Here's a direct quote from a fourth grader who was just a little bit too proud of her gifted status:
“I'm leaving now for the gifted program. That's where I get to go because I have a super-high IQ and I get to talk to other kids who are just as smart as me.”
What do you think a statement like this will do to your classroom community?
Helping our talented and gifted students click with their peers is critical. Let’s review a few facts that I’ve learned from my years of teaching.
Helping them fly while keeping it fair
If you want to destroy your community, then allow some children to single themselves out as special and worthy of adoration. If you really want to break down your community as quickly as possible, then as the teacher, treat them that way.
Kids have a very finely-tuned sense of fairness and in our culture, people turn against individuals who are given special privileges for no reason other than being themselves. When gifted kids trumpet their smarts, other kids hear them saying, in effect, “The rest of you are stupid.”
That impression can have some pretty serious social consequences. No surprise there!
This section of my website is all about helping our gifted students fly, but we don't accomplish that by allowing them to make other children feel inferior. And you know what? It's up to their teacher to help them learn this… nobody else in school will help them learn how to keep friends.
And if they can't learn that, then they will have a tougher and tougher time as each year goes by.
Coping with perfection
There is another unintentional way that gifted kids may separate themselves. Sometimes nearly everything they do is done so well (e.g. perfect handwriting or assignments always completed quickly) that the other kids may start to call them out:
“You're always so perfect!”
This begins to make a gifted child shy in some instances. She is doing what she is naturally capable of doing, but she’s also learning to fade into the background and not stand out in order to avoid unwelcome attention.
The great news is that gifted kids don't need to be singled out or separated (either by their own efforts or by the teacher’s) in order to get everything they need to fully develop their particular talents.
The number one lesson that a gifted student can gain from your classroom community is that they can learn something from everyone, and not just from their gifted peers or gifted program teachers.
We don’t want to raise out-of-touch, ivory-tower adults who personify the image of an aloof intellectual. Instead, we want to teach them how to mentally and physically engage with every member of your classroom community even if it doesn't feel natural to them.
Social learning is extremely important for children. Let’s explore it in greater depth.
“Specialness” is often a label that is used to set people apart. As noted above, this will unravel your classroom community very quickly. As a consequence, I do not even use the term “gifted” when referring to the gifted kids in my room. It's very similar to the way I do not use the term “special education” when referring to kids with IEP's.
Instead, I establish an expectation that every child gets the individual attention they need to succeed. This allows me to describe each child's needs in terms of what they individually require for effective learning.
Then, when other students learn that certain kids are going to a gifted program, I explain that those children simply have a different learning style; they need to have some project-based learning, which is why they leave the classroom one day week to receive it.
In the same vein, I explain that special education kids need more one-on-one and small-group support and that's why they receive extra help or pull-out time.
When every child in your room knows deep in his heart that he will receive exactly what he needs from his teacher to learn most effectively, he won’t begrudge the time or attention other kids get.
Helping gifted kids “click”
So how do we help our gifted students fit in when – sometimes – they are trying very hard to stand out? There is no need to assume they will say things that are alienating. But if they do, be ready to step in with a private conversation.
“LeAndra, everyone is gifted. You’re actually going off to a program where you can work on project-based learning because that is one of your special gifts. Just like Tatiana is very gifted at soccer, or Ben is a great with the iPads, you have a real knack for learning through projects.”
This doesn’t diminish LeAndra in any way, but it makes the necessary point. If this approach is not effective, you'll need to go to the next level when discussing the situation with her:
“How do you think others feel when you announce that you’re going off to a gifted program? Some of your friends might think you are bragging. I wonder if you are having trouble with your friends because you make them feel badly about themselves by bragging?”
Be warned however: it may take multiple reminders for this to sink in for some kids. In fact, some may need to be reminded every week all year long! It often depends upon how their parents approach the subject, because what they hear at home about their special abilities will often make its way to school.
Remember that these kids are pretty sharp; if they are open to trying, they will quickly understand and apply your suggestions. You can help them be friends with anyone in your room by advising them to look for common ground. They just need to learn that common ground with many other kids is not likely to be advanced academic subjects.
All ten-year-olds (for example) are going to have an interest in the same YouTube videos or pop music groups or pets – those are just things that most kids are into at that age. Your gifted students need to learn how to find those mutual interests when trying to engage with others.
It can take some time, but it gets easier for them with practice.
Modeling can be very helpful when explaining to a child what words they should use in certain situations. Helping them step into another person's shoes and think through the feelings involved can also be very effective.
How much of you do they get?
One of the characteristics of gifted children is that they want teacher time to talk through higher-level subjects. I hear you murmuring to yourself:
“And exactly how am I supposed to find time for that?!”
It's a legitimate concern. How much teacher time does any particular student get? The answer of course is “as much as they need… within the constraints of what everyone else needs!”
You'll find over time that your gifted students don't require as much time as some other children who need support. This is because gifted kids can pick up on concepts more quickly and you can have faster high-level dialog with them than you can with other students who are not as academically advanced.
I’m always happy to engage with these gifted students by answering their tough questions – often with more “make-them-think” questions.
“So now that you know how far a ‘light year’ is, what distance is a ‘light minute’?”
Working with parents
Don’t forget to include parents in your classroom community! Partnering with parents is critical for encouraging our gifted students to work to their full potential.
Often, gifted kids have very involved parents – which is outstanding and also something you need to take advantage of. These parents are often willing to play a hand in extending learning at home.
However, don't be surprised if some of your parents are not all that involved in school; a lot of parents are quite busy. Although they may have heard repeatedly from their child that he is bored at school, they may not have the skills, time, or inclination to get very involved.
That's fine, because they have a subject-matter expert on the case: you!
Regardless of how Mom and Dad approach the topic, be certain to let them know that you value their input. Make an outreach effort to tell them how their child is doing in class:
“Tamara did super well on her social studies presentation – I was very impressed! Did you help her practice at home?”
All parents love to hear that. It gives them a deep sense of security that you are meeting their child's individual needs. If they've displayed any anxiousness up to this point, you'll see that they will begin to relax and you can work as a team.
Remember, teachers are always on the same side as parents: the side of the child. This is as true for gifted kids and their parents as it is for any others in your classroom. Engage with them and you will be amazed at how much work they will do for you on behalf of their child.