With the movie Gifted coming out everywhere next week, we’re republishing Richard Cash’s insightful lessons on gifted education that were originally published in 2012. In the comments, share your own lessons you’ve learned from working with—or caring for—gifted, talented, or creative kids.
I’ve never met a teacher who went into education thinking, “I’m going to teach gifted kids!” When I started teaching, I fell into the field of gifted education purely by happenstance. My first degree was in theater, so I had to find a job that could afford me the pleasure of being in front of an audience and creating characters every day. What better way to have a captive audience than by being a teacher.
During the job application process, I was encouraged to apply at a “gifted and talented” school because I had a talent focus (theater). Long story short, I was hired at J.J. Hill Magnet School for Gifted Children in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over the next ten years, I taught sixth- and first-grade gifted students. During that time, I learned a lot of lessons about how to work with gifted kids. Here are ten of those lessons.
Lesson One: Gifted students are kids first
Gifted kids can come off sounding like little adults. They possess a great deal of knowledge about many topics, use sophisticated language for their age, and may often prefer older friends, sometimes adults. These characteristics can confuse teachers into thinking that gifted kids also possess the sophisticated emotional levels of adults. The most important lesson I learned about working with gifted kids is that I can’t focus only on their intellectual abilities; I also have to focus on them being kids first.
Many times, gifted kids’ emotional development will be right on target with their chronological age, which may seem to contradict their intelligence level. In some cases kids may be asynchronous, where their emotional level is not at age level, which can be stressful for them and those around them. This asynchronicity (when emotional level does not equal intellectual level) can be difficult for gifted children to handle or comprehend. Therefore, as one of the adults in their lives, I had to constantly keep in mind their development as children. I still needed to nurture them, assist in their emotional development, and offer an approach to learning that included a sense of wonder and play.
Lesson Two: I will never be smarter than my gifted students
It’s true; gifted kids know a lot. Whether they are holistically gifted (in most if not all subject areas) or targeted gifted (very advanced in a single or dual content area), I had to let go of the need to know more than my students. Gifted students characteristically gain a lot of factual and procedural knowledge rapidly and can regenerate/regurgitate that information like wizards on Jeopardy or in Trivial Pursuit. Life is more than Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, though. Life is about using the facts and procedures effectively to solve real, complex problems.
Having that understanding, I then changed my position in the classroom from the “sage on the stage” (I told you I was a theater person) to more of a “guide on the side.” I had to step into a different role with my students. I had to admit to students that I didn’t know everything in a content area and that my job was to guide them toward finding answers to meaningful questions they had about the topics. This adjustment in the way I thought ultimately made me a much better teacher. I became students’ learning facilitator, not their font of knowledge. I helped them develop greater sophistication in their knowledge. They also acquired more complex thinking strategies because they had to solve problems where one right answer (the regeneration/regurgitation reflex) wasn’t effective. I learned that I may not have been smarter than my gifted students, but I was wiser.
Lesson Three: There is a difference between being gifted and being talented
Previously I suggested that gifted kids can either be holistically or targeted gifted. Well, there is more to this thing called giftedness than just those two descriptors. After teaching gifted kids for a couple of years, I decided to work on my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a focus on gifted education. During that time, I learned a lot about the conceptual nature of giftedness through such luminaries as Feldhusen, Ford, Gagné, Kaplan, Renzulli, Rogers, and Sternberg, to name a few. Each of the experts had a little different perspective on the terms gifted and talented, but all were focused on the highest achieving (or likely to be achieving) students. It took me a very long time to wrap my head around what it meant to me as a classroom teacher, because we used the terms so interchangeably. After working with so many students, I finally grasped my own meaning of these kids we call “gifted” and “talented.”
To me, gifted students are those with very high IQs or other performance/ability measures that document their extreme cognitive differences. Talented students are those who enjoy or are passionate about a subject area, work hard at learning it, and are consistently at or near the top of the class. Other general differences are:
- Gifted students have significant documentation of cognitive extremes, whereas talented students show their achievement during the learning process.
- Gifted students may not always be your most compliant students, whereas talented students are often “teacher pleasers” and play school well.
- Gifted students can be obnoxious/difficult/quirky/socially maladjusted/stubborn/independent, whereas talented students don’t often rock the boat during class and are amenable during instruction.
- Gifted kids often don’t know how to work hard—largely because they never needed to, thus not learning how to—whereas talented students work hard because they have learned how to from the very early years.
- Gifted students’ abilities come from an indescribable place (some might suggest it is innate to the individual) very early in their lives, whereas talented students develop their prowess over time and their talent may not be fully developed until later in life.
- Gifted students ask questions that may not be easy to answer, whereas talented students answer questions posed by others.
- Gifted students may also be “holistically gifted” (having strong abilities in the core academic areas of reading and math), whereas talented students are most likely to be strong in one or two areas, either academically or in the performing arts, sports, leadership, and so forth.
Lesson Four: Not all gifted kids are creative and not all creative kids are gifted
Similar to lesson three, I needed to unpack and define the differences between a gifted student and a creative student. When I was a student, I had a difficult time in school. In fact, I repeated fifth grade due to poor academic performance. My teacher and parent felt it was best for me to have another run at the curriculum and an additional year to mature (I was young compared to my grade-level peers). It worked, but it did not put me at the top of the class. I did feel more socially mature and more equal to my new classmates; however, I still felt awkward academically. I tended to gravitate toward the arts (music, theater, and dance) because there wasn’t always one right way to do things and I learned better through preparing for a performance. I graduated high school, taking an arts-focused route, and went on to college to pursue a degree in theater.
