Child prodigies may be born with naturally high IQs, ravenous curiosity or rapid processing speeds. They can also be products of their environments, often including a "gifted program" at school — from specialized high-level classes to a system for skipping grades.
Gifted programs aim to help students learn from a more personalized curriculum, recognize their academic abilities and build their self-efficacy, says Scott J. Peters, a senior research scientist at education nonprofit NWEA who studies gifted and talented student identification.
But gifted programs aren't the only way to give your child those benefits — and that's important. "Truthfully, a lot of the services that are provided would benefit a much larger group of kids," Peters tells CNBC Make It.
Here are three strategies you can use to mimic a gifted program's advantages outside the classroom, he says.
Sometimes, simply being labeled as "gifted" can jumpstart a student's success, says Peters.
Some students may not see themselves as "college-going students," he says. "And then they get flagged as being gifted and they're like, 'Oh, wow, really? Maybe I actually am college material.'"
The most confident kids are the ones who are raised without a need for external validation, child psychologists say. But for kids who already doubt their abilities, hearing it from a teacher or other respected figure can make a real difference.
Parents can help too, of course. But a parent calling their child "gifted" or "special" might come off as empty praise, says Peters.
Instead, when you compliment your child, focus on their process — for instance, their hard work and persistence — while leaving outcome-oriented praise to the teachers who grade their work, experts say.
"Communicate [the fact] that skills are built through effort and hard work, rather than focusing on outcomes only," child psychologist Irina Gorelik, of Williamsburg Therapy Group, told CNBC Make It last year.
Most K-12 students don't get much say in terms of what they learn, or how they learn it. Their curriculum is set, and everyone in the school has to follow it.
Gifted programs, in contrast, often have smaller class sizes and customized lessons that provide students the resources to go at their own pace, says Peters.
As a parent, you can replicate that kind of personalized education at home. "A lot of really advanced-performing kids are advanced because of something to do with their family," says Peters. "It's mostly not because of school."
Private tutors and academic accelerator programs are options, but often come with a hefty price tag. Instead, individualizing a child's learning may just start with the proper homework help and taking advantage of free online resources.
At-home education must prioritize "practice, repetition and structure," teacher and private tutor Michael Twersky wrote for CNBC Make It in 2020.
"Teaching isn't easy, and different kids learn best in different ways," Twersky noted. "Some perform better with a more hands-on approach, while others do well with minimal supervision and occasional check-ins."
The strongest benefit a gifted program can provide, says Peters: making students prove their own capabilities to themselves.
"The biggest predictor of self-efficacy is that you've actually been successful," he says. "Like, 'Holy crap, I was just able to drive a car for the first time without hitting anything. I now feel more confident in my ability to drive a car.'"
You don't need to be in a classroom to encourage kids to do things for themselves. One key, Peters says: Give your child difficult-but-achievable tasks to build their confidence.
The challenges shouldn't be "too hard" or "too easy," he adds: "It's that sweet spot, that Goldilocks zone."
Or, if your child finds a particular topic difficult, reframe it in familiar terms.
"Maybe your sports-loving kid is struggling with geometry. Challenge them to use field layouts (i.e., basketball court or soccer field) to identify geometrical shapes and concepts," Twersky recommended.
Lastly, having role models can help: If you see someone with a similar background to you, and they've achieved some level of success, you'll be more likely to believe you can succeed too.
"Families can create opportunities for their kids to see other or older kids from similar backgrounds who are in advanced classes, going to college, getting awards," Peters says.
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