Monday, October 24, 2016

Boredom, school, and the gifted child: Challenging its inevitability

Do you remember boredom?

Watching the classroom clock. Staring out the window. Doodling until all space in the margins disappeared. Wondering, yet again, why does this have to be so damned boring?!

Life in a typical classroom. No one ever promised fun and games, but the amount of time spent waiting, daydreaming, and battling boredom is even greater for gifted children. In the recesses of their memory, most gifted children recall the joy of learning, their innate curiosity, the spark of discovery when learning was neither slow nor tedious. But that experience may seem far removed from life in mixed ability classrooms tailored to the needs of the average or at-risk student.

What must change?

1. Recognition that gifted children are different. 

First, schools must acknowledge that gifted children are truly different from the norm and need advanced, intensive and accelerated instruction. Gifted children are not just smart; they learn and relate to the world differently. They grasp material more quickly, with greater depth and complexity, and require fewer repetitions to master a concept. Many are emotionally intense, have a heightened sense of fairness and social justice, and ponder existential mysteries at a young age. Those displaying asynchronous development often struggle socially, as their maturity may lag behind their intellect. Without an appreciation of these differences, schools enable gifted students' boredom by failing to address their learning needs.

2. Provision of appropriate services

Unfortunately, even when these differences are acknowledged, many school districts fall short of providing the academic services gifted children require. Whether a function of financial, political or philosophical priorities, gifted students are treated like every other child; they are offered the same education in the same format in the same classrooms. While seemingly fair and equitable, this deprives them of an appropriate education, and essentially ensures that vast periods of down time will fill their day.

3. Elimination of misconceptions and misunderstanding

Misconceptions about giftedness are commonplace, and those who have not lived with, counseled or taught a gifted child may hold false assumptions. Many view them with suspicion - as studious nerds, oddballs who don't quite fit in, sporting helicopter parents orchestrating their achievements. Let's set the record straight: gifted children are not hot-housed products of upscale parents; no amount of instruction or practice  can instill the cognitive complexity and depth of thinking they possess. They are a widely diverse group, in terms of intellectual range, social/emotional needs, and socioeconomic backgrounds. These children warrant a school environment that dispels misconceptions and prejudice, and grants them an opportunity for engaged learning.

4. Adoption of legal provisions everywhere

It is astonishing that so few states in the U.S. offer legal protection for gifted students. Here in Pennsylvania, a legal mandate (although without funding) exists for the purpose of identification and provision of gifted services. While this does not guarantee an ideal education, it gives families leverage to fight for their child's rights. As a consultant, I have spoken with families from other states across the country where these rights are non-existent. Families are completely on their own, and must rely on the willingness of a given school district to help their child. (See NAGC for a list of services in each state.) No children should be denied their legal right to a fair and appropriate education and left to languish in slow-paced classrooms just because of where they reside.

How can we eliminate boredom from the classroom?

Advocacy, advocacy, advocacy. Change can occur through the following: individual advocacy for your child within the school; participation in parent groups; support for systemic changes in provision of gifted services; and public advocacy for district, state and national policy changes regarding funding, legal rights, and provision of services.

Since reform takes time, you still need to help your child adapt. Some specific ideas for helping your child manage boredom in the classroom can be found here.  And keep in mind that most teachers are dedicated and caring, and don't want to be reminded that their students are bored. So use care when speaking with your child's teacher. But if you want to eliminate the boredom and stagnation that affect gifted children, as well as many advanced students, more involvement is necessary.

Become knowledgeable.

Get involved.

Don't let boredom overshadow your child's or any other child's education.