Online School for Gifted Students: Why It Works

Although Prisma doesn’t only serve gifted learners, families of gifted students are drawn to our approach for its alignment with research on what helps gifted kids thrive.

Emily Veno
March 1, 2024
“Cooper has struggled in traditional school environments as a gifted learner. Between boredom, a lack of autonomy, and the constant rigid transitions from topic to topic, he was MISERABLE in brick and mortar school. He is absolutely happy and thriving at Prisma and I’ve seen so much personal and academic growth in him this year!” -Kym J., Prisma Parent

There’s a difference between being “good at school” and being gifted. Kids who are “good at school” often thrive with structure and rules, are motivated by grades and scores, and do what’s expected of them, even if they don’t go above and beyond.

On the other hand, gifted and talented learners, or students who have advanced intellectual ability (often measured through IQ tests and other assessments), often struggle in traditional school. They resist structure, question rules, and are more motivated by curiosity than grades. They’ll go above and beyond when interested in the material, and slide by on their natural gifts when they’re not.

Although some private and public schools offer gifted programs, these programs aren’t the only—or necessarily the best—option. An increasing number of parents are exploring flexible online education options for their gifted children, from homeschooling to online schools, to better meet their learner’s unique needs.

Benefits of Online Learning for Gifted Students

There are many forms of online education. Homeschooling has long been popular for gifted children because it allows learners to fly ahead in their best subjects, spend more time on their passions, and avoid the bullying and social challenges common for gifted kids in traditional schools.

The difference between homeschooling and online school is fuzzier than ever, as many families incorporate online learning into homeschooling in various ways: from self-paced online courses on Khan Academy or EdX, to part-time online classes on platforms like Outschool or Kubrio.

Other families choose enrollment in a full-time online school like Prisma for an all-in-one curriculum approach, access to consistent teachers and community, and desire for an accredited transcript and diploma.

Gifted learners have different education needs than their peers. Online schools offer gifted students the personalization, flexibility, and special opportunities decades of gifted education research has shown they need.

  1. Personalization: Gifted learners need a custom learning path to match their unique needs. Even in-person gifted programs are limited by having to teach 20+ kids at once. Online, each learner can move at their own pace, working way above grade level in some subjects and at grade level in others.
  2. Flexible schedule: Gifted learners need ample time and freedom to pursue passion projects, daydream, and go down rabbit holes. Many online programs offer more space in the day than the typical in-person school’s busywork-packed schedule.
  3. Avoid overstimulation: Gifted learners are hypersensitive in a variety of ways. At Prisma, many parents tell us their learner was overwhelmed by the chaos, distractions, and frequent conflicts of the traditional classroom.
  4. Access to peers and experts: Especially in small areas, many gifted learners feel lonely or hungry to connect with others who “get” them. Although not all online schools offer live peer interaction, some, like Prisma, offer gifted learners a network of like-minded peers, and access to experts in cool subjects from all over the world.

Prisma’s Approach for Gifted Children

Prisma is an accredited virtual school serving 4-12th grade learners all over the world. Most Prisma learners live in the United States or Canada, but we also have an East Asia & Oceania cohort and are quickly expanding in other time zones.

We don’t believe online school should be like brick-and-mortar school only virtual, with dry digital textbooks and repetitive multiple-choice modules. The world is changing more rapidly than ever, and some experts predict 65% of today’s elementary school students will grow up to do jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

We believe the online learning environment is uniquely able to offer a more innovative, real-world learning experience shaping kids into lifelong learners: by giving kids space to dive into their passions, redesigning boring curriculum to be relevant to the real world, and pushing kids through 1:1 coaching to develop “soft skills” like perseverance, collaboration, and confidence.

Although Prisma doesn’t only serve gifted learners, families of gifted students tend to be drawn to our approach for its alignment with research on what gifted children need to thrive.

Project-Based Learning for Gifted Learners

Project-based learning has been an essential component of gifted education for decades. This research-backed method blends multiple best practices in engaging and challenging gifted learners: open-ended activities, authentic application of skills, and self-directed research.

In high-quality project-based learning, learners acquire and demonstrate specific academic skills during the learning experience. In traditional schools, schoolwork is only seen by the teacher and turned in once before being forgotten. In real life, and in project-based learning, projects serve an authentic purpose, involve collaboration, and go through multiple revisions. In this way, PBL builds 21st century skills such as critical thinking, and prepares learners for future careers.

