Teaching gifted children

Gifted children represent both a challenge and a resource for schools. Leah Davies discusses why programs to meet their educational needs are required.

An important responsibility

Educators have a responsibility to provide programs to meet the educational needs of gifted students who are capable of learning at advanced levels. Ideally, schools would have specifically trained teachers for gifted students who actively collaborate among classroom teachers, themselves and parents to create a challenging and supportive learning experience for these children.

Common characterisitics

While the criteria for identifying gifted students varies from state to state* in the US, the following are characteristics these children commonly exhibit:

  • extensive vocabulary
  • outstanding memory
  • interest in adult concerns/what is right and wrong
  • sustained attention span
  • original thoughts
  • multitask proficiency
  • ability to grasp complex concepts
  • expresses himself/herself well
  • learns easily
  • requires little direction
  • enjoys working alone
  • exhibits wit and humor
  • solves problems in unique ways
  • enjoys intellectual challenges
  • dislikes routine tasks
  • adaptable
  • imaginative
  • self-critical
  • easily frustrated
  • opinionated
  • highly sensitive
  • intensely curious
  • observant
  • leader
  • risk taker
  • avid reader
  • atypical thinker
  • nonconformist
  • perfectionist

No guarantee for success

High intelligence test scores and other criteria used to identify gifted students do not guarantee that these children will be successful in school. Some gifted, underachieving students may exhibit the following behaviors:

  • poor work habits
  • skill deficits in at least one subject
  • inattentiveness
  • failure to respond to usual motivational techniques
Mixed messages

Gifted children may also be learning disabled, or have another disability while also being highly intelligent. Sometimes gifted children are not identified because their assets are used to compensate for their weaknesses. In a school setting, they may thrive on complexity, yet have difficulty with rote memorization. A gifted child may have superior understanding of the subject matter taught, but be unable to write legibly about it.

Another gifted child may appear to be daydreaming, yet comprehend all that is being taught. Others may become disruptive when previously mastered subject matter is presented. Since gifted children’s behavior and characteristics vary considerably, educators need to be open-minded when considering referring a child for testing to determine the best possible placement.

Appropriate responses

In many schools gifted students receive cluster or sometimes classroom grouping with teachers specifically trained in the area of giftedness. This allows the students to interact with peers of their approximate age and abilities, to be intellectually challenged, and to address their social and emotional needs.

Meeting together in groups is a great stress reliever for these children because it affords them the opportunity for open discussion. Very often, gifted children are singled out as “the smart ones” who should know everything. Yet, being gifted does not mean they possess a greater storehouse of knowledge in every area. Meeting together can also be a humbling experience since their peers may know more than they do about a particular subject. When grouping opportunities are provided, gifted students are more likely to reach their full potential.

Gifted children in the mainstream

The difficulty is that many gifted children are not fortunate enough to have a specialized teacher to work directly with them, and a vast majority of gifted students spend most of their day in a regular classroom, even when a specialized teacher is provided. Since classroom teachers are obligated to meet the needs of all of their students including those who are gifted, they need to:

  • Understand and acknowledge the various characteristics of gifted children. Be authentic and sensitive to the specific needs of these unconventional children who may learn faster or differently than other children. Show genuine interest in their distinctive abilities.
  • Provide opportunities for them to be challenged and to learn at an accelerated rate in nontraditional ways by offering variety, choices, and a compacted curriculum. Determine gifted children’s prior knowledge by giving an end-of-the-unit test as a pretest. Or, ask the children to list what they know about a particular topic and/or what they would like to find out. Allow them to research a topic in depth.
  • Capitalize on the gifted children’s interests by having them choose projects that will stimulate thinking and discovery. Help these children move toward setting goals for themselves and evaluating their work. Encourage them to share their projects with other students.
  • Be flexible and foster further study by exposing gifted students to guest speakers and/or mentors who share a mutual interest with a child or children.
  • Incorporate inquiry, creative thinking, and original thought in daily lessons by asking open-ended and divergent questions and by including problem solving in the curriculum.
  • Know about the available school and community resources for these children: special programs, enrichment activities, support groups, advocacy groups for their parents, etc.
Other strategies

Teachers of gifted children and/or school counselors can assist these students in the following ways:

  • Further their understanding of what being gifted means and help gifted students feel comfortable with themselves. Encourage them to set goals and strive to reach them.
  • Since highly gifted children may have difficulty being accepted by their peers, help them recognize their individual differences as assets. Provide activities that assist them in identifying their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Foster their social competence and emotional growth through readings, role playing and other activities that increase their self-awareness, character development, empathy, problem-solving abilities, and listening skills
  • Facilitate communication among parents and the teachers with whom the children have contact.

Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Leah Davies received her Master’s Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. Her professional experience of over 44 years includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.

See more from Leah at her Kelly Bar resources website http://www.kellybear.com/

This article is used by permission.

* Since states vary in their definition, criteria for selection, policies and regulations regarding gifted children, contact your State Department of Education or your local school system for further information.

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  • Jane Cooper March 9, 2017  

    A great article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Judith Yero March 26, 2017  

    Don’t the points you make about the variability of giftedness suggest that we would be better served by eliminating the label altogether? As well as all the other “labels” that focus attention on a single (typically negative) aspect of a child and ignore all the ways in which the child is unique? In reading the list of “characteristics” of gifted children, I can easily apply many of those same labels (such as nonconformist and “dislikes routine tasks”) to children labeled “troublemakers.” The etymology of gifted means “endowed by nature with some skill or power.” If we allow ourselves to look at each individual learner/child/student and ask “What unique skill or power does this person exhibit?” and IF we open our minds to skills and powers in all forms of intelligence, we might eventually realize that every child/learner/person is gifted.

    Many insist that this is just language designed to make “non-gifted” kids feel better about themselves. But consistent with our current focus on “academic achievement” at the expense of all the other abilities that make us human (physical, emotional, social, natural, creative, and spiritual (knowledge of self), out current view that traditionally “gifted” children are “special” blinds us to the unique abilities of all our children.