Gifted children in the classroom

By Geeta Padmanabhan

Call it the Matilda syndrome. A bright child, far ahead in reading, writing and in thinking compared to kids of her age. Not a prodigy, just very bright. Hold that “wow” for a second. It’s hard to believe, but she/he can be a “problem” kid in the classroom. Ask any teacher.

This is why in the B Ed. syllabus in India there is a complete unit on “How to handle the exceptionally bright in the classroom”.

On July 25, 2008, S Chandrasekar, 17 became the youngest postgraduate from IIT-Madras when he received his degree at the convocation. The teenager topped his class. Born on September 25, 1990, Chandrasekar was dubbed a “precocious” child.  "His teachers used to complain that he would finish his work quickly and disturb other children, so we asked them to give him some books to read," said his father.

Rupa Khadam (name changed) turned six recently.  At four she was reading the closed captioning on TV programs and could choose the channels she wanted by reading the menu. In her Kindergarten class she wrote a story and was given an award for its clarity. She has read all of Mary Osborne’s Magic Treehouse books and is very happy to discuss them with you. Her mom says, “Rupa may not be able to make friends in her class.”

Giftedness or “precocity” goes beyond being able to read Amar Chitra Katha with understanding at age six. Young gifted kids are curious ones. They ask questions in the classroom, sometimes non-stop. They insist on knowing the “how” of things. They want to wander outside the book, outside what the teacher has set as the day’s work. They learn quickly, they remember what they learn. And here’s the nub. Such children get bored easily, to the point of frustration. They get moody, can be loud and distracted.

In a classroom of forty, what is the teacher looking at? A kid who fidgets in his chair, talks constantly, answers questions out of turn, insists on knowing the details and correcting the teacher over them. A kid that goes into a grouch, and in a few instances, gets destructive.

The first step is to recognise giftedness. This needs an open mind, unbiased thinking.  There is no one method, there is no one time to test it.* Recognizing and nurturing giftedness is a challenge. The kid’s abilities might diminish without stimulus and might become less recognisable.

Giftedness can be spotted only through a combination of approaches. A Q&A initial assessment may not show a child’s real or overall talent. What we need is a variety of approaches over a period of time. Often, the child’s gifted skill bursts in flashes – it comes and goes. Sometimes the ability is visible only in things like art work, something they write, something they do, like a “show-and-tell” in the class or a piece they need to recite for a programme. A 10-year-old kid who was asked to be a narrator in a summer camp play effortlessly memorised the lines in a few hours while the main players read from the paper even on the day of the performance. It took a while for the teachers to comment, “Hey, this kid has exceptional reading ability!”

First a small list of behaviours teachers can watch out for: these are common in 4-5-6-year-olds, but not exhaustive.
[1] They are curious about many things, ask questions, a lot of them intelligent
[2] They use an extensive vocabulary and complex sentence structures – “How come I never see you use a plate to eat?”
[3] Have good ability to solve problems
[4] Have a good memory
[5] Show unusual talent in art, music, or art
[6] Use previously learned things in new contexts
[7] Use logical sequences in narration, can make up stories
[8] Prefer to work independently and take initiative – a common remark in their class report is : “Refuses to co-operate, is not a team player.”
[9] Have a well-developed sense of humour  
[10] Some have long attention spans, might be willing to persist in challenging tasks
[11] Naturally read a lot.

Once the giftedness is recognised, what do you do? Tap it of course! The first step is to talk to the parents. Miss Honey went to Matilda’s house to do that, but we’ll assume the parents we meet will offer a better response. You could prepare a questionnaire for the parents to know about the child’s strengths, abilities, learning styles and interests. This could be a year book for noting down progress – at home and in school.

The teacher adds her comments on the kid’s behaviour, his work in class, the kind of questions he asks, the time he takes to finish work, the topics that interest him and most important, his attention span while listening and doing an assigned task.

Based on this, some schools prepare a special syllabus within the broad curriculum for these kids. Where this is not possible, additional work is given to the kids. This includes projects and reading. Some schools have a policy of including additional questions in the regular test papers and leave the option to complete it to the kids.

One of the first steps to consider when meeting the needs of young gifted students is the classroom environment. The classroom needs to be a place where all children can easily engage in activities and projects at their own level and pace. Here are some suggestions for designing a bright-child-friendly classroom:

[1] Prepare extra activities related to the lesson.
[2] Divide class into groups and make the kid a talker for the group. The group composition keeps changing every day, or every week.
[3] Always include application questions while teaching. “Where else can we see this?” Make them challenging. The idea is to give the bright kid a sense of participation.
[4] Devote at least one class for a general quiz. The quiz will be organised by the bright kids. They do an exceptional job of it.
[5] Include poetry, mime, music, dance, speech and drama part of the teaching. Put in activity options in your lesson plan.
[6] Schools that have developed a Math / English / History-Geography labs apart from the Science ones give themselves more opportunities to engage bright ones. A language lab can stock magazines, storybook character puppets, magnetic letters with boards, crossword puzzles, scrabble and computer software for word processing and story writing.
[7] Assign special home-work based entirely on the child’s unique ability. Encourage them to explore information through various resources. Consult the parents before doing that. How co-operative are they?
[8] Have some strictly implemented ground rules in the class. Discuss the rules with the kids making your needs clear. The syllabus has to be completed and the assignments have to be set. So how do we organise the time to do more interesting work?
[9] Encourage creative thinking. In how many ways can you solve the problem? If the kid has a good method of his own, accept it. “What if” questions should be part of any classroom. (What if we had 48 hours in a day?)
[10] When the child asks questions, give him a patient hearing. You may not be able to answer all the questions in that hour, but tell him to talk to you after class. Make sure he does.

Keep in mind the fact that some of these kids become the target for teasing – unfortunately by teachers as well. Check out if they need protection. Above all, make sure you have prepared the lesson very well. Answering the kid’s out-of-the-box question with “You think you are smart?” is bad for the self esteem of both the teacher and the student. This frustrates the kid and from being frustrated to being unmanageable is but a small

* Editor's note: Teachers and parents in the Bay Area are aware of GATE, a program run in public schools to recognize uniquely gifted children and provide them with more challenging curriculum. The child is tested in grade 3, 4 or 5 and if he or she passes the test, is GATE-identified. Recent budget cust have limited the enrichment programs offered by GATE but in an ideal situation, this program is supposed to deal with the issue of having unusually talented children in the classroom. More information can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Gifted children in the classroom

  1. Saskia Rao

    What a wonderful article! I am going to share this article with my son’s teacher today. Hopefully finally they will do something for him… I understand it is difficult for the teacher with 35 children in the classroom, but I hope she can learn from this. Ms Padmanabhan, would it be possible to talk to you about further approaches for the education of my son ( 6 yrs, 9 mnths tested as exceptionally gifted )?
    kid regards,


  2. Geeta Padmanabhan

    Dear Saskia Rao, Thanks for those kind words. Do put in your questions in the comment box here and I shall answer them to the best of my ability.



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