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 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:

    Quote from article
  • 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 had been 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!

Click the picture below to get access to a free cheat sheet  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.  *Just to be clear, by clicking to get these freebies (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.*

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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