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Exposing Gifted Myths: Abilities Even Out in Third Grade

March 7, 2011

I’ve heard teachers, school board members, and even some parents of advanced and gifted children state “Abilities even out in third grade”, often as an excuse for not having advanced and gifted education in the elementary grades.  After all, if early gifted education leads to no discernible results, why spend money on it?

But do abilities actually even out in third grade?  The answer to this question is not a simple yes or no.
Entering early elementary there are two groups of advanced students.  One group is the gifted learners and the other are the “hothoused” children.  “Hothousing” is a term used by some to describe parents who push their children to learn skills they aren’t cognitively ready to achieve.  Many claim that hothousing is parental-driven advanced education, whereas giftedness is child-driven advanced education.  I don’t believe the line is quite that distinct as many children, gifted or not, will choose fun activities over learning activities and require parental guidance and discipline to help direct their giftedness.  It is also vital to realize that the same child can be both hothoused and gifted.  A child may be gifted in reading but hothoused in math.

As education becomes more and more the teacher’s domain, hothoused children often begin performing near grade level.  They don’t have the pressure or encouragement in their educational environment to continue to perform ahead of their abilities.  They are not cognitively different from other children their age.  While they may continue to be ahead of their peers, this is more a result of schools having a curriculum that is below the age-level abilities of most students.

Gifted children tend to keep performing above grade level even in third grade.  They are cognitively advanced (and often emotionally advanced) compared to their peers.  They pick up concepts quickly and are ready for academics beyond their grade level.  Often they don’t need external pressure or encouragement to excel, even though it can be very important in keeping a gifted child on track.

It is often around third grade that the differences between these two groups becomes apparent.  Many school systems delay gifted testing or programs until after this time.

Why should school districts have gifted programs before third grade?  There are a number of answers.

First, many of these students are actually gifted and deserve to have education at their learning level and speed.  Equality is not giving each child the same education, but giving each child an education that suits them.  If you gave each child a medium t-shirt, you ignore the children who need small or large sizes.  Gifted education could be viewed as an insurance policy in early elementary.  I don’t buy health insurance because I know I may require medical services.  I buy it because I may require medical services.  Advanced children may turn out to be hothoused rather than gifted, but it is important that gifted children be “covered” so that they do not lose four years of valuable education.

Second, children are already learning the habits that will shape their academic careers and their lives.  Succeeding without trying is a really bad habit to learn.  More than one educator has pointed out that more is learned through failure than success.  By rarely failing, gifted children do not learn important skills in perseverance, changing tactics to achieve success, or overcoming obstacles.  Many gifted children will refuse to try things that they do not believe they can be immediately successful in.  I would argue that ‘learning how to learn’ is just as significant as what knowledge is actually taught in the schools and is a primary mission of educational establishments.

Third, advanced and gifted education should not be viewed as a one-time decision.  Once a child is in a gifted program or in the “average student” track, that should not be final.  If a child is excelling in an area, move them to a gifted program.  If a child is struggling because they are not cognitively ready, perhaps they need to be back in the standard classroom.  Many children will need advanced education in some areas, but standard education in others.  Schools and parents should not be afraid to move children into the appropriate learning group for them, even if it means moving a hothoused child from gifted education to the standard classroom.  It should be about the child and what is best for them.

Fourth, gifted children, particularly girls, learn to hide their giftedness due to social concerns.  They don’t want to become a pariah and ostracized for being intelligent.  They let their gifts languish, purposefully miss questions on exams, and don’t raise their hands to answer questions.  While a gifted athlete is a star, the academically gifted are “nerds, geeks, and freaks”.  Some purposefully level themselves out so that they will fit in better.  And this starts happening around third grade. Acceleration actually helps gifted students socially as they fit in with the group surrounding them.

Schools should provide appropriate education for gifted students even in early elementary and should not use this argument to dissuade parents looking for advanced and gifted education for their children.

Do abilities even out in third grade?  For gifted students, this is a MYTH!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2011 3:23 PM

    A way of explaining WHY they think and feel so much:
    Gifted behavior is not as complex it appears. All behaviors are related to two simple ideas that are easy to grasp. From a core understanding of how the brain works comes clarity of what originally appears to be a complex set characteristics typical to most gifted individuals.
    Basically, the gifted brain has a significantly larger number of memory cells and many more neurons connected to those memory cells as well as throughout the other main sensory areas of the brain. This structure allows the individual to hold much more information in the memory at one time, make relationships between those elements in their memory resulting in stronger reasoning skills. Learning takes place 5-8 times faster than individuals of average ability. The intensities and sensitivities we so often see in gifted individuals are related to the increased neural networking seen across the frontal lobes and midbrain areas. This also explains why no question is a ‘simple’ one. [These notes are from How the Gifted Brain Learns, by David A. Sousa.]
    Thus a gifted child’s memory bank and problem solving connections continue to grow and build and build on those previous memories and relationships developed in the brain. They will continue to build as long as they are challenged by new learning situations, especially in the areas of their intense interest.
    See more answers about gifted at http://www.migiftedchild.org
    Telling the child: When children think that other people just don’t care (that these people lack sensitivity which like is like a personal attack on them), we need to help them understand that “it’s not that other people don’t care, but that others simply don’t always see and feel things in the same way.” Share one of these analogies:
    >”Henry, you know some of us have to wear glasses to see well. Others see very well without glasses. Some people, like you, see and feel more than others. It’s as if you’re looking through a microscope.”
    >”If we were TV sets, some of us would get five channels. Some would be wired for cable and would pick up a lot more. Some people, like you, Sally, would seem to have a satellite dish and could pick up more information and ideas and feelings than many others.” Excerpt from Teaching Young Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom, by J. Smutny. See also Susan Winebrenner, Teaching Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom, for 3-12th, compacting.

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