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How to Support Gifted Students in Your Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Technically all students, according to developmental psychologists Abraham Maslow and Howard Gardener, are gifted at something. But within the realm of what happens in the classroom, a teacher can help those superstars shine even brighter by simply adding a few additional strategies to their teaching repertoire.

Super heroes see through walls, lift cars, jump high, and even fly. What amazing things can our students do? Are we helping them to see through the unimportant? Do we assist them in lifting their standards from the minimum to their maximum? Do we teach them how to jump over educational obstacles and hurdles? Do we show them how high their imaginations can fly?

Identify the Gift. Recognize it. Accept it and Utilize it.

In order to do this, we have to be observant enough to notice student potential in what ever form it is demonstrated. Teachers in general are aware that giftedness is not always found in the eager beavers of the class. Identifying the student gift for what it is takes a teacher that is not so concerned about controlling student behavior but rather is more concerned about channeling it.

A simple statement of fact, "Your ideas seem to flow easily from one to the next" will have a powerful effect on a student. Aiding a student to identify and recognize their academic gifts early on gives students the necessary resilience to persist in the difficult task of learning.

Accepting that the student has a gift is somewhat more difficult. In this age of equality, teachers feel that praising a student above others is detrimental to the other students. This could not be further from the truth. Students have a need to exceed and innately understand that each exceeds differently. The detriment of this mentality is that the truly gifted students are shackled and not allowed to explore their gifts, or even worse, accept them.

A student who believes he has a gift will pursue it, regardless of whether he, in fact, has a gift. Gary A. Davis explains in his book, Gifted Children and Gifted Education: A Handbook for Teachers and Parents that teachers must engage gifted students at different levels according to their needs. This is often an ignored spectrum of differentiation.

Best Teacher for the Job?

Some teachers view gifted students as nuisances, while other teachers are intimidated by them. In truth, the effective instruction of gifted students requires a gifted teacher. This does not mean that the teacher has to be smarter, more talented or more able than the students. It means that the teacher must be able to teach in a gifted and intuitive manner.

Such a skilled teacher will help the student utilize his own giftedness and will channel resources and enhanced learning opportunities towards that student that will enlarge the student's natural gifts in ways that the students did not even realize existed. Such a teacher will push gifted students to higher personal standards rather than just giving them more work to do or forcing them to tutor other students who are less capable.

I thank the teachers I have had that were able to do that and gave me the resilience to keep going in school and my education. For example, I had a college teacher that noticed my writing ability and encouraged me to continue. Her simple statements are engraved in my memory and serve as a motivation even today.

How do you identify, recognize, accept and utilize giftedness in your classroom?

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Mariam Willis's picture
Mariam Willis
Parent Outreach Specialist, National Association for Gifted Children

I respectfully disagree with this post. While I do see inspirational value and can connect personal experiences to what Mr. Johnson offers, a good deal of what is said here perpetuates obstacles for gifted children and advocacy.

(1) "Technically all students, according to developmental psychologists Abraham Maslow and Howard Gardener, are gifted at something."
Claiming that "all children are gifted at something" is a vague generalization of both Maslow and Gardener's positions. Further, it is a claim that does harm to the gifted community by marginalizing children who are gifted, reducing the likelihood that gifted children receive support necessary to meet their unique needs in the classroom and society.

(2) "Super heroes see through walls, lift cars, jump high, and even fly. What amazing things can our students do?... Identify the Gift. Recognize it. Accept it and Utilize it."
MYTH: Gift Children are NOT superheroes. It is imperative we change the metaphors used we discussing gifted people. We have children whose skill set is extraordinary, yet they are still vulnerable and human. Further, The process gifted children experience when learning must be valued above the product ("utilization") the gifted may create.

(3) "A student who believes he has a gift will pursue it, regardless of whether he, in fact, has a gift."
While affirmation and language are powerful tools that we all have at our disposal, the claim is that whether gifted or not a student can be shaped to be so. This myth has perpetuated the cultural attitude that giftedness is an illusion that hopeful parents or indulgent teachers have for a child and as a result our public education policies fail to serve gifted children. According to this assertion all children are gifted anyway and therefore need no unique services.
Treating children who fall within IQ norms as those registering 130+ IQ is as frustrating for them, as treating those within IQ norms as those registering 70- IQ. There are significant developmental differences that are propelled by intellectual needs.
Would you similarly argue that it is impoverished circumstances that creates special needs for those 70- IQ? Would you argue that lower IQ's exist because we do not use appropriate affirmation and language?