Project-based learning works beautifully for gifted and talented students whose needs are rarely fully met by traditional forms of education. Gifted kids often are bored and struggle to see the relevance of typical curriculum. When learning is applied to a real-world project gifted kids are passionate about, their motivation skyrockets. At Prisma, we often see gifted learners “light up” and hyperfocus on projects, researching and toiling for hours until they create something amazing.

At Prisma, each school year is divided into interdisciplinary themes covering all necessary academic subjects and standards. Each theme (such as Unsolved Mysteries or Cities of the Future) offers multiple projects learners can choose from based on their interests.

Because it’s so hands-on and engaging, some assume project-based learning is less academically rigorous than traditional education. At Prisma, however, we use a mastery learning approach in project-based learning. This means gifted learners can’t skate by doing the minimum. “Rather than trying to earn mastery on a grading rubric, our learners focus on continuous improvement,” says Head of Middle School Curriculum Helen Reinecke. “If a learner already has a stronghold on theme materials or quickly grasps a concept, their coach will help push them to the next level of understanding with personalized feedback.”


The Cohort-Based Learning Environment

Prisma learners experience our accredited project-based curriculum within cohorts, supported by mentor coaches.

Instead of grouping learners in random mixings by grade level, Prisma learners are matched with a small cohort of like-minded peers, such as a cohort of other gifted learners. Many gifted education experts deem these sorts of intentional groupings essential for gifted students.

“Prisma learners are intentionally placed in cohorts that will meet their learning and social-emotional needs,” says Reinecke. “They will be with a community that understands and celebrates how they learn.”

Gifted Prisma learners also receive one-on-one attention, feedback, and mentorship from learning coaches. Each coach is assigned a very small group of learners, hand-picked for them based on personality, learning goals, and passion areas. “We actively help them understand and apply feedback, encouraging them to embrace challenges and push their own limits,” says Kimberly Harlan, a gifted education expert and one of our middle school learning coaches.

Each learning coach builds a close-knit, supportive community among learners in their cohort. “Many of my gifted learners in the past really struggled with collaborative work,” explains Harlan. “At Prisma, we give them the space to learn how to do that as well.” Through daily live workshops, community-building standups, and extracurricular clubs and enrichments, gifted learners build friendships and teamwork skills.

Elementary School & Middle School

Prisma elementary and middle schoolers engage in six interdisciplinary project-based themes each year. Each theme blends multiple subjects and skills needed for success in high school while providing ample learner choice. For example, learners might cover Physics, Financial Literacy, and Creative Writing in Playology, followed by World Cultures, History, and Research in Legend Has It.

Learners engage in daily live workshops focused on the project (Project Lab), reading & writing (Literacy Lab), and collaborative problem-solving (Co-Lab).

Learning coaches provide feedback and assessment tailored to the level of gifted learners. If they achieve their personalized learning goals, learners earn Badges on their transcript for each specific skill demonstrated.

High School

Prisma High School students engage in 12-week project-based themes covering all core credits for high school graduation. For example, they earn Biology credit through our Secrets of the Biosphere theme, and World History credit through our Hindsight 20/20 theme. Gifted learners can earn Honors Credit by choosing from a menu of advanced activity options throughout the theme.

High school coaches provide feedback tailored to each gifted learner’s potential, and learners receive grades for their official transcript. They add their projects to a portfolio website highly valued by competitive colleges. High schoolers also complete an open-ended capstone project in 11th grade, allowing gifted learners to show off their top strengths and passions.

Prisma’s online high school also provides flexibility for gifted learners to pursue extracurricular activities and advanced coursework such as AP courses, enhancing their resumes compared to typically schooled peers. College dual enrollment is offered through a Prisma partnership with ASU.

Our flexible schedule allows many Prisma high schoolers to pursue intense athletic, artistic, and entrepreneurial pursuits (some even have their own businesses). In 12th grade, all Prisma learners are supported in securing and maintaining an internship aligned to their career goals.

More Gifted Education Resources

6 Challenges Gifted Kids Face, According to Science

National Association for Gifted Children: Knowledge Center

What is Twice-Exceptional? When gifted learners have additional special needs

Bright and Quirky: Organization for families of 2E learners

Activities for Gifted Children

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