Academic Environments for Gifted Children

What makes a good academic environment for gifted kids? Parents want to know if their neighborhood schools provide the best for their children. Should students remain where they are or should different schools be considered?

I have worked in a wide variety of schools and districts across five different states. These schools have been in rural areas, small towns, and large urban areas. Some schools have been in very poor communities and some have been in very wealthy communities. Some of the schools have been “top notch” and some have been far from it. What I have to offer is my own subjective opinion about good academic environments, based on my personal experiences.

An appropriate academic setting for a very bright child is determined not just by the school, but by the child’s total environment. I worked at one school where a parent was upset with her child’s classroom teacher. I understood the parent’s frustration as the teacher could have been doing much more to enrich and advance the child’s learning. Because I lacked authority to change the classroom situation, I suggested some things that the parent might do at home to help. The mother’s response was, “The education of my child is not my job. That’s the school’s job. It is my job to love my child and have fun with her—not to educate her.” I was really appalled by this answer. Yes, it is the school’s job to educate each child, but it is also the parents’ responsibility.

A good academic environment is one where there is a culture of high expectations with lots of support in place. To accomplish this, support needs to come from the administration, the teachers, the parents, and the students. Here are some of the ways that support is necessary.

Both district and school administrators must believe that it is their obligation to provide the best possible education for all students, including those who are capable of learning beyond the expectations of their grade level. The administration helps to create a culture of high expectations by
  • maintaining a focus of what’s best academically for kids
  • hiring highly competent teachers
  • providing teachers with opportunities to further their education in meeting the needs of all populations
  • encouraging and offering incentives for teachers to attend gifted conferences
  • including evidence of differentiation for gifted students in teacher evaluations

Teachers must believe that it is their obligation to provide for all students, including gifted students. Teachers demonstrate their support by
  • having high expectations for themselves, for students, and for parents
  • continuously acquiring education in the field of gifted education and in ways to differentiate education
  • continuously assessing students (formally and informally) and analyzing ways to meet the changing needs of students
  • collaborating with colleagues to problem-solve educational strategies
  • supporting the positive steps that are taken by administrators, other teachers, parents, and students, even if they are different from one’s own methods

Parents must offer continuity and support from the time their children are born through adulthood. This includes the culture of learning and its importance. Parents demonstrate their support by
  • providing a home environment where kids feel safe and loved
  • guiding children to have strong character and values
  • exposing children to a wide variety of experiences so that they may “taste” the possibilities of life
  • showing excitement about the things they, as parents, learn and experience and the things their children learn and experience
  • reflecting on the things they, as parents, read and sharing those reflections with children
  • reading to children, even when the children get older
  • respecting and valuing the thoughts and abilities of each member of the family
  • encouraging respectful family discussions where everyone does not need to agree
  • leading children to find their own importance in the “rules of society” and a lifetime philosophy rather than dictating everything
  • showing support for the schools by attending conferences and school meetings, helping in the classroom, fundraising, and serving on committees
  • being respectful of teachers, administrators, and parents when speaking to children
  • expecting that children will pay attention in school, hand in assignments on time, go beyond what is expected, and be considerate of others.

The attitude of students plays a major role. Students must understand the value of education and feel a personal responsibility for it. Without that, it is difficult to make good use of opportunities that are provided by educators or parents. Students will support themselves in their own education by
  • knowing that both the adults around them and their fellow students value learning
  • realizing that they have a great deal of control over their learning if they choose to take it
  • going beyond what is expected of them in school

It is certainly rare to have all these things come together. I did, however, see this take place in one school where I worked and it was quite remarkable. Even if it is unrealistic in most situations to expect all of this academic support, there are elements that you can control in positive ways. Every little bit will help to create a culture of high expectations.

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