How I Used Shoes to Create a Classroom Culture of Acceptance

My last two posts were about children with dual exceptionalities. I gave some tips about how to identify these special children (and why), as well as some helpful ways you can help these special children. You can find those posts here and here. Part of my last post focused on creating an accepting classroom environment for your 2E students.

Today I'm going to expand on that idea of creating an accepting environment for 2E children. Of alllllll of the activities, discussions, and routines I worked hard at implementing at the beginning of the school year,  this is the one lesson that I feel really helped lay the groundwork for a successful and supportive learning environment, in which children were free to be themselves, and where we accepted, acknowledged, and even celebrated our differences.

How it started...

One really great exercise I did with students at the start of the school year was based on a lesson from "The Sisters" Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, creators of the Daily 5/Café reading structure/strategies. In their book, The CAFE Book, they suggest demonstration involving shoes to describe the process choosing a "good fit" book. I first used this in my language arts classes to help guide children in the selection of books that matched their reading needs.

In a nutshell, I brought in a bunch of my family's shoes and we talked about how I wouldn't wear my high heels for gym class and my hiking boots were definitely not appropriate for my date night to a fancy restaurant (this was the analogy used to teach about choosing books to suit the child's purpose for reading.) The lesson went on with me demonstrating how neither my daughter's infant shoe nor my husband's tennis shoes were a good fit for me--they were obviously too big and too small (this connected to picking books that were neither way too easy or way too difficult). The lesson continued as we talked about choosing books that we were interested in, could understand, etc.

It soon became apparent to me that this lesson could also work really well when speaking to the class about differentiated instruction in my classroom. The analogies now worked in new ways. They offered a really concrete way for children to see that just because what they were doing in class (or when they came to my resource room) was different, it wasn't better or worse than what the other kids were doing. It was just different.  It was what they needed, what they deserved, and what (we hoped) would help them to grow the most as learners.

How it played out...

Because I worked hard at offering students choice in the classroom through the use of menus, projects, choice reading, etc., we went on a pretend fantasy shoe-shopping trip so that students could engage in exercising their preferences.

I selected images ahead of time for different kinds of shoes in the same category. For example, if the category was shoes to wear to PE class, I gathered several images of gym shoes and put them up for the class to see and vote on favorites. We talked about how everyone has their own style and preferences when it comes to the shoes they chose. Maybe two children had both selected tennis shoes, but it was clear that the child who had chosen the flashy, light-up, glittery, neon show-stoppers had a different style sense than the child who had chosen the well-loved, broken-in, simple black Chuck Taylors. And that was OKAY! In fact, it was awesome to see the differences! Some children chose shoes for comfort, some chose for style, and some chose for ease of putting on and taking off.

It was all great because at least they got to choose according to their own desires and needs at the time.

**Before I describe the next steps, it is important to note that for this exercise specifically, I did not use the children's actual shoes. The reality is that some children don't get to choose their shoes--they're glad to have shoes that fit and function at all because of financial or other difficulties at home. There is no reason to draw attention to the potential differences in socio-economic status or other out-of-school difficulties here.**

Next, we talked about shoe size. I had children take off their shoes and line them up according to size (sometimes I had them take measurements if it was during math!). We of course quickly learned that the children's shoes were all different sizes. This lead to a conversation about how it wouldn't make sense to make someone with a size-11 foot squeeze into a size-five shoe. Clearly, the child had long outgrown the size five shoe and was ready for a bigger size.  It didn't mean anything was wrong with the child, or that he or sheet was in some way better than someone with smaller feet, it just meant that they were growing at different rates. We talked about how this was the same for children's learning in school. I wish I had video footage of the faces I would see during this lesson. Watching those connections be made, and having someone acknowledge, maybe for the first time, that their learning differences were natural and normal and to be expected instead of better or worse than someone else was so great kinda magical.

Next, we talked about the purpose of the shoes. Sandals for the beach, athletic shoes for playing sports, dress shoes for special occasions. We sometimes wear different shoes when we have different needs. I used this when I was addressing children's concerns about being seen as different when they came to my resource room for their gifted instruction. Just like they would choose sandals or flipflops for the beach, they came to me and were grouped together as learners for a specific purpose--to meet their needs!

