Belonging: Supporting the Unique Learning Needs of Gifted Middle Schoolers

9 Sep 2023 2:01 PM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

By: Dr. Rebecca McKinney

In Colorado, students are identified as needing gifted services in various strength areas, which span academic and talent domains including visual and performing arts, drama, leadership, and creative productive thinking. While I didn't list all the possible strength areas here, gifted students may enter your classroom with a variety of different strengths and learning needs. It is necessary to remember that each student is unique in order to address gifted students' learning needs. In gifted education, you will often hear, "If you have met one gifted student, you have met one gifted student."

While there are specific strategies that I could jump into, I want to begin with addressing what I have found to be an essential foundation that must be present for gifted students to thrive within your classroom. The great news is that this foundation supports all students. These foundational building blocks cut across content areas and help create an environment in which gifted students will thrive. For any instructional strategy you implement to be effective, creating a classroom grounded in belonging is essential.  I specifically use the term belonging rather than inclusion when speaking about the environment necessary for students, not just gifted students, to thrive. The reason for this distinction is that inclusion is a choice. Someone outside of the individual impacted decides to include them or not. Belonging is a deep connection/feeling by the impacted individual that they are seen, valued, and can be their true self. 

By creating a sense of belonging for students in your classroom, students feel connected and able to be their true selves. This is so vital as many gifted students go underground in middle school. They try to fit in, hide their abilities, and deny their talents. Therefore, your classroom environment plays a key role in allowing students to be their authentic selves in middle school.  

I want to share a story from several years ago when I was working with a group of middle school teachers. State assessments were around the corner, and the teachers were developing lessons to build student confidence and motivation. So, it was not your typical lesson planning session but one I remember not for the fantastic lessons designed but for the interaction among the teachers. The teacher leading this work proposed sharing stories of famous people who had struggled in school yet had become incredibly successful. She had developed a suggested list of names, which included Harrison Ford. As they discussed possible ways to approach the lessons, one teacher pushed back and said that she didn't feel Harrison Ford was relevant to the middle schoolers in her classroom.  She felt Abraham Lincoln would be more relevant. I watched as the teacher leading this work's jaw dropped. She wasn't quite sure how to respond. Now I should mention that this meeting was just as the Star Wars movies were being re-released, and it was all the rage, especially with middle school boys. Another teacher scribbled on a sticky note, "He helped blow up the Death Star!" The exclamation point echoed the exasperation in his voice as he shared this fact with his fellow teacher.

I share this as an example of the importance of knowing what is relevant to your students and how not knowing can lead to challenges. The teacher who felt Abraham Lincoln was more relevant was one who needed help with student engagement and performance. You can probably guess that the teacher who scribbled the sticky note had a different experience with those same students. I kept that sticky note at my desk over the years to remind me of how vital relevance is to students. It also served as a reminder of our role as teachers to create a classroom in which they have a sense of belonging and can develop into autonomous students. Autonomous students take ownership of their learning and do not depend on outside forces to guide their learning. My big takeaway from the experience was: What is relevant to us isn't always what is relevant to our students, and relevance is necessary for there to be belonging. Another takeaway: When in doubt, ask the students!

Belonging can only happen when students feel seen and heard. This requires us to create conditions for appropriate rigor for all students. I define rigor as content that allows students to grapple with new and unique thinking, pushing them to make connections, bring in prior knowledge, and make meaning for themselves. Research has shown that as many as 35% of 5th graders start the year scoring at levels expected by the end of the year and, 15% of students in grades 3 through 8 perform at least three grade levels ahead in Reading, and 6% do so in Math. That's a staggering number of students who by the time they reach middle school and are assigned to your class who have already mastered a large portion of your grade level standards. 

Here are some tips for creating a rigorous classroom environment which can support the needs of these students who are coming to your classroom with existing mastery of standards:

  • Get to know your student's strengths, interests, and learning styles.

  • Use pre assessment to guide instruction and compact lessons for students who have already mastered material to be taught.

  • Be flexible and willing to adjust your teaching methods as needed. 

  • Provide opportunities for students to collaborate and work with intellectual peers.

  • Encourage students to take risks and try new things. 

  • Celebrate the process, not only the product. 

The variety of instructional strategies you can employ with gifted students is as diverse as the gifted students you will encounter in your classroom. There is no way I could even scratch the surface of effective instructional strategies in this article. So I leave you with this, when in doubt, reach out to your district's gifted teacher, coordinator, or director for support. The most important thing is to celebrate strengths and create belonging for all of your students in your classroom.


Addressing excellence gaps: Ability grouping. (n.d.). 

Gifted education terms and definitions. CDE. (n.d.). 

Kamenetz, A. (2020, August 24). Getting restless at the head of the class. KERA News. 

Dr. Rebecca McKinney currently serves as the Director of Gifted Education for the Colorado Department of Education and has been in education for over 25 years.

Colorado Association of Middle Level Education


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