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Elementary Years for the Gifted: Patterns, Strategies, Encouraging Growth

Gifted Education and Support

Outside of the profoundly gifted (PG) world, it seems like everyone assumes that elementary school is the “easy” time. Most students are in school full time, so there may be less juggling of schedules. If you’re at public school, it’s free. People say things like, “Just wait ’til middle school,” or “High school is when things get really hard.” But, here at the Davidson Institute, we know that many families have a rough go in elementary school. You aren’t alone! While there are no hard-and-fast rules or a single trajectory for all PG students, here are a few patterns we’ve noticed:

First Year in School Full-Time

Depending on your choices with preschool and your choice of elementary, the first year in school full-time may be kindergarten or first grade. This can be a difficult year as students may be encountering a more demanding schedule that allows them fewer breaks and less control over what they are doing. Students can be overwhelmed with the sensory experience at school which can be chaotic, loud, bright, and uncomfortable. Within this structure, students may also be locked into a pace that is too slow for them, may be asked to participate in repetitious activities, or may be asked to demonstrate many skills they’ve already mastered (such as reciting the alphabet, counting to 100, etc.). Socially and emotionally, students may be frustrated with classmates who aren’t as mature; on the other hand, they may want more time for silliness, socializing, and free exploration. If they haven’t already, this first year may be when families really realize how advanced and different their student is from age peers. Many of these issues persist throughout the elementary years, but they may be more apparent during this first year in the educational system.

The Second Year in School Full-Time

In the second year of elementary school, many teachers have higher expectations for students to conform to classroom behavior standards. Expectations for written output can also be higher, but, in other areas, students may be frustrated that their school work hasn’t become more challenging. Students who are under-challenged and who aren’t able to fully articulate and employ coping mechanisms, may appear to be distracted or disengaged. Second or third grade can be typical years for screening for gifted programs. Not all PG students gain access to these programs. This can be due to other exceptionalities masking giftedness or not achieving a high score on the school’s particular assessment tool. If access to the gifted program is based mostly on teacher recommendation, students who aren’t high-achievers or who don’t conform to specific behavior expectations may not be recommended.

Third Grade or Around Age 8

This seems to be one of the rough years for PG girls as the social dynamics for girls change. There is an increased pressure to conform to social norms. PG girls may start to hide their intellectual abilities; they may disengage with schoolwork, get quieter in class, or start talking down about themselves. Others may act out and get in trouble for talking out of turn, being distracted or not completing assignments according to set rules. They may be labelled as “bossy,” “pushy,” or “know-it-all.” PG girls may start feeling like they’re alone; there tends to be a lot of discussion about best friends socially. All students—PG, 2E, and neurotypical—are beginning to figure out who they are. This early stage of identity formation may lead to confusion and frustration. In some situations, this can lead to bullying and teasing. In some communities, this stage can come slightly later or earlier.

Fourth Grade or Around Age 9

This tends to be a challenging year for PG boys and students who are 2E. As the ramp up for middle school begins, there are much higher expectations for written output and juggling long-term projects. In addition, there are higher demands on executive functioning skills, and students may struggle with forgotten homework, missed deadlines, and organizing their various supplies and textbooks. Around age 9 is also when students’ intense feelings really come up against their ability to cope with them—that asynchronous emotional development becomes clear once again.

Fifth Grade

If it hasn’t already, puberty typically starts around this time. Some PG students experience puberty more intensely than others. (For others, it’s barely a blip along their journey.) Academically, this can be the breaking point for some students. They’ve been in a system that doesn’t work for them or understand them. Students may bemoan still doing “baby work,” and they may be tired of waiting for things to get better.

So what do you do? Many families advocate for adjustments such as subject acceleration, grade skips, in-class enrichment, or independent projects or study. Advocacy in elementary school can be difficult because different grades tend to be on different schedules and each classroom may have a more fluid schedule. Thus, logistics can get in the way of executing some options. Typically, students spend most of their day with one teacher, and whether that teacher is flexible and accommodating can greatly impact what options are feasible. Other families switch schools—sometimes more than once. The elementary years are also a time we see many families try out homeschooling.

While the elementary years can be challenging for families, it’s also a time of amazing growth for your PG child. Many make huge leaps in their intellectual abilities, find a few (or many!) subjects that they really care about, and start articulating who they are and want to be. And, the difficulties you and your child experience in elementary school can clarify your goals and values for middle school planning.


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Please note, the Davidson Institute is a non-profit serving families with highly gifted children. We will not post comments that are considered soliciting, mention illicit topics, or share highly personal information.

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