Differentiated Instruction for Young Gifted Children: How Parents Can Help

By Smutny, Joan Franklin | Parenting for High Potential, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Differentiated Instruction for Young Gifted Children: How Parents Can Help


Smutny, Joan Franklin, Parenting for High Potential


I look at my twins and wonder if differentiating will work at this young age. Yes, they're gifted. But there are a lot of traits that make them typical young kids. They scramble around in the yard creating elaborate games; they have to touch everything, get into every closed box and forbidden object they can. Frankly, I don't think the twins are concerned about the fact that things come easily to them. When they lose interest, it's mostly because the process isn't imaginative or active enough for them.

-Father of twin first graders.

When my child started school, I found that the school had an arrangement for students at different levels of literacy. My child and several others were put in a "cluster group" for advanced readers. At our school, differentiating is a way of making lessons more or less difficult, or allowing kids to work faster or slower. I guess what I wonder is: "How is this different from the old reading groups we had as kids?"

-Mother of Kindergartener.

Last year, we had a couple of college professors work with our elementary school on differentiating. We have a lot of bilingual and immigrant kids. I iiked that they focused on the bilingual and cultural issue, and I felt that they helped a lot of teachers figure out ways to serve more students in this multicultural setting. But my child is bilingual and gifted, and I didn't feel they were tuned into the differences within our population.

-Mother of bilingual second grader.

I support the ideas of differentiated instruction, but what I find is that teachers often have to settle for a little here and a little there. It's a very demanding system and my son's teacher always looks a little harried. I would love to help her and I think I could be helpful. But how do I even begin? What steps could I take?

-Mother of second grader.

Parents of young gifted children voice common concerns about what is often presented to them as "differentiated instruction." What benefits will my gifted child receive through this approach? How effective is it for young children generally? How responsive is it to differences between and within cultural groups? Does it provide for the creative as well as academic needs of my gifted child? What can I do at home or at school to support this approach?

During the primary years, children manifest a wider range of differences than older learners. As a general rule, the younger the age group, the more dramatic variations within the group and the more likely that the differences you see in school performance reflect deeper differences in developmental level. Add to this the influence of culture, special ability, and language, and you have a classroom where the range of knowledge and understanding in any given subject can span at least several years. The need for differentiated instruction in the primary grades is therefore very great.

Fundamentally, differentiating is about honoring the individuality of the child and letting that guide what he or she learns and how. Understanding the learners, therefore, becomes the foundation stone upon which every decision about the child's education rests. Despite their inexperience in school, primary grade children bring worlds of knowledge, skill, experiences, traditions, impressions, tastes, values and ideas to the classroom. They have already learned more in the years before school than they are likely to learn again in a span of four or five years. Once they enter the classroom, questions immediately arise:

* What special abilities and skills do these children have?

* What life experiences and knowledge have they gained outside of school (this could include exposure to a wide range of areas-animals, farming, auto mechanics, architecture, storytelling, music, etc.)?

* What special interests do they have? To what materials and activities are they continually drawn?

* What are their learning styles? …

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