Finally, we talked about caring for our shoes. I had students picture their best, most favorite shoe (or any possession, really). We shared a bit about their favorites and then I turned the conversation to have the children imagine being able to hold on to that special pair of shoes (or other items) forever. What would it take to protect the shoes (treating them nice, not beating them up, cleaning them when they got dirty, etc.) How can we make sure our favorite slippers stay nice so we can keep them as long as possible? How can we keep our shoes from looking like the tattered, neglected, abandoned shoes like the ones below?

To complete the analogy, we talked about the human connection. What are some ways in the classroom that we can make each other feel that we are those treasured shoes? How can we care for each other so that we can keep each other feeling valued, protected, and cared for? This always led to a great student-led conversation about treating each other with kindness and compassion, not pointing out differences, understanding that they all need to be looked after with great care. We talked about the importance of fixing problems as they come up, and valuing each other. We closed the discussion by considering the fact that each one of us is someone's favorite, and we each deserve to be treated as such.

Students came away from this lesson having a really concrete and clear picture of how, in my classroom at least, we would view, acknowledge, accept, and celebrate our differences.

And I truly feel like it made a difference in how students perceived each other, especially when it came to differentiated instructional opportunities.

We had fewer issues with jealousy and judging because our classroom culture was being shaped into a community of people who understood that decisions were made according to what students truly needed and deserved as the unique individuals in our class.

What are some of the ways you've engaged children in your classrooms or at home in discussions about acceptance and respect for other people's differences? Leave me a comment below!


Ten Powerful Ways We Can Support Twice-Exceptional Children in the Classroom

Twice exceptional children need our help.

They need our help and support and love. They need people to know who they are and what makes them special.

They need to know how to use their strengths to help compensate for their difficulties.  They need to have the opportunity to pursue their interests and learn and grow in their areas of giftedness just as much as any. other. gifted. child.

The times I've had the privilege of teaching children with dual exceptionalities have been both the most challenging and most rewarding experiences I've had as a teacher. Today I'm offering some tips that helped me meet the needs of these special learners.

As a reminder, twice exceptional children are those who are both gifted and have a significant developmental weakness in comparison to peers of the same age. You can read more about characteristics and signs to watch for in my post here. As of 2006, it was estimated that nearly 70,000 2e children had been identified. You can imagine that as districts have grown stronger in identifying these children, that number has only increased.

How to Help 2e Kids in the Classroom

Be thorough in our identification--taking a look at the WHOLE child, an evaluation should include many areas including academic skills, cognitive abilities and processes (memory and reasoning skills), areas of concern, social and emotional strengths and weaknesses, and other contributing factors.

We have to get a thorough picture of what the problem is before we can solve it. This means that we need to enlist the help of both the parents and a team of professionals who can help collect all of this information.

Create a supportive classroom culture. It's important that we establish an environment in which children are supported and appreciated by each other in (and out of ) the classroom for their differences. The more we talk about the diverse needs of everyone in the classroom, and the more regularly we provide differentiated instruction, the more it will become normal. There are lots of ways to do this, and I suggest using explicit direct instruction and LOTSSSSS of modeling in the beginning of the year, and again throughout the school year as needed.

Make sure strengths are served FIRST. This can lead to a student's higher self-concept and reduction in tension caused by exceptionalities. It also helps other students see and respect the child for his or her strengths, improves social interactions, and of course encourages growth in learning in the child's area of giftedness.

In a 2003 article, Strategies for Teaching Twice-exceptional Students, author Susan Winebrenner said,

The rule to follow when teaching students who are twice exceptional is simple. When teaching in their areas of strength, offer them the same compacting and differentiation opportunities available to other gifted students. When teaching in their areas of challenge, teach them whatever strategies they need to increase their learning success. Never take time away from their strength areas to get more time to work on their deficiencies. Never remediate their weaknesses until you teach to their strengths!

Get students help for their challenge areas. Often this involves the creation of IEP or 504 plan with your school's intervention team. Again, just be sure that time for intervention is not taking away from the time when the child's strengths are being nurtured.

Be flexible with accommodations. 

Will spell-checking software allow the child to write more fluently? Let them use it.

Will a calculator help speed up the process so that the child can work on the more complex math skills you're learning about? Let them use it.

Would allowing your dyslexic student to listen to an audio recording of your class novel help remove a barrier so that they could focus on the comprehension skills you're teaching? LET. THEM. USE. IT.

I'm not suggesting that these students shouldn't work on strengthening those spelling, calculating, or reading skills, but I am suggesting that we think critically about what our true objectives are for the lessons. We shouldn't penalize a child for needing some extra time if your learning objective isn't to increase completion speed. You can find a really great list of possible accommodations here.

