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The Importance of Gifted Identification

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I write this in response to a valid question from a reader: “Is a gifted kid better off if they are told that they are gifted or if they figure it out themselves?”

Gifted kids know something is up; others have written about gifted identity development in a way that parallels racial identity development. If you are in a minority for any reason, it is helpful to know what challenges and assets you have. Identification is often a first step for finding true peers and engaging mentors.

I asked one of my favorite clients ever, a seven year old significantly gifted boy, “Is it fun to be you?” He responded glumly “I don’t like how my mind works. It is like there are a thousand train cars that need to pass through, and I can’t focus on just one.” He knew that something was happening, and he was not figuring it out on his own.

I value self-discovery, and I would like kids to have support as they discover how they are different. I was selected for a specialized class in fourth and fifth grade, a stand-alone gifted program in a public school system. Although immensely grateful for those two years, I know I could have benefited from even more. I wish I would have had a competent, caring adult ask “What is it like to be you?”  I had a loving family and competent teachers. I was identified as gifted, and I still needed more. I wanted acceptance, to be known, to explore how some interactions with classmates were challenging for me and why. My father provided consistent intervention of telling me “Don’t be an a**hole”, but nobody explored with me what abilities and propensities led me there in the first place.

Gifted kids may face bullying because of difference.  This difference may include asynchronous social-emotional development, either advanced or delayed, that causes them to stick out and become targets. It may include such an optimistic sense of what is possible that the meanness of children is confusing to them. The result of being targeted, whether for precocity or challenge, can be confusion and isolation. Gifted anger, gifted passive aggression, and gifted hurt feelings show up in both subtle and strong ways.  A gifted kid’s family may benefit from understanding their intensity. I say this knowing that some people do not benefit from school programs that identify them and only give additional worksheets. Some families don’t fully understand and support their children. Whether the resources available to a gifted child are abundant or limited, I would want that child to know who they are and what they are facing.


{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Tiffany April 9, 2013, 11:37 am

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, but want to point out a flipside to the identification issue. Like you, I was identified gifted in school (7th grade in my case). It was the 70s and gifted education was relatively new and perhaps it’s handled more gracefully now (though given my children’s experiences in public school, I suspect not), but the teachers and administration effectively destroyed any hope we might have had of integrating with non-gifted students. Virtually every interaction involved them differentiating us from our peers in one way or another and telling us how different we were. I am sure that this was in an effort to address exactly the kind of issues you raise, but the net impact for most of us was a wall between us and the “normal” kids that persisted throughout high school and even into later life.

    And, of course, though gifted kids do think and operate differently from other kids, they differ from one another, too–as do non-gifted kids. It isn’t as if the label fits them into a category in which they’ll automatically identify and find others who think and process the way they do.

    In my mind, it’s much better for our kids and all kids to teach them that every human being is different in some ways and that’s okay (good,even) without the need for a diagnosis to justify it.

    • byamtich April 9, 2013, 11:48 am

      Hi Tiffany,

      I especially value your point that being placed in a classroom does not guarantee finding others who think and process in a similar way. I remember being the odd kid in the gifted classroom, so they couldn’t double-filter for me.

      I struggle with diagnosis. I want self-understanding, I want to understand what comes easily and what requires extra effort. I don’t want to use diagnosis as an excuse or a limitation.

      I tell a lot of families, no matter how their child functions academically, they will want them to have the social-emotional skills to join a soccer or basketball team.

      We have to doubly guard against elitism and victim complexes. In fourth and fifth grade, the teams from my class won the sporting events.

      I envision acknowledging difference as a step towards fully accepting it.

      Thanks for your comment,

  • Kristin (@StrawberryTech) April 9, 2013, 12:03 pm

    I was never identified…I instead got in trouble, sent to the desert, and then 15 years later dug up the test results given at that facility and saw how ahead I had once been. I got in trouble for teachers thinking I was cheating, for drawing. It was heartbreaking to not realize it until I was a parent myself and almost 30.

    • byamtich April 9, 2013, 12:57 pm

      Hi Kristin,

      It almost isn’t that key what details they identified as it is tragic that you were so misunderstood. I wish there was more acceptance for people wanting to focus on their own projects. I will remember to counsel people in education to look out for the kids who are getting in trouble. There is likely a reason, either an internal or an external situation that requires more understanding or attention.

      One benefit of the effort to identify and support gifted kids is that they won’t have to wait until they are parents to understand themselves.


  • Geoff McNeely April 9, 2013, 12:30 pm

    I think an equally valid angle to consider here is the outlier effect. I recall reading a couple years ago about how even though most gifted kids are in the top 2% from an IQ standpoint, if you plot them on a scatter graph they are almost never around others like them. To think you are supposed to “be like everyone else” when you think so differently can have massive impact on social and emotional development.

    So I think letting them know why they aren’t fitting in is important, and encourage them to learn about their unique expressions, and how they may learn to have more empathy for the “normal kids” who don’t think like them at all.

    I was a “gifted kid” in the late 70s/early 80s and I forgot that once I assimilated. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I was able to revisit my experience and find areas where my “gifts” let me down. For example, I was natural at math. Until it got hard. I had NEVER had to try, so I never “learned” study habits – I just figured it out. Once it got too hard I felt like I was somehow at fault. I never knew that I could also be taught to learn. And instead of learning I developed an aversion to things that I didn’t immediately understand. Had any teacher or adult identified this, and how it was playing out through me, I may have had a completely different result from my childhood. But as it stood, it took me another two decades to actually learn how to learn.

    So I think it’s not just identification, but helping each student to understand how they are unique and that they will have weaker areas that will need nurturing. It may not look like the normal kids’ routines, but it will have as powerful an impact. My 2 cents. Thanks for sharing!

  • byamtich April 9, 2013, 1:01 pm

    Hi Geoff,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate your pointing to the outlier effect. IQ does not explain the full uniqueness of anybody. I also enjoy your phrase “learning about their unique expressions.” It reminds me of my goal to embrace my ridiculousness.

    I shared an aversion to things I didn’t immediately understand, but it was complicated by a fascination of what I didn’t yet know. I have been both cowardly and brave, at different times, in different domains of my life.

    We do well to help youngsters face what is hard, even what is hard within themselves.


  • Adrienne Doolan April 9, 2013, 11:39 pm

    I so hear the author. I have a gifted 11 year old son and I know we are not doing the best for him. We are doing the best with what we have, but I know this is not enough. We are living in Dubai and I have posted everywhere to try to find like minded children, but to no avail and I know he is not the only gifted kid in Dubai. I feel very frustrated at times as I know he needs to be surrounded by like minded people. Thankfully he has his computer.

  • byamtich April 10, 2013, 6:01 am

    Hi Adrienne,

    I bet your advocacy in Dubai will serve not only your son, but the true peers you find for him. Yes, the computer can be a consolation. Do you talk to him about how he does or does not have fun with the kids he knows? It’s sad to have limited resources, but only made tragic if a kid can’t receive understanding and validation.

    glad to chat more,

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