Training teachers to nurture gifted students

What do gifted children look like?

They might look like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. They might be the class clown, or sit quietly and try to go unnoticed, or become so disruptive they get sent to the principal’s office. Gifted students are sometimes obviously so, but they might also go undetected by teachers, administrators, and even parents. While there are many different definitions of giftedness, it encompasses those whose intellectual abilities are not only significantly more advanced than their same-age peers, but also more advanced than their own physical and emotional capabilities.

In the past these students were identified by IQ scores, but most school districts no longer give such tests. Today you might be looking for students who score in the 95th percentile or above on grade-level, nationally normed achievement tests, who understand concepts before they’re taught, or who read or do mathematics at several grade levels above their classmates. In Michigan, it is estimated that between 76,500 and 153,250 students could be classified as “gifted.” It’s also true that, in Michigan, a gifted child has a good chance of going unidentified and/or underserved for the vast majority of their K-12 education.

How can we fully meet the needs of gifted students? The Michigan Association for Gifted Children contends that four major categories must be addressed:


Identification processes work to distinguish the gifted student from the student who is achieving at grade level. Starting in the earliest grades, IQ tests, above-grade-level tests, teacher, parent, and/or peer recommendations, portfolio reviews, and classroom performance can all be used to assess a child’s innate abilities.

Mandated Services

Requiring school districts to provide gifted services means that every child is appropriately challenged in the classroom; however, these services do not have to be expensive. Several low cost policies can be adopted by school districts, and the key to most of them is flexibility. They include:

Acceleration, commonly known as grade-skipping, is an effective strategy with years of research behind it. Students can also accelerate in a particular subject, or be allowed to start kindergarten or graduate early.

Cluster-grouping (bringing like-ability students together in a particular classroom), compacting curriculum (giving students material at a fast pace without unnecessary repetition) and independent study are also effective options that cost very little, while pull-out programs and specified gifted classrooms may cost more.

If a school does not offer gifted services, it should be required to tell parents that they are not available so that families can look for appropriate educational options elsewhere. The state of Ohio, for instance, requires each school district to file a “Self-Report on Identification and Services for Students Who are Gifted.” Such a requirement holds school districts accountable for the services they provide. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, at least 32 states have some sort of mandate for the education of gifted students.

Required Teacher Training

The state of Michigan has no requirement that teachers receive any specialized training in gifted education before being placed in a classroom. If you train here you may not learn anything about gifted students before becoming certified, or it may get a brief mention in a special education class. Many teachers are not taught to identify gifted students, and are unprepared to meet their unique educational needs. A set number of hours or classes regarding gifted education should be part of every teacher’s required curriculum.


While many accommodations can be delivered very inexpensively, there are costs associated with identification and professional development. State funding should be provided to help schools cover these costs. At least 22 states across the country provide money for gifted education, from less than 1 million dollars to 50 million dollars or more annually.

The newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind, requires schools to report on gifted students and show achievement gains. It also includes Title 2A funds that can be used for gifted education.

Why does any of this matter to you? Because schools that strive to meet the educational needs of every child care not just about meeting state standards, but about helping each child meet his or her full potential. When done correctly, gifted education helps to bridge the “excellence gap,” that difference between the successes of high achieving middle and upper class white students, and those of underrepresented minorities or students of lower socioeconomic status.

Once in the workforce, these fully realized students have developed a work ethic, resilience and perseverance in addition to meeting academic goals, allowing them to become the creative and leadership forces behind tomorrow’s economic progress. Policies that allow every student the opportunity for unlimited success are essential to a better future for Michigan’s children, and for all citizens across the state.

