Wednesday, April 12, 2023

First, do no harm: Nine tactics that teachers of gifted students should avoid

Something happens in most classrooms when a gifted child shows up. Their presence makes life more complicated. And contrary to widely held views about the gifted, they are not always the easiest children to teach. They require more challenging coursework. They ask a bunch of questions and "correct" the teacher on any oversight (without awareness that their commentary may not be appreciated!). They may act out or melt down or roll their eyes when bored.

If they could, teachers would provide a challenging, creative, intellectually stimulating education tailored to each child's developmental and intellectual needs. They might even address problems related to perfectionism or executive functioning difficulties or peer relations. But most teachers are already quite busy managing various pressing needs within the classroom. Some teachers also lack the education or administrative support to address the needs of gifted children. 

Much improvement is needed to address how gifted students are identified and how gifted education is implemented. But at the very least, educators might adhere to the medical profession's well-known dictum:

First, do no harm.

Certainly, teachers are not in the business of harming kids. They are there to educate and support them. But some misguided strategies used to teach, placate, or merely occupy a gifted student's classroom time are still in practice - and inadvertently cause harm. I am not an educator, but I deeply respect the teaching profession and their often thankless job. Most of the comments below reflect classroom practices that inadvertently hurt gifted kids - they are not intentional or malicious. But since these practices still occur, greater awareness of how gifted students are affected may inform change. 

Here are nine tactics that teachers would be wise to avoid:

1. Asking gifted kids to tutor their peers. Learning to coach or supervise or mentor others is a useful skill we might use as adults - on the job or as volunteers. But expecting a gifted child to tutor their classmates is a recipe for disaster. Tutoring is not a substitute for and does not enhance a gifted child's education. Instead, it reinforces their self-perception as outliers who don't fit in with their classmates. It also sets up a damaging interpersonal dynamic with peers who already may resent them, or at the very least, view them as weird and different. Additional bullying or rejection may follow. (And tutoring by a same-aged peer does nothing for the self-esteem of those students who are being tutored!)

2. Group projects. Including a gifted child in one of those typically miserable group projects (a topic for another day...) to "pull up" the other students is a no-win situation. The gifted child endures the thankless task of shouldering responsibility for the project or risks a low grade (which may seem particularly unfair to them). Group participants who expect the gifted child to do more will resent them whether they assume this burden or not. Either way, it amplifies the gifted child's outlier status. If group projects cannot be eliminated altogether, then placing the gifted child within a group of similar-ability peers is preferable. However, some teachers refuse to consider this option, as they assume it creates an unfair advantage for gifted students over their classmates. Such reasoning typifies how gifted children's needs are often sacrificed in the service of creating a presumably level playing field. 

3. Using the G-word - without a clear context. We know that the "gifted" label evokes envy, resentment, and confusion among adults and children alike. The unfortunate label implies that a gifted child is somehow "better" than others. If adults struggle with this assumption, one can only imagine what other children think. Of course, most kids can readily identify their smart or athletic or artistic or socially skilled classmates. If the gifted label is used at all, though, a quick but understandable explanation of neurodiversity should be provided. This can be something as simple as acknowledging that everyone thinks differently and needs a different approach when it comes to education. By placing giftedness in context, you are reinforcing the concept that we all are different, that each child's needs should be respected, and differences do not imply that any child is better than the other.

4. Offering gifted students busywork, extra homework, or poorly planned gifted pull-out programs. Any assumption that gifted children derive benefits from busy work or extra homework is flat-out wrong. They want to play and explore their interests just like every other child. They will resent teachers and hate school if what they are asked seems pointless. It might seem obvious that scheduling a gifted pull-out class during recess or electives a child enjoys (like art or music) can feel like a punishment and fuel rebellion. Many teachers assume that every classroom instruction is essential. Yet, who here reading this remembers their social studies or science lessons from elementary school? Do they really matter that much? Gifted children will not miss out when relinquished from the classroom for more challenging activities.  

5. Chastising a gifted child for their attempts to offset boredom. If gifted children are left to languish in classrooms unprepared to educate them, they rely on their own resources. Some doodle incessantly. Others read at their desks. Others cause trouble by chatting with their classmates and interrupting the lecture with repeated questions. If teachers do not have the time to provide more challenging learning activities, it would be wise to least allow them to occupy their time with something educational - like reading or a creative activity.