Provide lots of help with organization. Use systems in your classroom that encourage routine and help students build their skills in managing time and materials. BUT, remember that this, too, is a learning process.  Twice-exceptional students won't always remember to do things just the way you've shown them. Provide a gentle reminder and move on. If the routine isn't working for the student, maybe it's time make adjustments or offer extra support until it gets better.

Engage your 2e kid in some goal setting. Help them set reasonable (small and easily attainable at first) goals and celebrate with them when they reach the goal. You can find some good tips for goal setting with children herehere, and here. I created the page to the right to help with the goal setting. Feel free to click the picture to grab a copy for yourself.

Have patience.  This is true for all the areas of teaching children, no matter what their needs, but it is especially true for the child with dual exceptionalities. Part of what will help their success in your classroom is their connection with you. They need to know that you understand their struggles and that it's okay to make mistakes in your presence.

Be flexible. It's not an easy journey, and no two students are going to be the same. Sometimes what works one day may not work the next. Adjustments need to be made, and life needs to go on. Having you as a model for flexibility will also help your students the benefits of going with the flow.

Seek help. Educating a twice-exceptional child is no easy task. But if you feel yourself starting to get overwhelmed, imagine what it must be like for the student. I encourage you to use the tools and people at your disposal to get the assistance you need in meeting this challenge head-on. You can do

Great resources for you to check out

A Guidebook for Twice Exceptional Students: Supporting the Achievement of GiftedStudents with Special Needs by Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, Maryland

Hoagies' Gifted --Twice Exceptional

The “Best” 25 Strategies for Working With Twice-Exceptional Children: Teacher developed lists 

Accommodating 2e students--Linda Neumann, 2e Newsletter 2004

Are there other tips or resources you suggest or have found helpful in your journey with 2e kids? I'd love to hear them. Leave me a comment below! 

Mickenberg, Karen. 2017. Understand the Gifted Underachiever and Twice-Exceptional Student. CTY Webinar, Johns Hopkins University. 

Teaching Strategies forTwice-Exceptional StudentsWinebrenner, Susan. 2003. Intervention in School and Clinic. Vol 38 no. 3



Twice Exceptional: Gifted with a Twist

You've probably heard the stories of Albert Einstein and his delayed language development (he didn't speak until he was three) or the idea that his teachers in school thought he was "simple minded." Perhaps you've read about Bill Gate's autism-like behaviors, or Thomas Edison's inability to read until he was 12 years old. Sound familiar?

We know these stories of people who are widely recognized for genius in their fields, and yet they also had learning difficulties as well. We've used these famous people in our lessons to coach students about grit and perseverance, we teach them about how individuals like this overcame sometimes tremendous difficulties in their lives to become preeminent experts in science and technology.

And yet, when it comes to the children in our classrooms, identifying students who are both gifted and facing some sort of hurdle when it comes to learning--whether it's a physical, sensory, emotional/behavioral, or specific learning disability--is something that is quite often overlooked. 

It's easy to see why these students are not always readily identified--they're dealing with a very complex set of strengths and weaknesses, many of which can be hidden or masked by a child's strengths (ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities). Not to mention the fact that our parenting classes and teacher-training programs were not likely to spend much time training us on how to recognize these children. 

It is important that we learn how to identify and support these children because while they may seem to have developed strategies for compensating in one area or another, they still need the support of parents and teachers alike. They need our help so that they can have access to strategies, tools, and programs that will help them meet their full potential. 

Who are these special people?

Simply, children and adults who are both gifted and possess some sort of learning difficulty are identified as having dual exceptionalities or are twice-exceptional (2E). On one hand, a student may be extremely talented in mathematics but is reading and writing well below grade level. Another child may be spatially gifted but also be dyslexic. In general, it is thought that people with dual exceptionalities fall into one of three categories:*

  • Children whose learning and attention issues are masked by their giftedness. These children are likely to have been identified as gifted as they generally perform well on tests for giftedness, but they may not do well in gifted programs. People may look at them as being lazy or underachievers when they don't perform as well as their gifted peers. 
  • Children whose learning and attention issues mask their giftedness. These children are less likely to have been identified as gifted because they don't perform well on the gifted identification tests. Further, because they are sometimes placed in resource rooms or receive other services for their disability, they may become bored, act out, and are more likely to be labeled as a behavior problem. 
  • Children whose giftedness and learning disabilities have masked each other. These students are likely to appear as fairly average or slightly below average in the classroom setting. Their abilities and disabilities have an effect of canceling each other out, making them quite difficult to identify for both their giftedness and their potential learning difficulty or disability. 

