If there’s one thing I have learned as an educator, it is that every learner is unique and special. Categories and classifications are only merely guides. In the three years I’ve spent specializing in gifted education, I have come to realize that the term “gifted” is often used as a one-size-fits-all label. Nothing could be further from accurate. To say a learner is gifted means different things depending on the definition you subscribe to. The most common misconception is that a gifted learner is a smart, high achieving student. Many people view children “who play school well” in this category.
For me there are two common characteristics that I see in the gifted 8 to 10-year-old population I work with. The first is that these children pick up things quickly. They can learn something when it is introduced one to two times. This differs from a typical learner who often needs repetition and reinforcement for mastery. I believe that for this reason gifted learners are able to consume information at a rapid rate. The other observation I have made about my young gifted learners is that they have evolved into poor listeners in the classroom. And I get it. When a teacher needs to repeat and review content and have students practice skills over and over, the gifted learner has already got it ready to move on starts to tune out. I view this as a coping mechanism. In order to keep from being bored, gifted learners either retreat into their own minds or find other ways to entertain themselves. Of course to the dismay of the teacher and classroom peers, this can manifest in disruptions.
In addition to these characteristics, I also feel that gifted learners can be better understood by considering learning profiles. The first profile is the one that must most people understand: successful (or those who “play school well”). These are the students that are eager to please and strive for perfection. Learning appears to come easy and success is obtained often with minimal effort. Second is the creative student. Often viewed as challenging, these learners question the value of a task and may have inconsistent work habits because they invest their energy into that they feel is worthy their time. A third type of gifted learner is one that may tried to hide their abilities. These learners want to feel like they fit in and perhaps being successful makes them stand out. “At risk” gifted learners are those who have abilities and interests outside the school domain. These are the learners whose gifts may not be evident in the classroom and for this reason they are susceptible to frustration and negative feelings. The twice exceptional gifted learner possesses superior cognitive ability in addition to some type of learning challenge or difficulty. this causes frustration for both the learner in the teacher yet getting the student enrichment and opportunities for extension is just as important as remediating any needs they have. Finally there is the autonomous learner. These gifted students not only do everything that is asked of them in the classroom, they create additional opportunities for themselves. The autonomous learner consistently goes above and beyond what is expected.
Keeping these learning profiles in mind, I try to provide an environment that can support and nurture them all. This is why the routine I build is complex and multifaceted. I have to provide a range of tasks and choices in order to speak to these diverse needs. Therefore I do not expect my students to take advantage of every opportunity available. I recognize that some children will be content to do the very minimum, others will gravitate towards tasks that speak to their interests and strengths, and those that will devour as much as they possibly can. I also recognize that while I can motivate some children with an external system such as points, others will not be motivated by “grades” or incentives.
For my more autonomous and “school driven” learners who push themselves, I have Extra Learning Opportunities (or ELO’s). These tasks offer extended practice with literacy skills and additional content to explore. For my externally motivated learners, I give points. There is no “minimum” number of points a child should be earning; rather some children enjoy the challenge of building and collecting points as well as having friendly competition with each other.
ELO points will be collected and “accumulated” on a classroom point chart. For those that enjoy the challenge and want to compete in a friendly way we will applaud and celebrate their effort. My hope is that it can be an incentive or motivating to all of my children, however it if it is not, then I will work to meet the needs of those children in other ways.