Creating Contexts for Individualized Learning in Early Childhood Education

This position statement, initiated by the Early Childhood Division of NAGC, focuses on creating optimal environments for recognizing, developing, and nurturing the strengths and talents of young gifted children, age 3 through 8. Characteristics of these young gifted children can include (but are not limited to): the use of advanced vocabulary and/or the development of early reading skills, keen observation and curiosity, an unusual retention of information, periods of intense concentration, an early demonstration of talent in the arts, task commitment beyond same-age peers, and an ability to understand complex concepts, perceive relationships, and think abstractly (Clark, 2002; Smutny, 1998; Smutny & von Fremd, 2004). Although many individuals are influential in the lives of young children, this position statement targets those who care for and are responsible for teaching young gifted children, including parents, caregivers, teachers, administrators, and other members of the community.

Early childhood gifted education focuses on recognizing, developing, and nurturing the strengths and talents of all children age 3 through 8. Early childhood educators and family members have mutual goals to develop children's capacity and passion for learning to the fullest potential. In addition, research indicates that an interactive and responsive environment in early childhood supports both cognitive and affective growth and establishes a pattern of successful learning that can continue throughout children's lives (Clark, 2002; Smutny, 1998). As such, the creation of rich and engaging learning environments in schools, homes, and communities during early childhood can enhance educational opportunities for learners and help put children on the path to academic achievement.

In many children, a pattern of gifted behaviors and/or advanced performance can be seen as early as pre-school; however, classroom modifications for gifted students altering the pace, depth, or complexity of instruction are rarely implemented in pre-school and early-elementary classrooms (Robinson et al., 2002; Stainthorp & Hughes, 2004). Thus the early educational experiences of many young gifted children provide limited challenge and hinder their cognitive growth rather than exposing learners to an expansive, engaging learning environment. This problem may be intensified among traditionally underserved populations of young gifted students including culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse learners, as well as children from poverty because in many cases additional resources for providing enriched learning experiences in homes and communities are also limited (Robinson et al.; Scott & Delgado, 2005).  Therefore, NAGC believes that providing engaging, responsive learning environments in which young learners' interests, strengths, and skills are identified, developed, and used to guide individualized learning experiences benefit all children, including young gifted children. Further, NAGC believes that providing a broad range of educational, health, and social services is especially critical for enabling young children from economically impoverished environments to develop and demonstrate high potential.

Young gifted learners are a heterogeneous group that is not easily defined or assessed. They present educators and families with unique challenges due to their rapid and often asynchronous development (Elkind, 1998). Varied and uneven physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth can make identification of young learners' strengths, skills, and interests, and the subsequent provision of individualized instruction, difficult for those without formal training in acceleration and differentiation of curriculum and instruction (Gross, 1999; Smutny & von Fremd, 2004). In fact, research indicates that highly gifted young children frequently hide their advanced abilities or outstanding behaviors in educational settings to fit in socially with their peers (Gross). In addition, parents offer a unique perspective and are often among the first to recognize gifted behaviors in early childhood indicating that families must be included as active partners in the identification process and subsequent planning of learning environments (Barbour & Shaklee, 1998; Gross; Smutny, 1998). Ultimately, educators and families must work together to consistently develop and adapt environments that cultivate and respond to the learning needs of young gifted learners (Smutny & von Fremd).

  • Early childhood educators and family members play powerful and critical roles in establishing and supporting learning environments at home, in community settings, and in traditional school settings (Feinburg & Mindess, 1994; Smutny, 1998). These contexts vary and require the active participation of caring adults to recognize and nurture children's strengths, interests, and abilities. However, similar core elements must be in place across all contexts to establish an appropriate and responsive educational learning environment (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1995; Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993; Katz & Chard, 2000; Feinburg & Mindess; Smutny).  The attributes of these core elements include:
    recognition of students as individuals who enter school with a unique set of experiences, interests, strengths, and weaknesses that will influence their readiness to learn (Elkind, 1998; Feinburg & Mindess; Smutny & von Fremd, 2004)
  • informal and formal observations about student strengths and readiness that inform the planning of learning opportunities (Smutny; Smutny & von Fremd)
  • flexibility in the pace at which learning opportunities are provided (Some gifted learners benefit from acceleration to prevent needless repetition while others make gains with additional time to explore a topic in a more in-depth manner than same-age peers.) (Smutny & von Fremd)
  • challenging and content-rich curriculum that promotes both critical and creative thinking across all academic disciplines including reading, math, science, and the arts (Robinson et al., 2002; Smutny & von Fremd)
  • opportunities to build advanced literacy skills (Gross, 1999; Stainthorp & Hughes, 2004)
  • ample and varied materials including but not limited to technology, print material, and manipulative resources (Barbour & Shaklee, 1998; Bredekamp & Rosegrant; Clark, 2002)
  • instructional strategies that foster an authentic construction of knowledge based on exploration, manipulative resources, and experiential inquiry (Barbour & Shaklee; Clark; Katz & Chard),
  • early exposure to advanced concepts in age-appropriate ways (Clark; Smutny)
  • learning opportunities that provide choice and the development of independent problem solving (Robinson et al.)
  • the identification and use of individual student interests to encourage investigative behaviors (Barbour & Shaklee; Smutny & von Fremd)
  • interaction and collaboration with diverse peer groups of children having like and different interests and abilities (Bredekamp & Rosegrant; Elkind)
  • experiences that range from concrete to abstract (Katz & Chard; Smutny & von Fremd)
  • opportunities for social interaction with same-age peers as well as individuals with similar cognitive abilities and interests (Bredekamp & Rosegrant; Clark)
  • engagement in a variety of stimulating learning experiences (including hands-on opportunities, imaginative play, and problem-solving) (Barbour & Shaklee; Clark; Smutny), and
  • caring and nurturing child-centered environments that support healthy risk-taking behaviors (Barbour & Shaklee; Clark; Elkind; Smutny).

To actualize these optimal learning environments, NAGC supports the development of information for parents, educators, and caregivers on the traits, behaviors, and unique learning needs of young gifted children.  We also promote collaboration with early childhood educators to increase their capacity to identify and nurture the interests, talents, and abilities of young gifted learners and to create intellectually engaging learning environments to provide the highest quality education possible for all young children. 

Mile Marker Series

No matter where you are as a parent on your journey in the world of gifted education, you will find high quality information from NAGC's vast online and printed resources all in one place, in this easy-to-use resource:

Developed by experts in the field and parents who have traveled the route before, this series will help parents of high-ability children find useful, up-to-date, practical information and guidance. You're the driver and can take the path that best meets your needs.

Policy Statements

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) periodically issues policy statements that deal with issues, policies, and practices that have an impact on the education of gifted and talented students. View the complete series at

Become an NAGC member and you'll open the door to many individuals who care about gifted children -- while at the same time you'll receive the benefits of membership that will keep you informed about the latest issues and events in gifted. Visit NAGC today.