How to keep a gifted kid challenged

The other day wandering scientist talked about the difficulties of keeping a gifted elementary schooler challenged.  That inspired me to write this post and also to ask the Grumpy Nation for suggestions.   These suggestions aren’t tailored to Wandering Scientist’s kid– they’re a bit more general given that there’s lots of individual differences in circumstances and interests.

At school

The first suggestion is to ask the school for help.  This will not always work– it is very school dependent.  #2 and I grew up as tracking was going out of fashion and our parents had an extremely uphill battle trying to get the schools to make any accommodations.  DH and I have not had as much trouble, although part of that stems from us so far avoiding working with the high SES K-4 schools that have refused to accommodate our friends’ children (we sent DC1 to private school and the dual language programs are not in the high SES zones).  The private school we sent DC1 to tested and anticipated our needs and made suggestions to us for keeping DC1 engaged.  The middle schools here have been very helpful when we’ve asked for help.  One of the main suggestions when talking with schools is to avoid at all costs saying that your child is bored– instead say that the child needs more challenge.

What schools can do will vary on the district, the school, and sometimes even the teacher. We talk more about options with a few links to research and books in this post here.

Single-subject acceleration allows children to stay with their same peers but to spend part of the day, usually during Reading and/or Math in a classroom a year older.  I did a lot of single-subject acceleration for math and/or reading when it was offered as a child (it varied by school and by year) and always enjoyed it.  DC1 did single-subject acceleration in K, going to 1st for math and English and is currently doing single-subject acceleration for math, though because 30-40 other kids in his grade are doing it as well, there are only same-grade level kids in hir class.

Whole-grade acceleration, in which the child skips a full grade, is another option.  DC1 has technically skipped two grades– zie entered K early, then did K and 1 at the same time, effectively skipping 1st grade.

Classroom differentiation is fantastic for students if teachers can pull it off.  Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom (an update from Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom) is a great resource for teachers.  Great teachers can give the same project assignments but have some kids dig deeper than others.  They can also do things like set up stations for independent learning at various times.  For teachers who aren’t as comfortable with differentiating, you can still talk with the teacher and come up with things that your child can do if zie finishes tasks early.  This could be something as simple as allowing the child to read a book of his or her choosing, or could include more complicated work.  Often teachers have various kinds of fun logic puzzle worksheets they can give out as a first pass and today’s schools often have purchased software that can be used for individual learning.  We talk about some options for additional work below.

Gifted pull-out is better than nothing.  We’ve been less than impressed with it and the research is kind of meh on it.  I assume how it is done is important– I like to think my students got something out of it when I did pull-out math for fourth graders (especially the lesson on adding in different bases!), but who knows.

Outside of school

Enrichment outside of school doesn’t do anything about the “bored at school” problem, but it can help after school and on weekends.

After school activities will vary by what’s in your area.  These were great for us in paradise because they were held at school and effectively extended the school day allowing us to get more work done before DC1 got home.  Where we live now, they require chauffeuring which is a pretty big drain on our time.  Still, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language, doing a sport, art class, academic competition, and so on can allow a gifted child to experience challenges and growth that zie is lacking from school, especially if allowed to learn at hir own pace.  Challenges are especially important for gifted kids so that when they hit an academic wall for the first time they don’t give up.  Classes like robotics, drama, math circle, etc. can also be fun.  Some tutoring programs will also have programs for gifted kids or on topics not taught at school.

At home


At the #1 household, we are big fans of workbooks.  My sister and I grew up doing workbooks and I learned a lot from them.  DC1 has been doing them since zie was 3 (mostly on the weekends and holiday breaks) because zie desperately needed at least an hour of mental stimulation (along with at least an hour of exercise) or zie would be literally bouncing off walls.

There are a couple of directions you can go with workbooks.  First, you can accelerate– introduce knowledge that won’t be introduced until later that year or in future years.  Acceleration is especially useful (in my opinion) for mastering basic materials that are the building blocks of more complicated learning (phonics, addition, etc.) and for when you’re not sure that your student will be getting foundational material in school (because of grade skipping, school absences, poor teaching, or changing school districts).

