Every day, teachers cater for a broad mix of ages and capabilities among their students, often within the same class. We hear a lot about children with behavioural issues and special needs – but something we hear much less about is how to manage those who are gifted or high-functioning.
Differentiation for Gifted Students in a Secondary School is a handbook for secondary teachers with strategies for teaching gifted students. Editor Dr Susan Nikakis has a special education graduate diploma, a masters, and a doctorate in gifted education, and has done a great deal of thinking about how best to support teachers and students working within the Australian curriculum.
Susan says that 10% of students have the potential to be gifted, but not all of them achieve. “A gifted student is somebody who has outstanding abilities, either academic, sporting, or artistic. Underachieving gifted students underachieve for lots of reasons: teachers think they’re doing fine; they dumb themselves down; they’re worried other people won’t find them attractive if they’re super smart… Some kids worry about being identified as nerds, especially at secondary school, so they deliberately don’t do their homework, and so on.”
Susan recommends secondary teachers read the transition papers of their students coming into Year 7 for relevant background information. There are online checklists readily available to help identify whether a student is gifted, but common signs to look out for, aside from a student being well ahead of the class, include boredom and behavioural issues.
“Boredom leads to aberrant behaviour and disengagement with school, and then school becomes a negative experience.”
A former teacher herself, Susan knows how busy modern teachers are. So, she wanted to create a guide that was accessible, written for teachers and by teachers. “They want something they can use in the classroom,” she says.
Contributor Arrigo Dorissa is a psychologist with plenty of insight into the issues faced by gifted children. “They might be bright, but they might not be able to connect with peers; they gravitate towards adults and have difficulty forming relationships.”
Some manage to mask their giftedness. “They think, ‘We don’t want to seem like we’re better than others’ – so they don’t speak up or they’re afraid to stand out,” Arrigo says.
He recommends that any teachers who suspect one of their students might be gifted put in a referral for an intellectual assessment and gather the data for what level the student is functioning at, and in what areas. This can help the school figure out how the curriculum should be differentiated for that student. “It’s about providing the students with different work, not more work.” He adds that teachers need to be creative in their approach.
Susan suggests that teachers familiarise themselves with the Australian Association for the Education of the Gifted and Talented (AAEGT), which provides information sheets and units of work to use with gifted students, as well as advice on what characteristics to look out for and how to identify giftedness.
She also recommends the Victorian Association for Gifted and Talented Children (VAGTC), where she is Vice President. VAGTC conducts seminars for teachers, supports research, and publishes a biannual magazine, Vision, as well as a resource book offering real-world advice to take into the classroom.
“Boredom leads to aberrant behaviour and disengagement with school, and then school becomes a negative experience,” Arrigo says. “Gifted children warrant as much attention as kids with other issues.”