This article originally appeared in Understanding Our Gifted as “Adapting Curriculum for Gifted Learners.” Although it was written with an eye toward children who are advanced in a subject, the advice can apply in many situations, as many homeschoolers need some variation from straight-from-the-box curriculum. The article is based on an excerpt from my book, From School to Homeschool.
When I started homeschooling, I would listen jealously as other parents discussed curriculum for reading and math, two subjects that my daughter never needed any instruction in as a young child. I was eager to try out curriculum, much of which seemed quite fun, but my visual spatial daughter wasn’t quite ready for learning on paper.
Once I thought she was ready, I found out that searching for the right curriculum was not exactly the fun job I thought it would be. Everything I tried seemed to have major flaws. I realized that because curriculum has to be written for some fictional “average” child, even curriculum written “for gifted children” is unlikely to fit my children like a glove.
The curriculum asks the same sorts of questions over and over:
Whereas the average-ability child needs repetition in order to learn, this is not necessarily true of your gifted learner. If the math curriculum you’ve chosen has 20 questions when your child only needs four, cross out the other 16! This is a good lesson for your child to learn as well: When you’re done learning, there is no reason to sit there and bore yourself until you don’t enjoy it anymore.
Example: My nine-year-old has been enjoying the Key Curriculum Press mathematics workbook series. She loves that everything she needs is in the book, and she doesn’t depend on me too much. However, these books contain entire pages of repetitious practice problems. I noticed that when my daughter turned to one of these pages, she would scribble in the book in frustration. Now I go through and mark a small selection of problems on each page and tell her she doesn’t have to do any of the others unless she wants to.
The curriculum proceeds at a snail’s pace through material that my child gets immediately:
In this case, you probably need to find new curriculum. Again, the fact that some children need more practice in certain areas doesn’t mean that your child should have to suffer through unnecessary repetition.
Example: My son loves computer programming, but everything that we found for children went so slowly and was so superficial he couldn’t get interested. So we jumped into a combination of adult–level online classes and self–initiated projects.
The curriculum sparked my child’s interest but didn’t go deep enough:
This is where the Internet and your public library come in. A great curriculum will include resources to expand into, but even if it doesn’t, you can take the initiative to find more.
Example: Pretty much every curriculum I have used, with a few exceptions, suffers from this problem. Especially print curriculum can’t offer links to the rich, infinite library we now all have available to us on the Internet. Also, my very hands–on daughter always requires a more project–based approach, so I just use the curriculum as a guide and we devise our own projects to go with it. At this point, I consider curriculum to be the starting off point, not the end product.
Sometimes the problems with curriculum are more complex and necessitate changes in how we homeschool. These problems might include:
My child seems to hate every curriculum in this subject, even though he’s good at it:
Children often resist curriculum in their strongest subjects simply because they are beyond it. This is a time to trust your child’s instinct and look for something different. If you have a strong, independent learner (an unschooler, in other words), just be there as backup to provide what he needs. If not, you might have to devise a curriculum on the fly or find a suitable tutor who can go at your child’s pace.
Example: My son really hates having to write the standard middle school essays that most middle school curriculum would recommend. The thing is, he’s a fine writer and skipping a year or two of these essays isn’t going to mean that he won’t get into college. For now, I just let him do the writing that he enjoys, such as software reviews on his blog.
My child is ready to learn at a college level (input) but can’t do the writing or problem solving (output) on her own:
Again, this is pretty common. Gifted students are often advanced in their analytical skills but behind in skills they need for output, such as writing, organizing ideas, computation, and working through multi-level problems without support. Homeschooling parents have to accept this disparity in their children’s skills and provide support as needed. A child who can’t write college-level papers has no business going to a college-level literature course at the community college, but there’s no reason why you can’t use college-level curriculum at home and do the output part of it verbally.
Example: My daughter is highly verbal, but starting from the age when schools would have expected her to hand write her work, she started to say that she didn’t like to write. Her difficulties with fine motor control and her frustration with the slow speed of her hands not keeping up with fast speed of her thoughts had resulted in frustration. Instead of forcing her, I let her dictate everything while I typed. She worked independently on her handwriting, but I didn’t try to force her to work on her handwriting while also trying to get her ideas out. The result was a child who loved writing to the point where she started to publish a newspaper that she designed and wrote. I did the typing, and that freed her to do her best on the rest of it.
My child consistently wants to do easier work than I know he’s capable of:
Our children may be gifted, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t children and that they don’t have their own preferences. Some children are simply not going to be those high–achieving prodigies you read about. A sensitive parent sometimes has to follow her child’s lead, even when she knows that the potential is there. Skilled homeschoolers develop a sense of when to push and when to be more flexible.
Example: My daughter spent her first few reading years, after she’d tested at a sixth-grade reading level, reading Captain Underpants and Magic Treehouse. I resisted the temptation to make an issue of it, and now at nine years old she’s reading well past her grade level.
It’s not unusual to be frustrated that your child can’t “perform” as you expect him to. School-based assumptions have trained us that “smart” children do well in school. But you’ve given up on school (for now), and you need to adopt a new mindset. You are trying to create an environment in which your student excels. Curriculum, therefore, must bend with your student’s needs.
One more thing that is really important to note is that school—and a lot of curriculum—focuses on documentation. Over the course of the school year, your child will produce piles of papers: worksheets, diagrams, graphs, drawings. Most parents don’t realize that this output does not document learning—it documents work. School teachers require output in order to prove that their students are working. In a homeschool, you know your child is learning. You don’t need to produce a piece of paper every time your child watches a history video, for example, or does a science experiment. If you try to force a gifted child into too much busywork for the purposes of documentation, you’re going to have an unhappy homeschooler.
You should always be willing to bend curriculum to work for you and your child’s needs. A completed curriculum booklet doesn’t prove that your child has learned anything. However, a happy, engaged child does prove that your homeschool is on the right track.