When it comes to gifted children, misconceptions abound. The impact is tremendous, and it is up to parents and educators to provide gifted children the support they need.
Three years into my teaching career, my department chair assigned me the most advanced level available to freshman: Honors English 9.
I was excited. Honors students were bright, engaged, and hard workers who thrived in the classroom environment. Most of the faculty assumed, as did I, that the students enrolled were gifted.
That assumption was incorrect.
Within weeks of working with the honors students, I discovered something. The term “honors” is not synonymous with gifted. The truly gifted children – the incredible thinkers and unconventional dreamers – were few and far between.
But I learned to pick them out.
They were the students whose essays showed brilliant insights – but only when they turned them in. They were the students whose observations turned discussion on its head – but only when they volunteered. They were the students whose faces showed indifference – but only when they hid the truth in their eyes.
The more I grappled with their presence in my classroom, the more I found myself writing them off as lazy, distracted, and defiant. It wasn’t until my oldest went to kindergarten that I finally understood.
The standard definition of a gifted child – one who excels in school – is not correct.
You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means
Let’s say it’s 2 PM. You’re out running errands and, feeling rather hobbit-like, you stop at the local coffee shop for a respite. You’ve been craving an apple – a Gala, to be exact – and its stippled exterior has been calling to you for some time.
You pull open the door, smiling at the large stack of fruit by the counter. Oranges, bananas, pears – but no apples. At least not that you can see.
The barista behind the counter smiles. She tells you yes, they have plenty of apples, and promises to grab one for you after she preps your chai.
Satisfied, you swipe your card at the reader. The barista places a steaming, spicy cup in front of you.
And then, she hands you an orange.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I asked for an apple.”
“Yep! That’s the best one we’ve got.” She grins, tapping it lovingly.
Confused, you begin to protest. “But, this isn’t an apple.”
“Of course it is!”
“No, it’s not. This is an orange. Look”
You pick up the fruit, peel away the outer layer, and pull the sections in two. You lay the fruit on the counter, certain the barista will finally agree with you.
But she doesn’t.
“What do you mean it’s not an apple? Look – it’s got a peel, those little seeds on the inside, and nice, juicy flesh.”
The barista turns to her colleague, gesturing wildly.
“Hey, Manny! This gal says I gave her an orange. This is clearly an apple, right?”
Manny walks over, beefy hands clutching a white dishtowel. He drops the towel on the counter, then surveys the dissected orange.
“Oh yeah,” he says, poking it. “Best looking apple I’ve seen in a long time.” He turns to the sink and starts to wash his hands.
“Mind if I take a bite? If you ain’t gonna eat it, of course.”
It seems like a scene from The Twilight Zone. But for gifted children and their families, it’s an all too common occurrence. Like the students I encountered when I taught Honors 9, gifted children are subject to a variety of misconceptions with truly negative results.
Misconceptions of gifted children
Gifted children are perfect students
Gifted children can excel in school, and many do. But gifted children also struggle, attempting to survive in a morass of asynchronicity, sensitivities, and excitabilities that challenge their ability to access the curriculum. Often, gifted children can be more disruptive than their peers, acting out out of frustration, boredom, or social-emotional delay.
Gifted children are role models
Gifted children are not built-in tutors. They may excel in a variety of disciplines, but that does not mean they are equipped to lead or teach the other students in the class. Expecting a gifted child to inspire her classmates adds fuel to a smoldering fire: intellectual capacity does not equal emotional maturity, and equating the two has disastrous results.
Gifted children don’t need help
This misconception assumes gifted children do best if left to their own devices. A gifted child is just like any other. He needs love, guidance, and support to grow into the person he is meant to become.
Gifted children are happy and well-adjusted
The emotional toll of giftedness is strong, and the rate of depression and anxiety in gifted children is significantly higher than that of their peers.
Gifted children don’t have disabilities
Actually, they do, and it’s called twice exceptionality. High intellectual ability can come with a variety of diagnoses, from Autism Spectrum Disorders to dyslexia and ADD/ADHD. Ignoring or denying the reality of disabilities in gifted children complicates their ability to access a given curriculum.
Gifted children don’t struggle
Being gifted isn’t a free pass. One of my daughters excels in reading; her first grade sister still can’t read basic sight words. When certain concepts and ideas come fluidly, facing a challenge can be twice as difficult. Expecting the child to suddenly overcome such challenges is unrealistic and unfair.
No matter a child’s intellectual capacity, a child is still a child. Labeling and categorizing according to assumptions does no one any favors – not the teachers, not the parents, and especially not the child herself. We would do better, I think, to acknowledge giftedness for what it is – a special need which, like any other, requires due attention and appropriate support. Gifted children are just as likely to slip through the cracks as any other child in an academic setting. It’s up to us to provide them with safety net they need.