Feb 27, 2024

Myths about giftedness

Our society is quick to recognize and support athletic or artistic talent. But we have a troubled relationship with intellectual talent. Schools are based on a factory model – assuming all kids of a certain age are ready to learn the same things at the same pace and in the same way. Even in recent years when more attention is paid to inclusion and differentiation, programs are still largely built for those in the middle. The further a child is from the middle, the harder it is for typical programs meet their needs. 

Teacher training programs typically offer little or no training for teachers and administrators in recognizing and meeting the very real needs of gifted students.  And as a result, well-meaning educators can operate based on myths about giftedness that are not only untrue, but can also be damaging. 

My own experience as a gifted student as well as the 35 years I have spent as an educator of gifted children have demonstrated that these myths are just as alive and well today as they were when I started doing this work in the 80s, and when I was one of those kids in the 60s and 70s.

Here are just a few of the myths I continue to encounter when interacting with parents and educators around meeting the needs of their gifted kids:

  • If you aren’t getting good grades, you must not be gifted.  Being gifted is a person-thing, not a school thing.  Being gifted is who you are, not what you produce.  In the words of Annemarie Roeper, founder of the Roeper School, the first school in the country for gifted students, giftedness is “a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and to transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.
  • Gifted kids can learn without support.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher told me that I qualified for the gifted program, but that there wasn’t an actual program.  So, I was instructed to write two research reports that no one else had to write.  There was no guidance or support. Just pick a topic, research it, and write about it.  I wasn’t born knowing how to do research. I also didn’t enjoy writing research papers. Having to write those papers was not only a chore I hated rather than the opportunity to explore a passion, but it also made me feel isolated and different.  Later, when I had teachers who challenged and supported me, I found the inspiration and engagement that the writing those reports didn’t provide.
  • Being with other gifted kids will socially stunt them.  Gifted kids can be as socially advanced as they are intellectually advanced.  Or they may be quirky and socially awkward.  The more highly gifted a child is, the bigger the gap between the world they experience and what typical kids their age see.  Navigating that gap can be challenging and some gifted kids are better at it than others.  Gifted kids may be highly empathetic or have a strong desire for justice that may make the ups and downs of school more intense. As a result, gifted kids may gravitate to adults rather than other kids because that is where they find someone who gets their silly puns or will listen to everything they know about the solar system. Numerous studies have found that when gifted kids get to learn and grow with intellectual peers – those who get them intellectually but who are also developmentally in a similar place, they have the best chance of developing strong social relationships, being emotionally supported, and developing their intellectual and academic talents. 
  • Gifted kids are good at everything and if not, they aren’t really gifted. Like all people, gifted individuals are not typically equally gifted in every area. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Gifted kids are no different. They may be more gifted in spatial than verbal reasoning, or the opposite may be true. They also may be more intellectually advanced than academically skilled. This is especially true if they have not been sufficiently challenged or if they have a learning difference such as ADHD, ASD or dyslexia in addition to being gifted. Giftedness and academic success can be related – but aren’t always. When gifted kids are intellectually challenged and can learn and grow with intellectual as well as age peers, they can show growth in both their areas of strength and the areas that are more challenging for them. 
  • Gifted kids need to do the same work as everyone else – and then more work when they finish early. Gifted kids don’t need more work – they need different work. While typical kids need more time to develop a basic knowledge base, gifted students quickly assimilate information and are ready for higher level thinking much earlier. They need work that challenges them to make comparisons, problem-solve, apply the knowledge they have gained to novel situations, and synthesize information to find core truths. They need this work in place of work that doesn’t add new content or skills to what they already know and can do. It’s ok to trust them when they demonstrate that they have already mastered basic information and move on to more complex, deeper levels of reasoning.
  • Gifted kids are either “easy” students ­– or they all have challenging behaviors.  It’s true that some gifted students cope with programs that aren’t designed to meet their needs by going “underground” and hiding their abilities. They can be the student who does every assignment beautifully, but who might show you privately – if asked – that they have a much deeper understanding or deeper insights than they share among classmates. These students are typically invested in academic success and are willing to do whatever it takes to get good grades. But that is often at the cost of learning to take the academic risks. Other gifted students who crave engagement and are less able to mask their frustration when they don’t get it may manage their feelings by acting out. They may create the novelty and challenge they seek by making games more complicated or by manipulating others into following their lead. In the case of twice-exceptional students (students who are gifted and have one or more additional learning differences), they may not be able to mask their frustration when they have a deep intellectual understanding but lack the academic or social skills to be able to show what they understand. Challenging behavior can be the way they communicate a deep sense of frustration.

Gifted students need programs that meet their intellectual, academic, social and emotional needs.  They need opportunities to stretch their thinking and to develop the confidence to take on the things that don’t come easily to them.  They need peers and teachers who understand them and create an environment that allows them fully to be themselves.  They need adults around them who can help them navigate their big feelings, sensitivity, and intensity. Gifted kids develop asynchronously – their intellectual, academic, social, emotional, developmental and physical ages can be dramatically different, creating frustration when they can imagine things their hands can’t yet create or intellectually understand situations they aren’t emotionally ready for. 

The myths about gifted children lead to too many school programs where they either lack engagement, feel isolated, or end up being used as unpaid tutors for other students. As a parent, it is important that you educate yourself on the needs of your gifted child and then seek out educators and other supportive adults who can provide your child with the intellectual, academic, social and emotional support they need and deserve. Your gifted child deserves what all kids deserve – the chance to learn, be understood, and be supported by adults who recognize and can meet their needs, and the opportunity to learn something new at school every day.

Sandi Wollum, Seabury head of school

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