labelThe call to drop the label “gifted” is heard often, and from people with different views and opinions of giftedness and the gifted. Regardless of who is making the call, the reasoning behind it is almost always to benefit all children, even those most often labeled “gifted.” But while eliminating the label might be well-intentioned, it solves nothing. In fact is likely to create additional problems, particularly for gifted children.

How often do we read about this or that school system eliminating its gifted program or choosing to eliminate the word “gifted” from all their academic programming? Once is too often for me. But it happens over and over. We get various reasons for the elimination:

  1. Programming that is good for gifted kids is good for all kids.
  2. Programs need to be more inclusive.
  3. Labeling kids as “gifted”makes kids think they’re better than everyone else.
  4. “Giftedness” is fluid so removing the label avoids potential self-esteem issues.

The most appropriate response to each of those reasons is … nonsense!  But let me detail why each reason is nonsense.

1. Programming that is good for gifted kids is good for all kids.

What people usually mean when they give this reason for eliminating “gifted” from programming is that all children should be challenged, not just gifted children. But who would argue that some children should not be challenged? That’s nonsense. If regular programming doesn’t challenge non-gifted children, blame those who create the curriculum. If the curriculum for non-gifted children isn’t challenging enough for them, that’s an indictment of the regular programming. It means that the current curriculum is not providing what the majority of children need in the regular classroom.

First, fix the curriculum to provide the challenge that kids need. But don’t then assume that a curriculum that is challenging for non-gifted kids is going to be challenging for gifted children. It won’t be. Gifted kids need in-depth learning and a fast pace. They need fewer repetitions than other other kids, too. So a program designed specifically for gifted children would include lessons that move quickly, with information being repeated just one or two times, before the lesson moves on. Topics would be covered in depth so kids could explore topics in detail. How would such a program be good for non-gifted kids? If non-gifted children can keep up with the work in a program that is supposed to be for gifted kids, then the program isn’t really designed for gifted kids.

2. Programs need to be more inclusive.

What does it mean to be “more inclusive”? It means that more children should be included in special programming. Calling programs “gifted” limits which children would be eligible for the programming. Those who offer this rationale fear that some bright children might be missed and so might be left behind.

I consider this a nonsensical “throw it all on the wall and see what sticks” response. Let’s just assume that all children are potentially gifted, so we can treat all children exactly the same. Those who excel will then be considered for continued “special” services. This view is based on the false equivalence of achievement and ability, and it’s just an easy out to the problem of identifying children for gifted programs.

3. Labeling kids as “gifted” makes kids think they’re better than everyone else.

It is true that gifted kids can begin to see themselves as smarter than those with less ability. However, simply labeling a child as “gifted” isn’t going to make that happen. A label is just a word. Words are important and can lead to changes in behavior, but it’s not word itself that affects us; it’s the attitudes and emotions attached to the word that matter.

Use the term “high ability” instead and eventually the attitudes that were attached to the word “gifted” will just be transferred to that term. If people believe that the high ability students are the smart ones who get to do special things and are most likely to succeed, then that is what the children will believe, too.

Getting rid of labels altogether isn’t going to help either. Gifted children almost always know they are not like the other kids. They may not always understand why they are different, but they know they’re different. One of those differences is that they learn concepts more quickly. No one has to tell them that. For this reason, they can be just as likely to believe they are smarter than the other kids, even without the label “gifted.” To think otherwise is nonsense.

4. “Giftedness” is fluid so removing the label avoids potential self-esteem issues.

This excuse sounds good and seems reasonable, but it is absolute nonsense. Giftedness is not fluid. What’s fluid is which children end up in gifted programs. One year Jane may be eligible for the gifted program, but the next year, she isn’t. Was she gifted before but suddenly became “ungifted”? Some people do seem to believe that. For instance, the principal of an elementary school once told me that kids get dumber as they get older. (Yes, he actually said that – in those very words.) Some people also believe that because Johnny was not eligible one year for the gifted program but became eligible the next year, he suddenly became gifted. But what actually happened there? The eligibility of the children changed. The problem then is with the identification process, not the label.

Would it make a difference if we called the kids “high ability” kids? Wouldn’t they still have to be identified? Would their inherent abilities change because we used a different label or no label at all? Do children really get dumber as they get older?  It’s easier to believe that a child was not capable one year, but because his brain had another year to develop, he became more capable the next. That view, though, still does not adequately reflect what giftedness actually is.

No Solutions – Just More Problems

It should be clear that eliminating the word “gifted” from programming or eliminating special programming completely isn’t going to solve any of the problems they are meant to solve. Gifted children will still exist, no matter what we call them, and no matter what we call them, they will have the same traits and needs they have always had. We might make it easier to select children for special programs, but that doesn’t mean that the children selected will be the ones most in need special programming, nor does it mean that the programs will be designed to meet the needs of gifted children.

What it will do, however, is continue to promote a misunderstanding of what it means to be gifted. Misunderstandings never lead to solutions that work; they generally lead to more problems.

People need to understand that children are born gifted. Some studies have found that giftedness can be recognized in infants. How that giftedness is manifested throughout a child’s life depends on many factors, including her environment. That giftedness can be nurtured or it can be ignored. No matter what the response is to it, it’s there. It isn’t going to go away.

The best way to think of giftedness is to consider intelligence as a rubber band. Everyone is born with a rubber band, but the rubber bands come in different sizes. The goal should be to stretch each rubber band as much as possible. We do that by providing challenge. Those with larger rubber bands can be stretched more and so need more challenge. Without sufficient stretching, larger rubber bands can look to be about the same size as a medium rubber band that has been stretched. While they may look to be the same size, it’s clear that the larger rubber band remains different from the medium rubber band. A late bloomer is not a child who suddenly became gifted; it’s a child whose rubber band has finally been stretched so that others can recognize it as being different from the smaller rubber bands – or simply that the child has decided, for various reasons, not to let others see the full length of his rubber band.

Children who perform below their level of ability are the underachievers.  Without programming that challenges them, gifted children are at risk for underachievement. Children can become underachievers at an early age, before some programs even begin the identification process. If the identification process focuses on achievement, these children will be left out. And it is the underachiever, not the highly motivated high achiever who most needs the extra challenge and attention.

People also need to understand that while it’s true that the self-esteem of some children can be hurt if they are placed in the gifted program one year and then not in the next year, the problem won’t  be solved by removing the word “gifted” from programming. The same thing can happen if a child is in a program for “high ability” students one year, but not the next. Even many advocates of gifted education support the use of the term “high ability.” But it doesn’t solve any self-esteem issues of gifted kids who know they’re different and don’t get in a program. They are the misfits who feel out of place and feeling out of place is not exactly good for a child’s self-esteem.

Finally, people need to understand that giftedness includes more than academic ability. The term “high ability” focuses on the intellect, the academic aspect of giftedness and completely ignores the asynchronous development and various hypersensitivities, such as emotional sensitivity, typical of so many gifted children. The “gifted label” can actually be helpful in focusing on the whole child, not just the academic side. Rather than trying to get rid of it, we should be trying to help people understand it.

Carol BainbridgeAbout GiftednessEducationGifted Programs,Identification
The call to drop the label 'gifted' is heard often, and from people with different views and opinions of giftedness and the gifted. Regardless of who is making the call, the reasoning behind it is almost always to benefit all children, even those most often labeled 'gifted.' But while...