George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

Connecting With the Very Young Gifted Child

Early childhood educators can use differentiation to help young students who may be gifted to thrive academically.

June 16, 2022
Pre-k teacher working with student on task
SolStock / iStock

Educators have long been working on how to develop a more equitable curriculum that caters to all learners. Many times, however, teachers don’t consider gifted students when they plan and implement differentiated learning strategies.

The late Barbara Clark—former professor emerita of California State University, Los Angeles, past president of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, and author of Growing Up Gifted: Developing the Potential of Children at School and at Home—defined gifted as the inborn biological superior development of various brain functions in the areas of cognition, creativity, academics, leadership, or the arts. But Clark also made clear that the “growth of intelligence depends on the interaction between biological inheritance and environmental opportunities.”

In this claim, Clark urged us to consider the strong, rich, and timely connection between nature and nurture. Gifted children need to have the chance and the means to develop inherited traits of information processing with rich and inspiring schooling and environmental experiences.

How to Recognize a Possible Gifted Child

According to experts in gifted child development, from an early age gifted children show certain characteristics that might indicate to teachers and parents that these children have special needs. A young child who has many, but not necessarily all, of the following characteristics is likely to be gifted:

  • Has advanced vocabulary and expresses themselves well
  • Thinks quickly
  • Recalls facts easily
  • Wants to know how things work
  • Began reading before starting school
  • Puts unrelated ideas together in new ways
  • Gets bored easily
  • Likes grown-up things and being with older people
  • Has a great deal of curiosity
  • Is adventurous
  • Has a good sense of humor
  • Is impulsive and acts before they think
  • Tends to dominate others if given a chance
  • Is persistent and sticks to a task
  • Has good coordination and body control
  • Is independent and self-sufficient in looking after themselves
  • Is aware of their surroundings and what is going on around them
  • Has a long attention span
  • Wanted to do things for themselves early

Together with the above characteristics and in accordance with what experts in the field say, from my experience as a teacher there are also certain classroom indications that a child might be gifted:

  • They have unfinished work, which may be the result of varied interests and the inability to narrow down a topic.
  • Poor class work by gifted students is often a sign of disinterest in the subject matter. Gifted children may question the appropriateness of classroom activities for their needs but will work diligently on topics of high interest.
  • Sensitivity to the attitudes and perceptions of others may cause gifted students to fall into the perfectionism trap or to fear failure. These feelings can lead to unfinished work, procrastination, or underachievement.
  • Poor group work; gifted students may prefer to work alone because of feelings that their ideas will be misunderstood or unappreciated by the group.
  • Bossiness in group work could be an indicator of younger students practicing their leadership abilities to find the most effective leadership style.
  • Overbearing behavior also may stem from gifted students’ desire for control in their lives, as well as their traits of independence and nonconformity.
  • Emotional outbursts or periods of withdrawal in gifted students may be due to their highly sensitive nature.

Should teachers and/or parents recognize these features in a child, they may want to ask a specialist for a formal assessment.

Approaches, Strategies, and Tips 

Active pedagogies such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia share the common ground of allowing learners to construct their learning from their interests. These pedagogies base their approach on generating open topics to enable research and discovery through differentiated strategies and techniques.

For example, one recurring topic in all syllabi from K–2 and even higher is the weather. How can we guide the development of gifted children’s interest in this topic? One way is to invite the class to go outside and ask the whole group to notice any special fact about the weather, using their senses to collect information about a weather condition the teacher may have decided to use as a starting point.

From here the teacher asks what the children may want to know about the weather. At this moment, gifted children may come up with questions that lead to deeper research because they will need accurate answers. They may ask, for example: Why does the weather change? Why are there different weather conditions at the same time in different areas of the country? Why is it that the weather varies in the different seasons? Why do seasons occur? When these questions arise, it’s important for teachers to work with the learners to find the answers.

Skills Development

All young children develop skills in the area of STEAM through sorting, grouping, and adding and subtracting, using technology as an aid in finding images and videos, and typing labels they may need. With the weather, learners can observe the sky with the different kinds of clouds and make models and sculptures using a variety of materials such as clay, mud, wire, pipes, stones, flashlights or lamps, and pieces of cloth of different sizes.

In the case of gifted learners, the development of STEAM skills will require that the teacher be open to offering different contexts and resources that involve all of the above but may also demand more challenging and meaningful actions, where the learners have voice and choice so they have the chance to bloom and exceed expectations.

Language development: For reading and writing, invite gifted learners to read and label drawings, diagrams, flashcards, and signs, and to read, copy, and create short sentences. They can also learn poems and songs related to the weather and listen to or even read fiction stories and nonfiction books. While gifted learners will again show that they develop fast and steady, they might need some help with tracing letters and writing due to the development of their fine motor skills, which will probably be at their age level.

Motor skills: Young gifted children will frequently excel in their development of gross motor skills, but they’ll need to control their anxiety and develop resilience in the field of fine motor skills. Offer them enough time to explore, and dramatize, for example, the movements of the tides, wind, currents, and the earth—drawing, writing, modeling.

Gifted learners, like all the children in the group, have the right to have an appealing and challenging learning context in order to thrive. It’s important to bear in mind that giftedness is not a synonym for academic excellence, and most of the time, gifted children don’t succeed in formal education, mainly because the topics that the curriculum offers, and almost certainly the approach, are not interesting to these children.

As Dr. Joan Franklin Smutny, founder and director of the Center for Gifted, explains, “Fundamentally, differentiating is about honoring the individuality of the child and letting that guide what he or she learns and how. Understanding the learners, therefore, becomes the foundation stone upon which every decision about the child’s education rests.”

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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