What are the signs should we be looking for?

Though no child is likely to show all of these characteristics, here are some things you can be looking for if you suspect a child could be twice-exceptional:**

  • Above average vocabulary
  • Wide and deep knowledge in areas or subjects of interest
  • Exceptional skills in mathematical reasoning 
  • Strong visual memory
  • Sophisticated sense of humor
  • Divergent thinking--has many original, creative ideas or ways of approaching problems
  • Insightful 
  • Creative
  • Problem solver

  • Can complete sophisticated or complex activities but may struggle with simple tasks like easy computations or basic writing 
  • Poor spelling
  • Poor handwriting--reverses letters or has difficulty with proper letter formation
  • Great reading skills paired with poor comprehension or poor reading skills paired with high comprehension
  • Poor performance in one or more academic areas
  • Struggles on timed tests
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Difficulty with peer relationships
  • Low self-esteem, easily frustrated, has unrealistic expectations, avoids taking risks
  • Disruptive in class, off-task behaviors
  • Impulsivity

Challenges these kids face

Early identification and intervention are so important for 2E kids. “Twice-exceptional (2E) children live a daily struggle trying to understand themselves and the educational world they face. We often hear their frustration, anger, stress, anxiety, and denial. We often see their depressive symptoms, fear of failure, dependency, and social distress. They struggle to maintain a precarious balance between dealing with the expectations of being gifted and desperately trying to cope with learning, emotional, and social difficulties.” Schuler, P (2008). They face:

Social Isolation
Gifted children who are placed in remedial classes may feel like they don't fit in with their special education peers, and likewise, may have difficulty relating to the children in gifted classes.

Having the knowledge of how to solve complex problems or create sophisticated stories but lacking the fine motor or processing skills to actually get solutions or stories on paper can be extremely frustrating for children dealing with their exceptionalities. They might crave perfection or independence, but struggle to attain either. They may have a hard time getting their brain or their body (or BOTH) to cooperate, leading to anxiety and sadness. 

Risk of Depression
Dealing with the daily discrepancies in thinking and functioning with a body or brain that doesn't seem to cooperate can lead to decreased confidence and persistence. Over time, children can start feeling hopeless, sometimes becoming depressed. 

Too Much Focus on Difficulties
A child's full potential may never be realized if the sole focus of their instruction and learning is only in deficit areas. The child's giftedness must also be addressed, and their gifted strengths can be employed as a tool for helping deal with the disability. 

As you can see, learning how to identify gifted learners with disabilities is extremely important. Once we determine what the child's needs are, there are many tools and strategies teachers and parents can use to help them overcome their learning difficulties. Stay tuned--my next post will focus on how we can advocate and work toward meeting the needs of children with dual exceptionalities in the classroom.

Do you have a student in your classroom or child at home whom you suspect may be 2E? What signs are you seeing that have you questioning the possibility? Leave a comment below--maybe another reader or I can help. 


*Baum, S., & Owen, S. (2003). To be gifted and learning disabled: Strategies for helping bright students with LD, ADHD, and more. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
** New Zealand Ministry of Education: 



Are We Hurting Our Gifted Students by Using Them as Peer Tutors?

I was part of a conversation recently in which a parent voiced a concern about his elementary-aged gifted child. He said she was spending a significant amount of time tutoring other students in the class after finishing her work during the regular school day. He thought maybe this tutoring was hurting more than helping. My instinct was to agree with the dad and his concerns (#watchoutformamabear), but as a person who likes to base advice on more than just a gut feeling, I listened to his concerns and made a decision to look into finding some research before offering input. 

{P.S. If you're reading this as a parent of the gifted child, I hope my findings will be helpful as you advocate for your gifted child. If you're reading this as a teacher of gifted children, I hope that this helps arm you with more information as both an advocate and as someone who uses, or has considered using, peer tutoring in your classroom! Questions and comments always welcomed at the bottom of the post!}

His main concerns:

  1. He felt his child was basically being given the job as a way to keep her busy because she is always a fast finisher.
  2. He indicated that while she first thought it was fun to have the "special privilege" to act as an assistant teacher, she was growing weary. Certain classmates started referring to her as the "teacher's pet," which hurt her feelings added to the inklings she already had sometimes about being a little different than the other kids in class.
  3. He acknowledged that teaching others is a great skill to learn, but his biggest concern was that by spending time teaching other students material that she already knew, she wasn't being allowed the opportunity to learn new material. 

