Nurturing Giftedness -
and how do educators meet the challenge?
by Penelope Waite 
What is giftedness?
What is giftedness? Or rather what meaning will I be giving it in the context of this article and with reference to children in school?
Well I made a note once of a definition that struck me as particularly good. It was: "Giftedness is that precious endowment of potentially outstanding abilities which allows a person to interact with the environment with remarkably high levels of achievement and creativity."
I found that to be a very elegant statement. The only problem, in respect of this article, is that it applies particularly to the gifted adult and neglects to mention the specific problems faced by the gifted child who has not yet learned how to adapt to an environment that may sometimes seem less than benevolent.
A report by American educationalists in the 1970s produced a definition that was more appropriate to schoolchildren:
"Gifted and talented children identified by professionally qualified persons who by virtue of outstanding abilities are capable of high performance. These are children who require differentiated educational programmes and/or services beyond those normally provided by the regular school programme, in order to realize their contribution to self and society," (The italics are mine.)
The problem here is that our state schools, for a variety of reasons that I shall discuss later, are unlikely to have an abundance of "professionally qualified persons" capable of identifying the exceptionally talented children or, having identified them, lacking the time, wherewithal, opportunity or resources to provide "differentiated educational programmes." And this is tragic, because giftedness, if it is to survive, needs nurturing.
The first issue that poses itself, regardless of which definition is chosen, is that of identification. How do we recognise gifted children? They are unlikely to sport a star on their chests. The characteristics that distinguish them from their less gifted peers tend to reveal themselves in the primary school classroom by a range of behaviours that will be obvious to any teacher taught to recognise them, but will often have been observed by parents, from age three onwards, and regarded as precocity. They are also determinedly curious and persistent in seeking to find answers to questions posed in quite different ways from those asked by less intellectually gifted children.
This pattern suggests that the most effective way forward, given the difficulties facing the educational establishment (at least in the UK), is by a collaboration between parents and teachers. After all, parents have spent a considerable amount of time with their children for several years before they start school and are thus a ready-made source of information for the teachers on their children's pre-school behaviour. At the same time, by virtue of training in identifying and nurturing giftedness, teachers could be a valuable resource for parents in enabling them to deal with any anti-social tendencies at home that may result from the frustration of (apparently) being held back from their desired rate of progress at school. There are enormous advantages to both parents and teachers by pooling information and mapping progress throughout the school year
Characteristics of Giftedness
What are the characteristics to be identified in gifted school joiners? An article published by The Educator's Reference Desk  suggests the following:
[The exceptionally gifted child will]
express curiosity about many things;
ask thoughtful questions;
have extensive vocabularies and use complex sentence structure;
solve problems in unique ways;
have good memory;
exhibit especially original imagination;
exhibit unusual talent in art, music or creative dramatics;
use previously learned things in new contexts;
be exceptionally able to order things in logical sequence;
discuss and elaborate on ideas;
be a fast learner;
wish to work independently and take initiative;
exhibit wit and humour;
have sustained attention span and be willing to persist with challenging tasks;
be very observant;
be interested in reading;
show talent in making up and telling stories.
But - and here comes a caveat - a child might possess one, or even all, of these characteristics yet be unable to tie his or her own shoelaces! Or hold a pencil properly. This inability to perform some of the simpler tasks that come naturally to the child's less gifted peers, will lead to frustration and anger, expressed in bad behaviour and tantrums, and this will frequently detract from recognition of their cognitive ability by a teacher who may simply dismiss them with an anti-social label.
Given the pressures of time, opportunity, and limited resources to which teachers are heir, there are nevertheless a number of practical strategies they can employ to give young gifted students the challenge and stimulation they need.
Some years ago I read about a teacher's experience in dealing with the situation where the more intellectually gifted of her students would complete a class assignment within minutes and then become bored and potentially disruptive. Her solution, once these students were identified, was simply to provide them with more challenging work. This took care of the problem for the child and averted a potential problem for the class. It was a simple solution that required no special resource beside the teacher's own ability to identify the child with the special need and to be prepared to give it a little extra thought and some special attention.
An option is to provide some form of less-related activity for the student who finishes work early. This could be made even more attractive - indeed, more of an inducement to other students, to complete their assignments speedily - if the classroom environment is a pleasant child-friendly one that invites independent, unsupervised activity. Within space constraints, areas could be provided with different facilities, each equipped with books, writing or drawing materials, and pictures on the walls, perhaps with flexible seating arrangements, so that children are able to engage in activities and projects at their own level and pace.
