Little Tikes: Teaching Young Gifted Learners

Reaching early childhood gifted students poses special challenges to teachers at Sebring Elementary School. Assessment, differentiation, teacher collaboration, and curriculum compacting are the nuts and bolts that enliven philosophical differences among two dedicated professionals.

Steve Homby, gifted education specialist, visits Jane Smittey’s kindergarten classrooms as part of the fall screening process for gifted services at Sebring School.

Mr. Steve Homby

It seems like such a simple concept to an adult mind. “OK everyone, let’s make a circle,” Steve Homby orders in his best teacher voice. Around him, the children move in completely random patterns. One girl spins ballerina-style, shouting, “I’m making circles! Look at me!”

“OK. Let’s try again. Everyone look at me.” Jane Smittey stands in the doorway. This is her classroom, and she is clearly in charge. “Circle time, class.” The children stand, hold hands, spread into a circle, and then sit.

Steve begins the lesson.  “Hi, I’m Mr. Homby, and I’ll be visiting your classroom for the next few days and teaching with Mrs. Smittey.  We’re going to be talking about nursery rhymes and groups of rhyming words.  One of my favorites is ‘Humpty Dumpty.’  How many of you know that one?”   Smiles of recognition and waving hands greet his question.

As the gifted education specialist, Steve wants his lessons to encourage creative thinking, but he also has to target state standards.  It isn’t always easy to meet both goals, especially without text books, so for this lesson he has decided to follow Mrs. Smittey’s lead and continue her work on word families and rhyming patterns in nursery rhymes.

A copy of the lesson plan that Steve used

After a choral reading of the poem, Steve underlines ‘Humpty’ and ‘Dumpty,’ explaining that these words have the same ending sounds.  “Who can find other words in these lines with the same ending sound?  What rhymes with ‘fall’?”

A chorus of voices responds, with the majority calling out “wall.”  One little girl yells out, “crawl,” which isn’t contained in any of the rhymes’ lines.

“Who can tell me some other words that rhyme with wall and fall?”  He records their responses on index cards. “Why do we call the lists you made today word families?”  Steve notices many perplexed faces and for a moment he thinks that perhaps he’s lost his audience.  “What does small have in common with ball and tall?” After another minute, one hand shoots up.  “Yes, Brian?”

“Well,” Brian says. “When I was small, I couldn’t catch the ball, but now that I’m tall, it’s easy.”

“I bet, Brian!” Steve smiles.  “That’s one way those words are alike; they all describe you.  Another way to group words is by sounds, which is what word families are all about.  Anybody notice how these words sound alike?”

More about word families

Over the next several days, Steve continues working with patterns in nursery rhymes. He asks students to illustrate different endings for their favorite nursery rhymes.  Alicia calls him over to show him her drawing.  “Look, Mr. Homby, I put in a pool for all those children who live in a shoe.  Now they have something to do!”

See student work sample below:

Jane meets with Steve after school to talk about his observations.

“I think Alicia and Brian show some characteristics of giftedness,” Steve begins.

“Really?  I mean, I know they’re advanced in language, but I just don’t know that you can tell if somebody’s gifted this young—or just given a lot of support at home.”

“Giftedness can be identified in kids this age! I’ll give you an article on this…” Steve shuffled through papers, “When I find it.”

See the article Steve mentioned below:

“Anyway,” Steve continued. “I look at several different characteristics, such as creative thinking and advanced comprehension. That’s how Brian and Alicia caught my eye, but I do need to observe them more.  Any chance we could collaborate on some plans so I can spend some time in your class?”

“Sure, I love team teaching.  How about working with me again in the literacy block?”

Steve returns to Jane’s classroom to collaborate on a literacy lesson.

When Steve enters Jane’s room, the class is seated in a large circle on the rug, listening intently as Jane leads them in a review of the alphabet using the familiar song and poster.  Jane motions for Steve to join the group on the rug as she distributes paper cups full of carefully selected letters from alphabet cereal.