I thought these were all very valid concerns. Though, assuming the teacher had positive intent in making the decision to use this practice (always assume positive intent first, right?), perhaps there are some positive aspects to peer tutoring that she thought would benefit the child. In any case, using peer tutoring in my own classroom wasn't a practice I employed, so I spent some time researching, reading, and reflecting. Call me nerdy, but this is how I operate. #wordnerdforlife #bookworm 

Here are my thoughts (with a little research sprinkled in for good measure):

Is it hurting or helping? Well, the answer is, it's complicated. 

Keeping gifted students engaged is one of the biggest challenges any teacher faces. Because of the gifted student's ability to learn new content with few repetitions (and because they come to us already knowing up to 80% of your grade-level content). Allowing a child to help out her classmates once she's finished with her work will certainly keep her occupied. However, in my opinion, the step that needs to be taken before deciding how a child should spend his or her free time in the classroom is asking questions like, "Why does this child have so much free time in my classroom? What is happening with the work completion that she is finishing so much faster than the rest of the class? Is the work too easy? Too hard? Did she learn that skill two or three years ago and no longer needs the practice with that skill?" We have to ask these questions because this will give us better ideas about how to respond to students needs. Pre-assessing the student will give insight into the answers to the questions above. You can read more about pre-assessment here

The student feeling singled-out in this situation is something we can't ignore. Any time a child expresses discomfort with a situation, we need to reflect on whether the feelings are just a normal part of what a child experiences with growth and learning, or if there is cause for concern. Gifted children, in particular, can experience feelings of being different which can sometimes lead to negative consequences. As a part of their giftedness, children can be more perceptive and more sensitive to people's perceptions and attitudes. You can read more on emotional overexcitabilities here. It's hard to know where the line is sometimes, you know, the one between growing pains and actual pain? We want to push our children because we know that true learning comes with a little discomfort. But it's important to know how far is too far. Because this peer tutoring is an optional activity, and we don't yet know what the intent is behind the assignment, if the child is uncomfortable, it's a good idea to stop the practice (if only temporarily).  Until the objective is better defined, and it's determined that the benefits outweigh the strife, stopping seems like the best option. 

Okay, so here is where things got a little more complicated in my research. Finding true, solid, peer-reviewed studies on the effects of peer tutoring (particularly the academic effects) on the gifted child lead me to, well, many dead ends. What I did find, however, is a fairly large amount of research that concludes that peer tutoring (when implemented correctly) has benefits for most children. For example, author Christopher Yawn from the City College of New York had this to say about peer tutoring:  "Peer tutoring is an effective instructional method that permits a teacher to provide in-depth specific instructions to an individual students while at the same time ensuring that the remaining students in the classroom remain actively engaged with the assigned task (Harper and Maheady, 2007). Peer tutoring is an empirically validated instructional tool that has systematically evolved over the years to accommodate the needs of ELL students and students with and without disabilities (Gardner, Hessler, Yawn, & Heron, 2007; Saenz, Fuchs, and Fuchs, 2005)." 

In an article from Gifted Child Today,  author Matthew E. Coenen wrote about an after-school tutoring program developed by educators at a middle school. The program was essentially a daily after-hours homework session in which gifted students volunteered to tutor peers who needed help. The author noted, "Peer-tutoring programs have positive social and cognitive effects on many of the participants (Foot & Howe, 1998). Tutors can benefit cognitively by repeated exposure to previously learned material and the use of higher order thinking and organizational skills (Cohen, 1986); in fact, tutors often make academic gains as well (see Chiang, Thorpe, & Darch, 1980; & Miller, Barbetta, & Heron, 1994). Tutors practice empathy, manage and organize their thoughts, concentrate on the topic at task, set limits as to what and how much to teach, and demonstrate responsibility (Cohen, 1986). Other documented social benefits include increased positive social interactions between peers, decreased inappropriate behaviors, enhanced self-concept, more improved positive attitudes toward school and racial relations (Maheady, 1998)." It is important to note that the participants in this report were not only volunteers, but this peer tutoring took place outside of regular school hours. 

