Teachers mean well and strive to instill a love of learning in their students. But many find it difficult to work effectively with gifted children, whose educational needs fall outside the norm. The depth, intensity and exceptional thirst for learning among gifted students place unexpected demands on teachers, often ill-equipped to manage these children's needs. With little training in giftedness, lack of administrative support, and competing demands in a heterogeneous learning environment, many teachers face an uphill battle.
These difficulties are heightened in many school districts where support for overtly struggling students takes precedence, and where blatant resistance against gifted education endures among administration and within the community. And lingering personal stereotypes about gifted children, or a negative encounter with a "pushy" parent, may instill unconscious barriers or even biases.
What can teachers do to remedy this situation?*
1. Expect the unexpected
Gifted children will surprise you. Yes, your classroom might have a few highly verbal, high-achieving students who excel in every field. But many gifted children, for example, are asynchronous, have disparities in their social, emotional and academic strengths, or might struggle with learning disabilities. Their interests, personalities, and quirks are as wide-ranging as those found among neurotypical kids. So toss aside any assumptions about what can be expected from a "typical" gifted child.
Similarly, don't trust your gut when attempting to identify gifted kids. Sure, sometimes it's obvious. That verbally expressive, inquisitive, early reader may be a stand-out. But there are many "hidden" gifted children whose advanced abilities are harder to recognize. Gifted kids who might not be easily identified include rambunctious boys, disadvantaged students from impoverished backgrounds, quiet introverts, culturally "different" students, children who are anxious or depressed, ESL students, underachievers, visual-spatial learners who eschew books, very shy kids who rarely speak up in class, twice-exceptional gifted children with learning disabilities, and those who just want to fit in and hide how much they know - or how bored they are in class.
Don't assume that you can rely on your assumptions when referring a child for a gifted evaluation. Insist that your school implement universal pre-screening; it relieves you of the guesswork, but more importantly, identifies those gifted kids who are frequently overlooked. If it is not being used in your school, enlist other teachers, parents, counselors, and parent advocates to insist on starting this practice.
2. Reflect on your personal assumptions and expectations
We all hold biases, stereotypes and assumptions about people who are different from us. Even when we try to be open-minded, it is difficult to grasp someone else's lived experience. Widespread biases toward the gifted pervade our culture through film, literature, social interactions, and the language we use; they are difficult to avoid, and can make the world a threatening place for those who are gifted. Although you may love your work and your students, it is important to consider any lingering, sometimes unconscious stereotypes you might harbor toward gifted children and their families.
Personal biases and stereotypes may stem from negative childhood experiences, media portrayals of the gifted, conflicts with a few difficult parents, or just how your own thinking style differs from those of your students. Keep in mind that gifted students are not trying to make your life miserable with their endless questions, nor are they lobbing personal criticism at you when they claim to be bored. Many become disengaged, chronically frustrated, and apathetic about school and achievements. Many also struggle socially and emotionally, and suffer in classrooms where peers cannot tolerate their differences.
While you may have weathered your share of "pushy" parents, most parents of gifted children dread falling into that stereotypical role. Many feel desperate to help their child find an appropriate education, but often restrain themselves and limit their requests, fearful of alienating you and fostering possible retaliation in the classroom. Yes, I know... you would not consider taking it out on your students, but some teachers have done this in the past. So parents worry, contain their emotions, and pick their battles (at least initially... until they reach a point where administration, school boards, or legal action might be considered).
So, what can you do to address any lingering stereotypes?
- First, recognoize that it takes courage and humility to acknowledge that you might harbor stereotypes and biases. Just admitting this to yourself is an essential first step. Most teachers work to challenge their own implicit biases about underserved populations. But biases also persist toward gifted children - and especially toward those within underrepresented groups.
- Consider when your opinions or decisions were wrong about a gifted child or his/her parent. Think about when a child's education did not work out as planned. Pay attention to any regrets over how you handled a situation or when you did not advocate. Also, don't forget to acknowledge when you handled things well, and when you overcame odds to advocate for and educate your gifted students!
- Think about where certain biases or stereotypes developed, and how you plan to challenge them. Learning more, attending workshops, and reading about gifted children's social/emotional needs, asynchronous development, twice-exceptional issues, best practice in gifted education, the excellence gap, acceleration, ability grouping, gifted underachievement, and gender/cultural/racial issues are a great start.
3. Advocate for yourself
You might be used to advocating for your students. But if you want to help your gifted students - in fact, all of your students - you first need to appreciate your own needs, limitations, and "growing edge" as a teacher. Working successfully with gifted children requires resources, team work, time, and administrative support. You know your situation best, but you might consider the following:
- Advocate with district administration to make your job easier. Challenge the expectation that you can easily differentiate instruction with children who exhibit widely diverse academic needs within one classroom. The elimination of ability grouping - no matter how well-intended - sets you up for exhaustion and failure. Few children are well served in these situations, and gifted children typically suffer the most. Policies that restrict subject or full-grade acceleration also create problems. Don't let administrators think you are invincible. Advocate for classroom conditions that make life easier for you - and benefit all of your students.
- Insist that you receive training in gifted education. This could include in-services, continuing education, or workshops that address teaching strategies, identification, differentiation when indicated, and social and emotional issues among the gifted. Even if there is a gifted support teacher on site, you still have to teach your gifted students most of the time and need to feel confident with your instruction.
- Ask for help. Don't assume you have to manage this alone. It takes a village... and this village just might be your fellow teachers, school psychologists, parent advocacy groups, or state gifted organizations. Enlist these partners for developing strategies for advocating for improved services. The more people who articulate the problem, cite research, and point out fallacies in reasoning, the greater the likelihood that changes will occur.
Teaching is a tough job, especially when schools face a lack of funding and resources. Teachers' jobs are frequently undervalued, scapegoated and under attack. If you want to make your job more manageable, and certainly if you want to excel in your work with gifted children, finding the support you need is critical.
Enlist the support of others (teachers, parents, administration, school boards, advocates, state gifted organizations) to insist that the schools set up classroom structures and universal pre-screening so that gifted children receive the fair and appropriate education they deserve. Pay attention to any false assumptions you might harbor about gifted children, and get as educated as possible about their needs. And take care yourself along the way.
*(A final word: As a psychologist, I am offering ideas about gifted children's needs, along with the struggles I have seen many teachers experience in their efforts to work with these students within a complex educational climate. I think that teaching is an incredibly difficult and challenging job, and would never suggest HOW to teach. I hope that you, as a teacher, can work toward achieving the self-understanding and support that will enhance your very meaningful work.)