Tidbit # 13-Innovating creative pedagogical solutions…

April 9, 2022

An Online School Like No Other: Innovating creative pedagogical  solutions to support shared goals for gifted and twice-exceptional  K-12 learners across the world

Laura Sawyer Lowder 

Pfeiffer University & Scholars Academy for the Gifted & Artistically Elite 

United States 


Hannah Hill Park 

Scholars Academy for the Gifted & Artistically Elite 

United States 


Abstract: The nature of traditional education is to educate the masses while providing services to exceptional learners. Despite valiant attempts made by educators and advocates, many highly gifted and twice-exceptional children slip through the cracks, their potential achievements in academics and life being cut short, sometimes backfiring in the opposite direction, leading at best to missed opportunities to contribute to society in positive ways and worse, society feels the negative ramifications of a failed attempt to meet the educational, social, and emotional needs of the highly gifted. This work identifies four constructs within a  radically different framework aimed at leveraging innovative pedagogical solutions in support of shared goals for gifted and twice-exceptional students. 


There is an often-overlooked population of children somewhat hidden in the traditional American education system that holds within it boundless potential to solve the problems of our time, yet the very nature of our system is set up to miss the mark on providing educational experiences that merit being described as effective. A system designed to educate all children and youth even with legislation in place to provide services to learners with exceptionalities seems to often fall short of facilitating realized potential among this subgroup. Educators of today,  we can do better. Passionate, vastly experienced, and highly educated leaders in the field, we can do better, and we must do much better if we are to live up to our ethical commitment to all children in our country’s schools and classrooms. 

The Problem 

The traditional education system undoubtedly misses the mark when it comes to meeting the needs of highly gifted students. Sure, many students will learn despite what we do to them. These children acquiesce to the game of school without great effort and earn excellent grades in class and scores on standardized assessments. The school is happy, the district is happy, and parents are pleased. The children receive praise, generally based on their performance, rather than their effort, propagating a likely harsh dose of reality when studies do, eventually, meet them at an appropriate level of challenge (usually in college) and so the cycle continues. 

This story, however, does not represent the experience of a great many highly gifted learners. Our classrooms also include students of extraordinary intellect and potential who are neither capable or/nor willing to play this systemic game. Often presented as a “bad kid”, easily frustrated, inflexible, hyperactive, and any number of other adjectives with a negative connotation, particularly in an environment where conformity to the masses is all but a  necessity to avoid frequent conflict in daily school life, these children often do not rise near to their full potential in academics, socially, or in life and are who we notice in society as underachievers.

As an educator of two decades, currently serving in teacher preparation for public education, and a mom of five gifted children, I found myself to be in this space that is smack in the middle, where the restrictions of public education meet the possibilities of no-strings-attached private education, and with children of my own who for lack of a better phrase just do not seem to fit. Although my children have had many wonderful public school teachers through the years, these incredibly hard working, caring, knowledgeable teachers have had neither the support,  background of experience, nor adequate understanding of the gifted learner, thus leading to one textbook  underachiever (15yo) who literally failed the third grade, attended mandated summer school, was forced to repeat  the high-stakes end of grade reading test four times, all before blowing the top off of the group-administered screening for giftedness; resulting in the reluctant placement of this child in the mathematics gifted program, despite his poor performance and behavior in the classroom, another child who managed her way through a hodgepodge of  accelerated public (K-2 @ 4-5yo), homeschool, public virtual, and now, a graduate of our private school (16 yo)., an  easy-going (10yo) who did well enough to avoid the radar for gifted screening, a (6yo) with speech challenges who  is thriving in the first grade, despite being 2e with what appears to be a language disability (6yo), and a (4yo) who has not experienced formal schooling. Surely having highly successful educators as parents in the school community and having resources to fund private neuropsychological evaluations would give these kids a leg up on being well served in the traditional education system, right? Despite our best go at public schooling, it has not been nearly good enough for any one of our learners. 

What then? How might we create an environment where children can be 100% themselves, in all their asynchronous, challenging, and brilliant ways, with peers who understand and appreciate their quirks, teachers who are poised to also appreciate the unique challenges that such diverse learners with high potential bring to the classroom? The nature of this work shares the framework and insights of where we are at the end of year one in our ongoing attempt to design, develop, implement, and continuously strengthen a school for gifted and twice-exceptional learners joining us virtually from across the United States and potentially, the world. 