The research sounds pretty good, right? And if you have a student who is in need of development in the areas of positive social interactions, self-concept, empathy, and demonstrating responsibility, goal setting, etc., it seems like engaging in this type of activity could prove beneficial. The thing is, while these papers have good things to say, it's what they didn't say that gives me pause. Aside from mentioning how "tutors benefit cognitively from repeated exposure to previously learned material," (true, but gifted children don't always need the extra repetition), I didn't see much about how gifted students are learning more in any academic areas of study. Yes, learning organizational skills and managing and organizing thoughts are important skills, but I also think gifted students are in school to grow academically just as much as any typically developing peer. 

Suggestions for how to proceed: 

First off, it's important to remember that there is really only one person who can tell you why the child is tutoring other students in the class. So I would always, always recommend just asking the teacher why she made that decision. What are the teacher's objectives for both the student tutor and the tutee? What does she hope they gain by interacting like this? Are the objectives academic, social/emotional, or both? And of course, asking in a, "I respect you as a professional, I'm just curious" kind of way will get you so much farther than approaching her with any kind or presumptive, combative, or defensive grilling. 

Maybe the child needs some work with organizing thoughts, communicating, or any of the other social-emotional benefits from peer tutoring, in which case this tutoring could turn out to be a good thing!

Let's assume the teacher answered that she had already given some sort of pretest and determined that the work she provided was matched with what the child needed to learn. Maybe she's already read up on differentiated instruction (!) and has put the research into action. Maybe the student is just suuuuper fast at finishing work!  Again, we're in the territory of the tutoring being an okay strategy to use, as long as the child is still willing to do it because it seems as though she is learning new material, and she's just got some extra time to spare. 

Some possible alternatives to peer tutoring

If the questions have been answered to your satisfaction but your child is still uncomfortable with tutoring during class, perhaps one of the following options will be a suitable alternative.

  • If the student is finishing quickly because the work is too easy, it's time to differentiate! Changing the depth or breadth of the content being studied is a must-do so that this child has an opportunity to learn new content during school! 
  • If the student is a fast finisher on appropriately-leveled work, developing a long-term independent study project may be just the thing that keeps her both engaged and learning, while perhaps allowing her to feel less singled out. {Click here for a FREE copy of an Independent Learning Contract you can use with your students!}
  • If peer tutoring is a must-do, perhaps finding opportunities for all of the students to be tutors at one time or another will help normalize the practice in the eyes of the gifted student. Others might stop referring to her as the teacher's pet because they will also be doing that "special" job that she once had sole ownership over. 

Sources used and/or referenced in the preparation of this post: 

Did you find this post useful? Leave me a comment below and let me know!




Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners: Differentiating the Learning Environment 6/6

Welcome to the final post in my series on differentiation! It's been quite a journey, so thank you if you've stuck around long enough to see it through! You can catch up on other posts like my overview of differentiation, found here. To read about pre-assessment, click here. You can also read ideas about differentiating content, process or product, and take a peek into how it worked in my classroom here. Today's post is about differentiating the learning environment for gifted students.

Differentiating the Learning Environment

Creating a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment for Gifted StudentsOk, so it seems a little funny to be sitting here writing about how teachers and parents can differentiate the learning environment for gifted children because, in all reality, most of the things I'll be writing about are truly practices and ideas that all students would benefit from encountering. If you have a gifted child in your classroom, I would consider the following ideas to be great pretty much imperative. If you don't have a gifted child in your classroom, I still believe you would agree with me that integrating the suggestions below would still be a best practice for any of the "typical" learners in your classroom. 

Differentiating the learning environment for gifted students encompasses not only the physical space in the classroom, but also how students are allowed to move about during their time in the classroom, and the social and emotional learning conditions in which children are learning. 

Setting up the Physical Space for your Gifted Learners 

Meeting the needs of the gifted and talented children in your classroom typically requires some space set aside for the student(s) to work independently, in pairs, or in small groups. Providing some sort of space for you and students to meet either individually or in small groups should also be part of the plan. In my classrooms, I had several areas that would work in these capacities.

First, I always had student desks in some sort of groups. This worked well for me because of the way I structured my daily math and language arts routines, but it also allowed for me to join students at their desks so that I could easily help problem solve as needed. Please note: my classroom's physical environment was nothing compared to the rooms I saw when I visited places like The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is a private school serving gifted children in the suburbs of Detroit. However, I do think it worked well for what I needed it to do! (Read: It was never Pinterest-worthy, but I liked it well enough!)

