Meet C.J. Wilson. He’s a fourteen-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who likes video games, going to the movies and playing neighborhood football with his friends. An accomplished swimmer and diver, C.J. also plays soccer and runs track—activities that, along with homework, gobble up most of his evenings. On the rare night he’s home, he eats dinner with his parents and younger sister Rachael, watches a little TV, or goes online with his laptop. He’s the picture of a typical American high school freshman. Except that C.J. isn’t typical.

He’s intellectually gifted, and he represents a population that is sometimes overlooked in increasingly crowded classrooms. Educators strive to inspire all of their students, but when they’re limited by district curriculum requirements (read: NCLB tests) and have fewer funds for more advanced materials, teacher’s assistants, technology, or professional development (read: major education budget cuts), it can be challenging. But it’s exactly this kind of challenge that draws most educators to the profession in the first place. Gifted students absorb material quickly and can take on extremely rigorous projects—with some creativity, you’ll find that looking for new ways to motivate and engage your gifted students can be fun, and that you’ll be motivated and engaged right along with them.

Challenge Gifted Students Or They’ll Do it For You

Like most gifted students, C.J. is a straight “A” student with a soaring I.Q. He’s also three grades ahead in math, he consistently scores in the top percentile on state assessments, and he took a college-level Astrobiology class online “just for fun” back in seventh grade. He started reading Dr. Seuss at age three, graduated to chapter books like The Magic Tree House series by five, and at six progressed to Harry Potter novels and The Washington Post.

“He’d ask me what different words meant that he’d read in the newspaper,” Kim Wilson, C.J.’s mom, recalls. “When he asked me what ‘rape’ meant I realized I had to take certain sections out before letting him read them.” Students like C.J. are intellectually curious, highly motivated to learn and are often capable of much more advanced curriculum than what’s required at their grade level. But they need to be challenged, or they’ll become bored and sometimes disruptive.

Either they’ll zone out or they’ll act out, says Del Siegle, Ph.D., a professor in gifted education and department head of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and past president of the National Association of Gifted Children. Educators need to figure out the cause of disruptive behavior and make sure it isn’t boredom before assuming that the kids don’t care or are problem students.

“Gifted kids need intellectual stimulation, or they’ll figure out ways to find it on their own” says Siegle, who taught a gifted and talented program for public school children in Montana for eight years. “When I was a student and bored in class, I’d count the number of times the teacher said ‘um.’ I’ve had kids tell me that they’d count their teeth with their tongue to keep their minds occupied. Other kids will simply act out.”

C.J. isn’t a troublemaker, but he admits that if he’s bored in class, he’ll find his own challenges—like trying to make everyone laugh, or figuring out how far he can push the limits of his teacher. But that wasn’t until middle school. In elementary school, he thrived.

Step on the Gas and Accelerate

In Fairfax County, Va., where C.J. goes to school, gifted students are placed in the Advanced Academic Program (AAP). There are four levels, and C.J. tested into the highest level and has been taking Level 4 AAP classes since third grade.

My elementary school teachers were phenomenal and I was always engaged,” he says. “And then I hit middle school.”

What he ran up against was seventh and eighth grade science and English. “I was horribly bored in those classes,” he says.

Fortunately he continued to be challenged by math—the subject that he says “got him out of bed and to school in the morning.” He took Algebra 1 in seventh grade, which was taught by a former Virginia Teacher of the Year who he and his classmates thought was “awesome.” He took Geometry the following year, and the class moved quickly and covered a lot of ground. “It was tough,” says C.J. “but we learned so much.” The teacher had them complete almost four times as many sections over the school year than was required by the state standards.

Acceleration is one of the main strategies for motivating above-average students, says Siegle. “If you know they understand the curriculum, accelerate them a little. Go more in depth. Or go to more advanced content.”

But while C.J. was blazing through math, he was stagnating in science. Not only did C.J.’s eighth-grade science teacher not accelerate the content, he repeated what the kids already knew. He was on the right track when he assessed their understanding of the curriculum at the beginning of the year—he had them take Virginia’s Standard of Learning test for science during the first week of school. But when the entire class got almost perfect scores, he went ahead and taught them the curriculum again anyway, and “not even as well as we’d learned it the year before,” says C.J. The teacher was probably restricted by state rules governing curriculum for certain grades, but with a little ingenuity, he could have gotten around them to add rigor to the class.

It helped that C.J. sat next to his best friend to pass the time. He also admits that he slept a little and doodled in his notebook. He still aced all his tests, but because he’s truly fascinated by science and was thirsty for real scientific knowledge, he took the Astrobiology class online, as well as an online Physics course. “I wasn’t getting any of it at school,” he says with a shrug.

