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Educational Options for Gifted Learners

Gifted Parenting and Strategies

This article includes some of the educational options for gifted learners that have proven effective for exceptionally bright young people. Some of these options include acceleration, credit by examination, compacting, independent study, ability grouping, dual enrollment, early college entry, and more. Ideally, parents and educators are willing to collaborate and implement an educational plan that takes into account the child’s intellectual precocity and emotional development.

There are many educational options for gifted learners. Ideally, parents and educators are willing to collaborate and implement an educational plan that takes into account the child’s intellectual precocity and emotional development. In order to determine which options may be the best fit for your son or daughter, a natural first step is to obtain individually administered assessments: IQ, achievement, aptitude or a combination of the three.

Some of the options that have proven effective for exceptionally bright young people are:

  • Acceleration — Accelerating the gifted student to a level that is a closer match to his or her abilities is the educational option that is strongly supported by empirical research. Acceleration can be an attractive option for schools because it can be implemented using materials and classes already available at the school, thus the cost involved is minimal. Acceleration can be applied in two ways:
    • Grade Acceleration — Sometimes referred to as “grade-skipping,” grade acceleration involves moving a student into a higher-grade classroom. The accelerated student then participates in all the same activities and studies all the same subjects as his or her classmates, even though there is an age difference. This option works well for students who are advanced over their age-peers across all subjects.
    • Subject-Matter Acceleration — Students also can be accelerated in one or more subjects to provide intellectual challenge in areas where they are particularly advanced. This option is especially helpful for children who have precocious abilities in specific areas, as might be the case with a math prodigy who is slightly above average in verbal skills.
  • Credit by Examination — Some school districts offer examinations whereby students can skip one or more courses by performing well on a test of the material that is covered in those courses. This is similar to placement tests employed by many colleges to determine enrollment eligibility for particular courses. A score above 80 percent is considered sufficient demonstration that a student has mastery of a subject and should be allowed advance through, or skip, a course.
  • Compacting — Compacting is a variation on the credit-by-examination approach. Students are pre-tested for knowledge and proficiency. Rather than testing out of an entire course, this option allows students to skip those units in which he or she can demonstrate mastery through pre-testing. Again, 80 percent proficiency or better should be adequate. With compacting, the student is then encouraged to develop an independent course of study to delve into the topic in greater depth or to move onto another unit.
  • Independent Study — Examples of independent study options include online distance learning courses, correspondence courses and forming a learning partnership with a mentor or teacher. However, independent study also can be done within the school setting by allowing the student to pursue a topic in greater depth. This option might include research topics or different readings. Ideally, independent study is not assigned in addition to regular schoolwork in order to fill a student’s time. Such an arrangement discourages the child from moving ahead because the independent study is seen as a negative, rather than a positive opportunity. Independent study often is paired successfully with credit by examination or compacting because students who are able to prove their proficiency in particular subjects are able to move ahead at their own pace. Students participating in independent study still need supervision, however, and should be both monitored and directed in their efforts.
  • Ability grouping — Ability grouping involves gathering gifted learners together for programming. Even in schools geared for gifted learners, ability grouping is utilized. Ability grouping sometimes is rejected as contrary to mainstreaming and the idea of “least restrictive environment.” However, ability grouping does not restrict any individual based on disability and, in fact, provides a less restrictive environment for high-achievers. Some also argue that removing high-achievers deprives more average students of role models. This is not supported by research, which indicates that students tend to select role models with abilities similar to their own. Ability grouping provides more appropriate role models for gifted students, and fosters an environment where learning and performance are valued. Ability grouping generally is applied in one of two ways:
    • Within-Class Grouping — Commonly referred to as “clustering,” this method involves grouping gifted students within the classroom for special lessons or projects. It may be more inclusive than other types of gifted programming, and it is less expensive than pull-out programming. Clustering can create an extra burden for the teacher, however, as it may be difficult to integrate assignments with the core curriculum.
