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Meeting the Needs of Young Gifted Students.

Kindergarten is a wonderful place for Jonathan, age 5, who exhibits knowledge beyond his years. He could already add and subtract single digit numbers before he arrived at Miss Kathryn's kindergarten classroom, and he continues to excel in math-related activities. Jonathan uses exceptional spatial abilities to plan and build intricate wooden block structures and make elaborate two-dimensional patterns with the shape blocks. Unlike some gifted children, Jonathan does not yet read; consequently, he needs the same language-rich environment as his peers. Miss Kathryn realistically appreciates Jonathan's exceptional mathematical abilities while simultaneously nurturing and guiding his social, emotional and cognitive needs. Jonathan is fortunate to be in a truly developmentally appropriate classroom.

Accolades are due Miss Kathryn and all early childhood educators who provide developmentally appropriate curricula. Early childhood classrooms that are both ageappropriate and individually appropriate (Bredekamp, 1987) eliminate much of the need for special outside classes for gifted children. This article focuses on the organization of early childhood classrooms, grades K1, that strive to be individually appropriate for all students. The author writes from her perspective as a mother of two gifted children, a gifted education specialist and a regular classroom teacher. The article does not address the needs of the profoundly gifted who require services outside the regular classroom.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

The position statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children on developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) (Bredekamp, 1987) delineates two dimensions of the concept. The first is age appropriateness, which relates to curriculum and practice that "meet the needs of a particular age span" (Barbour, 1992, p. 148). Early childhood educators understand that "predictable changes occur in all domains of development - physical, emotional social and cognitive. . . . [and that this] provides a framework from which teachers prepare the learning environment and plan appropriate experiences" (Bredekamp, 1987, p. 3). Educators can anticipate the range of abilities based upon research and prior knowledge of what a specific age group can accomplish.

Planning family meals can serve as an analogy for this concept. Most of us shop and plan meals based upon the types of foods the family normally eats. We know that certain things (brussels sprouts, perhaps) will not appeal to the family and it is a waste of time and money to even offer these foods. Likewise, it is a waste of time and resources to teach algebra to kindergartners since it is beyond most 5-year-olds' cognitive range.

This analogy is challenged, however, by the second dimension of DAP, individual appropriateness. Children are unique and bring assorted experiences and needs to the classroom. "Both the curriculum and adults' interactions with children should be responsive to individual differences. . . . [While we should plan experiences that] match the child's developing abilities, . . . [we must also challenge] the child's interest and understanding" (Bredekamp, 1987, p. 2). Let us take another look at the family menu analogy. We know what our loved ones like to eat and what they will tolerate. If we never offer anything new on the menu, however, we will never know what else the family might enjoy. How do we determine whether or not a child likes carrot cake if we never serve it? It is unlikely that a child will say, "Hey, Morn, I'd really like to try some carrot cake to see if it's any good." Just as we need to offer a broader menu to determine individual tastes, so do we need to organize classrooms to accommodate needs that vary from the anticipated developmental range.

Characteristics of Young Gifted Children

Perhaps you have a Jonathan in your classroom or see other children whose characteristics differ from the norm. Identifying gifted students through formal procedures can yield valuable information about children's needs. Many schools, however, either do not begin indentification at the early childhood level, or the process takes many months to complete. Teachers can better prepare individually appropriate curriculum if they recognize characteristics of giftedness.

Remember that children can display giftedness in many ways. The following information on gifted children's traits can help, although it is by no means exhaustive. Gifted children often display the ability to learn rapidly, advanced ability in a specific domain such as math or reading, creativity, a long attention span when interested and verbal proficiency.

* The Ability To Learn Rapidly (Saunders, 1986). High-ability students often require less help with new material and less practice to acquire a skill. A gifted student may be able to use spelling words introduced on Monday morning by Monday afternoon, for example. Sometimes, however, gifted students may resist learning a reasonably easy word such as "turtle," while quickly mastering a word they choose themselves, such as "anthropomorphics."

* Advanced Ability in a Specific Domain. Gifted students may appear particularly advanced in a specific domain or subject. Some very young students, for example, display precocious reading ability - "an important and reasonably common gift" (Jackson, 1992, p. 199). Students who are gifted in other domains or who are highly creative may not have early reading ability. Gifted children who do not read early, however, often quickly catch up with the precocious readers.