See the lesson plan Jane follows below:

Brian is playing with his shoes.  The constant scritch-scratch of the Velcro tabs opening and closing prompts Jane to approach Brian. “Where’s your cereal, Brian?”

“I ate it.”

Jane hands Brian a new cup of cereal. “We’ll all have a chance to sample the cereal, but let’s finish the lesson first.”

Meanwhile, Alicia is twirling the pigtails of the little girl sitting in front of her.  “Can you spell ‘mat’ with your cereal?” Steve asks, hoping to draw her back to the lesson.   He sees that she’s already made the words ‘cat,’ ‘smash,’ and ‘hat’ out of her letters.  The two children next to her are racing each other to see who can find the necessary letters first.

Jane sends the children back to their tables for a follow-up activity with a Venn Diagram.

A Venn diagram

As the children begin their independent assignment, Jane and Steve have a moment to chat.

“What a fun lesson,” Steve begins.

“The kids love it.  I do it every year.”

“I can see why.  Almost everyone seems like they’re into it. But what’s up with Brian and Alicia?”

“Steve,” Jane responds with a laugh.  “These kids are five years old!  Do you know what their attention span is?”

“I know, I know,” Steve grins.  “But sometimes that kind of distractedness can result from not being challenged enough.  I think I should do a formal evaluation of both Brian and Alicia. Can you help with a behavioral checklist?”

As a follow-up to their conversation, Steve administers individualized ability tests.  Both children score significantly above average.  He now has the data to support his classroom observations.

See the Longfield School District’s gifted identification procedures below:

See Brian’s assessment results below:

See Alicia’s assessment results below:

Before their next faculty meeting, Steve pulls Jane aside.  “Good news, Jane!  Brian and Alicia have been identified as students with emerging gifted behaviors! I can start working with them tomorrow in our gifted resource program.”

Jane looks less than thrilled. “How long will they be out of class?”

“They’re entitled to a full day of specialized curriculum,” Steve says.  “My kindergartners and first graders meet every Tuesday.”

“A full day? Away from my class?” Jane asks.  “When am I supposed to find the time to reteach everything that they miss?”

Newly identified gifted students Brian and Alicia aren’t regularly attending their Tuesday gifted class.

Brian and Alicia usually arrive late to the gifted resource classroom each Tuesday. By 11 o’clock the day of their fifth class, they are still missing.

Mrs. Smittey leads a whole class activity

After dropping his students at lunch, Steve finds Jane in the teacher’s lounge. “Hey, Jane,” he asks. “Where are Brian and Alicia?”

“I kept them this morning to catch them up on all the work they’ve missed,” Jane says.

“I need them to move on with our group project.”

“I’ll send them to you after lunch,” Jane promises.

“Okay, but I’m supposed to see them all day – and I’ve planned for that.” Steve is frustrated.  “It’s really hard for me to stick to my instructional goals when my students aren’t there.”

“What about my instructional goals?” Jane’s voice rises.  “I’m the one responsible for making sure all of my students keep up with their work. When they’re gone I have to teach the class and then teach them when they get back. It’s just not fair.” With that, Jane walks out of the lounge.

After lunch, Alicia and Brian arrive in the gifted classroom. Steve reminds the other students to include them in the mapping activities. As Steve circulates around the room, Brian stops him to ask, “Why didn’t I come this morning like I’m supposed to?”

That afternoon, Steve finds a telephone message in his mailbox from Brian’s mother. He returns the call immediately.

See the audio Recording of Parent/Teacher telephone call below:

Mr. Jackson meets with Jane and Steve to resolve the problem.

Principal Ben Jackson has no choice but to explore this issue once he receives a letter from Brian’s mother. He generally approaches mediation by providing opportunities for people to discuss and compromise. With reasonable parties, this hands-off approach is usually successful, but there are no guarantees. “Here we go,” he thinks, as both teachers come walking through his office door.

