While there is much to consider in teaching all children, gifted children have one particular thing they want and need their teachers to know, and it’s pretty simple and straightforward.
A couple of weeks ago, I started asked my seventh grade gifted students, “So, what do you wish all your teachers knew and understood about you?”
Many gifted education experts have shared information about gifted kids and what they need and want. There are several resources sharing lists of characteristics of gifted kids, strategies for addressing gifted kids’ emotional needs, tools for appropriately challenging gifted kids. It’s all good information. But in my experience with gifted kids over the past 19 years, one factor stands above all the other elements of teaching gifted kids. They want their teachers to know this one thing about them:
Gifted children are kids, first.
On the surface, this seems obvious.
But if we look more closely at what others expect of them, we see that sometimes we allow their intellectual strengths to dictate how we treat them.
Just about every statement they made ties back to this idea: gifted children are kids first. There were lots of stories about different experiences and situations, but three themes emerged:
1. Gifted kids might know what’s being taught, but not always. And it can take them a while to learn new concepts or skills. When gifted children encounter something new and challenging, it may take them a while to figure it out.
This happens for several reasons. One is that gifted children aren’t necessarily strong in every single subject. Other times, they may have strengths in a subject, but they aren’t passionate about it, so they aren’t as eager to learn it. Finally, just about every gifted child will hit a point where material just doesn’t come easily anymore. The further they are in school when that happens, the more difficult it is to deal with it. People who’ve experienced new learning as “easy” for ten or eleven years become paralyzed when suddenly, that new skill or concept just isn’t making any sense. When teachers recognize that new material can be challenging for gifted children, too, and can give them the space and support to work through it, the students recognize that and appreciate it.
2. Gifted kids feel pressure to always do really well, “get it right,” and perform at the top ALL THE TIME.
They get this pressure from home and school. Teachers make comments with the best of intentions, meaning to provide positive reinforcement and appreciation for consistency: “I know I can count on you; you always get these challenging problems right.” Classmates also put pressure on their gifted peers. Years ago, I had a student burst into the classroom, fuming. “I got a B on my social studies test, and everyone is ragging on me about it. Everyone. It’s one B. What’s the big deal? I can’t get a B?”
Parents can exert pressure, too. Even a well-meaning, “Hey, I saw you had a B- on that latest science test. Is there something we need to work on?” can send a message of pressure rather than the support the parent intends. Even though no one individual may be putting daily pressure on these kids, when they feel it all the time from all sides, it’s overwhelming.
3. Gifted kids get tired of peers relying on them, heavily, all the time.
Cooperative learning groups have become one of my pet peeves when it comes to working with and supporting gifted kids. Even in my own classroom of gifted children, when I first tell my new students each fall that we’re going to get into cooperative learning groups, I am greeted with groans. Just about every one of my students has been in a situation where they became the “workhorse” of the group because all the other students believed they couldn’t do it as well, or didn’t have anything to contribute. When cooperative learning activities are resulting in graded group work, the pressure is even worse. Group activities and work become dreaded chores rather than positive experiences.
Moment of Truth:
I’m guilty of every one of these infractions. I’ve made the mistake of forgetting that my students are kids first. I’ve pushed them through challenging material faster than I should have. I’ve put unnecessary pressure on them, and I’ve put them in situations where peers rely on them, sometimes too much. I suspect that most teachers can probably think of times when they’ve done similar things. The good news is when I’ve made one of these mistakes with my students, if I admit my mistake and work to do better the next time or correct it, gifted kids are pretty forgiving, too. Just as I want the kids to learn from their mistakes, I need to learn from my own.
And perhaps that’s one of the keys to teaching, regardless of whatever identifications those children have; they’re kids, first.