Advanced ability in a specific domain signals talent that may not be apparent in other developmental areas. Some "young gifted children may exhibit uneven development" (Kitano, 1989, p. 60). The highly talented musical or math prodigy does not necessarily display precocious reading ability or advanced social skills. Both the student and the teacher may feel frustrated if their expectations are unrealistic - believing, for example, that gifted performance in a single area will translate to similar success in all areas.

* Creativity. Clark (1988) calls creativity "the highest expression of giftedness" (p. 45), and others accept this as one type of giftedness (Davis & Rimre, 1994; Saunders, 1986). Creative students bringboth excitement and challenge to a classroom. Their classroom talents are most easily recognized through art forms such as creative writing and drawing. These children's story characters and illustrations are often elaborate. Students also demonstrate creativity when they find unique solutions to problems or offer multiple reasons for a story character's actions. Their inappropriate drawings on spelling tests or math work, however, may be annoying.

Classroom observation uncovers conflicting characteristics of gifted children. Two examples of this follow.

* Long Attention Span/Short Attention Span. A child who is excessively active and unable to sit still when uninterested may spend hours engrossed in a self-selected activity. A lst-grader who cannot focus his attention during a 10-minute reading of a picture book and refuses to write more than a few words in his morning journal may be able to sit for hours making elaborately intricate drawings or models. A teacher may wonder if this is the same child who interrupted her insect lesson three times to describe various things he had read about spiders.

* Verbal Proficiency/Frustration. The language-advanced child who "talks above the heads of his or her age peers" (Saunders, 1986, p. 22) frequently experiences difficulty during conversation and becomes exasperated during play when peers do not understand the game or the plan for adventure (Meador, 1993). At times, the child even becomes frustrated with parents. A child may plan elaborate adventures with multiple characters, instructing her mother about the part she should play and exactly what to say. An often preoccupied mother, however, may not remember what to say at the appointed time, leaving both parent and child frustrated.

No gifted child will exhibit all of the above characteristics. Furthermore, a classroom environment may not provide adequate opportunities for displaying talent. In order to uncover unique capabilities that may not fit into preexisting ideas about development, we must ask students challenging questions, offer them difficult tasks and permit exhibition of talent. Ben Ari and Rich (1992) discussed heterogeneously grouped classes, in which all children demonstrated significant progress. "The key to this success seems to be related to the school's ability to create conditions where meaningful learning activities are accessible to all children" (p. 350). We cannot discover a student's range of abilities without offering more difficult tasks, even though we would not expect all children to succeed. We have not explored each individual's full potential if the majority of the class can complete every task with relative ease.

Individually Appropriate Practice for All

Individually appropriate practice not only encourages students to reach their potential but also redirects many less desirable behaviors. Children gain self-confidence when they are intellectually challenged, encouraged, involved in self-selected tasks and when their social skills are facilitated through careful guidance. Individually appropriate curriculum that strives for "an optimal match between the child's cognitive level and task demands" (Kitano, 1989, p. 60) allows these conditions to occur.

It is not necessary to completely restructure programs to ensure individual appropriateness. Ongoing assessment of student progress and interests is already a part of many early childhood classrooms. Use this information to plan centers and large- and small-group activities. When evaluating individual students, consider the range of observable progress. Keep an eye out for students who no longer seem challenged by your curriculum, and devise opportunities for them to explore new "menus."

A centers approach (Meador, 1991) is a good place to begin. Expand and enrich preexisting centers by including alternative activities or second-tier activities that add greater depth.


(Appropriate for Beginning Kindergartners)

Original Activity: Create your own ant hill snack. 1) Use a plastic knife to spread peanut butter over a vanilla wafer. 2) Place three raisin "ants" on your ant hill. 3) Eat your treat.

Extended Activity: 1) Plan to make ant hills for five children. How many vanilla wafers and raisins do you need? 2) Explain your answer to the teacher.

This open-ended extension may appeal to all students since it provides for multiple means of finding answers. The manner in which the student calculates the supplies needed is indicative of his or her cognitive level. Students may simply draw a picture of five vanilla wafers with three raisins on each and count them, others may count on their fingers or use tokens and more advanced students may count by threes. Observing the students' cognitive processes provides additional information about ability, thus enabling teachers to plan other individually appropriate activities.


