What Do You Say to Gifted Children?

January 23, 2007

Being in a school environment that does not understand, support, or value giftedness is frustrating for many gifted children and teens.

Recently, you may have seen a story in the news about a 12-year-old boy attending college in California. News media across the country reported on this impressive child and his need and desire to attend college at a young age. Some journalists presented the positive aspects of this child and his abilities, but others poked fun at him and made negative comments. “Why isn’t he out there playing soccer like ‘normal’ kids?” one asked rhetorically, assuming that the child has no friends and spends all day studying, probably alone. Others suggested that he doesn’t belong in college and that he will experience problems as a result. These reporters demonstrated a lack of understanding of giftedness and disregard for the child and his needs.  Of course, not all children are ready to start college at twelve, but these negative comments illustrate some of the pervasive misconceptions the general public has about giftedness. Perpetuating these myths can negatively impact the day-to-day experiences of a gifted child by disrespecting an important part of who that child is—his or her giftedness—and creating barriers to appropriate educational settings.

Being in a school environment that does not understand, support, or value giftedness is frustrating for many gifted children and teens.  With the help of several high school students, we have collected comments made to or about gifted students to demonstrate the impact these myths and negative assumptions can have.

Sometimes, those making negative comments are unaware of the misconceptions driving their remarks and the negative effects of their words. For example, a student, who had already mastered the basic ninth-grade science course content in middle school, asked to take an advanced science course instead.  The school counselor denied the request stating, “We’ve had smarter kids than you come through our school.”  Whether or not smarter children have attended the school is irrelevant to meeting this student’s educational needs. The student did not ask for a more challenging class to prove he was the smartest student the school had ever seen; rather, he was facing a dilemma many gifted students face in school—finding appropriately challenging courses that provide opportunities to learn new and exciting information. Gifted students will say again and again that reviewing the same material takes the fun and excitement out of education. The science teacher supported the counselor’s decision and attempted to convince the student to take her course by saying, “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to take my class; it’s easy!” After being denied the class change, the student requested to be allowed to take the advanced course in addition to the basic class. This was met with the question, “Why would you want to take twoscience courses?” Both of these comments disregarded this youth’s interest in science and his desire to acquire knowledge and learn new concepts. He was frustrated about wasting a semester in which he would learn nothing new and would risk being labeled as an underachiever, who is not fulfilling his potential. The student was left feeling angry and distrustful about whether educators really have students’ best interest in mind.

Another example is an administrator’s congratulatory letter to a gifted student who won a national award at an academic competition. Within the brief letter, the administrator wrote, “Congratulations. The honors just keep rolling in for you.” The disparaging assumption that gifted children do not have to work hard to excel underlies his comment. The phrase “just keep rolling in” dismisses the tremendous effort the student put forth to compete nationally and achieve top honors.  Similarly, following a feature on the SAT college entrance exam, a radio commentator declared that the “lucky students got a perfect score on the SAT.” A caller chastised the host, “Lucky students? How about bright, brilliant, or even exceptional?!” Students who achieve perfect scores on the SAT or ACT, win state or national competitions, and garner awards for excellence in a field of study do not do so because they are lucky. A double standard is clearly evident if we examine what that same administrator might have written to a team or an individual player after claiming the state football title. Hard work, time, effort, and dedication would have been praised, and it is unlikely that the letter would have mentioned that the “championships just keep rolling in.”  Somehow, a gifted student’s dedication to improve his or her abilities in the pursuit of excellence is dismissed in favor of the myth that gifted children do not have to put forth any effort to receive honors. Although it may be true that a gifted student in a class with typical grade-level curriculum (which is frequently a poor match) can often get high grades without effort, the same gifted student must put forth effort to achieve success when appropriately placed with challenging coursework.

When given the opportunity, many gifted children and teens will say that being gifted is difficult when it is not valued by teachers or peers. Disparaging comments like those in this article do not help gifted students feel good about themselves, their abilities, or their efforts.

Paradoxically, gifted students’ educational needs arise from their strengths, which makes their needs less visible. Teachers and administrators may perceive accommodations for a gifted student as unnecessary, because he or she is “doing fine.” After all, they contend, the student is getting an A. However the student’s real need—for more challenge—remains unseen. Furthermore, when myths and misconceptions permeate others’ views of giftedness, gifted students feel disrespected. Without support, they feel discouraged and will not pursue rigorous curricula, accept reasonable challenges, or strive for excellence.

Remember the twelve year old? Would he be in college if others had not recognized his abilities and supported him? Probably not. Gifted children, perhaps even more than other children, need to hear positive messages of encouragement and validation of who they are and what they choose. When parents and teachers show respect for gifted learners and understand their needs, they communicate acceptance. This message allows gifted children to feel better about themselves and motivates them to seek the rigorous, challenging material they need to thrive. With care and understanding, adults can send positive messages that will help gifted children soar.

Negative Messages
Dont’ say…
Affirming Messages
Do say…

“The good grades and awards just keep rolling in for you”

“The studying and your stick-to-it attitude paid off.”
“If you have to ask that question, then maybe you shouldn’t be in this class.” “We have to move on right now. Please stop by and see me after class so we can discuss it. I’m always available to help.”
“Quit pushing yourself so hard. You should just be a kid.” “Go for it! Let’s review your career goals and post-secondary plans to see what makes the most sense.”
“We’ve had smarter kids than you come through our school.” “You’re smart, motivated, and hard working. Let’s find a way to demonstrate that you’ve already mastered the course content.”
“Why do you do all those things? Why do you push yourself so hard?” “GREAT JOB! Your work in academics, community service, and extra-curricular activities is commendable!”
“I see you read a lot. Do you have any friends?” “What are some of your interests outside of school?”
“This class is entirely too loud—and you are supposed to be the smart ones!” “You are too loud, please lower the noise level.”
All students in my class are gifted.” “All students are special.”

Edward R. Amend, Psy.D., Maggie Clouse, and Meredith Clouse

This article was adapted from a Poster Presentation by the authors at the 53rd National Association for Gifted Children Annual Convention in Charlotte, NC (November 2006) and has been published in the Digest of Gifted Research at Duke University.

Edward Amend is a clinical psychologist and author in Lexington, Kentucky, where he specializes in the needs of gifted and talented individuals and their families. Maggie and Meredith Clouse are high school students who garner recognition for their accomplishments and community service in south central Kentucky.