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Gifted Kids and School: The Best Approach to Educating Einstein

Keeping super-smart children engaged, motivated and accepted can be an incredible challenge. Learn how to help your academically bright child.

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Dealing with intensity

A gifted child might also be driven to learn about just one thing. And that interest can become all-consuming. Another one of Sznewajs' sons who was identified as gifted enjoys sports with a passion that's hard for others to understand. Sure, he likes watching games, but it goes far beyond being a fan.

"We were at a friend's house when he was just 6 and all of the kids my son's age were outside playing; Peter was inside watching a Michigan State game," she recalls. "They were losing at halftime when we had to go, and I had to carry out this sobbing, crying boy. He was just so upset. It's not just that he knew every single game and every single sports statistic. He knows it, and he cares about it. He's very much affected by how things go, how teams play; it's all-consuming for him. I just don't see that as being typical."

There was nothing Sznewajs could do to console her son who, in the end, fell asleep. Now 10 years old, her son still gets emotionally wrapped up with sports teams' performances, but "his falling to pieces is usually just for the big games."

Gifted children's emotional and intellectual intensity can make it hard for them to fit in with other children their age. "It's heartbreaking," says Sznewajs of watching her sons seeking out friends and then having trouble connecting.

"It's not that they're better than any other kid; they're just different." As a parent, she found it was important to support her son's interests instead of pointing out ways he might be able to fit in with other kids his age.

"The more you try to change them, the more they get in their heads that there's something wrong with them," she says. "That's not the message I want to give my son." So instead of suggesting a different outfit when her son steps out decked in complete Detroit Lions' gear (knee pads included), she holds back.

"You've got to be careful. The more you battle about small things like that, what you're really telling your kids is that 'you're not good the way you are.' I explained, 'You might not get the reaction to your outfit that you think you will; if it's OK with you, it's OK with me.'"

Getting an education

Often the biggest obstacle that gifted children face is finding where they fit in at school. Many gifted children aren't challenged academically at school, and instead float through classes and deal with their boredom in any way they can. Some sit and read, others daydream, some get angry, still others tune out of class entirely.

"In a regular classroom, gifted children are often pushed aside because they get it," explains Andrea Osbourne, a teacher of gifted education at Dodson Elementary in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (PCCS) district. "Once they complete their work, they're reading." It can be a big wake-up call for them when they do encounter academic challenges, notes Osbourne, who helps usher in kids to the talented and gifted program at PCCS.

"There's a few ways that public schools go about gifted education," says Osbourne. "We have a pull-out program at PCCS where gifted students identified in second grade go to one of two schools in third grade with dedicated Talented and Gifted (TAG) classes."

Other common public and private school options include having a gifted-education teacher visit a classroom and teach a few students. Or some school districts have gifted children attend classes for part of the day or maybe one or two class periods.

The pull-out approach has worked well for PCCS, in Osbourne's view. The district nearly doubled its gifted program just this school year, adding classes and increasing the number of students who participate in TAG.

When asked how teaching gifted students differs, Osbourne says it's more about what the students bring to the classroom than anything else: "I'm more of a guide. I could ask one question, and the kids could talk about it for 20 minutes. It's a popcorn effect as the students just bounce ideas off of one another. In a regular classroom, these kids may have been mocked for their comments. Here, they're just so excited to be able to share." She also notices that in her TAG classes, kids tend to be more accepting of each other's differences and intensities, too.

Deeper levels

In Cathy Wilmers' class at The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, which is dedicated to teaching gifted children, students are given more opportunities to choose the classes they want to attend based on their interests. Her approach to teaching also differs widely based on the needs of her students, which she describes as "across the gamut."

"Some of these children are highly able to communicate, and other kids have trouble with that," says Wilmers. Her students tend to take simple concepts and expand them, tackling big ideas. For instance, during one discussion of the math concept of a googol, some of the children delved deep into the idea of a number with so many zeroes. "They were really thinking through that idea of the number, and for some it was even disturbing."

At Steppingstone, Morse explains that children are placed in classes according to ability, not age. So a second grader may be able to take a college-level math class, if that's where she fits academically. Subjects tend to be integrated and hands-on. Steppingstone also tries to teach social and emotional skills to help gifted children succeed.

She says there's a misconception that gifted children are self-motivated and always attentive and engaged in class. Morse recalls a recent experience with a substitute who wasn't used to working with gifted children. A few students from her class made their way to Morse's office to report a problem.

"The kids were dancing on the desks," says Morse. "I talked to her later and she said, 'I thought all gifted kids were motivated, independent learners and they did everything right.' I told her, 'They're kids just like any other kids. They can get in to trouble. But they're just more creative about it.'"

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