As they are seated, Mr. Jackson hands them each a copy of the letter that prompted the meeting and begins. “I’m hoping the two of you can help me understand what’s going on here. Brian Newton’s parents want to know why their son is missing time in the gifted resource room. Steve, would you care to start?”

Steve reviews Brian and Alicia’s history in the program with Mr. Jackson.

“Is this correct, Jane?” asks Mr. Jackson.

“Yes, but what Steve doesn’t seem to understand is that when they leave my classroom for an entire day each week, they get behind. Their work suffers, and I have to work double-time to get them caught up.”

Steve responds.  “Do you have them make up all the work, or just what they need to master the material?”

“I don’t give out busy work; my students have to do all of the work I provide for mastery,” Jane says. “That’s why I give it, so they can master the material.”

“Well, many gifted students don’t need as much practice as other students their age.” Steve says. “They may already have some of the skills you’re covering.”

“I’m not so sure that’s true of Brian—or Alicia,” Jane replies.  “All of my students need to work to succeed and while Brian sometimes does very well, there are other times when he definitely needs my help and attention.”

Mr. Jackson has been leaning back in his chair, listening, and wondering if this one will sort itself out. “Jane, is Brian bored in your classroom?”

“Bored?” Jane pauses before replying. “I suppose. But I think all students get bored at one time or another. School just isn’t always fun.”

“Of course it isn’t, but I think Steve might be able to help you out,” Mr. Jackson responds.

“Maybe you could try differentiating some of the curriculum that you teach,” Steve adds.

“You mean plan different lessons for every student?” Jane sits very straight. “That’s just not realistic.”

“It’s not quite that bad, Jane.” Steve smiles. “Differentiation just means making adjustments to the types of activities that you provide for your students.  You won’t be teaching different concepts, you’ll just be providing a variety of individualized practice activities.  It could really help you manage Brian and Alicia’s absence—and I’d be happy to help you get started.”

See a What is a Differentiated Classroom? below:

Jane raises her brow. “Steve, I gather I have to do this, but I’m not happy about it.  I already spend hours after school planning and organizing.  I just don’t know when I’ll fit it all in.”

Mr. Jackson interrupts,  “Jane, I know it’s more work for you, but you’ve always been one of our best teachers at Sebring and I know you’ll do well at this.”

Jane nods her head, clearly not mollified by his praise.

Having agreed to look at curriculum compacting and scheduling, Steve and Jane find both challenges and solutions.

Mr. Homby observes a student activity

The following Thursday Jane joins Steve in his classroom after school. She doesn’t make it down this hall often, and each time she does she’s surprised to see the level of work the upper grade students produce. They’ve come such a long way from the kindergarten hall! As she turns into Steve’s room, she notices how open and almost sparse it seems without the clutter of homeroom cubbies and furniture for twenty. Jane takes a seat next to Steve, placing her worn plan book next to his tower of papers, articles, and journals.

“OK,” Steve begins, “where do you want to start? I mean, which subject do you want to look at? And Jane, thanks for working with me on this.  I know it’s not exactly your idea.”

“You said it, but I will try, just like Mr. Jackson said I would,” Jane grins. “Let’s pick up with rhyming and word families.”

“Good idea.” Steve fumbles through his notes and papers. “I’m looking for a pretest that might help. Maybe we can modify some of these literacy screening tools I found online?”

Mr. Homby talks with Brian


After the two teachers settle on a pretest and outline some modifications, Jane opens her plan book. “Now, when am I going to give this test? And should I give it to everyone?”

“That’s up to you, but I’d pick the kids who seem closest to mastery to test.”

“Am I supposed to do this for everything I teach?  That’ll take forever!”

“Let’s just focus on one area at a time.  I really can help.  Can we meet again next Thursday after school or during your planning?”

See Jane and Steve’s schedule below:

Tiered lessons as a possibility for differentiating assignments