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Carol Waltman
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 9:37am
Absolutely correct.
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 11:12am
Excellent article... but we must train teachers how to differentiate curriculum for all.
Nan Janecke
Thu, 06/30/2016 - 1:15pm
Absolutely true - teachers who are trained to differentiate for gifted children will do a better job of differentiating for all children.
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 11:29am
Great article Nan. I will be sending you some info on a study of teacher beliefs/mental models by email for your next one.
Nan Janecke
Thu, 06/30/2016 - 1:15pm
Thank you!
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 1:21pm
Thank you Nan! One of the unintended consequences of NCLB and removing ability grouping from most public schools has been that many schools have abandoned any attempt to provide appropriate educational opportunities to gifted students. Thanks to the NAGC and several allies in Congress, the new Every Student Succeeds Act requires school districts to demonstrate educational growth for every student every year, including those who are performing above grade level. While upper-middle class or wealthy families can provide enrichment or private school opportunities for their gifted kids, gifted children from poor and many minority families will go unidentified and unserved if our public schools don't offer Gifted and Talented programs and services, including single-subject or full grade acceleration.
Wed, 06/22/2016 - 12:10am
What are the expected results of this approach? What are the risks? As best I can tell is this effort is designed to identify and match the classroom/study with the level of interest of the gifted student. That seems to be an appropriate approach to take with all students, trying to stimulate/match their interests with studying? It seems this approach is about putting students on 'track' as early as possible. My concern is how that is managed because there seems to be a risk of segregating the students and that can be harmful in different ways, especially when young. One of the things I see school doing is helping kids socialize, learn to deal with the diversity of people [personalities, interests, work habits/efforts, capabilities, etc.]. How does this gifted student approach guard against creating an intellectually, socially isolation groups of people? How does this approach that social and emotional development is kept in pace with [chronological] peers?
Nan Janecke
Thu, 06/30/2016 - 1:30pm
Like most students, gifted children tend to have different peer groups for different activities. One group they hang out with to play softball, for example, and a different group they hang out with to do, say, Science Olympiad. During the course of a day, week, or year, they will interact with all kinds of people for any number of reasons. This will teach them empathy, respect for others, and any number of important social skills. Appropriate identification, however, is the opposite of tracking. "Tracking" implies that a child cannot get on - or off - the road that they're on. When children are identified as gifted at any age it helps schools to recognize when they need specific accommodations and ensures that they receive an appropriately challenging education.
Wed, 06/22/2016 - 12:08pm
It seems to me that this function might be a good fit for Intermediate School Districts in Michigan. Bright students in Northwest Michigan (especially those interested in engineering-related fields) can attend the Manufacturing Technology Academy of NW Michigan (MTA), a program of the Traverse Bay Area ISD's Career Tech Center (TBAISD.) In the mid-'90s, TBAISD partnered with Northwest Michigan College (NMC) and area manufacturers to start MTA, which integrates high-level science, mathematics, economics and English with an engineering technology lab and curriculum. During its two decades of operation, MTA has evolved into a strong STEM/pre-engineering program. In May, the MTA program received the 2016 Excellence in Action Award from Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work (formerly known as the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. The annual Excellence in Action award recognizes and honors innovative and impactful Career Technical Education (CTE) programs of study across the nation. The MTA program was recognized because of its "uniquely innovative and effective approach to offering rigorous coursework, authentic and meaningful work-based learning experiences, and supported transitions from secondary to postsecondary education and on to successful careers." The MTA serves 11th and 12th grade students from school districts in Grand Traverse, Benzie, Kalkaska, Leelanau and Antrim counties. Although we don't officially identify them, I'm confident that many (if not most) of our students at MTA would likely qualify as gifted. Our curriculum in mathematics ranges from honors trigonometry/precalculus to College Calculus 1, 2, 3 and Differential Equations (through NMC). Our science curriculum includes Honors Chemistry, Honors Physics and Advanced Physics, which is based upon a National Science Foundation curriculum in optics, lasers and photonics. These classes, as well as Honors Economics and English 11 and 12 are augmented and accompanied by training a technology lab that features electrical systems, pneumatics, 3D CAD and 3D printing, manufacturing processes, quality assurance and robotics/automation. In my opinion, integrating academic concepts with their real-world applications is exactly what is needed in education as a whole, but for bright students, that connection is often lacking. Supporting local school districts with programs that would be too expensive or inefficient for individual districts to maintain is exactly the kind of thing Michigan ISDs and career centers are good at. They might be the best places to get the ball rolling for Michigan's often-underserved gifted students.
Sat, 06/25/2016 - 1:13pm
Our son was not identified as a gifted child. He was developing a school phobia and was performing at an average level. We knew he was very bright by his behavior as a toddler. When we asked that he be transferred to a gifted magnet the school refused and even refused to do testing. We were fortunate enough to know a private practicing psychologist who had an intern who did testing for a very low fee. Only after we had private testing showing a very high IQ and after the school psychologist then did her own testing to prove we were wrong (her IQ test came out one point lower than the private psychologist) was our son moved to a gifted magnet school. He is now an anesthesiologist. Parents, keep advocating for your child!
Art Spalding
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 9:25am
Children, particularly K-6, need both social development with their contemporaries and academic development consistent with their ability. When we lock these students into grade/age brackets without any consideration of their ability/skills we do a great academic disservice to the student. There needs to be a balance of social development and academic development. The defect in the current system is illustrated by the child of a friend. Todd taught himself to read before he entered kindergarten in a public school system. He was, to most, obviously bright. But when he reached the second grade, his teacher called in his parents to tell them she was recommending he be placed in a special ed program for slow learners. Todd was disruptive in class, paid little attention to daily lessons and generally was not performing at a second grade level. After much consternation, his parents rectified the situation and got him placed in advanced learning opportunities. He had been so bored with the level of academic challenge that his teacher thought he was a slow performer. Todd finished second or third in the state math competition his senior year in high school and today is performing admirably in the computer technology industry. As a citizenry, we spend a huge amount of money for special ed for students who will never be able to perform even at an average level. On the other hand, we do far less to promote those with exceptional skills, unless you consider football and basketball academic skills. The top 10% of academically talented students will provide more than 50% of the adult leadership needed in our society in their adult years. Let's help them be the best they can be.
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 11:42am
All students should have the same opportunity not just gifted students, but it would require smaller classrooms, more teachers and the money to pay for it. I personally would like to see a focus on quality education for all students.
Fri, 07/01/2016 - 1:38pm
Connie, "All students" often leaves out gifted students. Many gifted programs were cut during times that schools were building up their fund balance. It depends on what your goals are. For example: "All students should be proficient for their grade." Gifted students are already past that proficiency, so they have met that school and government defined goal. It isn't unusual for a parent of a gifted student to hear "Your child is getting an A! What more do you want???" I want my child to learn new material. Did you check to see if she would get an A prior to instruction? "All students should make one year's growth." A better goal, but it still shows they don't understand gifted students. Gifted learners can often make two to five years growth in one year. And accelerated growth may not be what is best for that child. Sometimes it is the depth or breadth that really matters. Gifted students love to dig into a subject to fully understand it and want to understand how that topic relates to others. They will ask questions that go beyond the subject that are of little interest to most other students. "All students should make the growth and exploration appropriate for them." A much better goal, but without the supports gifted children will often still get ignored. A teacher has limited time and without cluster grouping, differentiating for so many levels is near impossible. Too often 'differentiation' is open-ended questions and relying on the student to choose what will be completed. My eldest would choose the highest option available and spend immense amounts of time getting it perfect. My middle child would choose the grade level option so she could get to playing sooner. Neither of those are healthy choices, so a teacher who is trained in educating gifted learners is vital. I agree we should have adequate funding for schools. However, our home district was one recently identified as having adequate funding and still won't meet the needs of gifted children.