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Teaching Young Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Recognizing and nurturing giftedness in young children presents an important challenge to educators. Schools need to respond to their educational needs before their abilities diminish or become less recognizable to those who can do something about them. 

Giftedness in young children refers primarily to "precocity," a rapid rate of development in one or more realms. To some people, giftedness is purely academic and means, for example, that a child earns all A's on report cards. That child may be gifted, along with the children who, at age 3, can count to 100 or read a book, or pick out a tune on the piano. 

But giftedness is more than developing skills faster or going through the developmental milestones earlier. Young gifted children are intensely curious, produce a constant stream of questions, learn quickly and remember easily, and think about the world differently than their age-mates. Their intense curiosity may get them into trouble, particularly when they try to figure out how something works. They may have a super-high energy level and yet be highly sensitive and perfectionists. Young gifted children are at risk for boredom, frustration, and depression. Recognizing giftedness is important because to persist, giftedness needs nurturing. 

Identifying Giftedness

Schools have often shied away from early intervention precisely because of the challenge of identification, and because initial assessments are often minimal estimations of a child's actual talent. The most effective way to recognize and identify giftedness is to use a variety of approaches over an extended period of time. Physical, social, and cognitive development is rapid and variable in young children. Cognitive and motor skills come suddenly: one moment the skill is not observable, then it suddenly appears. For this reason, testing may work at one time and not at another. A more complete picture of giftedness in young gifted children would involve observations of behavior and verbal ability in different classroom settings, anecdotal information from parents, and child products (art work, diagrams, inventions, Lego buildings, stories-written or told). 

Gifted Behaviors. One way to begin finding gifted children is to focus on a range of behaviors that occur in the daily conversations, activities, and responses to learning opportunities in and around the classroom. Here is a list of characteristics common in gifted four-, five-, and six-year olds: 

  • express curiosity about many things 
  • ask thoughtful questions 
  • have extensive vocabularies and use complex sentence structure 
  • are able to express themselves well 
  • solve problems in unique ways 
  • have good memories 
  • exhibit unusual talent in art, music, or creative dramatics 
  • exhibit especially original imaginations 
  • use previously learned things in new contexts 
  • are unusually able to order things in logical sequence 
  • discuss and elaborate on ideas 
  • are fast learners 
  • desire to work independently and take initiative 
  • exhibit wit and humor 
  • have sustained attention spans and are willing to persist on challenging tasks 
  • are very observant 
  • show talent in making up stories and telling them 
  • are interested in reading. 

Consulting with Parents. Since about 80% of the parent population can identify their children's giftedness by ages four or five, a short cut to finding these students is to consult with parents. They have spent hours every day with their children over a consecutive number of years, observing them closely and interacting with them in a variety of contexts. In most cases, this makes them the most realistic predictors of their children's abilities and needs. Teachers can begin to tap this resource by composing a short letter at the beginning of the year introducing themselves, describing the goals for the year, and asking specific questions about the children's strengths, learning styles, and interests. Later, they can develop a system for sharing information and insights as the year progresses. 

Portfolios. Portfolios present another option for a talent search in the classroom. A portfolio is a collection of products (e.g., assignments, paintings, drawings, stories, observations) from school, home, or a community center. It is a repository of what a child has done or can do. Categories of achievement and ability could include any of the following: use of language; level of questioning; problem-solving strategies; depth of information; breadth of information; creativity; focus on or absorption in a task; profound interest in existential and spiritual questions; self-evaluation; preference for complexity or novelty; ability to synthesize, interpret, and imagine. Portfolios provide authentic assessment. Conducted over an extended period of time, such evidence is valuable in determining instructional plans, especially for children in kindergarten to third grade. Both parents and teachers may use portfolios to identify talent and document its development over time. 

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