My local public school takes a one-size-fits-all approach to education.
This works for many of the students, but unfortunately, when my son Benjamin was in kindergarten, it quickly became apparent that he just didn’t fit the mold. Over time, we came to understand that Ben was a "gifted" student, and our school system wasn't equipped to work with children like him.
The National Association for Gifted Childre defines gifted individuals as "those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10 percent or rarer)" in one or more areas, such as math, science, music, dance, or art.
While some schools have programs that meet the needs of gifted students, others may not have the resources to accommodate kids who need academic challenges beyond what the standard curriculum provides.
_Check out our tips for what to do if your child is child is ahead in the classroom._
Sally Y. Walker, PhD, Executive Director of Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says that there are a variety of signs in a child’s behavior that can offer clues that she isn’t being challenged in the classroom. These include, “not wanting to go to school, feigning illness to avoid school, coming home after school in a sullen or unhappy state … all of these behaviors can signify that something is ‘not right’ at school."
Walker says that it’s not uncommon for a child to ask why she has to go to school, or even to say: “School is ‘dumb’ or a waste of time." When this happens, she says that it’s important to question the child and seek more information. You can ask, "Why do you think that? And what might we do about it?"
If you’ve confirmed that your child needs more of a challenge at school, Walker says it’s a good idea to start gathering information to make your case with the administration. Keep a list of activities your child is involved in, details of projects she has done, and books she has read, along with some sample homework assignments and graded tests.
“This will be helpful when meeting with school personnel. This way, when you are talking to the teacher or staff about your child, you will have evidence to support your claims of what the child knows and can do," she says.
“When you meet with the teacher or school personnel, try not to be negative. Teachers are overburdened with the number of students in the classes and the curriculum responsibilities that they have," Walker points out.
She says that you don’t have to let your child fall through the cracks, though. “The teacher or staff may need some professional development on identifying and meeting the needs of gifted children," she adds. “I would encourage parents to join the state gifted affiliate organization for gifted education and/or the National Association for Gifted Children. These groups have parent components, and meeting with other parents of gifted children can be really helpful in making decisions and supporting each other."
You can also teach your child how to be her own best advocate. You can suggest that she tell the teacher if she already knows how to do the lesson. For instance, Walker uses an example from a book, “Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom" by Susan Winebrenner and Dina Brulles, that offers a compromise: “Could you have the teacher give you the five hardest problems, and if you do them correctly without error, then skip the additional practice problems?"
From a broader perspective, you may wonder if your school has an obligation to meet your child’s needs. Walker says the answer is yes — but how this actually plays out really depends on where you live. “Every child should have the opportunity to struggle with challenging content. Gifted children should have content with rigor, depth, and complexity," she says. This is important not just to keep your child engaged, but also to teach her to apply herself. “Otherwise, children may get the mistaken idea that because they are smart, they should not have to work hard. I’ve known gifted students who have flunked out of college because they never learned how to study or grapple with difficult content," she says.
Although there is so much at stake in teaching your child “how" to learn, unfortunately, not all communities and states live up to their obligation in the same way.
“Some states have gifted education mandates. There are a few states that have gifted covered under special education law. Then there are states that have no mandate, no funding, and nothing in the school code about the education of gifted students," Walker says. With so much variability, you need to find out your state rules and regulations, so you’ll know what classroom services your child is entitled to.
In the meantime, Walker says that there are things you can do to make sure your child is still thriving, both in and out of the classroom. For instance, in school, you could ask the librarian to help your child select books for more advanced readers, look into dual enrollment, advanced grade placement for a specific subject (e.g. going to third grade reading and/or math class instead of staying in the second grade for that content area), or finding out if your child is appropriate for a full grade level advancement. For high school students, you can explore college-level coursework, from AP courses to credit-granting classes at a local college.
“Volunteer at your child’s school — not to work with your child, but to help the teacher so that she/he has time to work with the advanced students or prepare for more advanced work with the class," Walker says.
If your school won’t meet your child’s needs, or even if it will but you’re still looking for outside resources to supplement, Walker suggests looking for area Talent Search programs. “In the area where I live, Northwestern University has a Talent Search for bright students. If students score highly on the test given, there are classes that they can take to extend and expand their knowledge in different content areas. Other universities offer experiences that are similar," she says.
Walker offers other suggestions for academic enrichment outside the classroom, “Follow the child’s interest. Take your child to appropriate museums, art galleries, and theater productions. Set up a place for building, conducting science experiments, creating a Lego masterpiece," she says, adding, “Volunteer at a soup kitchen or food pantry. Build connections and experiences that broaden the child’s knowledge and scope of interests."
In some cases, you may ultimately find out that the energy you are investing isn’t helping your child enough; then, it could be time to look for other options. In my son’s situation, there simply were no resources for gifted kids in our community, and we finally decided to put him in a small private school for gifted kids. In many communities, though, parents have certainly figured out how to make a public education work for their advanced children.
_Read more about what opportunities are available in your area in our state guide to school choice._
Terry Mohaupt, who is the parent coordinator for the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the father of gifted daughters, has seen firsthand how some of these options can play out and lead to effective solutions.
“In the second grade of a gifted elementary school, a new teacher was hired; he had little experience, and after a few months, parents were concerned their children were falling behind students in the other second-grade classrooms with more experienced teachers," Mohaupt says. “The parents brought their concerns to the district's parent advocacy group, which I led at the time. I brought those concerns to the building principal and arranged for a mentoring relationship between the new teacher and one of the other experienced second-grade teachers." It took a little while, but ultimately this helped the new teacher better understand — and meet — the needs of the gifted students.
Another example took place at Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development, where Mohaupt facilitates discussions with parents whose children are enrolled in weekend and summer classes. “Many of them report how valuable that opportunity is, because their schools — from various communities throughout the Chicagoland area — offered so little."
As many parents have discovered, there isn’t just one way to make things work for their children. Each of us needs to assess our child’s needs and chart an educational path that will be challenging and rewarding. In doing so, we provide our kids with an environment to deepen their knowledge and develop the confidence to succeed.