Our Lens 

From a practical standpoint, we approach the challenge of creating a teaching and learning environment supportive of educating highly gifted and twice-exceptional youth in such a way as to facilitate self-efficacy, achievement, and healthy social and emotional development through a lens of innovation with a solution-oriented outlook. Each of the constructs described below is a part of a multi-faceted framework and is not meant as stand alone approach. Implementation in isolation is far from the message we hope to convey through this work.  Combined pedagogies ensure that students from all walks of life are being embraced, heard, understood, and truly met where they need us to be for them. In addition, when these constructs are combined, children are met with a  whole-child approach for support in academic, social, and emotional success. 

Four Constructs 

The focal constructs that make up the framework of the approach to the facilitation of a school environment that enables highly gifted and twice-exceptional children to thrive are a collaboration with parents and others who share our goal of empowering gifted youth, teaching children based on their abilities and not their ages, embodied and experiential learning, and an intentional social and emotional thread woven throughout all components of our program. 

Collaboration with Families 

As in most educational environments, it is optimal to collaborate with parents. Perhaps, more important, is the act of listening to what parents must share about their children. Linda Silverman, a hero among gifted children and families, says that parents who sense their child is gifted are probably correct. Giftedness presents as intensity.  This intensity throughout the first years of life is not very like to go unnoticed. More so as the young, gifted child becomes old enough to elicit an expectation of conformity for structured environments such as the traditional school, these intensities often seem to multiply as these young and intense children use so much of their energies coping through their regimented days. Parents are the first educators of their children. They are the experts on their children.  Knowing this and respecting this is vital. Approach parents as though they are your partner your goal is to figure out what you can do together to help meet that child’s needs and exceed their goals. Parents are the first advocates for their children and gifted parents are no different. Much insight is ready to be shared if only an educator simply asks,  patiently listens, thoughtfully considers, and if this relationship build on the common goal to empower children to thrive continues being built over time, everyone wins, everyone grows, and everyone gains the fulfillment of the unwavering commitment to supporting the child. Developing positive, healthy relationships with parents can have an astronomical impact on a child’s education, mental health, and overall sense of wellbeing. This first construct, perhaps the most critical in building an educational setting where uniquely gifted children thrive is to partner with families, to always assume the best intent from their words, actions, and behaviors (as they are intense humans, too). 

Teaching Based on Abilities 

The modern educational system is made up of age-based grade levels with mostly heterogeneous groupings of children on the enormous assumption that children develop synchronously with other children of the same age and that this occurs relatively synchronously across skill and content areas for each child. Contrary to what our current society seems to need to satisfy the caring for and widespread education of children and youth, this is a practice that is somewhat absurd, at the least, and at most, a wide waste of loads of potential on both ends of teaching and learning. Just as each child experiences areas of more rapid and slower development, children who may seem homogeneous by some variables of representation are largely nonparallel when we dig into their various abilities and readiness to learn at the next level within any given context. Designing a system for teaching and learning where children are provided access to content and facilitation of skills and learning based on their readiness and abilities rather than their age can open a world of potential that might otherwise have been missed. 

Students are assessed by academic ability and social capacity. Students who experience more challenges socially receive extra support and skilled instruction in the related social areas. Assignments are modified as is the case for a very young first grader (6yo) ready for the comprehension piece of the fourth or fifth-grade lesson but were not yet ready to be independent and organized because of his social and emotional development and immature executive functioning skills. While undoubtedly challenging to pull off as an educator, the efforts are more than worth the while when the young scholar engages, dives in deep into the content, with similarly intense and asynchronous peers, and demonstrates energetic growth through the connections with rich above grade level literature. Speaking of which, book selections can be tricky when you have seven-year-olds reading at an advanced level. Just because they can read a book doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be reading it and so being intentional with book selection and other content resources is a huge piece of how we feel we’ve found success with these accelerated children this first year of implementation. After all, highly gifted and adroit humans are also often intensely sensitive and so the rule of thumb for appropriate content with young, gifted children is that there may not be a rule of thumb. The individual dispositions, background experiences, awareness, maturity, beliefs, and preferences all need to be recognized and considered when planning appropriate content to use for instruction with each child. 

