Young gifted children transitioning to a formal learning environment
The transitions between home, preschool and school are major steps in a child's life, and early learning experiences in a formal educational environment are acknowledged as formative, influencing later success at school. Yet, research within the gifted education field has paid scant attention to young gifted children (Harrison, 2005; Koshy & Robinson, 2006; Sankar-DeLeeuw, 2004). As a consequence there is a dearth of knowledge to guide Australian teachers in differentiating their curricula and pedagogy for them.
This article describes the findings from a 2005/2006 study investigating the experiences of seven young gifted children as they adjusted to the formal educational environment of a preschool and the beginning grade of primary school. The participants were drawn from one preschool and attended three different primary schools in Melbourne. Two case studies were developed. The first was an intensive study of the adjustment to preschool by one male child, Michael, (all names are pseudonyms), who demonstrated notably advanced academic development. The second case study followed Michael and six others as they made the transition from preschool into their first school year.
Data was generated from observations in the preschool and school setting across the length of the school year, through field notes that documented other sources of information, and semi-structured interviews with the children, their parents and teachers. Data of interest in the study was concerned with the social, emotional, and cognitive characteristics of the children's learning.
The study confirmed characteristically gifted behaviours among all seven children. It also identified preschool and school practices that either facilitated or hindered the children's adjustment to the formal learning environment.
Learning at preschool
The children's adjustment to preschool was strongly influenced by two factors. One was the degree of continuity the child experienced in moving from the home to preschool environments. The children's homes all provided rich and stimulating learning environments where the children engaged, with their parents, in manageable yet significant intellectual challenges. Justin, at age four, and his father regularly discussed complex projects – for instance, what would they need to build a real rocket to go into space. Susan, at age four, and her mother played word games identifying words with the same sound but different meanings, such as 'bow'. There was no sense from the data that the parents set challenges that were not desired by the children. Rather, the social interactions in the home encouraged their learning and affirmed the children's curiosity and their successes.
In most cases, however, these home experiences were not present in the preschool environment. For instance, Michael had become accustomed to setting maths learning goals with his father which Michael eagerly tackled but at preschool his attempts to engage at this level with his teachers was met by recommendations that he 'go and play with the other children'. Such changes generated distress, leading in some cases to negative social or emotional reactions or to resignation to the limits of their new environment. For example, to fit in with his new peers, Michael adopted a more standard preschool student persona. While this gave him a sense of belonging, it required him to mask his real self when being with other children.
The children's ability to manage this discontinuity was influenced by a second key factor, the relationships they each developed with their preschool teacher. The warm bonds that the teachers developed with each child were a positive aspect of the transition, and ameliorated the children's frustration at finding little cognitive stimulation in the preschool program, and encouraged the emergence of later positive social interactions with preschool peers.
In several cases, however, the teachers' efforts to provide for the children's needs were held back by limited understanding of the characteristics of an advanced child's development. Some of the teachers were guided by the well-entrenched 'Developmentally Appropriate' approach to early childhood curriculum and pedagogy. This did not provide a basis on which to understand the advanced cognitive learning needs of a gifted child. The model made it difficult for the teachers to evaluate the children's behaviours, which in turn hindered them from planning for their cognitive learning needs.
Learning at school
The children were highly motivated to learn when the school offered them new learning experiences, and also when the school used an approach to learning that was already familiar to the child from their home environment. However, such stimulating opportunities were not always provided. For instance, some children, finding that the early days of school were, like preschool, largely occupied with play, decided that they no longer wanted to attend. Parents were faced with a battle to get their child to school because of the absence of interesting new learning but teachers interpreted such difficulties as a separation problem and did not 'hear' the parents' explanation of the problem. Where the study identified teacher practice that was a specific response to the individual learning needs of these gifted children it was, in most instances, an informal and happenstance response.
Another area for concern was the frequent discontinuity between the modes of intellectual learning used at preschool and at school. In neither sector did the educators seem fully aware of the extent of these differences, nor of how they might be bridged for the child.
In terms of social and emotional development at school, a significant role was once again played by the teacher. The children behaved in ways that were often atypical of children in their classes, albeit characteristic of gifted children. Stephen offered to instruct his (beginning class) teacher in chess strategies as he had already mastered many of these. She accepted his offer good naturedly, consolidating Stephen's affection for her. All the children flourished in cases where the teacher accepted and responded to these behaviours.
Good social relationships with peers were characterised by friendships which included acceptance of characteristically gifted behaviours.
Establishing a positive sense-of-self at school was affected by the opportunity to experience intellectually stimulating/new learning from the very first days of school.
Despite the findings of intellectual discontinuity, overall continuity in expectations of social and emotional behaviours in a peer group, between preschool and school, contributed to the ease with which these young gifted children adapted to the new environment of school.
Conclusions and recommendations
The study considered the intellectual, social and emotional domains of gifted children's development. The children's transition from home to preschool and to primary level was found to be most positive when their characteristic needs in all three developmental domains were recognised and supported by teachers.
Characteristically gifted behaviours influenced the children's engagement with intellectual learning opportunities as well as the relationships established with their teachers and peers. Such behaviours were observed to be social and emotional as well as intellectual, and significantly these interacted in a holistic way.
In general, the teachers were aware of the holistic nature of learning and development in a young child, but this was not always evident in most of the curriculum and pedagogical practice observed, particularly in the provision made for a young gifted child.
When the children displayed behaviours characteristic of giftedness the teachers sometimes responded supportively, but such support tended to be happenstance rather than the result of a well-rounded awareness of their needs.
It is therefore vital that school and preschool teachers are equipped to identify the characteristic cognitive behaviours of gifted children as part of a more general capacity to identify the current learning level of each child, and to differentiate their learning programs accordingly. Such recognition also needs to be recognised at the levels of system policy which ensures that teachers identify each child's level of learning, and differentiates their learning programs accordingly.
Education authorities need to make sure that parents, preschool teachers and primary teachers have, and make use of, channels of communication to support the transition of a young gifted child.
Preschool and primary classroom teachers as well as school curriculum coordinators need to be provided with preservice and sustained professional learning in gifted education.
A positive experience of transition is surely the right of each child, including the young gifted child, thus there is a need for increased awareness by early childhood educators of the special and holistic learning needs of young gifted children.
Brooker, L. (2008). Supporting transitions in the early years. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.
Commonwealth of Australia (2001). The Report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Committee on the education of gifted and talented children. Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printing Service.
Harrison, C. (2005a). Young gifted children: Their search for complexity and connection. Exeter, NSW: Inscript Publishing.
Koshy, V., & Robinson, N. M. (2006). Too long neglected: Gifted young children. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 14(2), 113-126.
Rolfe, S. A. (2004). Rethinking attachment for early childhood practice. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Sankar-DeLeeuw, N. (2004). Case studies of gifted kindergarten children: Profiles of promise. Roeper Review, 26(4), 192-208.
Subject HeadingsGifted children
Transitions in schooling