What I Learned from Teaching Gifted Kids

By Nicola Killops
March 3, 2022

My Awakening

2e: twice exceptional

By 2013, I had been teaching in mainstream schools for 12 years. I loved the relationship I had with my students, but I was frustrated and overwhelmed by all the paperwork and red tape that came with the job—the confined curriculum stifled my creativity. I knew something had to change. A friend of mine worked at Radford House, the only official school for gifted children in the country. As soon as they had an opening, she put my name forward. I was terrified when it came time to interview. What on earth did I know about gifted children? I didn’t feel smart enough to teach kids who were so bright and talented.

As it turned out, I had some hidden strengths that helped me sail through the interview. I was able to sell myself to the school by largely speaking about my experience as a mom. Without knowing it, I was raising a twice-exceptional (2e) child. The National Center for Gifted Children defines 2e as children who “have the characteristics of gifted students with the potential for high achievement and give evidence of one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria.” My son, who was nine, is dyslexic and on the autistic spectrum. While I knew he was exceptionally bright, the world led me to believe that reading, writing, and arithmetic were the only way of proving it. Speaking to my journey with him made the interviewers realize I had all the empathy that was needed. As I’ve since learned, empathy is critical to meeting the needs of gifted children—empathy, and someone willing to think out of the box.

2e children are kids who have the characteristics of gifted students with the potential for high achievement and give evidence of one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria.
—National Center for Gifted Children

My New Path

I began my new job bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It was the beginning of an eight-year adventure that was transformative for me, allowing me to become the teacher I had always wanted to be. It also let me embrace my own giftedness, which had been alluded to all my life but relegated due to intervening circumstances; I was the epitome of a tall poppy.

Over my time at Radford, I was mentored and guided by a profoundly talented person. After tiring of the frustrations in the traditional school system, he founded the gifted school (about 20 years before I joined). He knew that gifted children needed a different kind of education, and he made it his mission to give it to them.

Giftedness comes in many forms. Not all gifted children walk around with a scientific calculator in their pocket quoting quantum theory.

The Many Lessons I’ve Learned

During my eight years at Radford, I connected with some of the most incredible little humans of my lifetime. I also met some amazing parents, who I bonded with over our shared parenting experiences, and who greatly valued my insights (some of them remain my closest friends)! Here are many of the most important lessons I learned while teaching gifted children (and, as I imagine, what they want the world to know about them):

  1. They are likely more intelligent than me. In fact, most are. But they need wisdom to help them harness their superpowers. They are all kids who need a loving adult to set boundaries and coach them.
  2. Giftedness comes in many forms. Not all gifted children walk around with a scientific calculator in their pocket quoting quantum theory. 
  3. Many gifted children are not academic. What counts is their insight, how they ask questions and seek answers, their unique ability to problem solve, and their deep sensitivity. That kid who gets straight Ds is often much smarter than the valedictorian. It’s in real life that they show what they are made of.
  4. They just want to be heard. They need to feel safe and know that they can have an opinion, even if it is different from mine. We can agree to disagree or, where possible, investigate together to find the answer.
  5. They want to be actively involved with their learning. They don’t need a teacher to stand in front of the class, spewing meaningless facts. Instead, they want to engage, offer their own theories, consider the ‘what ifs’ and disappear down rabbit holes.
  6. Gifted kids are often overwhelmed by anxiety. Their busy minds mean they extrapolate every possibility to the worst-case scenario. And it keeps them awake at night. 
  7. A gifted, super-sensitive brain also leads to heightened sensitivity in other areas. And it can be tough to navigate. Too much noise, too much visual stimulation, strong smells, and a scratchy shirt can render them totally incapacitated. 
  8. Make the content matter (it’s only a means to an end anyway). Education should be about learning skills, not facts. So tailor your content around topics that deeply interest students, focusing on skill development as your outcome.
  9. 2e is real. And 2e kids go through life questioning themselves. Support their challenges, but don’t make it the focus. See past it and focus on the incredible minds inside them. So much technology exists these days that they will probably never need to pick up a pen in their life once school is behind them. Speech-to-text and text-to-speech assistive devices exist. Audiobooks are a thing. We need to shift what we consider academic success.
  10. Avoid repetition. It numbs their minds. If you teach a new concept and they can do two examples accurately, I guarantee they can do 20. But they won’t bother, and it will look like they don’t get it. Very often, poor performance is based on disinterest.

Let the Light Shine

This is just the beginning. I learned so many more lessons, and there is so much more these kids wish the world could understand about them. I was privileged to learn with them firsthand, and that’s why I chose to make the hard decision to leave the classroom in order to reach my community on a broader scale. I strive to be the voice for these kids and their biggest advocate. Parenting gifted kids can be challenging, especially when dealing with anxiety, overexcitabilities, insomnia, and social challenges. 
Parents need as much support and understanding as their children do. Gifted kids need to be free to just be. They need programs and support groups that allow them to shine without being cut down or branded as know-it-alls. But they also need to be accepted in society for who they are and not just pulled out to exist in isolation. The world has a duty to make space for them, too.

About the Author

Nicola is mom to James, a 2E 18-year-old, and she lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicola is a writer who is focused on supporting parents and teachers of children who are “different” according to commonly-held views. Before starting her career as a writer, she specialized in gifted education and taught at Radford House School, a school for gifted children.

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