Op-Ed: We Must Do More for Our Gifted Kids

Nancy Harris, a Gifted and Talented program teacher, makes the case for better programs for gifted children across the U.S.

Teacher Nancy Harris argues that we must give gifted kids more opportunities to excel. (Photo: Denver Post via Getty Images)
has been teaching middle school students for 24 years.

Gifted education programs are unfortunately often referred to as “elitist.” In reality, we owe it to our gifted and talented students to differentiate their educational experience not only in academic ways but also by providing them with social and emotional support.

In my almost 25 years of teaching middle school, I’ve seen how it is not always “cool” to be smart for kids approaching their teenage years. Socially, adolescent children seek to fit in as their peers take on an even greater influence in their lives.

As students seek to find their identity and their place in the social pecking order, they often hide their intelligence for fear of the social consequences. School systems need to provide programming that will allow these high-achieving students to embrace their intelligence free from the ridicule and embarrassment often felt in the regular classroom setting.

By providing gifted students with the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other high-achieving students, we allow them to not only feel accepted, but also challenged and free from stereotypes. Offering them a class in which they have the ability to interact with students who value learning at the same level as they do also gives them a safe haven where they do not feel ostracized.

In a small group setting, it becomes easier to address the social and emotional concerns that often accompany a gifted child. Perfectionism, frustration, and self-esteem (both high and low) can be discussed out in the open in a non-threatening environment. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge an educator faces is how to differentiate for every child in the classroom. To this end, differentiating high-achieving students from average students can be perceived by that student as being assigned to “help” others or it can give them the feeling that they “did all the work” when completing group projects.

It is important to provide an environment that promotes opportunities for the students to express their gifts and talents.

Often, a teacher may differentiate for a gifted child by giving them more of what they already know. Scheduling that allows the gifted students an opportunity to meet together and collaborate on projects helps address this issue. However, such a class should be based upon an interdisciplinary curriculum that is flexible enough to allow students to pursue interests that they may feel compelled to investigate.

It is important to provide an environment that promotes opportunities for the students to express their gifts and talents. Equally, it is important to provide them with opportunities to challenge themselves, free from grades, to participate in activities that fall outside their perceived strengths and comfort zones.

Exposure to topics that interest, challenge, and provide a discovery-oriented approach is the key to nurturing this. The teacher must recognize and foster the multiple talents each student brings to class. 

In order to bring out the highest potential in a class of gifted students, a mosaic of learning opportunities must be provided. Just as students have different academic strengths, they also have different motivations for learning.

In the regular classroom, grades are often the motivation for achievement. In a setting of gifted students, providing many challenging, meaningful, and authentic tasks that foster individual responsibility is a better alternative.

Some students are motivated by academic competitions or corporate-sponsored challenges where students compete against other students to address a real-world problem and apply their creativity in an authentic way.

Challenges such as the Verizon Innovative App Challenge do just that. This competition has all the ingredients to provide students, no matter what their level of learning, with a unique educational experience. Students need to use their creativity along with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills to identify, plan, and present an authentic product. Combine this with the fact that it is a competition sponsored by a well-known company and the winners get to work with a mentor from MIT, and that raises the bar even further.

To alter the words of Ken Robinson, as a teacher we come in contact with students who follow, those who lead, and some going the wrong way, but more often then not, my experience with gifted students is that they're the ones that pave the way. Whether it is a corporate-sponsored event, a community service project, an experiential field trip, or an academic competition, it is imperative that we nurture the talents of our high-achieving students—for their future as well as for ours.

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