For acceleration, we really like the Brain Quest series which cover K-6 and now also have special summer workbooks.  DC1 worked through grades K-6, and DC2 is currently on their Grade 2 (also we’re concurrently doing the Summer between Grades 1 and 2 book).  Scholastic also often has great workbooks available for sale, but their stock seems to vary a lot.

The second thing that you can do is go deeper and/or sideways.

I strongly believe that learning math different ways is important.  So we can cover the same basic material and will do it traditionally in school and in the Brainquest workbook, but will do it from another direction using the Singapore math books (Singapore math link not an affiliate link– they’re not really available on Amazon).  If your school uses Singapore math, then you could instead supplement with more traditional US math.  Again, DC1 went through K-8 in Singapore math and DC2 is currently on grade 2A.  The material is the same for each grade, following essentially the common core, but the methods and what is emphasized in the two curricula are different.  My children will be learning different ways to get the same answer and thus gaining a deeper understanding of how the number system works.

For more challenge, I cannot say enough good things about Glenn Ellison’s Hard Math for Elementary Students.  It’s best if you get the textbook, workbook, and solutions (3 books).  We’ve had DC1 go through the workbook twice over a 3 year period with a break in between.   We’ve also done a few of the Zaccaro challenge books and they’re ok, but they’re not as good.  We never finished going through the Flashkids Math for the Gifted Student books I got, so I can’t recommend them at all.  Sometime next week we’ll start Hard Math for Middle School Students which finally has a workbook to go with the textbook (solutions without hints are in the back of the workbook, so there’s no separate solutions book).

For just plain deep and sideways math fun (without workbooks) get used copies of Martin Gardner’s Aha! and Gotcha!  They’re even better than Math for Smarty PantsFamily Math is popular for younger kids (we have it but nobody really got into it, but lots of people recommend it).

I don’t have as many recommendations for workbooks outside of math, so I look forward to people’s suggestions.  We are going through Spectrum Writing Grade 7, but that’s more of a remedial thing than acceleration or depth.  We like it.


Just like with Workbooks, you can go accelerated vs. deep/sideways with online programs.

Khan Academy is the easiest way to accelerate (or review!).  It is also a popular way for teachers to deal with kids who get their work done early.  DC1 finished K-8 math in Paradise as a 5th grader (though they have since added some sections).  I would say zie didn’t really master 7th and 8th grade math via Khan Academy, but it did help DC1 skip 6th grade math by passing the relevant exam when zie got back to where we normally live.

Some schools will also have access to a fun (but expensive) program called ST Math that lets kids go sideways or deep on math.   I’m not sure it’s worth buying yourself for $200 for a one-year subscription (though there are discounts available online for home schoolers), but maybe.

Your school may have purchased other online programs that you can access from home– they’re worth checking out.

Less expensive and just as fun (though not as extensive) are Dragon Box products.  We loved Dragon Box Algebra and Dragon Box Geometry (called Elements).  Even DC2 (almost age 5) can do some of the earlier puzzles.  These are well worth the $5-$8 they cost as apps.  (I stayed up late one night finishing up Elements myself– it was pretty addicting.)


There are lots of great books for kids, fiction and non-fiction.  Kids can also enjoy some books for grownups.

DCs this summer

This summer our 10 year old is doing:

2 weeks regular daycamp (canoeing, archery, etc.), playdates with friends, 1 week game design (got permission even though zie is younger than the limit), 1 week grammar and flow daycamp, 1 week electronics daycamp, 1 week orchestra camp, 2 weeks math daycamp.  Some of these daycamps are half-day only, some are 9:30-3:30, give or take.  Some weeks we signed up for before/after care, some weeks we didn’t.  1 30 min piano lesson each week, 1 30 min violin lesson each week.

Each day:  1 page hard math workbook, 1 page writing workbook, 15 min piano, 30 min violin (it had been 15 min violin, but his violin teacher insisted on upping it), typing (required class for middle school that can be taken over the summer, finished last weekend), Stata (finished the basics last weekend), 1 hour video games (optional), rest of the time is free unless zie is needed for household chores.  On weekends there is unlimited video game time.  Zie has been spending free time reading, creating games, modifying already existing games, playing games, and writing.