Our rhetoric is so important. Edutopia is a popular source for information
among educators around the United States. Please, Mr. Johnson, consider a follow-up post that takes on the problems I've outlined above. Gifted children deserve to know about their giftedness, to receive guidance, and to be engaged in an appropriate learning environment.

As you stated in your comments, "In a world where everyone is gifted, no one is."

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Knowing is half the battle. It appears that you have partnered with your son's teacher and that together, you will be able to turn things around. Many students who fail the "system" are gifted. They really are too smart for the teaching and the "learning" that happens in most schools. They may be labeled trouble-makers, rebels, or simply unmotivated. It appears that your son's teacher is starting to give your son something worth learning. You can continue the learning at home-- even making up for the lack of learning at school to a large extent by making your family outings learning activities that are exciting and engaging, visiting the library often, having thought provoking conversations, and providing access to rich learning media and materials. Working with your son's teacher you can surround him with learning opportunities that are customized to his interests. I wish you the best.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I am currently reading a book, All kinds of minds, by Dr. Mel Levine. It was loaned to me by my son's teacher. My son is gifted. He fits the standards set by the state to be in gifted education, at the same time he is failing miserably. I have enjoyed reading Dr. Levine's book because it is showing me reasons why my son may be failing in school. I am seeing that his teacher is probably one of the actually gifted teachers in our school district. She has been able to get more from my son than any other teacher for many years.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thank you for requiring clarity. You are absolutely correct. The school systems are conflicted because on one hand, they engage in a program that is intended for a select few students with special talents but on the other hand teachers around the world take special care to reward all students so as to not single out any student. Many teachers insist that the effort is what is important to recognize and not the quality, while a few teachers maintain that quality matters and that some students are gifted and others not gifted.

To the point of my post, however, gifted students are typically not given special classrooms in which to learn. In fact, "tracking" and homogenously grouping students are viewed as evil practices which are typically shunned by most teachers and schools. Everyone has to be the same. So if gifted students, where ever they are on the gifted continuum, are in the regular classrooms, then regular classroom teachers have an obligation to provide specifically for their needs. Some are successful at this. Certainly not enough teachers are successful.

I would dare say that we would have more gifted students if more teachers were successful. Additionally, I would posit that if the same amount of money was spent on gifted and talented education, teacher training, curriculum etc that is spent on "special education" our gifted students would be much further along than they are.

Again, you are correct. My point was to inspire all teachers to be sensitive to and promote giftedness in the classroom. My comments are not a treatise on the faults of gifted education in the US. You are right, that would take the post in another direction entirely.

Thanks for your comments and clarifications.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]With respect Mr. Johnson, you have created an public post on a very important topic, where you are arguing with yourself.

You position that "If everyone is gifted, then no one is." And then, you invoke the expertise of Piaget, Maslow, and Gardener to claim that everyone may be gifted (at some point or another, in some area or another). This is truly problematic in this forum, where you are considered a guiding voice in education... Are you for recognizing and supporting the needs of children who are identified as gifted, or are you not? Is this a post about gifted children or is it a post about being an inspirational teacher? There is a very important difference.[/quote]

MistyD's picture
High School English Teacher

I find that most teachers aren't certified in gifted education or have the training to help gifted students. In my experience, most professional development is geared towards reaching the struggling student or using data. In fact, I can't remember ever being offered a PD on gifted students. How do I encourage my school district to offer these opportunities?

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


It is my understanding that you are not alone. So much emphasis has been placed on struggling students that it is assumed that gifted students can take care of themselves: "Give a gifted student a book, throw him in the closet and he will learn" mentality. The passing of Steve Jobs only brings to light the stark reality-- have we prepared the next person to take his place?

In order to help your district and school take a closer look at the benefits to the whole school of having a greater emphasis on gifted students, an instructional leader must bring it to light. This person will have looked at the research, will have an idea of how to get other teachers and the principal thinking about how to support and develop giftedness in the classrooms. This person will have to speak up and talk to the administration about concerns and solutions. This person will have to bring some data about how many gifted students are in the school and their progress and needs. This person must have a passion for teaching and be willing to push the issue until it is addressed. This person must be able to show how gifted students should be promoted in his or her own classroom.

