Religious education programs are blessed with gifted children who have diverse talents to contribute to the community. Gifted children demonstrate a multifaceted learning style. Researchers studying gifted children from Ireland and the United States found that these students preferred the abstract and theoretical. These children also indicated a preference for factual and pragmatic thinking. Educators and catechists should keep in mind these special abilities when planning their classes and look for opportunities to cultivate these students’ moral imaginations.
Researchers George Betts and Maureen Neihart developed six distinct profiles of gifted children as a tool for parents and teachers seeking to tap the talents of these bright thinkers. They assert that 90% of gifted children become bored with school and learn to use the system in order to get by with as little effort as possible:
"Rather than pursue their own interests and goals in school, they tend to go through the motions of schooling, seeking structure and direction from instructors. They are dependent upon parents and teachers. They fail to learn needed skills and attitudes for autonomy, but they do achieve. Overall, these children may appear to have positive self-concepts because they have been affirmed for their achievements. They are liked by peers and are included in social groups." (Betts, et al.)
Without proper instruction these children risk losing both their creativity and autonomy and, as a consequence, are not well prepared for the inconsistencies and challenges of adult life. As catechists we have an incredible opportunity to awaken their imaginations to the presence of God in their everyday lives.
Pope John Paul II’s heart was captured by the imagination and potential of all young people, and it is our privilege to tap into the gifted child’s ability to fully explore abstract material. Gifted thinkers are research-oriented and thrive on investigative learning, and they can actively seek opportunities to assimilate aspects of their life into their religious education. Real problems and situations provide an opportunity for moral decision-making and the development of moral intelligence. They also enjoy rigorous dialogue that explores the heart of the lesson.
Here are some strategies for working with gifted children:
Lead conversation with open-ended questions that require higher-level thinking. Often, gifted children enjoy catching the catechist’s attention by posing challenging questions or statements to test the catechist’s credibility and knowledge. Turn their challenges into research opportunities with a "What do you think?" response. Channel their energy into examining the expert resources in your church library or on the Internet so they can articulate new information and validate their contributions.
Offer your gifted thinkers additional reading material such as Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Allow them to set the pace of their learning in a way that balances their hunger for knowledge with their need to share what they’ve learned with their peers. Gifted thinkers derive personal satisfaction from acquired knowledge and divergent thinking. They can help identify principles and relationships that encourage conversation about God, prayer, and sacramental life for their peers.
The elements of literary criticism offer your gifted children a rich opportunity when studying Scripture. These children enjoy exploration and analysis, and they have a higher tolerance for the literary nuances of Scripture that can frustrate other children. Direct gifted thinkers to pay close attention to the characters, setting, plot, climax, narration, and point of view that are part of Scripture. Their analysis might help their peers enter into the world of the text and gain a deeper appreciation of the Bible.
Gifted children will relish opportunities to express themselves through creative writing, drawing, or music.
The religious education environment is a safe haven for gifted children who are often perfectionists. Religious education provides them with the chance to find common ground with their peers while learning the basic teachings and practices of a shared Catholic faith. As a catechist, you can offer gifted children a learning environment that is accepting and free of the expectations and pressures of their academic program.