Opportunities and Challenges – Teaching Gifted Students

Students with goggles in science class

The public may think of gifted classes as a room full of super-smart prodigies who excel in school on their way to the Ivy League. But teachers of gifted programs and parents of gifted kids know that their students are much more than really bright. They are culturally, racially, and socially diverse, they may feel like they don’t fit in with other kids, and some suffer from a drive for perfection. How can teachers help gifted students reach their full potential?Adam Scimone with students at computer and white board

“School can be mind-numbing for some of these kids. It’s like you’re watching a video in slow motion,” said Adam Scimone, a teacher of gifted classes in Kirkwood. “Since they each have unique needs and interests, I find myself differentiating as much or more as I did in a general education setting.”

Erin Nash with students in science classErin Nash teaches in North Kansas City, and she agrees that providing instruction for gifted kids can be a challenge.

“It’s almost an art to make the content deep enough to challenge the students without pushing too far,” she said. “Another challenge is encouraging them to advocate for themselves and their own needs, whether it’s to ask for help or to grow as a learner.”

Teaching gifted kids to ask for what they need can be difficult. Both Adam and Erin say gifted students feel pressure to excel, from either internal or external forces – or both. That pressure can cause anxiety in students who already may experience social awkwardness and the feeling of being “not like the others.”

Giving kids control over their own learning can help. Adam creates partnerships with his students, develops challenges and provides coaching, then lets the students explore in a project-based environment. Adam says his approach has worked.

“I gave control of learning to the kids, and they learned more,” he said. “It’s important to give kids choice and autonomy. They’ll surprise you if you get out of the way.”

Erin agrees that letting students work out problems for themselves helps build confidence and academic growth.

“I help kids learn to create instead of consume,” she said. “I teach creative problem solving through inquiry and experience so students build their own knowledge and understanding. You just have to make sure you’re over-prepared and have different lessons ready to keep up with student growth.”

Both teachers work with parents and their communities to build trusting relationships. Adam said parents are welcome in his classroom, and he and Erin said their students post blogs and projects online, where parents can look at them and provide feedback. Erin said that approach helps parents feel like part of the classroom and many want to come in and help.

Giving gifted kids choice and control keeps them engaged. Adam said his students keep him young as he watches them explore. Erin said she feeds off her students’ energy because they’re so excited to learn.

Community partnerships can support gifted students and their teachers. Adam has developed projects for his students in an assisted living facility and a wildlife sanctuary. Erin’s students speak with scientists and researchers by Skype, using technology to help her students connect with their local community and other students around the world.

Learning for gifted students can continue in the summer months with programs such as College for Kids, which mixes challenging academics with fun social activities. The program is geared toward students in gifted programs in grades 3-9. It was the brainchild of a group of gifted educators from Mid-Missouri in 1989 and is currently held on the campus of William Woods University in Fulton. The weeklong sessions are offered by grade level and are generally limited to 16 students.

Sue Craghead, the director, said teachers are able to recognize the unique talents of gifted students. She supports the work of teachers such as Adam and Erin as they guide and nurture the kids in their classrooms.

“The classroom teacher is a very important person in the life of a gifted child,” Sue said. “The teacher will channel resources and appropriate learning opportunities toward that child and help him or her find real and meaningful work.”