Why Giftedness Leads to Class Disruptions

On the Road of Knowledge, Kids are Thinking at Light Speed

When gifted kids disrupt class, it might not be an impulse problem. It might be due to frustrations related to pacing and wait time.

Every gifted education teacher should expect to get complaints about highly gifted kids being disruptive in the regular classroom. There are two times when highly intelligent (and especially highly verbal) kids tend to disrupt class: when they are working, and when they are waiting. However, the motivations for the disruptions are distinctly different, so the teacher’s response should be different, too.

The Thinking-as-Driving Metaphor

To explain how gifted kids think, a driving metaphor is helpful. The general classroom is traveling at a specific speed, perhaps 35 miles per hour. Most gifted kids are traveling faster, maybe 65 miles per hour, but if they are the kind of students who like deep thinking, they will slow themselves down by indulging in the ideas. They are, in a sense, able to go 65 but they will go 35 so they can enjoy the scenery and remember the fine details of the drive.

There are some kids who are traveling faster than the average gifted student. They might be going 120 miles an hour, and so slowing them down to 65 still won’t seem slow to the rest of the class. These are the kids that need to have a varied, more detailed route to get to the same destination at the same time. These are the students who will turn in a page of writing when only a few sentences were required and who finish a test before the teacher has finished going over the instructions.

Disruptions during Instruction and Working

In the regular classroom, teachers have a wide range of thinkers going at various speeds. The Autobahn thinkers are not going to be able to race to their destinations, even though that is their natural speed. For aural learners, a teacher can repeat instructions and examples in several formats to ensure comprehension. This is a great approach for kids who are a little unsure of how to get to the destination, or who are traveling the highway of knowledge at an uncomfortable pace. Sometimes, however, repetition is fuel for disruption.

For gifted students, the repetition and multiple examples can be as frustrating as it would be for drivers on a one-way road with an in-dash GPS having to stop and call information to re-check the address, then pull out a road map, and then compare the map and the GPS information to the directions printed out at home from Google Maps. Gifted kids know where they are going, and they want to get them in the way that seems most natural. For highly gifted kids, that means thinking and working at a fast pace.

Disruptions While Students are Waiting

Just as drivers get frustrated stopping at a red light after red light, gifted kids can get frustrated stopping along the way of their progress as well. The Think Time technique encourages teachers to ask a question, wait a few seconds, and then call on the person who is to answer. This waiting is a red light for gifted kids. When the whole class stops working so the teacher can help someone who is not understanding, gifted kids feel like they are at a red light. When work is stopped so that the teacher can answer questions, gifted kids are idling.

When the pace of classwork feels unnaturally slow to gifted kids, they can feel that they are in a traffic jam, and every driver knows how frustrating that can be. Teachers know they have to reach learners in a classroom, and it is perfectly appropriate to use Think Time and other techniques that use a slower pace. However, teachers who allow the class pace to slow down should make some modifications for gifted kids who will grow increasingly frustrated by being forced to slow down or stop.

The frustrations of slow speed limits, red lights, and traffic jams cause kids to be disruptive. Just as drivers honk horns, gifted kids tend to speak out, trying to move the class to a faster pace. This does not mean that the disruption is justified or acceptable. It is a sign for the classroom teacher to modify the pace for the gifted student. Either the assignment needs to be made deeper so that the gifted student can work more slowly, or the pacing for the gifted child needs to be increased, so she can work without disruption.