The Most Troubling Myths About Gifted Kids—Debunked

A Washington teacher addresses the common misconceptions about gifted kids—and shares how to give them the education they deserve.

gifted children, gifted and talented, smart student

Gifted children are often lumped into one category; but in reality, these kids, like all kids, are very different from each other. (Photo: Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Tammie Schrader is a Science and CTE teacher at Cheney Middle School, Cheney, WA.

Teaching gifted students presents unique challenges and amazing rewards. Twelve years ago, when I was approached about teaching gifted students and creating classes that were to be dubbed as “highly capable” classes, my first thought was, “These are really bright kids. How hard can it be?”

I was also naïve enough to think that since these kids were achieving high scores in their classes, there would be very little behavior issues. A major misconception around gifted students is that they are hardworking and motivated in classes. Teachers often confuse hardworking, high-achieving students with gifted students.

For me, the reality quickly set in. These students didn’t need more of the same thing they were getting every day in their regular classes. They were looking to be challenged and given an education that matched their minds. They wanted a chance to have conversations with others that would also test their thinking.

Gifted students are used to being given several roles in the classroom. They are the ones given more problems to solve since they can solve most problems quite quickly, or they are given the role of “mentoring” or “instructing” other students that are struggling. Both of these roles become quite tedious and boring to a truly gifted student. 

Gifted students have a unique set of traits, including the following:

  • Rapid mastering of the typical curriculum at an earlier age than classmates
  • Exceptional reasoning ability and memory, often advanced over skill levels such as calculation or punctuation that require more direct instruction
  • Ability to hold problems in mind that aren't yet figured out, to ponder them from time to time until a solution emerges or an answer is found
  • Frequent step-skipping in problem-solving and unexpected ways of solving problems or inventing strategies
  • Advanced vocabulary and a love of words
  • Interest in looking for patterns and relationships and explaining them

Part of the issues lies in the fact that the above list is non-inclusive of all gifted students, and like with any dynamic individual, there are additional attributes and combinations of traits. So how do you go about meeting the needs of these students, as well as every other student in the classroom? Not an easy question to answer. I have found that what is best for highly capable students is good for all students in my classes. 

According to Dr. Nancy Robinson, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle:

There exists no generally accepted and broadly agreed upon definition of giftedness. Gifted children are as varied a group of human beings as exists on the face of the earth. They differ among themselves in the domains and levels of their abilities, in their learning approaches and temperaments, in their motivations and efficiency of organization - in every aspect/facet of human behavior.

This makes creating instruction to reach every student a challenge. In order to accommodate every student, it requires a knowledge of the whole child and how best to serve that child. This requires teachers of gifted students, and all students, to differentiate instruction according to interest and academic ability. 

A unique quality of gifted students is their intense competitiveness. These students are so used to being correct in their academics that working in a group can create fierce competitiveness. Knowing how to get students to listen to each other is a skill that I build by creating lessons where they cannot get through the assigned task without each other. This builds a strong sense of community within the group.

Is this easy? Not even close. Is this doable? Absolutely! 

Meeting the needs of my highly capable students, while ensuring that the needs of every student in my class are met, is one of the hardest challenges I face every day. However, watching these students be challenged and be really engaged in their learning is one of the most rewarding aspects of my jobs.

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