Our 4/5 year old is doing:

Preschool, 1 week of children’s museum daycamp (when the preschool was on break), 1 15 min piano lesson each week, 1 30 min swimming lesson each week.

Each day:  5 min piano practicing, on weekends and when zie requests it or is bouncing off the walls 1 page Singapore math and 2 pages Brainquest (1 math, 1 reading or science or social studies) either from the regular book or the summer book.  Zie has been spending free time reading, playing with toys, doing The Magic School Bus science kit with DH, playing games, watching shows on amazon.

I was a bit surprised when I googled “how to keep a gifted kid challenged” how little concrete advice there was in the first couple of pages of results.  The advice that is there seems to be pretty contradictory (praise vs. don’t praise, let them decide vs. remember you’re the grown-up, etc. etc. etc.).  So, grumpy nation, I’m asking you, what concrete recommendations do you have for keeping a gifted kid challenged?  Any specific programs, books, materials?  What did you do as a kid?  What do you do for your kids (if applicable)?

32 Responses to “How to keep a gifted kid challenged”

  1. natalieinne Says:

    Thanks for the math puzzle book suggestions. I homeschool my kids and we do Fun Math Fridays every week where we address some topics of math that aren’t typically covered in textbooks (everything from collecting/graphing data to statistics to logic puzzles). After five years of coming up with random topics, I’m starting to run out of ideas. These books should help me!

    Honestly, our solution to our child being bored in school was to homeschool. There was no gifted program in elementary school and once K1 got to third grade, there was little teacher support for differentiating. The school told us “the teacher will provide your child with additional material” (yeah right – K1 was a good kid who just sat quietly until the end of the day. No incentive for the teacher to work with them). “And you can supplement at home!” Instead of sending K1 to eight hours of pretty useless instruction and supplementing after school, we just kept them home and supplemented everything.

  2. Nanani Says:

    I was a gifted kid, and I’m in my 30s now, so things were a bit different when I was your DCs age.
    With the caveat that I may not remember some things that were done for me:
    I had pull-out for a “gifted program” that was largely improvised.
    Some years I did extra research projects on topics that interested me, and I remember enjoying that a lot since it meant I could check out books from the older kid section of the library.
    Other years I did crafts that didn’t really interest me that much but did keep me busy. The crafts were mostly model kits, which may be good for some kids but didn’t do much for me.
    Some years the powers that be decided that being pulled out ALONE was the worst thing so I got pulled along with other kids who, while maybe above average, were not at my level (I know this sounds snobby but I really did test way past everybody else) to do … stuff I don’t really remember. Group discussions were involved? I guess a smaller group than the regular classroom was nice.
    To my recollection I don’t think my being bored was disruptive, I’d just stop paying attention or dig out a different book or something.
    I remember discussions about grade skipping when I was in grade 1 or 2, but it didn’t end up happening.

    Some teachers would let me read books of my choosing and the like, some didn’t. My least favourite teacher was the one who would go around and police where our eyes were looking and didn’t want anyone reading ahead, in an “everyone reads the same text together” setting.

    Another factor is that my mother taught at my K-8 school, and in fact became principal in the years after I graduated. While she never taught me directly, the fact that I was present at the school for long hours before and after class time (staff meetings, getting marking done on site instead of taking it home, etc), and the fact that I would, unprompted, read the user’s manuals and whatnot for the AV equipment, led to me being unofficial tech support for the school. I got to take projectors and film strips and so on to use in the library after school.
    Sometimes I’d get pulled out of class by the librarian or another teacher to help them set up a piece of tech, and when a proper computer lab was introduced, with internet showing up in my last year or so, I was also allowed to use them after school and helped run the lab. How much mom encouraged the teachers and staff to enable this is not really clear, but I’m pretty certain a lot of it couldn’t have happened without her approval.

    My school was dual language by default, being a minority-language school in a city where most people spoke another language. Music instruction was shitty and I never had outside-school music lessons, though my sister did when she showed interest in it. I did workbooks a lot too, and I remember asking my parents to buy them whenever we passed the stores that carried them.

    Once I reached high school I didn’t have any special programs, but my high school still did tracking and I took some classes, namely math and certain sciences, at a higher grade level. I also started self-study of a third language.

