Just what are the characteristics of these talented and gifted kids in our schools? They fall broadly into two categories:
1. Formally identified by a school district process or program and maybe even given an IEP or a 504 accommodation. Formal identification is more common in larger districts that provide gifted support.
2. Informally identified by you, the classroom teacher, as students who are working (or capable of working) above grade level.
The students in category two will usually far outnumber those who are formally identified. But it doesn’t really matter; my interest lies in helping you provide for all kids who need some accelerated individualizing.
Classroom teacher responsibilities
Before we get into some particulars on gifted student characteristics, let me explain a key component of my philosophy. Here it is:
It’s just a simple matter of exposure: for a student to make maximum educational progress, she needs to be constantly challenged in every subject, every hour of every day. The vast majority of a student’s time is spent with her classroom teacher, so guess who’s in the best position to provide the challenge?
By the way, this is not a situation that is unique to gifted kids; the same thing is true for Special Ed kids. Or, for that matter, for all kids of any ability level.
So even if services exist – either on a pull-out or a push-in basis – they are really just icing. The cake, so to speak, is served by you!
Video tips: characteristics of gifted students
All children are exceptional
I truly believe that every child is gifted at something and each and every one of those gifts needs to be recognized and celebrated in the elementary classroom. That's how we build community.
This mindset is very important. You see, teachers walk a bit of a fine line with teaching gifted and talented students. We absolutely must provide these kids with the individualized curriculum they need to work to their full potential – they are owed that. But we must also help them fit in socially at the same time.
This means that we must learn how to work with their needs and affirm their efforts without setting them apart by diminishing other kids who are trying their hardest but are not able to achieve the same level of mastery. The concept of “every child has a gift” is important.
Now, let’s identify those gifted little scholars.
Identifying gifted children
We can’t wait for kids to be designated as gifted before we individualize for them. Aside from the fact that many high-performing kids will simply not be identified by an imperfect assessment process, such a designation normally won’t even come until late second or early third grade.
We don’t want to leave those high-performing kinders and firsties behind! There will also be a time delay in assessment and designation when kids move between districts and states.
The manifestation of the identifiers I outline below will vary by grade level, but your “teacher sense” will pick out even subtle hints of them.
First, remember our definition:
A gifted child has abilities in one or more subjects that exceed grade-level by a year or more.
Just one year of advanced ability may not seem like enough to qualify, but it signals that for the child to do more than tread water for a year, the teacher will need to provide individualized challenges.
A more informal definition? They consistently finish their assignments early and get the problems right! Along with this, gifted kids:
- Learn new concepts faster
- Easily recall those concepts later without review
- May not need to pay close attention to the teacher in order to learn
Here are some other things to look for:
They generally have huge vocabularies for their age, as a well as a certain “verbal agility” when expressing themselves. Keep in mind, though, that while they may sound more mature than other students because of their extensive vocabulary, they are often no more mature than any other kid in the class.
They thrive on having higher-level conversations with adults about a variety of topics.
They demonstrate a higher level of thinking because they perceive patterns or relationships that are subtle and difficult for other students to appreciate.
They may have a more sophisticated sense of humor and an ability to understand higher-level humor concepts before their peers (such as sarcasm).
They may have a tendency toward perfectionism.
They are often passionate about one or more topics and will spend all available time on those topics if allowed. The topics may be as factual as “reptiles” or as esoteric as composing original poetry.
It’s kind of a cliché, but I have often found that my gifted students are a little socially awkward. They may not relate well to peers, which can cause difficulties with maintaining friendships.
And one more thing to listen for: super questions!
“Mrs. Weigle, I wonder what would happen if…”
“Mrs. Weigle, I have a question about light years (or some other high-level concept).”
When teaching talented and gifted students, you can expect a lot of questions from kids who actually want to hear your answer. They may not feel there is an equivalent person in the classroom with whom they can share their thoughts or have discussions at a high level – or they are accustomed to having high-level conversations with their parents.
Gifted in niches
One thing we must be very careful about is letting our knowledge of a gifted child's abilities in one area color our expectations of them in another area.
Is quite common for gifted students to show beyond-grade-level mastery in one or two subjects, but not all subjects. These kids still need individualizing in their top subjects in order to advance as quickly as they are able. At the same time, however, they need individualizing in the subjects they are having trouble with, just like all students.
We won't be individualizing for rapid progress in those areas, but rather to promote basic mastery.
Using our understanding to grow their knowledge
Understanding the characteristics of your gifted students is an extremely important step in serving them. These complicated little people are not just Junior Einstein's… they are little boys and girls who have all kinds of things on their minds.
All too often these kids have been placed on a little pedestal by family or prior teachers. They may feel they are expected to not make any mistakes because they are “so smart.” This can make them averse to taking risks as they shy away from challenges and stick with sailing through normal assignments.
They begin to equate being smart with finishing things quickly and easily.
This can have some pretty major consequences as a child progresses to middle school and high school. If their natural talents allow them to skate through challenges in earlier grades, in middle or high school they may suddenly find themselves facing a situation where they have to dig in and learn – particularly if the subject does not come naturally to them.
In short, they can find themselves failing – an emotional situation that they have rarely had to deal with before. Thus the critical importance of individualizing to provide elementary-grade challenges in order to prepare them for future success in school and in life.
An upbeat student/teacher relationship
Throughout this section of my website, I talk about ways to challenge your gifted students. Oftentimes, the real effect of challenging these students is that they end up doing extra work. We’ll try to moderate that as much as we can, but it’s inevitable – and also necessary for their accelerated development.
If they see a pattern of getting extra work every time they finish early, they will begin to perceive it as punitive. Soon, they will quit finishing early or simply finish early and then mess around, escalating behavior problems.
How do we avoid this “extra work” perception? It’s all in the presentation! Everything we do to challenge these kids must be approached in a fun, upbeat and playfully challenging manner.
“OK… that solution to the problem was pretty tricky, I have to admit. But how about trying this. I’ll be very surprised if this one doesn’t stump you!”
That is just one example, and this approach is certainly not restricted to interacting with gifted kids; any teacher/student relationship will benefit from a lighthearted, “were-in-this-together” way of speaking. They really are doing extra work, but the students don’t perceive it that way if their favorite teacher is giving their ego a little bump and making a fun game of it.