Debunking the Developmental Myths Surrounding Gifted Students

The gifted must frequently combat myths held about them by teachers, parents, peers, administrators, and even by themselves. Debunking these myths is essential to the well-being of gifted students. Left in place, these misconceptions may do needless and lasting harm to the social and emotional development of gifted children, whereas debunking them can create many enriching opportunities, both academically and in the realm of personal insight.

          The following list describes many of the most common myths surrounding gifted children, provided for the reference of gifted students and their parents and educators in the hope that they might more easily overcome the hurdles these misconceptions present:

          Myth 1: Gifted children should only have peers of a similar age. Gifted children are often drawn to people older than themselves when seeking friends, and this is frequently discouraged as parents do not want their children becoming victim to exploitation, intimidation, or losing their innocence too soon via exposure to sexuality.

          While this idea has a lot of popular support, particularly among those who champion educational models that emphasize enrichment over acceleration, in reality, research simply does not support it. In fact, gifted students require the presence of their intellectual peers in order to develop to their fullest potential.

          This is not to say that gifted students have nothing to gain from their same-age peers; they do, of course, but making fear-based decisions about who they should or should not be permitted to associate with based purely on age is a needless limitation.

          Myth 2: Gifted children should only have classmates of a similar age, with a range of ability levels. Another popular concept suggests that if gifted children are clustered together, rather than being mixed into heterogeneous, “normal” classroom environments, they will grow up unable to get along with people who are not like themselves.

          The idea that such environments are required for students to become socially astute is, however, unsubstantiated; no research supports this claim. One must keep in mind that classrooms are far from being the only place a child socializes (and truly, one is not supposed to be in class to socialize per se); there are plentiful clubs, church groups, extra-curricular activities, camps, etc., all of which provide many opportunities for more in-depth socialization than what children generally get in the classroom.

          Being mixed with children who are not akin to themselves academically usually leads to more frustration for gifted students than enrichment; they often feel held back, bored, and alienated from their peers when placed in a heterogeneous learning environment.

          Myth 3: Gifted children should be pushed to become properly well-rounded above all else. Many gifted children focus intensely on things they are passionate about, leading adults to worry that the child is going to miss out on other areas of his or her development. An introverted child who spends all day developing his or her passion for computers will therefore often be dragged away from the computer and forced to socialize or do other “normal” things.

          What parents need to realize is that spending a great deal of time alone developing niche interests and passions is normal for a gifted child, and it’s never been confirmed that frequently pulling them away from these has any positive impact on their overall happiness later in life. Indeed, research suggests that most successful gifted adults spent considerable time on their own when younger, developing their particular skills and interests.

          Trying to forcibly change a gifted child’s natural habits often makes the child feel like his or her authentic self is somehow not acceptable; instead, simply provide the child with opportunities that will broaden his or her horizons naturally and happily, such as steering the child toward a club or camp for like-minded individuals with similar interests.

          Myth 4: Giftedness is innate, and so is achieving when one is gifted. Many people perceive gifted children as never having to try hard or study hard in school, as if everything just “comes” to them and they need not develop their talents in the arduous way that non-gifted individuals have to.

          Gifted children do, however, have an incremental learning process, and as such, giftedness ought not be perceived as a static entity which grants ability far beyond the norm, without the gifted child having to put a great deal of effort into it. Gifted children should be perceived as developing their talents with hard work and experiencing a degree of failure, rather than being subjected to the unrealistic expectation of having “God given” talents. Normalizing the way gifted students’ talent development process is viewed has been shown to provide a much healthier and more nurturing learning experience overall.

          It is important to emphasize the correct view of gifted talent development early in life, before the gifted child enters middle school and is confronted with a tougher, more focused curriculum. Otherwise, he or she may interpret the difficulties of this adjustment period as personal failure, simply because he or she must actually exert some effort to maintain academic success. Teaching a child about the myriad failures of history’s great geniuses may go a long way toward showing the child that even brilliant people must exert effort and endure failure along the path to success.