An important part of figuring out how to work with the intricacies of each child comes through developing relationships with students. The curriculum needs to be presented in a fashion that makes learning relevant to life – you can’t do this if you don’t know your students well. Building intentional relationships with students and families is a must. Students need to feel like their classroom is their home away from home and this is even the case in their virtual learning environment. It is essential that educators work to figure out ways to get to know their students on the individual level and use that knowledge about their strengths and areas for growth in the classroom. Building intentional relationships form the foundation. Once this is built, the content will come. Content is much easier when it is taught within a strong relationship. 

Embodied and Experiential Learning

Embodied and experiential learning is not far from our construct of the no ceiling approach. Guidance and scaffolding need to be carefully implemented to play their pivotal roles in supporting the asynchronous development of highly gifted and twice-exceptional children as they are immersed in above-level and accelerated learning experiences. Scaffolding often takes the place of discussions connecting content to lived experiences, leading to content knowledge that is attainable. Connections must be relevant and meet learners where they are. Aha, have come to learn where they are through our collaboration with and listening to the insights of their parents, developing relationships with each learner, and through thinking of their readiness to learn higher-level content not based on their age but based on their nuances, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Because we take the time to notice,  acknowledge, and build trust with each learner, we can facilitate embodied and experiential learning appropriately scaffolded for each unique learner. 

A discussion-based approach to teaching aims to build critical thinking capacities such that our learners consider given knowledge within the cultural and social contexts. The questioning and critique of ideas presented becomes the norm. Using the life experiences of the learners to build valuable classroom discussions and activities that are at the heart of a process of critical thinking supports the construction of sound conceptual understanding with distance created between the mere knowledge received and the synthesis of such knowledge into the now maturing conceptions of how that information fits within one’s world. Clever teacher scaffolding is necessary to create this classroom magic. 

It is important for students to create connections to the real world by collaborating with not only their peers but also with community members. Through cross-curricular planning (and a lot of begging) we have been able to introduce our scholars to Peace Corps members who guided them in studying the effects of decomposing litter.  Students have connected virtually with a baker to understand fractions, a cardiologist to learn more about their own health, an arachnologist to learn in-depth about spiders, as well as several authors whose collections of children’s literature we have delved into. In allowing students to take responsibility for themselves and their own learning, the tools are then given to become successful members of the classroom community and eventually the real world. 

Looking past the learning of content and the cognitive gains, our quest to lead our children through embodied learning experiences is one that strives to connect their social and emotional, artistic, physical, and academic attributes. One of the magical qualities of children is that they are naturally curious and full of wonder.  Our pedagogy of embodiment is ideal when children are gaining content knowledge and skills while being first and foremost led by their inquiries as they entertain their curiosities, respect their sensitivities, begin to take risks,  consider the perspectives of others and especially those of the lesser-told stories, and create artifacts along the way that demonstrate their conceptualization of new information and understandings. Children are motivated to learn when they are given the opportunities to make their own choices and when they have the time to fully engage in short- and long-term projects (Istance, 2019). 

Highly gifted children developing a healthy relationship with the process of acquiring increased conceptualization of knowledge must grow confident, but remain open to improvement and focused on improving,  not proving. It is vital that students enter the world with the metacognitive ability to extract critical lessons from their own experiences. 

In addition, highly gifted children must obtain a sense of social and self-awareness. It is important that they can manage their emotions and behaviors to achieve their desired goals. Opportunities to grow and the ability to recognize their values, strengths, and even their challenges are critical. Showing empathy for others, forming positive relationships, making ethical, constructive choices, and dealing effectively with conflict are essential elements required to succeed in this altering and dynamic world. 

Social and Emotional Support and Instruction 

Social and emotional instruction and support weave a thread throughout all aspects of our school program.  From the daily lessons, the scaffolding of routines and procedures approaches to expectations and the management of such, communication between teachers, students, parents, and others, and even the nature of the assignments facilitated must all be viewed through a social and emotional lens. Our faculty have engaged in deep dives into learning as much as we can about the importance of a strong social and emotional supportive construct as well as strategies for building and strengthening the related skills so that children grow more and more resilient within their lives in and outside of the classroom.

