In a sense, this entire gifted students section of my website is about managing kids who finish their work early. Still, “what to do with those early finishers” is one of the most common questions I get through my website or Facebook page.
So we need to take some time to address it in greater depth.
Of course, establishing rigorous lesson plans and challenging individual learners will resolve a lot of “early-finisher” issues. Still, there will always be those times when you simply do not have the availability to provide specific guidance to kids who finished their work early. In those cases, it's very important to establish expectations about what to do.
“Early finisher” expectations are for your entire class, actually. Any student (gifted or not) may find herself instinctively understanding a concept and racing through the worksheet. If we don't establish expectations, then kids will gravitate toward something that is their current passion… which may well fall under the category of “pestering other students!”
Besides, if your kids start to think that free time means “work on whatever I want time,” they may rush through their work inappropriately in order to generate this time.
Gifted student Ramone may start looking for any excuse to continue working on his latest book “The Natural History of the Bearded Lizard” and Susan, a highly accomplished artist, will immediately begin drawing.
Both activities are much better than “pestering” but they are not necessarily what these kids really need to advance to their full academic potential.
Expectations to the rescue! Let’s dive in…
Early finisher expectations
Expectations are best established before behavior becomes an issue so we can refer back to them. It’s a great idea to have a little talk with your class where you point out that they are all smart enough to challenge themselves. Here’s how you say it:
“I understand that you guys will sometimes get done with your assignments early. So let’s talk about what to do when that happens.”
This is when you establish the standard operating procedures. I suggest something along these lines:
1. They let you know their work is done. This is your opportunity to extend their learning using the techniques in this section, including peer-to-peer instruction.
2. They can work on other subjects quietly, including quiet partner work. See the example list below.
3. Finally, if the two previous steps don't leave them with something constructive to work on, they may read or write.
Video tips: keeping gifted students busy
Early finisher activities
Here are some early-finisher activities that can come before reading or writing. These should give you ideas for your own grade level:
- They can work on their spelling activities.
- They can use math flashcards to study facts with a partner.
- They can complete an activity or play a game from a center (but they must be very familiar with it so they can do it without instruction).
Their involvement in these activities will be a huge benefit to you because you will still be able to keep guiding them and challenging them in small ways in their new endeavor while you're helping kids with the current lesson. Why? Because they're working on something with which you are familiar in your classroom.
Ultimately, they may then end up reading or writing – skills that will always serve them well in any subject.
Anyone might finish early
Again: these standing rules about finishing early don’t just apply to gifted kids – they apply to everyone in your classroom. Everyone in your room will see early finishers continuing to work on academic material rather than being engaged in some kind of freewheeling personal activity.
This will not spur any sense of unfairness, particularly since most kids will finish early on things every once in a while and be able to partake of these other activities.
Let’s dive into a few of these activities a little more deeply.
Many students like helping others. This can lead to a great opportunity for gifted kids to teach as a means of reinforcing skills they already know, thus deepening their understanding.
This is very similar to the peer-instruction opportunity I discussed on the gifted grouping page, so the caveats and expectations are similar as well.
An ideal opportunity for peer instruction is helping catch up students who have been absent. This is a super reinforcement activity on a narrow scale (e.g. a worksheet) so it perfectly fits our needs.
Set guidelines for how they should teach and model how it sounds. Ideally, they should model your approach of using questioning strategies to get the other student thinking. Watch closely to be sure they are not just providing answers.
But be cautious; helping a peer with a concept should be a very short-term and very focused activity. It should really be a reinforcement of the gifted student’s exceptional understanding of a particular way of working through a narrow concept (such as solving a math problem). As such, it becomes a validation of their insight and an honor for them to explain it in their own words to another student.
This is much different from expecting a child to essentially become a “mini teacher” with responsibilities for bringing another student along.
Just remember this with reading: keep it standards-based to the greatest extent you can, rather than a “free read.” This is where my Reading Jedi reading advancement program has saved me on many occasions. It allows higher-level students to use their early-finisher time to read books at their appropriately-challenging level. And they do it willingly because there is advancement (and badges!) involved.
My Reading Rainforest program is similar in design.
Testing time requires a special set of expectations. When students are continuing to work quietly on their test responses, it is never appropriate for other kids to get up and (in the eyes of the test takers) start playing!
First of all, this is not respectful to the test takers. Secondly, kids will not put in complete effort on the test if they would rather finish early and break out flashcards or a math game.
Therefore, before every test the expectation should be set that the only acceptable activity is either reading or writing. And to ensure that this occurs with a minimum of disruption, a book or supplies should be easily available within each student's desk.
Have them hold up their books before you start the test to make sure there will be no unwanted interruptions later.
Expectations about what to do after finishing a test are based upon the larger classroom expectation of respecting everybody's right to learn… and in the case of test taking, everybody’s right to show what they've learned!
How’s this for an awesome activity for a gifted student: When they finish their assigned lesson, they can get on a laptop or pull out an iPad and use an appropriate website or app to challenge themselves.
Sounds awesome and technology-oriented, doesn’t it? Well, here’s how it looks to every other kid in your class:
“Keisha always gets to play on the computer when she finishes so if I get done faster, so will I. Otherwise it’s not fair. I’ll hurry up and finish!”
And if you hold your non-gifted kids to a high standard of what their finished work must look like (which you should), they’ll never get computer time and resentment of Keisha will grow. This will hurt your learning community, which will ultimately hold back the gifted students along with the rest.
My experience has shown that other methods for challenging our gifted students trump computers and tablets in both fairness and benefit to the individual child. What you may consider to be a “carrot” for early finishers equals a “stick” for late finishers.
Projects for gifted students
Many teachers turn to projects for gifted students, thinking that adding extra work is a great method for keeping these kids both challenged and busy. My position on projects? Not so fast!
I do not believe in special projects for gifted students. Here’s why.
First of all, we are teaching at a high level and extending subject-matter learning, so there shouldn’t be time for special projects if your gifted students are getting individualized, rigorous curriculum. But there are two other reasons that are even more compelling for avoiding projects for gifted students.
I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but setting kids aside is setting them up for trouble. I do not believe in setting a student aside or making them special (as in, they get a “special” project). It’s not fair to the other students in the classroom who don’t get the same level of attention.
An unfair burden
Plus, extra projects can add an unfair burden to gifted students. Sometimes they are doing their own special pullout programs for talented and gifted kids already, and adding projects on top of that… well, you shouldn’t be surprised if they hit their breaking point and their overall performance declines.
They are children, after all, not little salaried workers!
Still, our highest-achieving kids will often finish their work early and it can be so tempting to point them toward an ongoing project to occupy their time. If you decide to go in that direction, it should be done only if the student wants it and his parents agree.
Then, of course, you must establish expectations about appropriate times for working on it.
A final word: keep projects for gifted students standards-based. Sure, they may have already checked off their grade-level standard, but that’s no reason to let them drift away from the curriculum in their free time. Just have them working on a higher-level standard.