After graduating from college, finding work in the real world was difficult. Additionally, I didn’t want to perform a routine job that involved crunching numbers (using math) or having to be static most of the day. Therefore, I went into sales, where I was able to act and perform, but I wasn’t totally fulfilled. I eventually landed in the classroom (after attaining a post-bachelor degree in education), where I found that my talents and creativity could be nurtured and explored. I found that creativity can stand alone or in combination with giftedness or talent.
So, from my personal and professional experience, to add creative characteristics to the list of gifted and talented characteristics above:
- Creative people may not be at the top of the class—but they can be gifted or talented.
- Creative people try and try and try and try . . . you get it . . . and make a lot of mistakes that they learn from.
- Creative people ask questions they are willing to find the answers to.
- Creative people like making up their own rules or directions.
- Creative people enjoy coming up with new ways to do things.
- Creative people sometimes don’t fit in the classroom that seeks one right answer/orderliness/rule followers, and so on.
- Creative people may enjoy working with others but need to learn how to collaborate and not dominate the process.
- Creative people need to learn content to be truly creative.
Lesson Five: As a teacher of the gifted, I needed specialized professional development to do my job well
With all the complexities of giftedness, teachers who work with gifted, talented, and creative students must get specialized training. After floundering around in my classroom for the first year, I realized I had so much to learn about how to best meet the needs of gifted, talented, and creative kids. Seeking my master’s degree was a great process, but I could have used much more job-embedded and sustained professional development. Advanced learners’ needs are unique. Addressing those needs through curriculum and instructional practices is essential for them to achieve to their highest potential and be successful in life. Just as with teachers of students who have exceptional needs on the other end of the IQ spectrum, teachers of gifted students should have continuous concentrated training to most effectively work with this specialized group of kids.
Lesson Six: Some gifted kids can be socially maladjusted
Not all gifted kids have issues with being socially awkward or maladjusted, but in my experience, those who do have issues have these issues because they have not learned how to work with others of differing intellectual abilities. We learn our social skills from the people around us. In many cases, young gifted learners spend a great deal of time either associating with older students or adults, or self-isolating while in early grades (avoiding others who don’t think like them). This leads to learning more mature behaviors at a very early age. These behaviors may not fit with same-age peers or in an early learning setting, therefore further socially ostracizing gifted learners. Young gifted children may also recognize themselves as so uniquely different from their age-mates that they may identify themselves as “weird” or “strange.” Their social need for adjustment leads to lesson number seven!
Lesson Seven: Gifted students need personal social and emotional support
Gifted students need help adjusting to social settings and dealing with their own emotional asynchronous development. We all develop our emotional abilities in stages that correspond to our cognitive development. In many cases, though, gifted students’ cognitive progress is accelerated, thereby making their social maturation seem out of step, or asynchronous.
Gifted students will sometimes self-isolate or be shunned by their peers due to their increased cognitive abilities. In other cases, young gifted children may prefer older children or adults because they “speak the same language” or are interested in similar topics. Whether through self- or peer-isolation or the preference of older colleagues, gifted kids may not secure the social skills necessary to navigate the classroom landscape.
Gifted kids also can suffer from putting too much pressure on themselves to continually excel, stressing out over completion of work assignments, and feeling anxiety over perfectionism. Additionally, gifted kids can be the target of bullying. I find it interesting that it’s in school, where we go to become smarter, wiser, and better, where kids will bully each other about being smart! Some gifted kids are so emotionally sensitive that bullying can take a huge toll on them psychologically and educationally. Therefore, teachers would be wise to incorporate social skills lessons, relaxation techniques, and anti-bullying strategies into the daily classroom routine. If counselors, social workers, or school psychologists are available in your school, seek out their advice on nurturing the social development of your gifted students.
Lesson Eight: Parents of gifted children need support, too
Parents may need support in raising their gifted child. Some people believe that having a gifted child (or teaching gifted children) is easy. After working in this field for nearly a quarter-century, I can tell you that many parents struggle to find the right educational fit for their child and many teachers wrestle with providing the most appropriate curricular and instructional practices for gifted students.
Numerous support systems are available for parents from local and state networks of parents of gifted children to national associations for gifted children (such as the National Association for Gifted Children/NAGC or Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted/SENG). These agencies and associations have text and website resources, as well as meetings and gatherings to guide parents in making the best decisions for raising their gifted children. Teachers and school administrators can connect parents to these resources and also can learn from these resources themselves.
Lesson Nine: Teachers of gifted students need to be adept at offering advanced levels of differentiation
In my early years as a teacher of gifted students, I would pile work onto my students, thinking they enjoyed doing more. What I came to realize very quickly was that no one wants to be good at something if they have to do more of it. I slowly learned that gifted students need uniquely different curriculum and specific pedagogical approaches that stimulate their advanced abilities. All teachers should be differentiating for all learners. But differentiation for gifted students requires three specifics in modifying curriculum and instruction:
- Accelerated pace of instruction where students move more quickly through the introductory levels of content and on to more challenging material
- Complex thinking that includes rigorous critical reasoning and creative idea production
- Depth of content where students use more refined information to investigate issues that are relevant to them so they are able to construct authentic products
Lesson Ten: Teaching gifted students is a JOY
This brings me to my final important lesson: Teaching gifted kids is a JOY. Just like any kid, gifted students can be frustrating and challenging. But at the end of the day, they are a delight to work with. They can be very self-sufficient, but also need our guidance. They love to work through stimulating problems, but need our support and structures. They can be ambitious to learn, but need our assistance in nurturing their abilities. Working with gifted kids has transformed my practice as a teacher. Through this work, I hope to be able to transform the teaching practices of every teacher I encounter so they too can change the lives of their students for the better.
I’d love to hear the joys, sorrows, excitements, and struggles you’ve encountered when working with gifted students. The more we share together, the better we become for our students.
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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