An effective strategy is to discuss ground rules with the children and, as far as possible, create them with obvious reference to sensible suggestions made by the children themselves. If it is difficult to adopt any specific idea, or reach agreement, then try several and devote time to discussing them to discover what works and what doesn't work . . . and why.
“The teacher who works with a participatory approach enters into a dialogue with the students in which their needs, as related to the topic at hand, are uncovered and stated”
Guide to Student-Centered Learning
The teacher should never neglect any opportunity to get children involved in classroom procedures. In the main it will be the intellectually gifted children who will contribute most to a discussion, but this is good both for those children and the others in the class. The gifted child will feel valued and useful when being consulted about projects or procedures. The other children will generally be quite happy to leave it to those who wish to be involved.
Furthermore, brainstorming with gifted children on what kinds of projects they could do may also generate ideas teachers may never have thought of on their own. The point of brainstorming is to teach children at an early age to think of the different things they can do with the information they have learned. What would they like to do with it? What else could they find out? How would they like to express what they know? This is where teachers' understanding of their students' unique strengths becomes vital in providing appropriate learning activities.
Another strategy is that of integrating different subjects to make learning possible in several directions, thus permitting young children to develop talents in different areas. A child who is mathematically precocious, for example, but artistically backward, could be encouraged to devise an art project involving the theme of numbers: drawing objects or animals in multiples and then counting them.
The sensitive and aware teacher will thus be able to contribute significantly to the development and happiness of young gifted children and, in so doing, will be providing some valuable lessons to the rest of the children in the class. But it is essential that such children are identified early and involved effectively.
There is no ideal school pattern for the highly gifted child. Children are invariably grouped in classes according to age. But school-joiners, if intellectually gifted, may already be several years advanced in certain areas than are their peers. In those areas, therefore, they are likely to be impatiently disruptive. At this stage, it is the parent, not the teacher, who will be most aware of these tendencies. Unfortunately sometimes even the parents may not be truly aware or not sure of what, if anything, they should be doing about it. Also, not infrequently there is a sense of combativeness between teachers and parents.
But collaboration between parents and teachers, in the immediate pre-school period, is the obvious route to take. And during their school time, If gifted students are to have the greatest opportunities for success, parents and teachers must become partners, rather than face each other as combatants.
This can be as important for the child's social as for its scholastic development. Intellectually gifted children will be scholastically ahead of their same-age peers but socially behind them. They may also be lacking in friends. Parents can help them develop kindness, courtesy and helpfulness as an aid to making friends. Teachers can show them how to be modest about their accomplishments in order to risk offending others.
Gifted children can reveal symptoms of stress and low self-esteem, being tense, excitable, angry and irritable. Depression can derive from feelings of underachievement. Both parents and teachers need to be on the lookout for these symptoms and ready to share information with each other.
To work as a collaborative team, it's not necessary that teachers and parents be clones of one another. After all, a home is not a schoolhouse nor is a classroom the child's home. For teamwork to be effective, however, parents and teachers must agree on a set of broad guidelines. They must combine their perspectives and commit to a plan of action that includes consistent application of principles that enhance the child's social and emotional growth and stability. Once the adults have come to a consensus on these supportive principles, they then have the freedom to employ a wide variety of inventive strategies that meet the child's intellectual needs. As long as the basic principles are adhered to, parents and teachers will be bolstering one another and offering the child powerful encouragement. 
Unfortunately collaboration between teachers and parents doesn't always work. When parents approach teachers and administrators in a spirit of cooperation instead of confrontation, offering suggestions and help instead of attacking, some positive changes in normal methods may result. Sometimes, however, schools refuse to make changes for one child. When this happens, parents have few choices.
Home schooling is one such option. This, however, is fraught with all kinds of legal and practical problems and I shall leave it for my next article.
Penelope Waite retired from full-time teaching some years ago. She now divides her time between her homes in Brittany, France and south-west England. She continues to be interested in developments in education, particularly in special needs, and does some EFL tutoring in France.
 http://www.eduref.org/ An excellent educational internet resource of the US Government Department of Education which, in 2004, took over the remarkable Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) previously provided by the University of Indiana. See also http://www.eric.ed.gov/ and http://www.indiana.edu/~eric_rec/
 Strip, C. A., & Hirsch, G. S. (2000). Helping gifted children soar: A practical guide for parents and teachers. Scottsdale, Arizona, USA: Gifted Psychology Press