By Deb Douglas, author of The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the 4 Essential Steps to Success
This summer, I had the great joy of working with 40 gifted teens at S.O.A.R. (Summer Opportunity with Advanced Rigor) camp in the Wisconsin north woods. After getting to know one another a bit, I posed this question: “What bugs you most about being gifted?” There was dead silence. I waited for a minute or two, but no one wanted to say a word. “Is that a difficult question?” I asked. Again, no one responded.
Finally, one brave soul spoke up, “I think we’re just supposed to be glad we’re smart and not complain at all.” Turns out that’s the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message many gifted kids get from their teachers.
So we talked for a bit about why school might be frustrating for kids like them—students who already know much of what is being taught or who catch on quickly to new concepts. When assured that they had a right to feel exasperated at times, they were ready to share. And once the floodgates opened, their concerns came pouring out.
The following three statements summarize gifted teens’ frustrations, and each one is followed by real student complaints and suggestions that may help us minimize the frustration.
1. Schoolwork is usually too easy or too boring.
- “I loved my math teacher last year, but when I finished my assignments early, she gave me more problems to solve. They weren’t really tougher problems, just more of the same, and that was boring.” —Antonio, grade 6
- “What bugs me most is round-robin reading. It seems to go on and on and on because we have to wait for slow readers to struggle with their paragraphs. And then, because I can’t wait and usually read ahead, when it’s my turn, I have no idea what page we’re on and I get in trouble.” —Benay, grade 8
- “I have a science lab set up in our basement, where I’ve been doing experiments since I was six. I couldn’t wait for science class in fifth grade. Turns out we just did step-by-step labs to understand the scientific process. I already knew it! Wish I could have done ‘real’ science.” —Colten, grade 6
What we can do:
- Encourage students to speak with us privately when things are too easy or too difficult.
- As soon as possible, get to know our students’ individual learner profiles (strengths, struggles, and preferences).
- Create assignments that require higher-level thinking from all students.
- Pretest and use curriculum compacting to allow students to move beyond work they have already mastered.
- Offer different work (more complex, more abstract, deeper, wider) to students who finish regular assignments quickly and/or easily.
- Provide easy access to supplemental materials that extend the curriculum.
2. Peers can be a problem.
- “I know that other kids think I’m weird. Sometimes they call me nerd or brainiac. If I get really excited about something we’re learning, I see them smirking at each other. And if I get less than a perfect score on a test, they tease me. I just want to be myself, but I don’t fit in.” —Anna, grade 7
- “My teacher asks me to teach other kids all the time. But I’m not a good teacher because it’s hard for me to explain what I know in simpler terms. That means the kid who doesn’t get it still doesn’t get it. Ms. Wilson says that you retain 90 percent of what you learn when you teach someone else, but I’ve already retained 100 percent of what she wants me to teach. I’d like to learn something new.” —Bui, grade 8
- “I hate group work. The other kids expect me to do all the work or ask me for help when I’m trying to get my part of the project done. And if I don’t do the major part of it, we wind up with a mediocre project that gets a mediocre grade and they blame me. Sometimes I’d like to work with a whole group of kids who like to learn, work hard, and inspire each other.” —Carlos, grade 9
What we can do:
- Encourage students to speak with us privately when they have concerns about their peer relationships.
- Model and teach social skills in relating well to one another.
- Allow neither elitist attitudes nor anti-gifted discrimination.
- Assure students that discussion responses from divergent thinkers are valued, even when they appear off-target at first.
- Use flexible grouping, including grouping by interest, ability, self-choice, or gender.
- Monitor groups to ensure that every member contributes equally.
3. It’s hard to live up to everyone’s expectations, including my own.
- “I was accelerated into calculus this year. There are some concepts that I’m really struggling to understand, but I don’t dare ask my teacher because he thinks I’m a math genius and should be able to figure things out for myself.” —Andreas, grade 9
- “I think I may quit cross-country. I love running, but meets and daily practices take time away from studying and my parents will go crazy if I ever get anything lower than a 4.0.” —Britta, grade 8
- “I’m struggling to finish my history project. My mom says it’s already good enough, but I know it could be even better. I was awake last night thinking of what else I want to add. Today I’m rewriting it (for the third time). I’ll probably have to turn it in late.” —Henry, grade 9
What we can do:
- Encourage students to speak with us privately when they feel undue pressure to achieve.
- Recognize that even gifted students need support when tackling new concepts.
- De-emphasize grades and other extrinsic rewards.
- Help students (and parents) value learning for its own sake.
- Encourage intellectual and academic risk-taking.
- Aid perfectionists in establishing realistic goals and priorities.
Partners in Progress
The best way to minimize gifted students’ frustration in our classrooms is to encourage them to partner with us in creating an environment that supports their needs. It’s not always quick or easy for us to recognize their needs, especially if we are secondary teachers with over a hundred students we see for only an hour a day. That’s why it’s crucial to lead gifted teens in reflecting on themselves as learners and then to give them voice and choice. It’s one of the first steps in encouraging their self-advocacy, a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Deb Douglas consults and advocates for gifted students, specializing in workshops that help students take charge of their educations. She is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences, and her original research on empowering gifted students to self-advocate has been published in The Roeper Review and Parenting for High Potential. Previously, she was the gifted education coordinator for the Manitowoc Public School District and president of the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Follow Deb on Twitter: @debdouglas52
Deb Douglas is the author of The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the 4 Essential Steps to Success
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