Classroom Learning Environment Picture Students desk groupings

In my lower grade classrooms when I taught guided reading, I also always had a kidney bean-shaped table. It was perfect for small group instruction but also doubled as a place on which students could complete projects or work independently. In my upper elementary classroom, I didn't have a kidney table available, but I did have a couple of areas in which I met with students in small groups or independently. Most often we conferred near my teacher desk where I set up a little area for with supplies for reading conferences and meetings for "Genius Hour" projects or independent learning contracts. We also met on the floor in my classroom library. The library was definitely the most frequently used space in the classroom, and it filled many purposes each day.

Classroom Library and Meeting Area

Speaking of classroom libraries...You should definitely have one--especially if you're teaching gifted children. It should contain a selection of interesting reference materials, high-quality literature, books from as many genres as possible, written on a wide range of reading levels. This picture was taken before school started after I was almost finished labeling and loading in all of my books into my new upper elementary classroom when I first started teaching at this particular school. You can't see everything, but I did my best to stock the library with hundreds and hundreds of books. I had everything from picture books to classic novels. I had books written in languages other than English, reference books, pop-up books, comic books and graphic novels, and so many others.

In addition to these spaces, having an area designated for technology use is important so students are able to conduct research, complete assessments, work on technology-based or tech-enhanced projects. The classroom should also have enough space so that students can easily transition from one area and work-style to another. Students should be able to move freely in and out of whole-group, small group, and independent work. I also found it important to make sure that students had easy access to a variety of supplies and materials needed for the various projects they were working on. In my lower elementary classroom, I had an art center with many supplies readily available. I was able to control which supplies students had access to during their independent work time by only putting out what they were allowed to access and keeping the rest of it in the cabinet. In the upper elementary classroom, I allowed students full access to the shelves in a large supply cabinet of mine so that they could access anything they needed when they needed it. It almost goes without saying that I spent a significant amount of time at the beginning of each school year teaching students how to access, use, and properly clean up after themselves. Our mantra was a favorite quote of mine from Eleanor Roosevelt, "With freedom comes responsibility."

I also had some spaces dedicated to learning stations/centers (like a listening center, a writing center, and an art center for lower elementary) but for the most part, I stored center materials in bins which children could take wherever they wanted in the classroom to work.

So I had all of these spaces in my classroom and I pretty much let students work wherever they wanted to most of the time. I differentiated the seating arrangements by allowing student choice. Allowing students to work at the location where they were most comfortable in the classroom was the way I preferred it, and I think students appreciated it as well. "Flexible seating" is the new buzzword for varied seating options in the classroom, so if you're looking to learn more about this, a simple google search will yield many results of how other teachers implement versions of this idea in their classrooms.

Creating a Safe Social and Emotional Space for Gifted Learners 

Although I took pride in the physical environment and day to day workflow in my classroom, this part of setting up the classroom environment for social and emotional student safety and success was truly a top priority for me. One of my biggest goals as an educator was to create an atmosphere in which gifted children felt safe, felt loved, felt appreciated, and felt like they could truly let loose and be true to themselves. I knew that these children came to me with their special package of gifted traits, and I knew that sometimes those traits had the potential to drive teachers (and other adults with whom they interacted) up. a. wall. Moment of full transparency: sometimes those same traits they threatened to drive me straight into the looney bin too, but because I knew that these kids needed a space where they could be themselves, I was usually able to get off the road to crazy one or two exits before total insanity. All kidding aside, we worked hard as a classroom community to develop a set of standards for behavior, attitude, work ethic, and community spirit that made our time together truly special. And I do think that together we achieved a place for students to be safe, to be heard, and a place just to be.

