Qualitative Differentiation In Early Childhood Environments

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The provision of environmental factors to enhance learning for gifted and talented children in early childhood environments is a subject worthy of discussion. Qualitative differentiation of the environment can enhance and contribute to the learning of gifted and talented children. The Ministry of Education in the handbook "Nurturing Gifted and Talented Children: A parent-teacher partnership" define differentiation as being the provision on learning experiences which are suitable for individual characteristics and needs while accepting and encompassing diversity. (Ministry of Education, p.97, 2008).

Early childhood environments have the luxury of being able to be viewed from, and set up according to many different influencing factors. In early childhood environments, educators are continually assessing and reassessing the environment so as to fully make use of the space to optimize its full potential for children of all talents and abilities. Te Whariki, the Early Childhood Curriculum, states that early childhood environments will be set up in such a way that they offer many and varied possibilities for exploring, learning, planning and reasoning, and that the environment encourages children to become actively involved in exploration, while being provided with challenges and familiar activities. (Ministry of Education, p.83, 1996).

With Te Whariki being the foundation document for Early Childhood in Aotearoa/New Zealand, educators make strong, consistent efforts to utilise their environments to fully encompass the strengths, abilities and interests of all the children in their care.

Providing for children who are deemed to be gifted and talented can add another layer to the multifaceted dimensions of the early childhood environment. While most early childhood environments are set up to allow ease of exploration and opportunities for a wide range of ages, children who are gifted and talented may need environments that are et up with a little more forethought as to their particular assets and outcomes that will be generated within.

An important part of the environment in early childhood centres are the educators and the roles that they play within the environment. Educators who are open to new ideas, thinking outside the square, and allowing children to be responsible for guiding their own learning may be of benefit to children who are gifted and talented. Educators need to be aware of the children in their centre, and their strengths and abilities to be in line with Te Whariki, the early childhood curriculum. Te Whariki states: "The curriculum for early childhood emphasizes reciprocal and responsive interaction with others, both adults and peers, who can respond to children's development and changing capabilities." (Ministry of Education, p.20,1996). It is the changing capabilities of gifted and talented children that can make it hard to accommodate them in the early childhood environment. Children who are demonstrating that they are gifted and talented in the early childhood environment need the opportunity to take their learning into their own hands, thus guiding themselves within reason, and, potentially, teaching others as they learn for themselves. Porter (1999) states: "young children need a safe, well-organised but flexible learning environment, " (p.175). So, flexibility in the environment is important because it allows gifted and talented children to use the resources available to them in order to answer questions and create solutions. For example, gifted and talented children may use the computer available to research something of interest and create a strong knowledge about their interest. This may or may not require educator participation. Hunt & Seney state: "The first step in providing optimal learning for all students and especially for meeting the unique needs of gifted learners is to create the responsive learning environment." (Karnes & Bean (eds), 2009, chapter 2, p.40)

The responsive learning environment encompasses what was stated earlier in that the physical environment should be set up in such a way that learners of all capabilities are able to utilise the resources to their fullest and create answers or investigate ideas and assumptions with ease.

Gifted and talented children are diverse in their attitudes, needs, cultures and abilities. Some children may require assistance with emotional interactions, others may not. So educators of these children should aim to acquire specialized training if it is available to them in order to be able to assist the children they are teaching. Teachers who arm themselves with relevant training and research are best set to create the most actively differentiated learning environments for the children that they teach. Porter states: "Teachers of gifted children need to be knowledgeable about offering challenging curricula, and must understand the uneven developmental profiles of gifted children…" (1999, p.177)

Using differentiation in their early childhood environments, educators can aim to cater for as many diverse characteristics and traits as possible. This can mean having many, diverse resources on hand and available to the children, having a pool of relievers/helpers that have knowledge and information that may be of use, have a non-static environment that can be altered or adapted as needs or interests call for. Adaptability of educators is a key trait, which then allows gifted and talented children the freedom to explore in safety, knowing that a more knowledgeable person is on hand to aid and support them in their endeavors.

Hunt & Seney discuss the role of the educator for gifted and talented children by stating: "To successfully meet gifted students' psychological and socio-emotional needs, the teacher must develop a nurturing and positive environment." (2009, p.45). Teachers who are able to nurture and grow gifted children's emotional health as well as their academic abilities will find that their students will become more grounded, adaptable and social people as they get older and move further through the educational system. As gifted and talented students are often in situations with children much older than themselves, a maturity and development of emotional skills is of importance to help them navigate the complex field of social situations they may encounter. Hunt and Seney go on to add: "The teacher of the gifted has a wide spectrum of responsibilities…He or she is a facilitator of learning, a model, a mentor, a collaborator, and a lifelong learner." (2009, p.47).

Qualitative differentiation in early childhood environments rests largely on the shoulders of the individual educators in the centre. They need to be the right mix of educated people who are compassionate, progressive, innovative, open-minded and uniquely skilled in many areas in order to best provide for the gifted and talented children in their care. The educators, too, require the right support, guidance and knowledge to best set up their environments and equip their centres with the staff to best cater for the needs of their students. In their handbook 'Nurturing Gifted and Talented Children' the Ministry of Education state: "…differentiation an occur in the following ways. Teachers can respond to the ideas of individuals or small groups and build activities from these new ideas." (2008, p.100)

Qualitative differentiation is an important consideration in early childhood environments. Environments need to be set up and adaptable in order for gifted and talented children to be able to access and utilise the resources that will enable them to make the most of heir learning. Teachers in the environment need to be skilled and adaptable in order to best cater for the gifted and talented children in their care. Te Whariki is a curriculum that is also a living document, capable of adapting and changing to suit the needs of centre, teachers, children and families.

The ability to differentiate the environment can have great benefits for gifted and talented children, enabling them and their teachers to utilise the environment and resources at their disposal to the utmost.