    TL;DR Nerdy gifted kids probably benefit more from enrichment that targets their own interests, and they know perfectly when other kids are being brought in for the sake of inclusion.

  3. The frugal ecologist Says:

    I read books. We had some sort of program where you got points for the number and difficulty of the books you read. I ended up reading Anna Karenina at age 8. I also did kumon starting at age 12 and my brother started much younger and went up to precal.

    Kumon is expensive but depending on the teacher I think worth it. We had a phd level instructor. I appreciated the emphasis on mental math and the timed aspect of it. I had super test phobia & daily kumon was basically exposure therapy. It also taught optimization/satisficing and helped with perfectionism (you had to get a certain percentage correct per time). If you took forever and got everyone right you wouldn’t pass to the next level. If you worked quickly and missed a couple you would.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’re doing a week of grammar/writing at one of Kumon’s competitors this summer. We briefly tried some of the Kumon materials (but not at the tutoring center) with DC1 but that was a disaster so we stopped pretty quickly. The speed-repetition really wasn’t what we were looking for.

  4. Katherine Says:

    My school district was kind of late to get rid of tracking, so I was tracked into a dedicated all-day gifted class from 4th grade. It was great, and the whole class did math a grade-level ahead of our nominal grade.

    My parents sent me to a small private school for 6th and 7th grades, mostly because the class sizes in the gifted track at the local middle school were >35. The small small private school was academically and socially terrible for me – for scheduling reasons, I couldn’t continue with the math acceleration, and the teachers weren’t willing/able to provide differentiation for me. When my parents tried to talk to the administration about it, my math teacher pulled me aside and told me that my family had humiliated her with her boss and to never let that happen again! My math teacher told my parents that she didn’t think I was gifted in math (because I wasn’t disruptive in class – she didn’t recognize that giftedness could also manifest itself in quietly memorizing digits of pi and counting holes in the cieling tiles). I wish I could tell her that I now have a PhD in math. When I switched back to public school for 8th grade and got back into the gifted track, everything got better.

    In high school, even the gifted/AP track classes weren’t challenging enough for me, but most of my teachers let me read in class – for a while, I was reading a novel a day. My geometry teacher would let me leave class to go to the library to get new books whenever I needed to. I got most of my intellectual challenge/stimulation from mock trial – my high school had a really good extracurricular mock trial program, and I really thrived in it. Mock trial was also where I learned technical/argumentative writing, which continues to serve me really well! I was also playing two musical instruments pretty seriously in high school. Because my high school teachers were so willing to let me do what I needed to do (even though it was often different from what the rest of the class was doing), I had a really fun and satisfying high school experience. I’m so grateful for that!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      OMG, I have counted so many ceiling tile holes in my life. What an awful math teacher at that private school. But yay public school! DC1 is getting more math acceleration at public here as well than zie would have either in private school or back in paradise.

  5. Mary Says:

    We bought Glenn Ellison’s book at your suggestion and it’s been an enormous success!

  6. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    For mathy kids, I highly recommend the books from Art of Problem Solving. They go down to prealgebra, and they’ve now introduced the Beast Academy series for elementary school. The AoPS books are not for everyone (unlike Singapore Math, which is also good), but are aimed specifically at kids who crave math.

  7. Taylor Lee @ Yuppie Millennial Says:

    I had GATE pullout, loved it. Lots of logic puzzles, learned how to draw 3D figures, wrote diaries for Oregon Trail games (“…today I came down with dysentery…”).

    Around 10 I learned algebra and trigonometry through Princeton Review SAT CDs. Similarly learned Calc and Stats using test prep CDs but don’t remember which. Read a lot, chose my own books, and had full access to my parent’s library. Other non self directed activities also happened to keep me busy after hours– band, piano, Chinese lessons, taekwondo. I mostly read, drew, did homework, or (with permission by my favorite teachers) napped when I was bored in class.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    I don’t understand the advice to accelerate learning outside the classroom. Wouldn’t that just make the problem worse?

    In ancient times when I was a kid, I came up with two basic strategies: 1) Get my homework during my spare time at school and 2) try to make potentially boring assignments (e.g., write a sentence for each spelling word) more fun than necessary (I tried to think of interesting sentences). My brother would also flip over his worksheets and draw pictures on the back. My boyfriend was allowed to read fiction for fun in his spare time at school.

