than ever fitting in. Seemingly overnight, her Grade 7 classmates started sporting black eyeliner and attitude. A pretty face and friendly manner were not sufficient for Tara to bridge the gap. “I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t insert myself into their conversations,” is how she put it. Though she found it easier to connect with a few of the boys, middle school remained a social wasteland for her.
Rather than trying to round off the square peg, “the teacher can help the student feel OK about herself exactly as she is,” says Carlson. “Fitting in is not the be-all and end-all. Many of these kids prefer the company of adults, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
What is the best
way to teach
It all depends on
how each child
Adds Foster: “Sometimes a trusted adult can make all the difference in a child’s self-acceptance. Why not a teacher?”
*All the names of the students in this class have been changed to protect their privacy.
What to avoid with gifted students
- emphasis on drill and review
- extra work of the same type given to other students
- mixed ability co-operative learning
- tutoring other students during class time
- working ahead in a textbook without teacher involvement
What is gifted, anyway?
He fidgets to beat the band but can solve a four-by-four Rubik’s cube in less than five minutes. She goes the extra mile in all her school assignments, even in subjects that bore her mightily. What unites these very different children is that they’re both gifted. Ontario’s Ministry of Education defines giftedness as “an unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided.” Simply put, they’re so smart that they need to be taught differently.
To identify a gifted child, most Ontario school boards use a combination of teacher recommendations, the child’s abilities and cognitive testing. The Conseil scolaire de district catholique Centre-Sud exemplifies the process. The homeroom teacher and support team nominate certain Grade 2 students for assessment. When these students are in Grade 3, a specially trained psychologist gives them two subtests from the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV). “If they make the cut-off, they get a gifted label and an individual education plan,” says Yolanda Stevenson, the education counsellor in charge of the board’s gifted dossier.
Resources worth clicking on
Association for Bright Children of Ontario: This multi-chapter volunteer advocacy group provides information and support to parents of gifted children. The website includes information about gifted programming in Ontario school boards. abcontario.ca
Educators for the Gifted Organization (EdGO): This organization provides consulting services and resources for all stakeholders involved in gifted education edgo.ca
For all their surface bravura, many gifted students expect more from themselves than any teacher does. The word ‘perfectionism’ tends to comes up on the list of gifted traits.
Gifted e-learning centre: This London Catholic DSB website includes lesson plans and information about competitions and summer camps. ldcsb.on.ca/schools/cfe/elearning/gifted/sitemap.htmle.
Thinking Outside the Box: This site, developed by Avon Maitland DSB teachers of gifted students, provides information about the SOAR (Self-directed Opportunities, Achievements and Rewards) pullout program for gifted students. thinkingoutsidethebox.pbworks.com/w/page/22188082/FrontPage
Youth Science Canada: This site provides support and resources for teachers interested in exposing their students to science fairs and other types of project-based science.youthscience.ca
Becoming a teacher for the gifted
Want to try your hand at teaching a gifted class or withdrawal program? “Teaching Students with Intellectual Needs (Giftedness) is a new AQ that will be developed this year,” says Michelle Longlade, OCT, Director of the College's Standards of Practice and Accreditation unit. “Though this qualification does not replace the three-part Special Education qualification, it will provide in-depth knowledge and skills related to teaching gifted students.” Maria Dinatolo, a Special Education resource liaison with the Toronto DSB, suggests complementing your formal training with consultations with experienced gifted-ed teachers, noting that “Retired teachers could be great resources.”
And don’t hesitate to “call on school board staff specially trained to deal with gifted issues.”
More reading on gifted kids
Being Smart about Gifted Education (Great Potential Press, 2009): Written by two Toronto professors, this award-winning book helps parents and teachers foster high-level development in children.
The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide (Free Spirit Publishing, 2009): Originally published in 1984 and based on surveys of gifted kids, this book speaks directly to gifted kids in their language.
Teaching Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom (Monarch Books, 2002): This guide describes a range of strategies to meet the needs of gifted students in their regular classrooms. (Also available in French as Enseigner aux enfants doués en classe reguliÃ¨re.)
Growing Up Gifted: Developing the Potential of Children at Home and at School (Prentice Hall, 2001): Best practices from classrooms help readers bring out gifted children’s potential.
Best Practices in Gifted Education: An Evidence-Based Guide (Prufrock Press, 2006): Included here are 29 practices based on education research into what works best for gifted and talented youth.