Here are some of the things I implemented to help create this environment:

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  • Set expectations early, set them clearly, and set them high. We spent lots of time at the beginning of the year discussing, modeling, crafting guidelines together, and acting out scenarios for how to deal with daily interactions and conflicts in the classroom. And then we did it again. And again. Aaaaand again. And then sometimes we let some time go by and things were perfect we kept practicing.
  • Because gifted students have a tendency toward a heightened sense of justice and equality, I included frequent dialogue about the fact that fair was not a synonym for equal. This was important especially for my upper elementary students who came to me only for part of each day. They reported hearing other students expressing jealousy that they got to leave the classroom and go to "the fun teacher" (btw, of course, this was completely TRUE-I was a fun teacher 😜 ). Seriously, though, hearing others say this to them sometimes hurt their feelings or made them feel more isolated because they already knew they were a little different from those other kids--they didn't need a reminder that they had accommodations in their day that made them stand out even more. So, when they got to me, I reminded them that it wasn't about coming to "the fun teacher," it was about getting more of what they needed to help them learn and grow as students. 
  • My classroom was established as an absolutely, positively, bully free zone. Gifted children are already prone to being victims of bullying because of some of those same gifted traits that make them special (one recent study I read mentioned that between 60 and 90 percent of gifted children being bullied at one or more points in their school careers). Being bullied puts children at risk for underachievement, decreased confidence and view of self-worth, anxiety, and depression, which can lead eventually to eating disorders, chemical abuse, higher dropout rates, and other potentially devastating results. 
  • Created an atmosphere of acceptance and appreciation for some of the quirky things that come tied up in the gifted "package." Whenever possible, we laughed at our own weird sense of humor, we celebrated each other's curiosity (I had a "Wonder Wall" and we worked weekly on self-selected inquiry projects), and we navigated our way through the intensities children had by using a variety of strategies and tools. 
  • Developed a sense of perpetual learning and growth. I tried really hard to be sure to create an environment where students were praised for the effort they put into their work, while simultaneously trying to kind of devalue the focus on grades/achievement. Of course, I wanted them to get good grades, but it was more important for me to convey to them that it was important to keep working hard, no matter what grades they got. I wanted them to understand that it didn't matter whether they got and C or an A on that assignment because the learning wasn't DONE! If they got a C or lower, I allowed them to make a plan for fixing up mistakes or misunderstandings, or for learning the things that they hadn't learned yet. If they got an A or a B, it was important to look at the goals we'd set and decide whether to reevaluate and set some higher (or different) goals for next time. I highly recommend reading the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and her Growth Mindset approach if you want to learn more. She has a really great TED talk that you can listen to here
  • Established a strong sense of community. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Responsive Classroom when I taught in my self-contained gifted kindergarten classroom. I read and received some training and then once I started, I never looked back. I'm not an affiliate in any way, but I am a big proponent of the methods developed by the authors of this approach. The basic tenets of their program are these (taken directly from their website):

    • Engaging Academics-Teachers create learning tasks that are active, interactive, appropriately challenging, purposeful, and connected to students' interests.
    • Positive Community-Teachers nurture a sense of belonging, significance, and emotional safety so that students feel comfortable taking risks and working with a variety of peers.
    • Effective Management-Teachers create a calm, orderly environment that promotes autonomy and allows students to focus on learning.
    • Developmental Awareness-Teachers use knowledge of child development, along with observations of students, to create a developmentally appropriate learning environment. 

    The books pictured below became some of my most referred-to books (as you can probably see by the 5,621 sticky notes sprouting out from the tops and sides). A big part of the program was having class meetings in which students really had time to get to know one another, cheer for successes, empathize with problems, and develop genuine relationships with one another. We ALL looked forward to those meetings. 
Responsive Classroom Books "The First Six Weeks of School" and "The Morning Meeting Book"

I hope you find these ideas and strategies helpful! I'd love to hear about the ways you encourage a positive learning community in your classroom-- I'm always looking for new ideas. And since you made it to the verrrrry bottom of the post, I'm going to leave you with two handy freebies that I hope you can use in your journey. 

But before that... I'm excited to finish this series and I have lots and lots of ideas for new posts, but I would LOVE to hear about ideas or questions you have that you'd like me to explore in a future post! If you have any thoughts, you can scrollllll on down to the bottom and leave a comment, you can email me at, or you can reach out to me on any of my social media platforms by using the links on the top of my website or by searching Soaring with Snyder on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. I hope to hear from you!

Here is a link to a free cheat sheet from my Teachers Pay Teachers store that I created about gifted overexcitabilities. These OEs are common among gifted people, and knowing about them can help you create an even safer environment for gifted students.  
Gifted Overexcitabilities Cheat Sheet Freebie
And here is a list of characteristics common to gifted children that you may find helpful in your planning as well. 

List of Gifted Traits

Finally, here are some of the sources I used or referenced in the creation of this post if you're interested in digging a little deeper...

Thanks, friends.

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