    Outside of school, I learned other non-school things. I read a lot of fiction, played a lot of board games, was in girl scouts, and learned embroidery.

    Only once did I catch a teacher in a misstatement and it was horrifying. It was handy for me to be smart but ignorant; I did much better than most of my friends.

    On the other hand, I am jealous of my friends who did become expert at certain kinds of things before they learned them at school, like computer science majors who were programming on their Apple computers as kids. So I think I do agree that holding back to not be bored is a pretty horrible strategy. I did get to be in a G&T program in the 7th grade, which was awesome. And I got to be in algebra in the 8th grade and honors classes in a good high school and then a good college and grad school, and those were all great.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Acceleration is especially useful for mastering basic materials that are the building blocks of more complicated learning (phonics, addition, etc.) — that means they can do drilling down and sideways work prior to first grade or whenever those concepts are introduced. For example, if a three or four year old knows how to read, then an entire world of other challenges what won’t be delivered in school can be opened up. Waiting until age 6 or 7 when phonics or addition is introduced in schools means you can’t do any of that.

      Acceleration is also fine when you’re not sure that your student will be getting foundational material in school because you want to facilitate a grade skip, they’ve been absent, they’ve had a bad teacher, or you’ve switched schools.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Good points. I had a really good school in Head Start/first grade, so your second paragraph didn’t apply to me. (Except maybe when I moved to a good 4th grade from a bad 4th grade; but by then I did have enough basics to catch up fairly quickly to dealing with long division and cursive writing of all assignments.)

        Mmm, acceleration for sideways work! Sounds great!

  9. Cloud Says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions! The school actually suggested and tried a single subject reading acceleration in 1st grade, and my daughter hated it, for social reasons. They even took care to put her in a 2nd grade room where she knew a couple of the kids. But no go, it made her cry. So they gave up on that and just did in room differentiation. Her 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teachers were all really good at that. Her 4th grade teachers apparently weren’t as good at it. Either that or she just had a leap beyond what they could accommodate. If she’s bored in 5th grade, we may ask to try the single subject acceleration again, because I think she’d be better able to handle it socially now.

    I had a one day per week GATE pullout as a kid and loved it. Absolutely loved it. But they’re more into in class differentiation here. On the plus side, I think they train teachers on how to do it (which may explain why we had 3 straight years of teachers who did a great job of it).

  10. Rosa Says:

    We went to a public Montessori, and the mixed-age classrooms were great (also the teachers were really good with differentiation.) My kid is both gifted and challenged – he’s academically ahead but autistic, so the ease of most academics for him gave him some breathing room for the social stuff that’s harder for him. But he started middle school a year ahead in math and with a pretty firm basis for science & English. No foreign language unfortunately. I actually have no idea how the teachers handled so much differentiation so well – in his E1 classroom I think there were 4 reading groups and 7 spelling groups. His E2 classroom had a spelling/vocab group that was so advanced, I think half the girls were in the district wide spelling bee finals. But both classrooms included a good chunk of ESL kids (and one of them clawed his way into that super advanced spelling group, too. Pure determination, basically.)

    Some of our friends in the same school found that their kids were very engaged/challenged when they were the younger kids in the mixed-age classroom, and bored the year they were the older kids (with the E1-E2 model that means boredom in 3rd and 5th grades.) They did pull out the math-advanced 5th graders into a separate math class. I actually need to start finding out what that means for 8th graders, it’s a K-8 school and he’ll be done with “8th grade math” by the end of next year when he finishes 7th grade.

  11. Rosa Says:

    oh and there’s a pullout math program here, that is run by the local university. My son’s math team coach convinced him he didn’t want to do it, so he walked into the test cold and didn’t get in – I’m not sure if it was just that he’s not at that level or if he might have deliberately blown part of it. I’m kind of mad at the teacher for emphasizing how challenging and terrible it is, truthfully. But also my kid might just not be that advanced at math. He does an online program called Elements of Mathematics at home, we started it last summer but he keeps up with it for fun. It would have taken him out of the school’s math program and put him in study hall 4 days a week instead, which could be a terrible isolating boredom bomb for some kids. But if they have multiple kids in the pullout program, they put them in the same study hall & they can do their math homework together then.

