In this article, I discuss application of the gifted label and what ensues—the revelation, the complexities, the emotional juggling that many children feel—as well as some supportive measures that parents can put in place so that children’s “lived experiences” are fulfilling.
THE GIFTED LABEL
At first blush, one might think that the gifted label portends something terrific. The word gift sounds appealing. And it’s lovely to have one’s capabilities acknowledged!
But hold on. Controversy and concern lurk just beyond the potential positive spin that accompanies this label.
Labels—of any sort—prompt categorization. And, with categorical gifted labeling practices, children can fall through the cracks. Many children miss “the cut” (for a variety of reasons) and, thus, are not supported in acquiring gifted learning provisions. A more flexible developmental approach would be ideal—that is, an approach that involves teaching children what they need to learn, based on where they’re at, and in the best ways possible—without a prerequisite label. However, the reality is that not all educators have the support, training, and resources they need to provide appropriate differentiation and choices for gifted/high-ability learners. Gifted labeling may be contentious but the meaning and value lie in its practical applications. Two good questions to explore are, How is this child gifted? And what can we do to help ensure optimal development?
It’s important not to lose sight of the unique child beneath any label or grouping. A gifted designation can eclipse the actual needs of an individual. The label can also present other challenges. For example, there are stereotypical views and misconceptions about giftedness; intensified or accelerated expectations (as laid forth by the child, teachers, and parents); and oft-associated allegations regarding exclusivity and elitism. The label is potentially provocative because it implies that others (who are not in that category) lack special abilities, talents, or gifts. The label can also evoke negative reactions such as envy or scorn from others. And it can lead children to believe that they don’t have to work hard in order to succeed, thereby short-circuiting their own progress.
RESPONDING TO THE GIFTED LABEL
Emotional responses to a gifted label might include pride, excitement, happiness, surprise, and possibly even relief. The label can also fuel confusion, uncertainty, embarrassment, and apprehension. Some children have concerns about fitting in and being accepted. Others worry about keeping pace in a different or academically augmented learning environment—whereas some might welcome or be thrilled about that. The gifted labeling experience is distinctive for each child. For many, it can be a mixed blessing.
A gifted label can be the ticket that affirms a child’s abilities and potentially facilitates more appropriate schooling, including interactions with intellectual peers and targeted and advanced learning opportunities. These potentialities may be coveted, deliberated, declined, or reservedly accepted—and, of course, specialized programming differs from one educational setting or district to the next.
How a child responds to and experiences being labeled as gifted is affected by various factors, including (but not confined to) age, resilience, maturity, emotional health, social competence, presence of other exceptionalities, school-related issues, family supports, stressors, domain(s) and degree of giftedness, and availability of educational opportunities. In the whole scheme of things, when a child is labeled gifted, there is a LOT to consider. There are implications: academic, social, emotional, familial, financial, and more. Many children are unsure of what to expect. (For a clearer awareness of this, see the poem “They Tell Me I’m Gifted . . .” appended to this article.) No two children are alike!
In the book Being Smart about Gifted Education, Dona Matthews and I discuss gifted labeling (Chapter 5) as well as a broad range of approaches for determining meaningful learner-learning matches. We suggest “labeling the services not the child” (p. 96), and we offer a myriad of ideas for supporting children’s development.
Here are six suggestions (along with several resources) to help reduce the speculation, misinformation, and misunderstandings that can sometimes swirl about gifted labeling and affect children’s lived experiences:
- Engage in honest communication. Talk with children about their aspirations and concerns. Listen. Answer questions. Share their excitement. Reflect upon possible changes or conflicting expectations. Focus on strengths, not the label per se. Chat about what giftedness implies. It is not a permanent once-and-forever quality or an “endowment” reserved for some special children. Discuss openly, and at a level that suits their maturity, that giftedness is not static. It is fluid and modifiable. “High-level ability is not stable—it’s dependent upon motivation, effort, and opportunities to learn, and it develops step by step in an environment of appropriate support and challenge.” (From the article “Gifted High-Ability Learners” in The Creativity Post.)
- Fortify relationships. Strengthen bonds with family members and friends. These can be pivotal for reassuring children and for affirming their capabilities. Siblings, grandparents, mentors, coaches, and trusted others within the community can help a child feel confident, resilient, happy, and successful. Collaborate with teachers, too. Stay attuned to instructional strategies, programs, and supports to help ensure that there are fair and fitting provisions and a range of learning options. (Check out the chapters “S is for Support” and “T is for Tips for Working with Teachers” in ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids.)
- Pay attention to the unique needs of the child. Needs fluctuate over time, as do attitudes, influences, learning preferences, areas of strength and weakness, and behaviors. Be available, patient, and flexibly responsive. Remember that giftedness is context specific, domain specific, and highly variable from one person to another—and gifted-level outcomes are not a slam dunk, nor are they guaranteed. (See the article “Parenting Gifted Learners” in Parent Guide News.)