Perhaps this person is you!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX
[quote]I find that most teachers aren't certified in gifted education or have the training to help gifted students. In my experience, most professional development is geared towards reaching the struggling student or using data. In fact, I can't remember ever being offered a PD on gifted students. How do I encourage my school district to offer these opportunities?[/quote]

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

Ours is yet another district where teachers with any background or endorsement in gifted education is unusual - even rare. There are fewer than a half dozen endorsed GT teachers in our district of 30K students and you could count those with a Masters or above in gifted education on one hand. Our nearest university doesn't cover gifted students except for a few paragraphs in a single course on exceptional students and since many of our newest teachers graduated from that university, they are basically clueless in dealing with the unique qualities of gifted students in their classrooms.

I have found that more and more teachers in the general ed. classroom have their gifted certification. It seems like gifted teachers today have become a dime a dozen. When surveyed I can assure you that most of these gifted teachers want to get out of the "classroom setting" so they can acquire their dream job. With so many teachers being qualified to teach gifted students I think it is a misnomer when you say gifted students should be taught by gifted teachers.

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

If, as you imply, all the fun and engaging activities go to the gifted students and everyone else is stuck with drugery and uninspiring work, I heartily agree. A litmus test might be Passow's test: SHOULD all kids do it? COULD all kids do it? WOULD all kids want to? If the answer to these questions is "yes" then it isn't differentiated.. I would add that it is appropriate for all students. If the answer is no, however, it may be appropriate for gifted students and not others.

I am GT certified in Texas, but during the training, I had a hard time justifying why all of the fun and engaging learning activities would not be totally appropriate for all students.

Mary Jones's picture
Mary Jones
second grade teacher from michigan

This article is total nonsense. I can see why you call yourself "consultant/change agent/whatever and not 'teacher'. As other people have pointed out you are arguing against yourself - probably because you don't seem to have a very clear definition of gifted. Truly gifted students whose needs cannot be met in a classroom with a teacher who uses best practices are a tiny, tiny minority that could not justify the 'gifted and talented' industry that has grown up. (And why "gifted and talented? What's the difference). The truth is ALL CHILDREN deserve the best teaching available. We can't even support our schools to the extent of fully funding them. Most children, almost all children in gifted and talented programs are high average learners. Most gifted and talented programs enrich the curriculum, but do not offer accelerated curriculum because the children are not that far above grade level and they are not interested in working that far above grade level. They are interested in the math games and special projects that make up most gifted and talented programs. Of course, almost every child would enjoy those things and that is why good teachers build them into the regular classroom. All children would benefit from lower class sizes and more individual attention. The number of children who are truly so far above the norm that their needs must be met by special programs that truly accelerate their learning is too small to support a gifted program in every county, much less every school district. So people who want to make their money from it need to expand their definition to include more children and then have trouble trying to make any dividing line at all. But they go out and convince parents that their children are geniuses to beef up the numbers. As for gifted being easier, I'm sure gifted children are challenging. So are high average, average, mediocre and low performing children. It's just that the gifted teacher is not trying to meet the needs of 30 of them at the same time as a classroom teacher does. No wonder there is so much debate here about who is gifted. It's hard to define something that barely exists.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thanks for your comments, though a bit acerbic. I believe that it would be a bit naive to assume that in any class, there are not potential "gifted" and or "talented" students that have not been identified formally (of course, you do not have any gifted students in your classroom because your district does not test for gifted until third grade, so it would be nonsense to treat any students differently until then, and even then there are so few of them that it won't matter anyways--isn't that what you said?) I also believe that a great teacher can help a student who is not now gifted but who has not discovered his or her gifts or talents to find them. Developmental psychology supports the claim that not all students develop at the same time or in the same way.

Having been the director of gifted and talented programs at a school district, I recognize the limitations schools have on their GT identification methods. Most schools, identify only "academically" gifted students, i.e. students that have talents and exceptional abilities that help them succeed academically.

With this blog post, I am trying to make a simple point that the regular classroom teacher can do a lot for gifted and potentially gifted students without having to have "special programs" for them. This is the other side of the differentiation coin that is so often overlooked.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

A motivated student who works hard, gets straight "A"s, and behaves well in class may not be gifted. A student who doesn't perform well, is disruptive, and clowns around in class may well be gifted. The Gifted Student asks many questions and is very curious, possesses a large amount of information but easily gets "off task" and "off topic". The Gifted Student becomes involved in a variety of activities but may resist working on activities apart from areas of interest. The Gifted Student thinks independently, expresses unique and original opinions but does not handle criticism well.

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