“Gifted” can be somewhat of a loaded term in education because it implies that some kids are better than others. While it is true that kids can have strengths and areas for improvement, when educators talk about “gifted,” they do often mean adhering to a certain set of criteria, which can vary by school district but often includes above average intelligence or ability in at least one area, and (not or) several other criteria. There are many myths about being gifted and what gifted kids need. Whether you have a gifted child, were one, or know one, these myths are important to dispel.
Myth: Every child is gifted
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Gifted is not a measure of value. Julie Skolnick, founder of With Understanding Comes Calm and author of the upcoming book Gifted and Distractible: Understanding, Supporting, and Advocating for Your Twice Exceptional Child says that when she hears someone say, “all children have gifts” to indicate that gifted programs and services aren’t necessary, it “means they don’t understand what gifted means.” She says, “While all children do have gifts, not all children are gifted.”
The difference between a child with a gift for, say, music or soccer or even math, and a gifted child is that they have “exceptionalities, a deeper view of the world,” Skolnick says. They might have more “why” questions than the average child and may have existential dread or wonder. They are also more likely to be sensitive to stimuli or the emotions of others. Simply being good at something doesn’t make someone gifted.
Myth: Gifted kids are just smart
While many gifted kids are placed in a gifted program due to a higher than average IQ or test scores (both of which are problematic measures of intelligence for various reasons, including equity), Skolnick says that, while someone neurotypical thinks linearly, a gifted person has a “hurricane mind” with “a million different things running through it based on what they’ve read or seen or care about.” Accelerating a child labeled gifted is not enough. Any child can be above grade level, but gifted kids need differentiated instruction specific to their individual needs. In other words, gifted students need deeper work, not more work.
Myth: They’re accelerated across the board
Many gifted kids are advanced for their grade across the board. But many are advanced in one or two subjects but not everything. A child can be a gifted math student and struggle with reading or simply be in the median of their peers.
Myth: They’re all good students
Skolnick says gifted kids sometimes fit the profile of the “absentminded professor” in that they are brilliant but disorganized. Many gifted kids are able to be successful in school, but if they are not given the appropriate differentiation and support, gifted students are also very likely to receive poor grades or drop out. Skolnick says gifted students are “learning to learn,” not to turn in work. They’re “lost in the action of learning, not producing.” Also, if a gifted student doesn’t know the “why” of an assignment, they may not feel the need to complete it according to the directions.
Myth: They don’t need special education services
While gifted kids can be twice exceptional (or 2e), meaning they are gifted and have a diagnosis or learning difference that requires special services, a child who is gifted without another need for special ed still needs special education support. Gifted kids may be different because they need acceleration, but they might also need emotional support to help them live in a world in which the way they think is not the norm.
Myth: They should teach the other students
Educators sometimes get confused by the methodology of teaching, such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, which indicates that being able to show your understanding, such as doing a presentation of facts or teaching others, proves learning. While performance assessments like these can be beneficial to all students, gifted students are often told that if they already understand the material in class, then a good use of their time is to teach the other kids. Skolnick says, “Teaching others doesn’t help you learn unless you want to be a teacher.”
Myth: Being gifted is an advantage, not a struggle
While gifted children may see the world in weird and wonderful ways, having a different neurotype can create social and emotional struggles. Skolnick says her least favorite myth about gifted kids is that “they don’t realize they’re different from others.” Gifted kids often have trouble relating to peers and are more likely to have mental illnesses like depression due to these struggles and being able to think deeply about the often scary state of the world.
Myth: Gifted kids are more likely to be male and/or white and/or wealthy
If you take the demographics from gifted programs, you will see more male and white students who are of a higher socioeconomic status than female students and students of color. However, Skolnick says, “Giftedness occurs in the same percentage across age, race, gender, and culture.” The testing for gifted programs is biased toward male and/or white students and does not identify the nuances of giftedness that can occur in students who fall outside of this subsection. Those who say gifted programs should be eliminated because they only serve the elite should instead be fighting for more equitable gifted identification.
Myth: Kids can become gifted with hard work and/or parental involvement
Kids can become better students with hard work and/or parental involvement, but giftedness is genetic. Kids are born with giftedness or not. Often the parents of gifted kids are also gifted, but not exclusively. Thinking parents must be pushing to make kids gifted “puts so much pressure on the parents,” says Skolnick. Instead it is innate.
Myth: Gifted kids become successful adults
Unfortunately, the success of an adult is not a given, even with every educational opportunity. “The trend I’ve noticed among my peers—particularly girls and women—is that they become overwhelmed by internal and external expectations and reach burnout, or lean on substances or other addictive behaviors in an effort to avoid it,” says Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, editor of Gifted-Ish: Women and Non-binary Writers on Intelligence, Identity and Education, an anthology of essays about growing up with the “gifted” label, forthcoming this fall from McFarland.
For gifted kids, the pressure to be something extraordinary can backfire. “With that kind of messaging, students become gifted underachievers,” Skolnick says. This is partially because of the mental health ramifications of pushing gifted kids to succeed, but also, when adults constantly tell a kid they’re smart, “when they struggle, they think something’s wrong with them, that they’re not meeting their potential,” Skolnick says. Instead of asking for help, they assume they have to know everything on their own.
What gifted kids need
If not just acceleration and not being praised for their smarts, what do gifted kids need? “Growth mindset,” Phillips says. “It’s important not to place too much emphasis on ‘intelligence,’ something we don’t even really know how to define or measure well, especially when our identities are developing. We should encourage gifted kids and adults to find ways to fail safely and always keep learning because that’s not weakness, it’s growth, and that’s human.”
“Teachers have to be really hyper aware and really listen to their audience (students),” Skolnick says, to check for understanding beyond, “are you with us?” On a larger scale, “While there are some areas of consensus, students have varied experiences depending on where they go to school, what tests they take, who determines their ‘giftedness,’ and the supports they may or may not have outside school,” Phillips says, so a more streamlined and diverse set of measures to determine giftedness and meet students’ needs is necessary.
Teachers and caregivers need to look at the whole child, including the social emotional struggles that might be unique to a gifted child. Gifted kids thrive when given opportunities to be around other gifted students—kids who think like them, and who can work and learn the way they do.