6. Criticizing a gifted student for not achieving high grades. No child feels good about a low grade. Some gifted kids feel shame when their grades drop. It may tarnish their image of themselves, or challenge their harsh perfectionism, or evoke fears that they are an impostor. If a teacher is concerned about a sudden drop in grades, privately addressing this in a calm manner with the student may elicit some information. And sometimes, even gifted kids have a bad day and perform poorly. Regardless of whether the low grade is a one-off occurrence or part of a new pattern, addressing it with calm compassion and a spirit of curiosity will be more effective and certainly less shaming.

7. Teasing gifted students about their interests. Gifted kids often have unique interests. When these are mocked or even if a student is gently teased (e.g., did you spend all weekend on that geology project?), it implies that there is something wrong with them, instills feelings of shame, and alerts classmates to the gifted student's "weirdness." They are left to choose between either hiding their interests or suffering ridicule not only from peers but even from the adults in charge. 

8. Singling them out as special in front of their classmates. Even if well-intentioned, this also places a target on their backs. Most children want to be special and favored by their teacher; however, any sign of favoritism will breed resentment and retaliation from their classmates. It also reinforces a perspective that they are special because of innate abilities rather than due to hard work and effort. On a broader level, this reinforces the misguided societal view that giftedness is elitist and that gifted education should be eliminated to prevent special treatment.

9. Stereotypes and assumptions. We are all human and bound to hold certain biases and judgments. Teachers are no different. They are also influenced by media portrayals of the gifted, and may view the gifted as nerds and misfits. Preckel and colleagues, for example, noted that "teachers’ ambivalent or negative attitudes against giftedness may enhance the inner conflicts that gifted students—and especially gifted adolescents—can experience” (p. 5). We often don't know when biases or stereotypes take hold, though! It would be wise for teachers to routinely question their assumptions about gifted students - whether associated with gender, maladjustment, achievement orientation, or beliefs about parental involvement. And, of course, addressing biases with respect to the gifted under-identification of persons of color, English language learners, children from impoverished environments, and students with twice-exceptional conditions is essential. Parents also benefit from greater awareness about how to best approach their child's teacher

If you are a teacher, the parent of a gifted child, or a gifted adult who has endured these classroom experiences, please feel free to share your opinions, suggestions, or experiences in the comments section below. Thanks!

If you are the parent of a gifted or twice-exceptional child, please consider joining an interactive, supportive online workshop series starting soon that addresses the challenges parents face, with concepts applied from my book, The Gifted Parenting Journey.

Workshop information can be found here:


  1. I taught much of 1 yr of grade school, including grading papers. I already didn't fit in. This didn't help. I am glad that no one made me stop doodling though. Still do that...

    1. Sounds like a tough situation. Thank you for sharing what your experience was in school

  2. A pet peeve of mine is when my son is compassionately and politely asked to not put his hand up in class anymore. The result is that he feels that his contributions do not matter. By the end of last year he was considered 'a quiet child' which is most unlike him. He simply didn't feel he was allowed to share.

    1. Thank you for your example of what this is like for your son - and how his behavior was misinterpreted. I hope the situations improves.

  3. There's little excuse for boring sharp kids (or others).
    Is there no other room where something interesting and challenging is going on? Let 'em go there.
    If not, try a different school.
    Celebrate the chaos and try for EACH kid to learn at their frontier in each subject.
    Group by interest and ability.

  4. The first five points are pretty much standard in most classrooms. In today's world where we put all levels of students in a single classroom, the focus tends to be on those who need the most help to achieve the minimum standard. My son's 2nd grade class had 4 gifted kiddos, a group of typical learners, plus a group of kids with reading difficulties--this did not go well.
    In his first three years of school, my son learned that he really didn't need to work to pass, refused the pull-out class as it didn't affect his grade, got in constant trouble for not showing his work on assignments, and was constantly asked to help other students. What many people fail to realize is that many gifted kids process information differently, so having them tutor may do more to confuse an average kid than it does to help. In the end, we ended up moving schools.

    1. Sorry to hear about you son's struggles in a traditional classroom. Sounds like a good decision to find another school! I hope the situation has improved.