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  13. Alyssa Says:

    I want to thank you for this, because previous summers with my kids have not gone particularly well. I think it’s because of a total lack of structure. We also have high expectations of our kids, but haven’t been as proactive as we could. So, I’m changing courses this year! My rough thoughts so far are here:

  14. First Gen American Says:

    Just want to say these are great suggestions. Our initial move was just to switch to a better performing school district which has helped in most subjects. Since this was the first year in middle school, I didn’t want to implement too many changes at once but I do think we need to have a talk about the math. We could be doing a lot more with math right now and we aren’t.

    We’ve got some woodworking projects queued up for summer, so I’m hoping the bluebird houses will utilize a variety of math, geometry and other skills all rolled up in one. I had him sketch out tree house plans last summer but I think he was a little too young to do it justice. We will try again with that this year. Our summer goal is to build lots of things with scrap wood. My window boxes are also falling apart.

    My older kid basically reads a lot to pass the time in school right now. I didn’t realize how much he read a school, but I noticed he always knows all these random facts about all kinds of strange topics. Whenever I ask how he came about that knowledge, he always says “I read it in a book at school.”

    Our other issue is that some subjects are so easy and obvious, he kinda mails it in and doesn’t do his best work because everything is dumb and stupid.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Woodworking sounds fun! DC1 did a bunch last summer at the local maker-space that was running daycamps– zie made a tongue drum which was pretty cool. Unfortunately, there were course conflicts with the classes zie hadn’t done yet this year, except for the electronics course zie is taking.

      I cannot say enough good things about Hard Math for Elementary Students– even if your kid is technically in middle school, it still most likely covers topics zie hasn’t seen yet.

  15. chacha1 Says:

    We had zero options re schools – there was one public school. Our “acceleration” was parents with college degrees who read a lot (and had a lot of books in the house, and let us read pretty much whatever we wanted) and who supported our various creative interests. I don’t know if they were consciously trying to peer-align us, but I don’t remember any attempts to boost us past our classrooms either. In the 70s in the Deep South there were not a lot of obvious reasons to do that with girl children. We got enough crap just by virtue of being fairly smart, not interested in sports, and Yankees.

    At any rate, neither of us was so gifted that we couldn’t cope with the regular classroom. IIRC there was a good bit of clandestine reading and drawing during class. So as usual on kid posts, I got nothin’. :-)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      But thank you for your insights from your childhood!

      And I realize there’s been a lot of kids/school posts lately… and I can’t promise that will be letting up this week (since Friday’s post is another one) or even next week (cough, next Wednesday’s post), but they will presumably settle down in the future.

      Now might be a good time to lobby happily-child-free #2 for more posts!

  16. becca Says:

    In elementary, I remember our pull out program had one big project a year. For 2nd grade it was dinosaurs with a fossil dig; 3rd grade was chemistry with crystal growing; 4th grade was ecology with a play about acid rain; 5th grade was law with a mock trial). So I think project based learning can be pretty high impact. Girl scouts and 4-H provided projects for me later (I do remember the 4-H projects better- I did a great html one in the early days of html; people associate 4-H with rural stuff but there are lots of options).

    For middle school/high school, I was unschooled, so everything there was completely different. Also, I have a workbook allergy ;-) Painting was a big part of how I spent my time, and competitive swimming. For academics, starting college early was probably essential. That said, unschooling taught me that if the “untreated control” has a pretty good outcome, maximizing the treatment may not be worth obsessing over (I keep trying to convince myself of this).

    For my DC1, we weren’t thrilled with his school this year. We’re moving, so I am cautiously optimistic about the new school district. One of the few redeeming qualities of Red State Next To Beloved Blue State is that they have better state laws on gifted students.
    We’ve done a good job with a variety of summer camps so far (a language camp, lots of soccer camps, math/science gifted camp, this year the big one is digital game design). Also, I’m going to a local conference this weekend for families with gifted kids, so hopefully I’ll get more ideas. We’ve got to do something, or DC will end up watching game play youtube videos all the time (like…. wtf?).

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