Least Restrictive Environment for Gifted Kids

Why your child needs an appropriate academic setting

Kids Raising Hands in a Classroom
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When we hear the phrase "Least Restrictive Environment" (LRE), it is always in reference to the education of disabled children. The National Association of Private Special Education Centers Web site defines it as "the most appropriate environment based on the individual's unique learning needs." A disabled child, to the maximum extent possible, should be educated with his or her non-disabled peers.

The goal is for students to receive not only an appropriate education but social benefits as well.

Ann Logsdon, Learning Disabilities Expert, in her article on LRE, discusses the possible interventions that can be used to guarantee that a disabled child receives an appropriate education. Here are some of them:

  • Separate Classes
  • Separate Schools
  • Adapted and modified classwork and assignments
  • Extended time to complete a task, assignment, or test
  • Differentiated instruction

With the exception of extended time to complete a task, these options apply to gifted children as much as they do to disabled children, although instead of extended time to complete a task, gifted children might prefer less time. For example, they might like to be able to finish reading a book instead of being told they aren't allowed to read ahead.

I would like to see LRE applied to gifted children as well as to disabled children.

 It's not that I want to see anything taken away from disabled kids. I would just like to see the principle of least restrictive environment apply to gifted kids. No child should be in an environment that not only does not challenge them but stifles them. All children should be in an environment that allows them to work in a zone of proximal development.

This "zone" is often referred to as the "Goldilocks Theory" because work in the zone of proximal is neither too hard nor too easy for a child. Actually, all of us work best in that zone.

If work is too difficult, we can get frustrated and give up, especially if we are not given sufficient support and help (yes, this can happen even to gifted kids). On the other hand, if work is too easy, it becomes tedious and essentially torturous to complete. And so...we give up again. This happens frequently with gifted kids. When the work they are given is too easy, they can simply tune out and become underachievers, caring little about school work. When gifted kids are in such an environment, it is restrictive.

Perhaps it's necessary to explain what it means to challenge a gifted child. It means providing work that requires them to put forth some effort. Many critics of gifted programs will say that spending money on gifted programs is wasteful since "gifted kids do just fine on their own."  But then some of the same people also tell us that gifted kids are spoiled and don't appreciate the value of effort. But if gifted kids aren't provided with any challenges, exactly how are they supposed to learn the value of effort?

Is it their fault that the work they are given is too easy for them? (And don't forget the effect of work that's too easy!)

An environment that is least restrictive for a gifted child challenges them so that they learn the value of effort and hard work. It is one in which they don't sit languishing in the classroom, waiting for the other kids to catch up to where they are.

Think about it this way: we have the Special Olympics for disabled kids. It gives those kids an opportunity to work hard toward a goal that is possible for them to achieve. That goal would be harder for them to reach if they were forced to compete with those who have no disabilities.

And few, if any, people would consider that a fair competition. But imagine exceptionally skilled athletes forced to participate in the Special Olympics. Obviously, that wouldn't be fair to the disabled kids the competition is meant for. So to make it fair, we'd have to put weights on the fast kids, or make them wear shoes that impede running. But is that then fair to the skilled athletes? No one wants to put an end to the Special Olympics just because they still support the other Olympics. So why is it that asking for an environment that does not restrict gifted kids is so often consider as a desire to end funding for special education?

All kids should be free to soar, free from any restrictions that keep them from soaring to the greatest heights they can manage. It doesn't matter if those kids are special needs kids with some disability or gifted kids with advanced abilities.