(Appropriate for End of the Year 1st-Graders)

Original Activity: 1) Look at the picture (cover of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, depicting people tiding a vehicle with wheels and a sail on what appears to be a train track). 2) Write a story about where the train is going.

Alternative Activity: 1) Look at the picture. 2)Write a story about where the train has been and what caused it to be in this place. Tell why one person is wearing sailor's clothing.

While the first activity requires children to use imagination, the second also calls for critical thinking. A student could simply write about where the train has been, disregarding elements in the picture. Students show higher order thinking, however, when writing about how particular things in the picture evolved from earlier events.

Teachers can use their observations of students' responses to develop new individually appropriate centers with multiple levels of activities. Consider Kitano's (1989) multiple levels of activities:

1. Selecting and pasting precut figures of men, women, boys and girls to create a collage representing the child's family

2. Using a felt board to relate and illustrate a story about family members and how they are related

3. Drawing a family portrait, labeling the members by name, and writing or dictating a story about each member's role

4. Constructing a family tree. (Kitano, 1989, p. 61)

Children's interests, as well as their abilities, indicate which activities and centers are individually appropriate. Very young children may be able to recite lengthy dinosaur names and enthusiastically discuss intricate data about them. The children were able to learn this information because the topic excited them. All children should have opportunities to explore their passions. Gifted children seem to have an unusually strong appetite for information. Cohen (1989), for example, described a 3-year-old with a "consuming passion for volcanoes" (p. 8). The child spent an average of "one to two hours each day, focused on this interest over a span of about nine months" (p. 8).

Ultimately, individually appropriate curricula must create ample opportunities for children to have experiences in their "flow channel" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 74). This channel balances between experiences that create boredom and those that create anxiety. Children attempting tasks that are too difficult may become anxious, while tasks that are too easy cause boredom. The flow channel experiences result when "tasks are of an appropriate level of difficulty for a child's current level of skill" (Kanevsky, 1992). Task complexity should increase as skill increases. This concept is important for all children, not just gifted ones.


Although this article is specifically intended to remind classroom educators of gifted children's needs, the content is about ali children. Every child deserves a chance and should be challenged for optimal development. We must draw upon proven techniques from the field of gifted education to enhance learning for all children.

No easy formula for devising developmentally appropriate curriculum exists. No outside person can write a book of activities for your children, and the centers you prepare for one class may be inappropriate for the next. Educators continuously observe and question their students and try to "understand each child as a unique individual" (Winter, 1994/95, p. 92). They strive to facilitate the growth of each individual child and offer them challenging experiences. The key lies in providing a range of activities that allows students to display their full abilities. Let's remember to offer them carrot cake!


Barbour, N. B. (1992). Early childhood gifted education: A collaborative perspective. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15(2), 145-162.

Ben Ari, R., & Rich, Y. (1992). Meeting the educational needs of all students in the heterogeneous class. In P.S. Klein & A. J. Tannenbaum (Eds.), To be young and gifted (pp. 348-378). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Bredekamp, S. (Ed.). (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (exp. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Clark, B. (1988). Growing up gifted (3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing.

Cohen, L. M. (1989). Understanding the interests and themes of the very young gifted child. Gifted Child Today, 12(4), 6-9.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Davis, G. A., & Rimm, S. B. (1994). Education of the gifted and talented (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Jackson, N. E. (1992). Precocious reading of English: Origins, structure, and predictive significance. In P.S. Klein & A. J. Tannenbaum (Eds.), To be young and gifted (pp. 171-203). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Kanevsky, L. (1992). The learning game. In P.S. Klein & A. J. Tannenbaum (Eds.), To be young and gifted (pp. 204-241). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Kitano, M. (1989). The K-3 teacher's role in recognizing and supporting young gifted children. Young Children, 44(3), 57-63.

Meador, K. (1991, November). The centers approach to serving young gifted students. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association for Gifted Children, Kansas City, KS.

Meador, K. (1993). Parent to parent: Surviving early child hood with a creative child. Gifted Child Today, 16(2), 57-59.

Saunders, J. (1986). Bringing out the best. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Winter, S.M. (1994/95). Diversity: A program for all children. Childhood Education, 71, 91-95.

Van Allsburg, C. (1984). The mysteries of Harris Burdick. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Karen Meador is Assistant Professor, Department of Early Childhood, West Georgia College, Carrollton.
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Author:Meador, Karen
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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