Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz girl with book 150x150 Finding the Best Learning Match for Smart Kids: Not Always Gifted ProgramsQuestion: My 8-year-old, Olivia, loves to read and has always enjoyed school. She’s been tested for the gifted program, and has made the cut. My husband doesn’t want her going into a class with a bunch of geeks and misfits, but the teacher thinks the gifted program is the best learning match for her. What should we do?

Answer: The best learning match for Olivia depends on a number of factors. Here are some questions to consider:

  1. How is Olivia doing in the regular program? Is she intellectually challenged and learning? Does she have friends she enjoys spending time with? If she’s thriving now—and if, to the best of your knowledge, you anticipate that will continue—then that’s a strong reason to keep her where she is. If you’re concerned about any of these things, you might find the gifted program providing a better match for her abilities, as well as classmates whose interests she’s more likely to share.
  2. How does Olivia respond to challenge? A gifted program usually means moving from top of the class, to the middle or below in at least some of the subject areas. Some kids thrive on a ramped-up challenge, and some wilt.
  3. What is the nature of the gifted program? Some gifted programs provide the regular curriculum, with extra critical or creative thinking. Some provide the regular program, with extra field trips or other enrichments. Some work to provide the best learning match for each participant, giving advanced and enriched math instruction, for example, to the kids who need that, and advanced and enriched language experiences for the students who need that. Unless you see a good match between Olivia and the gifted program on offer, that’s a strong point in favour of keeping her where she is.
  4. Are there other options that might be a better fit for Olivia than a full-time gifted program? Is the principal at Olivia’s home school willing to consider other learning options? For example, if Olivia has an area of exceptional strength and interest—science, a second language, math, whatever—an extracurricular program or activity could provide her with the challenge she needs, and allow her to stay in her home school. Gifted programs work well for some kids, but they don’t always provide the best learning match for an individual child.
  5. Where is the gifted program? Will Olivia have to change schools? Will the commute be cumbersome in your daily schedule or hers? Practical details like this can make a big difference in people’s lives, and should be considered carefully. Sometimes kids change schools to get the program their parents or teachers want for them, but then discover they have no time for the extracurricular activities they enjoy, or have to wake up painfully early in order to catch a bus.
  6. Do you think the gifted program would suit Olivia socially? This isn’t always easy to assess, but your husband’s not wrong to be concerned about the social make-up of the gifted class. Some school districts identify for gifted programming mostly kids who don’t fit in well to the regular classroom, which can be great if there’s a good fit between a given child and that situation. It could be problematic for Olivia, though, if she’s socially adept and most of the other kids are awkward, difficult, or troubled.

It’s a tough decision you’re facing, and there’s no one answer that works for all kids in all situations. Some gifted programs provide the best learning match—the intellectual challenge and peer group that re-energize kids’ flagging enthusiasm for learning. Many smart kids do best, however, when they stay in their neighbourhood school, and the teacher or principal finds ways to adapt the curriculum to match their individual learning needs.

For more on this topic, go to

or see Being Smart about Gifted Education:

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