Gifted Learners: A Different Kind of Special Need, But How is the Need Met?

Gifted Learners: A Different Kind of Special Need, But How is the Need Met?
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Academically Gifted Children

All parents like to believe that their children are gifted. In some ways, they are right. All children, all human beings, are gifted in some capacity; some children excel in sports, while others have a natural talent for public speaking or singing.

The current federal definition of giftedness is, “Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.” While the individual states are not required to use this definition, most states choose to modify this existing definition to meet their academic programs.

There are no federal laws governing the education of academically gifted children. Any decisions made about gifted education take place at the state or local level, making available funding for gifted programs somewhat of an anomaly. This can result in a big difference in the quality of gifted programming in neighboring school districts, and uneven protection for academically gifted children under the law. This can mean that if a child who is flourishing in a school district with exceptional gifted resources finds himself moving a few blocks away into a new school district, he may find himself without gifted support services.

According to the US Department of Education, their mission is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Does this need to be amended to include “except for academically gifted students”? If laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exist to secure services for children with special needs to help them in schools, why does it have to be a struggle to provide services for academically gifted students?


The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was instituted in 1975 and governs all aspects of the special education services for children in the United States. This law mandates that all children, including those with special needs, have access to a free education in the least restrictive environment possible. Depending on the type of special needs a child has, services can include an all-day aide, a pull-out program for reading or math, or accommodations for special equipment or supplies.

Through meetings with parents, IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans) and other methods, the school and family together decide if the child’s needs are being met using the programs and services put into place specifically for that child. Depending on the occurrence of these meetings, changes can often be made to the amount of services required or the education goals outlined on the IEP if the child’s needs have changed. While this solution for children with special needs may be far from perfect, it does function well when all parties involved do their part. Any time parents partner with schools, there is a positive effect on the child’s education.

Since there is no law governing the identification of academically gifted children, nor any federal law governing the educational services that need to be provided to challenge an academically gifted child, we may be doing them a disservice. Children who are not challenged in the classroom can often create a disturbance to those around them, requiring discipline. Also, teachers are expected to meet the needs of all of the students in their classroom, including gifted students as well as those with special needs. Lesson planning and curriculum creation become more of a challenge for teachers with mixed ability groups in school districts where no special gifted services are provided.

In school districts with available funding for gifted education programs, academically gifted children are served in several different ways. One way is through accommodation in the regular classroom through extra work, challenging projects or accelerated lesson plans. Other school districts have once a week pull-out programs for gifted learners or full-time grouping for students with similar abilities. Less common, but still an option is acceleration or “skipping a grade”.

No Child Left Behind? Well, ALMOST No Child…

The much debated No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002, was the Bush Administration’s catchy name for the overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While the NCLB was started with good intentions, I’m sure; it has left a very broken education system in its wake, especially where gifted learners are concerned. With all of the focus placed on students who are performing “below proficient” on the avalanche of standardized tests now being overused in American classrooms, there is often no time, energy or funds left for gifted education programs.

Teachers have been forced to contend with readying children to take “fill-in-the-bubble” tests, rather than providing a curriculum rich in projects and cooperative learning opportunities. No incentives or awards are given to the schools or teachers that are doing a great job teaching the above-average learner. Also, and this should come as no surprise, school districts will often shift funds away from high performing schools and into below-proficient schools in order to avoid being labeled a failing district. This may mean that a school’s gifted learning program will be cut due to lack of funds.

Forcing teachers to “teach to the test” is helping no one. It is creating a nation of expert “fill-in-the-bubble” testers, rather than a nation of creative learners. Shifting our focus away from the many ways we can teach children through hands-on experiments, cooperative year-long projects and other creative methods is really doing a disservice to American children, especially those who have been identified as academically gifted.

Is There an Answer?

The biggest problem with the lack of laws to govern the placement and education of academically gifted children is the question of protection. What will happen to the gifted learner who must move to another school district? Or the class full of academically gifted children who begin school one year only to learn that their beloved weekly gifted pull-out program has fallen victim to budget cuts? While there is no easy answer to this conundrum, there are ways parents can advocate for their gifted learners.

Stay connected to the school, to the principal, to your children’s teachers and to the school district as a whole. Know what is happening in your school district regarding gifted education. If your district has no resources for gifted learners, help the teacher find ways to keep your academically gifted child challenged. Understand the pressure the teachers may be under to provide high test scores and volunteer your time and efforts to help meet your child’s needs in ways the teacher may not be able to. Take advantage of resources available to parents and educators through the National Association for Gifted Education, the National Society for the Gifted and Talented and the American Association for Gifted Children.