          Myth 5: Those in the field of gifted education are bona fide experts on the social and emotional development of gifted students. The field of gifted studies is quite small, and as such, those in it are often called upon to provide wisdom regarding a wide array of issues to do with gifted students’ development. This does not make them experts on all things gifted; indeed, this too-broad focus often means that those within the field of gifted studies lack specialized knowledge. It is this phenomenon which helps to perpetuate the myths surrounding giftedness, and which often leads to conflicting advice being given to parents and gifted students. Hopefully, as the field of gifted studies matures, gifted students will have better access to experts with specialized knowledge.

          Myth 6: Adults fully understand what gifted students experience. This myth generally pertains to social issues like drugs, sexuality, and other peer pressures. Adults forget that the pace at which the world is changing has accelerated dramatically in recent decades, resulting in contemporary experiences being extremely different to those of previous generations. This goes beyond the usual generational differences experienced by prior generations; a student in the 1930s, 1950s, or 1970s, for example, could go to school without fearing the school itself was a highly unsafe environment wherein one might be shot. Students today, on the other hand, must cope with this fear as a very real possibility.

          Likewise, mental health issues have become far more prevalent than they were in the past; the suicide rate of adolescents rose more than 240% between 1955 and 1990, becoming the second leading cause of death (Holinger, Offer, Barter & Bell, 1994).

          With these facts in mind, it’s fair to state that students today—gifted and otherwise—occupy a very different world than the adults around them did at the same age. Adults should therefore avoid making too many assumptions, and instead ask their children about what they are experiencing at school.

          Myth 7: Being too smart in school is problematic, particularly for girls. People tend to fear what they do not understand, and as such, there is often an element of worry surrounding children who are “different” from the norm. Parents fear that their children will stand out and thus be bullied, and schools sometimes look at highly intelligent children as inherently precocious, difficult, and prone to getting into trouble. All of this coalesces into many students becoming deliberate underachievers, wasting a great deal of their potential so as not to be negatively stereotyped.

          Then, of course, the energy they are not expending on their studies—but still very much possess—winds up being channelled destructively.

          Instead of perpetuating these harmful anti-intellectual beliefs, parents and teachers should encourage gifted children from the outset to see their giftedness as a good thing, and work to educate these children about the various anti-intellectual contexts they will no doubt encounter.

          Myth 8: All children are gifted (or, alternately, no children are gifted). Teachers and administrators come to these beliefs in part due to the fact that the school curriculum changes in nature as children progress through the grade levels; it starts out as something quite amorphous, but becomes very focused by the time young people reach high school.

          A teacher who is passionate about young children—as most elementary school teachers are, hence their choice of career—will often declare a child gifted based on an observation of what they believe to be exceptional potential somewhere within this unstructured environment. Secondary school teachers, on the other hand, are typically passionate about the subject they teach foremost, and as such, judge a student’s aptitude based on his or her performance solely within the boundaries of that subject. Middle school usually represents a “transition period” between these two styles of education (with middle school teachers often having a very strong interest in the social needs of “tweens” and how to best manage their myriad developmental difficulties). The different priorities of these various educators often lead to wildly differing assessments of giftedness.

          Likewise, educators are taught to emphasize fairness and the value of treating all students “equally”; as labelling a child gifted is (mistakenly) perceived to be tantamount to a declaration of his or her superiority, many seek to avoid doing so. It is safer, they believe, to either espouse the idea that all children are gifted “in their own way”, or to discredit the notion of giftedness altogether. Both choices rob all meaning from the concept, and do not contribute in any way to actually understanding the developmental needs of children.

          It’s important to remember that labelling a child as gifted is not a value statement; it simply acknowledges that the child learns differently than most other children.

          By debunking the myths surrounding giftedness, parents, educators, and administrators become empowered to create learning environments that are favourable to gifted children, so that they may develop their talents optimally. Doing so takes nothing away from non-gifted children; indeed, it enriches the learning environment as a whole, which comes around to benefit all of those within it.