Teaching the Gifted Child

Teaching the gifted child effectively begins with empathy and understanding. If one does not know or understand the gifted child, it will be hard for them to reach them, and therefore, difficult to facilitate growth. The fact is that many gifted children come into the classroom well ahead of the curve, knowing much of what is still to be taught. Therefore, it is essential to understand ‘best practice’ in gifted pedagogy, including the proper way to assess, compact curriculum, expand curriculum, differentiate, group, and make use of many other strategic tools. It is must be noted that gifted students value instruction that is characterized by honesty, flexibility, trust, and open-mindedness, as seen in a number of research studies. With that in mind, the best way to teach a gifted child is with a flexible mind; ready to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge rather than being the ‘Sage on the Stage’. They will learn from you, and, in the process, you just might learn something from them.


Formative Assessment

Having worked in the field of gifted/talented education for a number of years I believe the key to solid instruction for gifted students is through continual formative instruction that guides the teachers planning through any unit. If a teacher begins instruction with a solid pre-assessment (one that reflects the learning goals of the unit) an amazing amount of information can be gleaned. Information on prior knowledge, understandings and misconceptions, learning styles, cultural nuance, and vocabulary issues, all assist the teacher in understanding where to begin and with who. Some students may be beyond the unit. How will you approach instruction with them? Others might know some material, but may be lacking knowledge in vital areas. Still others may not understand any of the concepts or ideas. Generally, the gifted student population will know some of what is to be taught, while a few may know it all (especially if it is an area of interest). This is the value of a good pre-assessment. It will assist you with different grouping techniques (flexible or not), allow you to focus on the areas of need, or misinterpretation, and allow all students to grow and develop at their own pace. I recommend the use of thematic instruction while adding depth, breadth, complexity, and rigor in order to push even your highest students. Continued formative instruction (non graded=non anxiety), will guide you as a teacher to the end of the unit, and, eliminate any surprises on the summative evaluation. Remember, the goal is student growth, not A’s, B’s, or C’s.

Note: It is important to develop properly written assessments that are singular in purpose (they only test one standard/essential learning) and tiered (basic level understanding to advanced and beyond). I personally like the 4-point Rubric designed by Robert Marzano, because it allows the gifted student to demonstrate knowledge above and beyond the intended curricular goals.

See: Marzano, Robert J., (2006)Classroom Grading & Assessment that Work. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Compacting Curriculum

Once your pre-teaching/assessing is complete and you have compiled a better understanding of where your student(s) stand, it is time to compact. Why would one teach material that is already understood? With your pre-assessment, you have bought extra time in which you can expand the horizons of what can be learned. For me, this was always the exciting part. Given our access to modern technology, there is much information/data to be gleaned. Allow your gifted students to explore, create, imagine, investigate, and dive deep into the themes that resonate with your intended unit. Gifted children, given the opportunity, will astound. Years ago, when my colleagues and I opened the Minnetonka Navigator Program (A school for highly gifted students), we were able to cover 2 1/2 years of curriculum in the first year because of our ability to pre-assess and compact.We were able to accomplish this even after taking the entire month of January to engage in a non-curricular project called Time Out For Tinkering. Proper formative assessment, student placement, and teacher flexibility allowed the students to engage in learning well beyond the core curriculum, and deeply explore topics tied to our pre-determined themes.


Differentiation, properly planned for, remains an effective tool for the teacher of the gifted child. To be sure, some gifted children are more well versed than others depending on subject area, and all gifted students, despite their innate ability, have some areas of weakness that needs to be explicitly taught and practiced for mastery to be attained. Therefore, differentiated instruction is still a must, even within the gifted classroom. Again, the pre-assessment informs the teacher as to who knows what and who knows how. Given that information, the teacher can group students accordingly, and teach in a manner that is appropriate to individual groups. This allows for individualized instruction based on the learning profile of each student and ensures overall growth. In addition, differentiated classrooms designed for gifted learners must be aware of the importance of pacing. The pace of instruction is critical to attaining optimal cognitive engagement for the gifted child. Recent research by the Gifted Research & Outreach Group (GRO), has shown that brain development in the gifted child varies from that of their typical peer. The gifted brain tends to be larger and contain more connective white matter which allows for the acquiring of more information at a more rapid pace. Thus, the gifted child needs to be taught at a more rapid pace than his peers. If not, cognition becomes stagnant and other issues arise (frustration, ennui, even behavioral outbursts). Ultimately, the differentiated classroom is a series of whole and small group instruction, moving at different paces, as informed by a series of well designed formative assessments.

Other Strategies:

Benjamin Bloom

I understand that everyone knows Bloom’s Taxonomy but not everyone uses it effectively in the classroom. For me, one of the easiest ways to reach the gifted child was to utilize Blooms categories of higher order thought. As you review your lesson plan you can ask yourself simple questions related to the Taxonomy. Does my lesson go beyond Understanding and Comprehension. Will the students be engaged in high level activities like analyzing and evaluation? How can I add those higher order thinking skills to increase depth/breadth/complexity that take the child well beyond understanding to challenge/rigor? This tool might be old, but it remains a highly effective one.

Twenty-First Century Fluencies

If you are not already familiar with 21st Century Fluencies you are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to add richness and application to your curriculum. The Fluencies (solution fluency, collaboration fluency, information fluency, and media fluency) are a naturally designed to enhance learning in numerous ways and are applicable to the skills needed for gifted child to succeed beyond the classroom. Google 21st Century Fluencies for numerous templates and ideas. Also, google Ian Jukes. He and his colleagues have designed great rubrics around these fluencies for immediate use by educators.

Use of Other/Outside Resources

Gifted students can push you to the edge of your comfort zone. They can be argumentative, demanding, and challenging, so why not make use of outside resources to enhance your curriculum? Well designed field trips where authentic investigation can take place, are a boon for gifted students who crave knowledge and understanding. Bringing in experts from the field is also an effective tool. While working in Minnesota, we developed a list of more than 500 volunteer parents from different fields of expertise who were willing to share their knowledge. Some even allowed students to ‘shadow’ them for a day. Mentorships can also be effective. This brings to mind a wonderful example of going ‘beyond’ the standard approach to instruction. A few years ago, I made arrangements for four highly intelligent G/2e boys (4th and 5th graders) to take part in an AP Biology course where they were studying emerging infectious diseases. Twice per week, I drove them from their elementary building to the high school where they participated with other students in the classroom. Obviously, this type of science was not covered in the elementary science curriculum but we made it happen. This simple accommodation made the year for those students; they talked nonstop about what they were learning well after the school year had concluded. What can you do to enhance your G/2e child’s learning?

Social/Emotional Development

Perhaps this paragraph should be placed at the top of the page. I firmly believe that for the gifted student, a solid social and emotional foundation is as important as academics. Gifted students with a solid social/emotional base tend to soar in the classroom, even when facing adversity. However, this type of development is not natural in the typical gifted child. Brain research suggests that the Sensory Prints located in the gifted brain are more highly developed and input more sensory information during early brain development, to the detriment of the Limbic System (the part of the brain responsible for regulation/self control). This means that the gifted child has the innate ability to receive vast amounts of information at a rapid pace, but is delayed in its ability to regulate emotions triggered by that sensory input. We sometimes call this Asynchronous Development: highly intelligent beings with low social and regulatory skills. For this reason, gifted students can be disorganized, impatient, inattentive, and highly volatile. To alleviate this issue, I recommend the integratation social/emotional training into the daily curriculum (if possible) to teach self-regulation, patience, delayed gratification, etc. The curriculum I have used in the past is Art Costa’s Habits of Mind.