How to Identify and Support Gifted Students in the Classroom

Dr. Lamont Moore
Dr. Lamont Moore
Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, Gardner-Webb University, NC

Approximately six percent of all public school students have been identified as gifted and talented. Because six percent is small in comparison to the 94 percent who represent the majority of public school students, it may seem reasonable to think that this group only needs a representative amount of time, attention, and funding.

One of biggest myths regarding gifted and talented students is that they do not need help in the classroom because they will do fine on their own (Gifted Myths, 2020). I would venture to state this is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, this myth highlights the need for educators to not only understand the nature and needs of gifted students, but also serve as advocates for the support of these students.

What is a Gifted Student?

In order to effectively support and advocate for gifted students, educators must know what classifies a student as gifted. The federal definition of a gifted student was first published in 1972. It states that “students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities” are considered gifted (Gifted FAQs, 2020).

There is key terminology in this definition to which educators should pay close attention. Gifted students are those who “give evidence” of “high achievement capability.” This means that there is a distinct difference in their achievement that is clearly observable and can be measured.

How to Identify Gifted Students in the Classroom

When identifying gifted and talented students, educators should simply ask themselves what is this student able to naturally accomplish with little to no help from a teacher. This allows educators to see the difference between a high achieving student and a gifted student.

Gifted students are not only high achievers, but they are also naturally able to add a global context to their learning. For example, the high achieving student operates like a skilled student with expertise in a subject area. The gifted student functions as an expert by demonstrating the ability to integrate expertise into multiple subjects. A high achieving student accurately completes teacher-assigned work, but the gifted student initiates his/her own tasks and extends learning beyond what the teacher has assigned. They are naturally able to think abstractly and conceptually without much modelling from their teachers.

Strategies to Support Gifted Students in the Classroom

Because gifted students are able to achieve at high levels without much prompting from their teachers, it can be perceived that they do not need support from their teachers in the classroom. Gifted students need just as much support with their learning in the classroom as any other group. Without this support these students face the risk of showing little academic growth and even becoming underachievers. This can lead to disengagement from the classroom and even students dropping out of high school or choosing not to attend college.

Here are five strategies on how to support gifted and talented students in the classroom:

  1. Utilize Student Interest

Many times gifted students have very unique and specialized interests. Find out what these interests are and develop lessons and activities for them around these interests. These students will gladly push themselves to deeper depths of rigor because they are learning about something that interests them.

  1. Create Tiered Assignments

Too often educators create lessons that address content standards only at the grade level. Gifted students are often able to understand content standards above grade level. Educators should intentionally design assignments and activities for gifted students in the regular classroom that allow them the opportunity to access content at higher levels. Sometimes it may be easier to plan with gifted students in mind first and then add lower levels or tiers to the assignment to provide differentiation for all students to access more specialized content. This is sometimes referred to “teaching to the top as opposed to teaching to the middle.”

  1. Make Learning Relevant

Because gifted students seek to understand the big picture and how concepts fit together, it is essential that educators make gifted education learning relevant by ensuring that it is connected to a larger concept. For example, when studying the life cycle of butterflies, it would be key for gifted students that the teacher connect it to the concept of change as opposed to simply requiring the students to memorize the phases of the cycle. This allows gifted students the opportunity to connect the life cycle of butterflies to other cycles of change that they may have observed in life and begin to make higher order connections.

  1. Allow Gifted Students to Work Together

Educators have been guilty of strategically placing gifted students in groups with lower achieving students in an effort to provide support for the lower achieving student. While this may help the lower achieving student, it does very little for the gifted student. Educators should provide opportunities for gifted students to work with other gifted students who may be able to collaborate with deeper content and more complex processes. This will stretch the gifted students and engage them more in the process of learning.

  1. Progress Monitor for Growth

The achievement scores of gifted students may consistently indicate above average performance. However, it is critical that educators monitor to see if these students are growing in their academic performance. A student who performs at the 98th percentile in the first quarter of the year, then moves to the 91st percentile in the last quarter of the year is still viewed as high achieving but has shown negative growth. When academic growth is not monitored for these students it becomes a disservice to them which could lead to a performance plateau.

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