    • Between-Class Grouping — Rather than separating students within a classroom, between-class grouping gathers students of high ability from different classrooms, which may be at one school or a number of schools. Between-class grouping can be divided into two categories:
      • Pull-out Programming — Pull-out programs gather gifted learners for a period of special instruction. Most often pull-out programs are focused on enrichment activities. Although such programs allow interaction among gifted students, they tend to be poorly integrated with the core curriculum and may lack continuity because they do not meet daily. Pull-out programs also can be disruptive for students who miss a portion of a day’s instruction to attend the group.
      • Special Class Model — Under this model, classes are assigned by ability rather than by age. This is often the model in high school where students are offered classes at various levels such as basic, college-preparatory and Advanced Placement. It is less common at elementary schools. However, students can be grouped by ability even at this level. This is the model employed by Twin Branch Elementary School in Mishawka, Ind. Chapter 2 in Genius Denied tells how this community has made a commitment to its brightest students and gathers them together in a magnet program that offers a more rigorous curriculum than is available in other schools in the district. This model has the advantages of a consistent and integrated curriculum and potentially lower cost than pull-out programming.
  • Dual Enrollment — Meeting the educational needs of a gifted student may require enrollment in two or more levels of schooling at the same time. In Chapter 4 of Genius Denied, Jill’s access to a college-level algebra class via correspondence in combination with high school French, biology and orchestra illustrates how dual enrollment can open doors for exceptionally intelligent young people. Some students attend different schools for different classes, such as music, physical education and social studies at the elementary school, and math, language arts and science at the middle school. Although scheduling can be a challenge, dual enrollment can be an excellent arrangement for some students and schools.
  • Early college entry — This option is likely to be the better fit for gifted students who have either completed high school early as the result of acceleration, who have been adequately homeschooled or who, through proper assessment, have been identified as intellectually and emotionally advanced enough to move into full-time college without completing high school. Some colleges and universities have programs designed especially for this population, which help ease the transition for young students who are entering the college environment by offering social and academic support among peers of similar ages. This was the case with Noshua in Chapter 6 of Genius Denied. After suffering through years of uninspired education and living for academic summer programs, Noshua applied and was accepted to the Program for Exceptionally Gifted at Mary Baldwin College. She took extra classes to bolster her skills and had no regrets about skipping the ballyhooed “high school experience.”
  • Special Educational Practices — In some cases, it may be advisable to develop an Individual Education Plan to provide the gifted student with an education appropriate to his or her needs and abilities. Although IEPs, because of a federal mandate, are most often utilized to help students with learning challenges, in some states they can be requested and applied to gifted students as well. An IEP requires, among other things, that current levels of performance be determined, goals be identified and measures of future performance be instituted. Because the plan is developed by an interdisciplinary team and details specific actions, it can be used to gain assurances for specific services.
  • Extracurricular Opportunities — Extracurricular opportunities can offer intellectual challenges to gifted students. Talent searches; state governor’s programs; contests and competitions; and the pursuit of a significant piece of work for a Davidson Fellows scholarship are among the opportunities that could be explored.
  • Homeschooling — When the school system is unable to accommodate the needs of gifted students, some parents decide to homeschool their children. This decision should not be taken lightly as homeschooling requires significant commitments of time, money and effort. For some students, however, the education available at home may be a significantly better match than what is offered by schools. The Davidson Institute team published this free guidebook, Considering Homeschooling: A Guidebook for Investigating an Alternative Path to Education (PDF), in 2012.

Educational programs for gifted learners should be customized to their needs, and flexibility in both planning and execution is a key for success. Finding a solution that challenges a gifted child and keeps his or her interest can require creativity and a certain amount of accommodation from school administrators. But, in the words of Miraca Gross, “Exceptional students are surely those for whom their schools should make an exception.” We recommend accessing the Davidson Gifted Blog for additional information on Educational Options. See also: Education and Support Options

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