- Encourage persistence. It’s a game changer. When it comes to learning, time and effort are required to build prerequisite skills. Nobody—no matter how smart or talented—just sits down and achieves mastery. It takes many hours of study and practice. A gifted label is not enough. Resolve, resilience, and motivation are essential. (I discuss this in “Motivating Gifted Learners: Extending the Essentials”—a presentation for the October 2020 New Mexico Association for the Gifted Conference. A link is accessible on the Gifted Unlimited website.)
- Be informed. Gather information. Tap resources and support mechanisms, such as credentialed professionals, reliable published material and online sources, and reputable organizations and groups. Become knowledgeable about identification and labeling processes. (For example, see Chapter One, “Intelligences, IQ, Tests, and Assessments: What Do Parents Need to Know? What Should They Tell Their Kids?” [co-authored with Dona Matthews], in the NAGC book Success Strategies for Parenting Gifted Kids.) And find out about learning opportunities—that is, the best possible educational experiences—giving careful thought to individual needs and extenuating factors. (There are lots of tips in the article “How Children Learn” on the Roots of Action website.)
- Ensure a safe, dependable environment. As important as it is to determine the best educational match for each child, it is just as important that the home front be a safe haven. It should be a place where a child can relax, play, confide in family, be comfortable, find calm, and—if need be—wrestle with the challenges of giftedness. And, too, celebrate the joys! Home is where all kids should be able to focus on their strengths, bolster their vulnerabilities, pursue their chosen interests, feel accepted for who they are, and take pleasure and pride in developing their abilities. (In the articles “There’s No Place Like Home: Nurturing Children’s Emotional Well-Being and Learning [Plus Resources, Too]” and “Home-Based Schooling and Experiential Learning” [in First Time Parent Magazine], I focus on supportive approaches parents can take at home, especially during these COVID-related times.)
Pathways to exceptional achievement are diverse and complex. Gifted/high-level ability develops over time with appropriately scaffolded and challenging opportunities to learn. Parents are well positioned to help their child manage the label, understand giftedness, reconcile ups and downs, navigate day-to-day dynamics, and explore the richness of their learning accomplishments and developmental experiences. However, parents must also strive to acquire a true sense of what their child is feeling so as to be able to respond to it—sensitively, meaningfully, reassuringly, knowingly, and above all lovingly.
At the end of the day, a gifted label and the various lived experiences that transpire concomitantly are the child’s own to feel, reflect upon, and hopefully embrace. Parents can and should be ready to offer encouragement and support.
With all the above-noted points in mind, what follows is a brief introduction and a poem excerpted from the chapter “W is for Wondering and Well-Being” in ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids (published by Gifted Unlimited, LLC.) It is reprinted here with permission.
Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” That is as true now as it ever was.
A while ago I wrote a poem wherein I revealed the wistful, weighty, wishful, and occasionally worried words of children wrestling with a whirlwind of questions about giftedness. I share those words here. Together, let’s continue to seek the best possible answers.
They Tell Me I’m Gifted…
They tell me I’m gifted… What does this mean?
Is this something new, or have I always been?
They tell me I’m gifted… I’m not quite sure why.
But everyone thinks my “potential” is high.
They tell me I’m gifted… With increased understanding.
I wonder—will this make my life more demanding?
They tell me I’m gifted… Although I’m not sure
If it’s something I’m meant to enjoy or endure.
They tell me I’m gifted… It must be for real.
But it doesn’t explain all the things that I feel.
They tell me I’m gifted… I wish I were wise
‘Cause then I might know what the label implies.
They tell me I’m gifted… And if this is true
Does this signify I have more “gifts” than you?
They tell me I’m gifted… Who really knows?
Is it something unseen, or something that shows?
They tell me I’m gifted… Can this be outgrown?
What’s in my future? It’s all so unknown!
They tell me I’m gifted… Yet they don’t explain
If it’s all of me, or just a part of my brain.
They tell me I’m gifted… Is that a fact?
Do I have to change how I think, feel, and act?
They tell me I’m gifted… From whose point of view?
Does this mean that I am no longer like you?
They tell me I’m gifted… Could this be a blessing?
Who knows for sure, and who’s only guessing?
They tell me I’m gifted… What should I do now?
Do I shrug? Do I laugh? Do I cry? Do I bow?
They tell me I’m gifted… They say I’m unique.
Do I have to show strengths? Can’t I ever be weak?
They tell me I’m gifted… Now I’m in a jam.
Do they think I’m smarter than I really am?
They tell me I’m gifted… Is it destiny?
Controlled by what’s inside or outside of me?
They tell me I’m gifted… I think that means able.
I hope others know they should look past the label.
They tell me I’m gifted… What do I need?
Love and support that will help me succeed.
They tell me I’m gifted… And so it must be,
But I know deep inside that I’m still only me…
Joanne Foster, Ed.D.
For information about Dr. Joanne Foster’s work and her award-winning books, and for access to many articles and links, go to the Resources Page at www.joannefoster.ca. (COVID-related material is marked with a red asterisk.)