(Used with permission by Open Space Communications, Understanding Our Gifted, volume 18, no. 1, Fall 2005)
If the child scores consistently high on daily assignments or standardized tests yet still makes careless mistakes on routine homework assignments and/or indicates a lack of interest in school, it may be time to ask questions about the appropriateness of his educational experience. Perceptive parents, with the aid of test scores, portfolio documentation, and anecdotal records of home experiences, can assist teachers in determining if the curriculum is meeting the student’s needs.
When should the parent approach the teacher, and when can the situation be handled by the student herself? Children at very young ages can be empowered to make requests concerning their assignments. They need to be coached on how to appropriately approach the teacher. When other students are quietly working, the student might say to the teacher, “I have correctly spelled all these words on the pretest. Would it be possible for me to have a more advanced list next week?” or, “If I do the five most difficult math problems correctly, could I be excused from doing the rest of the worksheet and use the time to go to the library to explore astronomy?” It is important to ask questions rather than make demands from the teacher. Students need self-confidence and role-play practice at home to execute such a plan.
When a child’s self-esteem is suffering, a parent may need to approach school personnel. Such interventions are most likely to be successful if the parent has already established a positive rapport with the school. Notes of appreciation to the teacher or principal do not go unnoticed! A friendly face is welcome at school. Parents show support for the school by donating time or money to construct new playground equipment or establishing schoolyard beautification projects; judging science or invention competitions; assisting in compiling, editing, or printing newsletters or anthologies of student work; leading book discussion groups; serving as mentors to students; facilitating career explorations; or donating books or magazine subscriptions to the school library.
When there is a problem or issue to be discussed, it is proper to confer with the teacher first. If further conferencing is necessary, the principal and/or other school administrator should be invited to attend. The gifted coordinator or teacher can also be an effective advocate for your child.
What should you ask for? It could be acceleration in a content area or occasionally a grade skip. Acceleration in a content area may take the form of compacting the curriculum, which involves pre-testing to see if your child has mastered the curriculum before it is presented. The student then moves more quickly to advanced material. It might be appropriate for your child to study a topic in-depth or at a more complex level that involves making connections or seeing relationships. A child studying environmental issues surrounding forests could present the varying viewpoints of a logger, a camper, a wildlife scientist, a rain forest ecologist, or a furniture manufacturer.
Although curriculum differentiation is appropriate for all students, it is critical in keeping gifted students challenged and engaged in learning. To throw a non-swimmer into the deep end of the pool is inhumane. To demand that an Olympic swimmer remain in the shallow end until the rest of the class learns to swim is a ludicrous restraint!
Learning must extend beyond acquisition of facts. Gifted students are capable of being producers of new knowledge. Are there opportunities for creative thinking and problem solving? Do classroom assignments go beyond filling in the blanks on worksheets? By asking students to rewrite the Preamble to the Constitution in their own words, the teacher is helping them to develop higher-order thinking skills. At home, children can be involved in the problem-solving decisions of daily living. If the family plans to remodel a room, for example, the child can analyze cost comparisons, color decisions, and quality of materials. Young children can make informed decisions regarding the price, nutrition, and quantity when purchasing breakfast cereals.
Gifted students crave knowledge, ask questions, and are curious. Parents must allow young people to follow their passions. A child enamored with having a pet snake can learn about life spans, ecological patterns, food chains, geographical climates, financial investments, and responsibility. The interest might eventually lead to a career as a herpetologist. For some students, passions change monthly. Being the parent of a gifted child demands patience, tolerance, understanding, and support.
It is a fundamental human desire to belong. Where do gifted children fit? The farther they are from the mean in the bell-shaped curve of abilities, the more they have to relinquish their “real selves” to fit in. Because of the asynchronous development of these children, they may require a variety of peers—intellectual, social, physical, and emotional. A student may need an older child or adult with whom she can play chess or discuss the latest astronomical discovery. An age-level peer of similar physical prowess may play tennis with him. A relative, neighbor, or counseling adult might meet emotional needs. Self-esteem increases when children are involved intellectually, emotionally, or artistically with others who are similar. Students placed in classes with those of lesser abilities develop feelings of isolation, frustration, and withdrawal. They tend to “dumb down” to fit in and never have the satisfaction of knowing that with effort, they can achieve.
Parents can balance the school experience by finding opportunities in the community based on the student’s interests. Budding musicians can participate in a group musical experience, young artists can enroll in art classes, those curious about the out-of-doors can participate in science or conservation group activities, and avid readers can be part of a youth group at the public library. One of the best ways for bright students to find others like them is to enroll in Saturday or summer classes for gifted students. Summer residential and other outside-of-school programs are often the place where gifted youngsters find others that think and learn as they do, often developing lasting friendships.
It is imperative that parents and schools work together to challenge gifted children by providing appropriate learning activities, helping students to select a wide variety of stimulating reading material, exposing them to the creative arts, supporting participation in physical activities, encouraging communication skills, and establishing a nurturing and positive environment.