The overall health and well-being of our nation’s children are greatly at risk. Young people today are no strangers to stress. In fact, everyday life stressors have increased in the last few decades, and children across the  United States are experiencing stress from a range of sources. For some, stress occurs with the pressure to achieve;  for others, it is brought on by economic privation, poor nutrition, or insufficient health care; for still others, stress may be linked to emotional deprivation or inadequate educational resources. Even children who maintain a  seemingly “normal” and “healthy” lifestyle are not immune to stress, as they too face daily doses of standardized testing, course exams, homework, after-school and extracurricular activities, media stress, and environmental dangers. Regardless of the circumstances, currently, all children seem to live pressure-packed lives and any one of these factors could impede a child’s ability to learn and grow without anxiety.  

Educational specialists and researchers have long upheld that there is a fundamental association between emotional imbalance and poor life prospects. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, argues and popularizes the idea that stress early on in life can cause the inundation of negative effects, psychologically and neurologically – poor self-control and underdeveloped executive function. In other studies, it has also been proven that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at a higher risk to miss out on important social experiences, engage in substance abuse, and perform poorly in school. This is extremely unfortunate for our nation because 25.1% of children between the ages of 13 and 18 suffer from anxiety disorders. A study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies  Meeting in May of 2017 found that the number of children and teens admitted to the hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm has more than doubled during the last decade. It is an unmistakable truth that students of all ages are increasingly facing greater challenges in regulating their attention and are experiencing increasing rates of anxiety. As educators, we attempt to prepare our students for the “real-world’ and we do our best to teach them how to organize all the “stuff” going on in their lives, but very rarely do we teach them to be mindful. Very rarely do we teach coping mechanisms or strategies to organize the thoughts in their heads and soothe their anxieties.  

America needs educational opportunities and systems that prepare them to face the increasing complexity of the modern world. Why wait until a student shows signs of fear, anxiety, depression, or other health-related issues? Many of these problems can be avoided and prevented if only we teach students mindfulness. 

“Mindfulness gives us insights into how we deal with anger, desire, and habitual thinking. We realize that these mental states breed emotional suffering and a lack of clarity. Through mindfulness, we develop the ability to see more clearly the effects of anger on ourselves and others, and we learn to say yes or no without irritation. These  insights will gradually become more and more integrated in our mindfulness practice and strengthen our potential  

for conducting ourselves in a manner that reduces suffering and promotes happiness.” (Rotne, 2013). Stress is an unavoidable necessity and a common sensation that all humans experience throughout their lifetime, as it occurs in all facets of life. Defining stress itself is complicated, as the term obliges psychological and medical concepts. The term “stress” was coined by Hans Selye in 1936. He defined it as “the non-specific response  of the body to any demand for change.” (The American Institute of Stress, 2017) Many years ago, it was believed that all diseases were caused by pathogens and bacteria, however, Hans Selye had a different hypothesis. Selye spent his life experimenting on laboratory animals and he even proved that persistent stress could cause the animals to develop various diseases, many of which are those seen in humans, such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. 

“Selye’s theories attracted considerable attention and stress soon became a popular buzzword that completely ignored Selye’s original definition. Some people used stress to refer to an overbearing or bad boss or some other unpleasant situation they were subjected to. For many, stress was their reaction to this in the form of chest pain, heartburn, headache, or palpitations. Others used stress to refer to what they perceived as the result of these repeated responses, such as an ulcer or heart attack…Because it was apparent that most people viewed stress as some unpleasant threat, Selye subsequently had to create a new word, stressor, to distinguish stimulus from the response. Stress was generally considered as being synonymous with distress and dictionaries defined it as “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension” or “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Thus, stress was put in a negative light and its positive effects were ignored. However, stress can be helpful and good when it motivates people to accomplish more. Any definition of stress should therefore also include good stress, or what Selye called eustress. For example,  winning a race or election can be just as stressful as losing, or more so. A passionate kiss and contemplating what might follow is stressful, but hardly the same as having a root canal procedure.” (The  American Institute of Stress, 2017) 

Hans Selye struggled his entire life to find a suitable definition of stress because it is vastly different for all individuals. So, while at some level, stress can be seen as “good for you” and simply a natural part of development,  it can also undermine your physical health and social/emotional wellbeing. 

