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What Is Optimal Match and What Does It Mean in Practice?

A perspective change resulting in an inclusive new approach to gifted education.

Key points

  • Optimal Match is about matching each child’s learning opportunities to their abilities. Kids aren't labeled as "gifted" and "not gifted."
  • Not meeting gifted learning needs—or doing so inequitably—can have tragic long-term consequences for children and society.
  • Optimal Match puts in place a wide range of learning options to meet kids’ different needs at different points in time.
  • Optimal Match avoids cultural and racial biases inadvertently built into one-shot standardized testing for gifted identification.
Adam Winger/Unsplash
Source: Adam Winger/Unsplash

New York City's outgoing mayor, Bill de Blasio, has announced major changes in gifted education, including getting rid of gifted classes. There are reasons to worry about what this means, but it also opens up an opportunity to do gifted education better so it's both more equitable and better aligned with current research on how intelligence and giftedness develop.

What Is Optimal Match?

Optimal Match is about matching each child’s learning opportunities to their abilities. If your child is mathematically advanced compared to other kids their age, they’ll need some kind of mathematical acceleration or enrichment. If they don’t get it—if they’re expected to plod along on the usual grade-level curriculum—they’ll probably lose their interest and engagement in mathematics, or in school. They might become a behavior problem or become less engaged in learning altogether. This can have tragic long-term consequences, both for your child and for the rest of us, who lose the benefits of the contribution they might have made to society.

What Optimal Match means in practice for each school, and each jurisdiction, is staying vigilant to the possibility of children’s advancement relative to the standard curriculum, as well as putting in place a wide range of learning options to meet kids’ different needs at different points in time.

How Is Optimal Match Inclusive?

This approach avoids the cultural and racial biases inadvertently built into one-shot standardized testing for gifted identification. From an Optimal Match perspective, gifted learning needs are mismatches that need to be addressed when they emerge. Those mismatches occur across all dimensions of the population at different points in time, and can’t be captured in a single test score.

The Optimal Match approach works well with different kinds of gifted learning needs, as well as other learning differences, and multiple exceptionalities. It’s about whether or not a child has gifted learning needs at a certain point in time, not whether or not they get an exceptionally high score on a certain test.

The Optimal Match perspective is based on neural plasticity research showing that when learning opportunities match a child’s interest and motivation, giftedness can develop in anyone. We can’t define a person’s potential ahead of time; it’s always developing in response to the environments and contexts in which they find themselves.

Is Every Child Gifted Under an Optimal Match Approach?

Saying that giftedness can develop in anyone doesn’t mean that every child is gifted. By definition, gifted learning needs are exceptional compared to the norm. Kids with gifted learning needs experience a mismatch that has to be addressed because their abilities in one area or another are exceptional. Meeting those learning needs doesn’t require the child to get the gifted label.

One of the concerns with a gifted identity—a possible by-product of being labeled as gifted—is that setbacks and failures can threaten that identity. A child who thinks of themself as gifted can tend to avoid challenges, and prefer easy tasks they know they can succeed at. Optimal Match incorporates the mindset research that demonstrates the many benefits of welcoming learning problems and setbacks as useful indicators of what you need to learn more about. The gifted label can interfere with that.

Optimal Match is flexible and dynamic, responding to current research findings on the domain-specificity of all learning, and allowing for changing interests over time. This allows a child to follow their curiosities wherever they take them, without risking the loss of the gifted label.

Is Optimal Match a New Approach?

Optimal Match is new only in its name and in its conceptual integration of many other ideas and understandings about gifted-level development. It’s built on current findings in neuroplasticity and mindsets and recognizes the value of many other models and perspectives that have been around for many years now.

The Schoolwide Enrichment Model, Integrated Curriculum Model, Parallel Curriculum Model, Problem-Based Learning, and more can all be examples of the Optimal Match approach in practice, depending on how they’re implemented. They’re all great ways to create a wide range of learning options that can be flexibly matched to kids’ learning needs.

What’s a Parent’s Role in the Development of Their Child’s Giftedness?

When giftedness is defined as advanced learning needs compared to same-age others, such that instruction needs to be modified in order to match learning needs, a child can have gifted learning needs at any time, from the early days of daycare, or not until adulthood. From an Optimal Match perspective, parents should pay ongoing attention to their child’s learning needs, so they can think about matching them with the appropriate learning environments and challenges when they show up.

If you want to support the development of your child’s gifted learning needs, pay attention to their curiosity and support them in developing their interests in all the informal and casual ways you can think of. Listen to their questions and observations, and respond at their level of interest and comprehension. Look for activities and experiences—both real and virtual—that might extend their knowledge. Look for other kids with similar interests.

Think also about ways that school might not be meeting your child’s learning needs. Problem-solve with your child’s teacher or principal about how to meet your child’s learning needs. If necessary, get involved with other parents in advocating for a range of options that can meet kids’ learning needs. For some parents, this leads to homeschooling. These are topics you can explore a lot further in Being Smart About Gifted Learning.

Optimal Match is nothing more—or less—than a way of thinking about your child’s intelligence and their learning. It’s a simple concept that has proven its power to energize children’s development and well-being, which is more important than ever at this time of challenge and change.

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