He wanted his teacher to build on the content and to give him something challenging to do with it. “He could have assigned us a research paper on a topic, or asked us to make a model of a cell and not just do another work- sheet,” C.J. says, adding that the class would do four or five worksheets on experiments they only read about but never actually performed. What’s worse, C.J. says the teacher often had to fill in the gaps of his own knowledge with student knowledge.

“If he didn’t know the answer to one of our questions, he’d always ask my friend Zach, and Zach always knew it.”

The Five “C’s”

Siegle isn’t surprised that C.J. was bored and frustrated in his science class. He and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have found five “Cs” that are essential for motivating bright students, and C.J.’s science class was missing several of them.

CJ2“First is control—they need to feel they have the power to change the situation if they’re not learning. Second is having a choice in what’s taught, so they can have authentic learning with minimal repetition, but often district and state guidelines restrict choice,” he says. “Third is challenge—relearning old material isn’t challenging. Fourth is complexity—they want depth to uncover the layers of a concept or idea. The fifth “C,” however, is caring teachers. We’ve found that this can actually override the other four Cs if they feel their teacher actually cares about them and wants to engage them.”

If an educator feels trapped by district restrictions on what can and can’t be taught (many districts don’t allow educators to use textbooks for higher grades, for example) they can expand curriculum and classroom learning by reaching out to other experts, Siegle suggests, like community mentors, or retired professionals from scientific fields. They can also ask for guidance from educators in higher levels of science, like high school physics or chemistry teachers. The Internet is another excellent and constant source for online mentoring and ideas for experiments.

“Our knowledge as educators isn’t fixed,” says Siegle. “There’s no reason we can’t also learn a lot of material over the course of a year just as our students are learning it. Sometimes the best learning environment is a collaborative learning environment, and I encourage educators to work and learn together with their students.”

It’s no surprise that C.J. has his own ideas for how his classes could be improved. He suggests that teachers pick one day to teach the material, and the next day give the kids who have grasped the material a discussion topic while the educator goes to help the other students.

“Even in the gifted program, some kids aren’t on the same level,” C.J. says. “You just can’t teach the same things the same way.”

He’s right. It’s called differentiation — the process of finding the best ways to teach concepts to kids with different learning styles and paces. Some ideas for accomplishing differentiation are to form a cluster of kids who like to concentrate fully on one concept, another cluster of kids who learn better with a variety of concept examples, and one where they want to verbally dissect the concept. Ask more advanced kids to find their own examples of the concept and to explain it to the rest of the class.

“Learning and the paths to get there are different for different kids,” Siegle says. “It’s crazy that we organize schools by birthdays rather than by what students know and how they learn.”

He also says the concept of a “flipped classroom” works well with gifted students—have kids learn at their own pace at home with recorded lessons posted online or in take-home print outs. The next day, the teacher worked with students on what would have been “homework assignments” and projects in class, leaving the more advanced kids to work on their own or in groups and providing extra help to those who need it. Another idea that Siegle suggests is “curriculum compacting,” which is replacing content with enrichment, acceleration, or activities like peer tutoring or helping the teacher with correcting papers.

Find Out What Makes Your Students Tick

What’s key, says Siegle, is finding a student’s interest and tapping into that.

“Teachers have to figure out where kids are and take them to the next level, and it’s difficult with wide variety of skill levels, but if you pay attention to students’ interests, you can tie interests to required curriculum, and use their interests to feed into the projects.”

When C.J. took an elective technology course, it was clear that he was interested in software. His teacher asked him to load the software on all the classroom computers and to help other students who needed assistance with a video game design they were working on.

Recognizing that students complete work at different rates, she gave them all one deadline for a year’s worth of projects, including a carbon dioxide dragster made out of balsa wood and powered by a CO2 cartridge. “We learned more in that project about velocity and acceleration than in two full days of seventh-grade science lectures,” C.J. says.

He finished his projects ahead of the deadline, and his teacher asked him to help her on some of her own projects that she was developing for future classes, and also to help other students with theirs. “Nobody was able to slide,” C.J. says. “She wouldn’t let us get away with anything less than perfection.”

Perfection might be a strong word—educators don’t let students get away with less than their best, but many gifted students like C.J. are the classic Type A “perfectionists” that strive for excellence and thrive on competition.

“When I’m in class with kids who are a little behind me, it keeps me on my toes trying to stay ahead,” he says. “When I’m with kids who are above me, who have raised the bar really high, I’ve got to reach it, or at least come close.”

This year C.J. will have plenty of opportunity for competition. He’s a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school that has a very selective admissions process and has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the best public high school in the nation from 2007 to 2011.

“I absolutely couldn’t wait for this!” says C.J. “I’ve been challenged since the day I first walked in the door.”