What is the impact when they realize how much they differ from peers, but can't quite make sense of what it all means?
What transpires when adults witness these children's intellectual and social/emotional differences, but refuse to give voice to what they see right in front of them?
Whether resistance to identification arises from doubts about the evaluation process, philosophical views about giftedness, biases, ignorance, or concerns about the gifted label, gifted children may be labeled (with something) nonetheless. Without an accurate and informative term that conveys an understanding of giftedness, though, they are more vulnerable to incidents of misidentification and misdiagnoses.
An accurate label, a clear explanation, and ongoing guidance about what it means to be gifted will help gifted children adapt. It also conveys essential information, clarity and a framework for understanding giftedness for adults who are teaching and caring for these children.
Yet, there is resistance to this simple concept of identification, and to using the gifted label.
Some propose that gifted children should not be told that they are smart, and imply that conveying information about their abilities is equivalent to praising them for their innate talents. Others claim that "all children are gifted" or that identifying a child as gifted will create a "fixed mindset," or cause an array of psychological problems.
Even when not formally identified, though, gifted children stand out from the crowd and become targets for labeling. Children may taunt them with names such as nerd, geek, or smart-a**, because of social immaturity (i.e., asynchrony) or innate differences or just plain smarts. They may be ostracized or bullied because of their differences unless they learn how to fit in.
If gifted children's behaviors already gain notice (and invite inaccurate labeling), what is the harm in providing an accurate label?
Why not embrace use of an informative, descriptive and accurate label that can aid adults who educate, treat and nurture these children?
Barriers to identification
Resistance to identification may stem from concerns about elitism, equity, upsetting district parents, or opposition to use of the gifted word. Many find the actual gifted word offensive, since it implies having a gift. But whether you use the gifted word or a different one, students' needs still must be addressed. Misconceptions are sometimes based upon personal opinions or biases among educators and parents, or occasional anecdotal reports from gifted adults who claimed that being gifted caused emotional distress. Eager to justify elimination of gifted services, these reports are targeted to suggest that gifted identification might produce long-lasting scars.
Sometimes resistance may result from inadequate training in gifted education. Some educators and other professionals don't understand gifted children's unique learning needs and potential. Gifted students' abilities are conflated with those of high achievers, and their performance is tied to test scores. Their social and emotional traits may be viewed from within a psychiatric framework rather than an understanding of asynchrony, neuroatypical development or overexcitabilities.
Would school staff refuse to identify (and offer services to) a child with dyslexia because it might hurt her feelings?
Would a pediatrician refuse to diagnose a medical problem because it might upset the child or parent?
Would a school (get away with) a refusal to evaluate a child with a suspected learning disability because the school had inadequate teaching resources?
Would school administration refuse to implement a highly effective educational strategy for at-risk, low-performing students because other vocal parents don't "believe" these kids have such needs?
Of course, the above situations seem far-fetched. But comparable decisions occur with striking frequency for gifted children and their families. While some might argue that the above examples represent "real problems" and giftedness is an advantage, those who understand the needs of gifted children are well aware of the stressors and potential difficulties that can arise when their education is shortchanged.
Let's put these misconceptions to rest.
As a psychologist, it is clear to me that diagnosis informs intervention. That does not necessarily mean reliance on formal DSM-V categories. But understanding the root cause of one's behaviors is essential to knowing how to help.
If we deny gifted children the same consideration, and refuse to define giftedness, they will be misidentified, misdiagnosed, and may never receive the education, intervention, or services they desperately need.
Whether you call it underidentification, misidentification, or just ignoring the obvious, refusal to identify gifted children creates problems. Here are a few:
1. Misidentification is deceptive.
Gifted children are smart enough to know they are different from their neurotypical peers. No one has to tell them. They realize it on their own. Often there is a defining moment when they recognize that they "get it" in ways their peers may never fully grasp. They learn at a faster pace, and with greater depth and complexity. They are highly sensitive and preoccupied with injustices and existential concerns. Their worries, thoughts and interests are just, well, different.
Telling a gifted child that he is like all the other kids, that his mind works the same way, and that he just needs to try harder to fit in, is dishonest. You might wish it were true. Your child might even want to be "average." But denying the truth won't help you, your child, or anyone else who has to work, teach, play or interact with him. It also leaves your child feeling confused. He knows he is different, and gets feedback about this every day. Yet, the overt messages he receives tell him to ignore and deny his own perceptions. This level of denial is a set-up for self-doubt and the development of distrust toward others.
2. Misidentification compounds emotional struggles
When gifted children realize they are gifted (regardless of whether they are labeled), they initially may feel pride and excitement. But sometimes they experience confusion, embarrassment or even guilt. They may not feel "entitled" to their passion for learning, and feel guilty when they easily complete assignments and their friends struggle. They may feel ashamed about their heightened sensitivities - not understanding why they react so strongly to perceived injustice.
When adults refuse to explain giftedness to gifted children, they deprive them of a context and framework for understanding their intense emotional reactivity, their real differences from peers and how they approach learning. Parents, physicians, and teachers help children understand, for example, what it means to be depressed, to have dyslexia, or to experience overwhelming shyness. Pretending these conditions do not exist would prevent children from understanding what is happening to them, and from access to interventions that help to manage their differences or struggles. Why would we deprive gifted children of the same understanding and intervention?
3. Misidentification perpetuates stereotypes
We all hold conscious and unconscious biases and prejudices. Gifted children's talents invite projections of envy, bitterness, and false beliefs about the nature of their abilities. Some characterize gifted children as privileged rather than acknowledging their learning needs. Many seemingly logical people will fall prey to false beliefs and misunderstandings. How often have you heard the following?
I don't believe in giftedness - all children have the same potential if we just find the right tools to educate and encourage them.
Gifted children are merely bright students who are high achievers, or whose wealthy parents provided enrichment opportunities to help them get ahead.
If we give gifted children extra help, it will deprive other kids of the education they need. It's just not fair.
Refusing to identify gifted children and accurately label their abilities creates a culture of denial about talents and educational needs. If we can't give it a name, we can't adequately address it. Until we recognize that giftedness must be understood and served within the educational system, gifted children's emotional and academic needs will suffer. And they will continue to receive misdiagnoses and inaccurate labels.
Let's give it a name
Misidentification and denial are not the answer. We know that there are intellectual and social/emotional traits that must be addressed when raising, educating and treating gifted children. It is misguided to assume that keeping children in the dark about their giftedness is beneficial. Or that adults should ignore their educational needs. If parents and teachers are concerned that gifted children will not understand or respond appropriately to a gifted label, there are tools for explaining giftedness to them. If teachers lack sufficient training, additional education is available. And parents can continue their efforts to educate other adults among their circle of friends, family and community.
Otherwise, gifted children will continue to be misdiagnosed, overlooked and misunderstood.
This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education blog hop on The Misdiagnosis Initiative. To read more blogs, click on: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_misdiagnosis_initiative.htm