Children are perpetually curious, seeking deeper understanding with question after question. But typical classrooms can’t always meet the educational needs of gifted and advanced learners, especially in their early years. Gifted is more than being smart — gifted children think differently, have unique interpersonal skills, and need optimal challenge to nurture their abilities. When they spend each day with teachers who understand their unique learning styles and are surrounded by academic peers, they thrive.
“Gifted children benefit from an immersive learning experience that is intentional and designed to help them meet their full potential,” explains Kristen Mitchell, a seasoned kindergarten teacher with The Avery Coonley School, an independent school for students in preschool through grade eight. “We understand the value of children exploring content through all the learning styles, not just visual and auditory,” Mitchell says.
At Avery Coonley, the focus is on process over product, which allows students to learn that deeper understanding is achieved through trial and error. For instance, armed with newly gained physics concepts, kindergartners design, build and test their own pinball machines.
“If their bumpers don’t work, they revise, revamp and reconstruct,” Mitchell says, adding that for her students, the lessons often continue long after the bell rings. “They play with mom and dad, add another bumper and keep going with it.”
For some students, this is an introduction to engineering — an early grasp of how engineers design, test and solve complex problems. “When they are this excited and ignited, we know we have done our job and they are continuing on the foundation we have laid in school,” says Mitchell.
Students have agency in the way they demonstrate understanding, too. “Not every student gives the exact same end product,” explains Mitchell. “This means kids are more invested and have a higher participation level.” When kindergartners learn about community helpers, for instance, they ask a visiting firefighter or librarian questions, then synthesize and present their findings in the learning style that best demonstrates their knowledge. “They may create a picture or write a story or sing a song. They may present a dramatic play. Even if it is a topic they are not interested in, by embedding choice and autonomy, they become invested,” says Mitchell.
Interactive social learning is a valued component of an Avery Coonley classroom. When gifted students share thoughts and ideas and engage with peers who think similarly, creativity ignites and ideas multiply.
“We encourage that spark which another student then develops and takes further. The idea chain keeps going and that’s a powerful part of being in a specialized program for gifted students,” Mitchell explains. Surrounded by like-minded peers, children feel connected and challenged.
Engaging and challenging
With skilled educators who understand the needs of gifted and advanced learners, children at Avery Coonley engage at levels that are optimally challenging — not so easy that it’s boring, but not so difficult to cause a shutdown. “With optimal challenge, we move into a spot where students feel some tension. They’re challenged but they can still succeed,” says Mitchell.
To encourage students to recognize risk-taking as a chance to learn — and to counter perfectionism common to gifted kids — teachers at Avery Coonley help students learn to coach themselves through challenges and build resilience to last a lifetime. When students feel comfortable taking risks, that’s when true learning happens.
“This is fundamental to our philosophy. We give high fives when students get the wrong answer and encourage students to understand how their brains grow and spark — especially when they don’t succeed,” Mitchell says, adding that it’s a win when children say, “I didn’t do that right, but my brain had a party.”
Learn more about The Avery Coonley School at averycoonley.org.