The gift of gifted education

It’s a tough time to be gifted in Illinois. The good news that your child has been identified as gifted may be quickly diminished by the reality of what that means in terms of their education. Districts across the state have been forced to reduce or cut gifted programming.

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Luckily, parents can make a strong impact on advancing the minds of these bright kids. Even better, the Chicago area offers a wealth of resources for kids of all ages.

Gifted in Illinois

Gifted children are loosely defined as those who score in the upper 5 percent of their district on state-mandated tests. Some districts also take into consideration class performance, portfolio work and teacher recommendations.

While no one argues with the imperative of getting struggling learners up to speed, the needs of gifted kids are less clear. Districts find it easier to justify cutting programs for kids who already excel in class.

“Gifted programs are not mandated by the state,” says Sally Walker, executive director of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. “Nor is there any state funding for gifted programs. As such, they’re often one of the first programs to be cut in a district. This happens in wealthy districts as well as less well-to-do.”

Challenging them

Joan Smutny, founder and director of The Center for Gifted and the author of 20 books on the subject, says gifted children are hungry for a challenge.

With program cuts, parents must take up that challenge themselves. Stimulating their minds doesn’t have to cost money or involve time-consuming activities. Sometimes the easiest adjustments make the biggest impact.

Elizabeth Dierkseheide of Elmhurst, a parent to four high-achieving children, says she’s a huge proponent of simply using the library.

“I take a huge canvas bag and bring it to the library every week and just fill it with books,” she explains. “I look for different types of books from poetry to fairy tales, fiction to nonfiction. I try to find books with cultural or religious themes, graphic or illustrated books, anything that is different.”

 The kids spend hours poring over the books.

Dierkseheide credits that exposure to her kids’ interest in many topics and their ability to read at a young age. “It’s like filling your kids’ basic needs, like water,” she says. “Soon they just craved these new books.”

 Some of the best enrichment can be accomplished just by letting them loose on their interests.

“Follow their passion,” says Walker. “Sometimes it’s hard because gifted kids are often interested in everything.”

If they’re interested in, say, China, take them to the library to learn about Chinese history, show them Chinese writing, visit Chinatown, prepare traditional Chinese foods, have them write a story about China and examine Chinese clothing.

Other lessons come from everyday life. Have them help plan or cook a meal and discuss nutrition, the ecology of food, organic vs. inorganic and the role of chemicals. Have them compare prices at the grocery store. Teach them about measurements as you cook.

“I often focus on science because when they get to school, it becomes a textbook and it’s more fun to do hands-on,” says Walker. “Tie together art and science and discuss why artists use a predominant color or way of painting. Discuss the sounds and images of red-hot jazz or the blues. Take them to Ravinia or a symphony and an art museum.”

When kids get older, teach them civic lessons and economics. Discuss why we have budgets and who makes them; observe a city council or school board meeting.

The Chicago effect

As Chicagoans, we’re fortunate to have access to world-class museums, libraries and cultural activities.

“Parents just need to look around and see the area; it couldn’t be finer,” says Smutny. “Expose these kids to Chicago’s amazing museums. Don’t just do one type of museum, encourage their different talents.”

That means visiting not only the big Chicago museums, such as the Museum of Science and Industry, Field Museum, Art Institute, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium but also nature museums and local history museums. If they’re particularly drawn to one museum, check if it offers educational programs.

“Parents must recognize that their child is hungry for a deeper, richer understanding,” says Smutny.

Chicago also offers a wide variety of enriched learning courses and programs across the city and suburbs for students to delve deeper into subjects of interest.


Of course, the onus of gifted education shouldn’t be solely on parents. Schools have a responsibility, too. Gifted kids can get extremely bored in class.

“Many times the smart kids are overlooked because it’s assumed they’ll make it on their own,” says Walker. “But research shows that they adjust to the norm.”

If your child needs more challenging work, talk to the teacher first. Recognize that the teacher has 20 to 30 other students in the class, so look for solutions that don’t involve overloading their day. Even simply differentiating and grouping students by ability can make an impact.

Advocate for different work, rather than more work. Sometimes this requires more creative or flexible scheduling. For instance, could your child move up a grade in just a particular subject? Or do independent work projects? Is there an online curriculum that would be beneficial?

If your child still isn’t challenged, talk to the principal and work your way up to the curriculum director. Lobby the school board for additional funding and don’t be afraid to reach out to state legislators about the importance of gifted education.

 If all else fails, continue stimulating your child's mind at home.

“Gifted classes and additional programs are great,” says Walker. “But sometimes following the kids’ interests is just as good. Expose them to different areas of interests-it’s part of living and being a citizen of the world.”

 Laura Amann is a freelance writer and mom of four living in Elmhurst.
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