The amygdala, a small, almond-shaped clump of neurons located in the center of our brain, serves as an information filter regulated by our emotional state. When we are feeling calm and peaceful, the filter is wide open and information flows to the prefrontal cortex. However, when we experience negative emotions such as stress, the information is trapped in the amygdala. It doesn’t make it to the prefrontal cortex to be executively processed,  instead, it is processed immediately as fight, flight, or freeze. You are reacting without thinking. Therefore, feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress essentially have the power to shut down higher-order thinking. (Hawn, 2011) 

The implications of prolonged and poorly managed stress for children and youth can drastically affect their physical, mental, and cognitive development. The consequences of a child suffering from chronic stress at such a  young age can be disastrous for their learning and their future. 

“Experiencing high levels of stress or chronic stress can undermine physical health, for example, by increasing the likelihood of a weakened immune system, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Other negative outcomes include anxiety, depression, poor memory and language skills, and lower academic achievement. Biological or genetic factors can increase one’s vulnerability to stress, as can social and environmental factors. For example, although stress can be problematic for children and youth of all  socioeconomic backgrounds, children, and youth from high-conflict families and those who live in high crime, low-resource neighborhoods may be even more likely to experience chronic and/or high levels of  stress.” (Terzian, 2010)  

Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at a higher risk to miss out on important social experiences, engage in substance abuse, and perform poorly in school. Educational specialists and researchers have long upheld that there is a fundamental association between emotional imbalance and poor life prospects. Paul  Tough, author of How Children Succeed, argues and popularizes that stress early on in life can cause the inundation of negative effects, psychologically and neurologically – poor self-control and underdeveloped executive function. 

It is important to act fast and seek preventative services before long-term damage may be done. Doctors around the world agree that children having trouble with stress benefit from social support, involvement in sports and other extra-curricular activities, and breathing and relaxation techniques. (Terzian, 2010) There is a need for a better understanding of how to support the development of cognitive skills in children. The youth of America need 

educational opportunities and systems that prepare them to face the increasing complexity of the modern world. 


If educators are to hold true to our commitment to all children and if we are to do our part in preparing all children for success as positively contributing members of our larger societies, then we must do much better at providing educational programs full of experiences facilitating enriching opportunities for learning and growth.  Approaching the education of highly gifted and twice-exceptional learners through a solutions-oriented frame of reference allows us to design, implement, and reflect upon selected pedagogical constructs leading to the hopeful development of a framework for teaching and learning supportive of self-actualized youth who thrive in their experience as learners with kindred peers in our classrooms. Through listening to the voices of their families, designing instruction based on the abilities, not ages, of children, facilitating embodied and experiential learning,  and building social and emotional supports and relevant lessons throughout each aspect of the program, these highly intense and complex humans just might have a shot at soaring towards their potential. 


Child Trends (2010). Assessing Stress. 

Hawn, G. (2011). Mind up. New York, NY: Scholastic

Istance, D. (2019). Approaches to Pedagogical Innovation and Why They Matter. Brookings. Pure Edge Inc. (2016). Pure Edge: Success Through Focus. 

Rotne, N.F., & Rotne, D.F. (2013). Everybody Present: Mindfulness in Education. Parallax Press. Stern et. al (2016) Pure Edge success through focus. Palm Beach, FL. Pure Edge, Inc. 

Terzian, M., Ph.D. & Kristin, M.A., Ph.D. (2010) Assessing stress in children and youth: a guide for out-of-school  time program practitioners. Child Trends. Retrieved from 

The American Institute of Stress. (2017). What is stress?

Lowder, L.S. & Park, H.H. (2021). An Online School Like No Other: Innovating creative pedagogical solutions to support shared goals for gifted and twice-exceptional K-12 learners across the world. In T. Bastiaens (Ed.), Proceedings of Innovate Learning Summit 2021 (pp. 508-514). Online, United States: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).