The good and bad of labeling kids ‘gifted’

At the age of four, Jennifer Chutter’s son, Ben, taught himself to read. “I thought he was just looking at books,” recalls Chutter, 41, of Burnaby, B.C. “But then I realized he had actually figured out the sounds and letters, and was reading them.” 

To stimulate his intellect, Chutter enrolled him in a Montessori pre-school. Yet despite the self-driven pacing, Ben found it too slow. French immersion kindergarten also proved not challenging enough—so mid year, he was bumped up to Grade 1. By the middle of Grade 2, the school psychologist at Ben’s public school tested him and he was labeled ‘gifted.’ 

“The label helps explain his insatiable curiosity and how he can get very laser-focused on a topic,” Chutter tells Yahoo Canada. But there are drawbacks, too. Chutter’s local schools don’t offer any significant gifted programming, which means that despite being in Honours Classes, Ben often works ahead of his classmates and is bored in school. The result: some teachers assume he isn’t engaged in his work or doesn’t have a good work ethic. Worse still, Ben has had a hard time finding a close peer group. “He’s pretty socially isolated at times,” explains Chutter, who also notes that Ben, now age 12.5, has already struggled with anxiety and depression. 

According to US-based National Association for Gifted Children, academically gifted and talented students make up approximately six to ten percent of the student population. But across North America, definitions of gifted vary greatly as do the opportunities available to these high potential learners, which raises important questions about what ‘gifted’ actually means—and whether or not the label is a curse or blessing. 

For most of the 20th century, ‘gifted’ simply meant an IQ of 130 or higher, which usually translated into the ability to score well on standardized tests and to easily memorize or recall large amounts of information. In recent years, however, the definition has expanded to include above average aptitude in areas including problem solving and communication skills. According to BC’s Ministry of Education, giftedness “includes a wide range of attributes from the traditional intellectual measures to interpersonal abilities.” 

“Skills that make up a student’s EQ (Emotional Quotient) and CQ (Consciousness Quotient)—including communication, adaptability and critical thinking—are central to definitions of gifted and talented today, which is great progress,” explains Shimi Kang, MD, the Vancouver-based author of The Dolphin Parent: A Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Self-Motivated Kids. “They are predictors of higher future academic success—and they’re aptitudes that top employers are now seeking in employees.” 

Without question, there can be advantages to being labeled gifted. In most school districts, it’s the key to accessing specialized tracks or programs (Multi-Age Cluster Classes [MACCs] or Individual Education Plans [IEPs]) that offer more challenging academic work in addition to social and emotional support. 

For Sarah Rosensweet, a mother of three in Toronto, the best part of having her oldest son test as gifted was the options and choices that accompany the label. “We knew that if we didn’t get a spot at our school of our choice—an alternative educational environment that we really felt was best for our son—that he’d still have a place at a school that was a very good fit and that could accommodate him,” Rosensweet tells Yahoo Canada. Also, Rosensweet found the label helped teachers better understand and connect with her son. “It was an important piece of information about our son that helped them figure out how to interact with him.” 

But the label isn’t always a boon. For some kids, it creates a sense of entitlement, while for others, it can leave them feeling isolated from the majority of their schoolmates. And either way, “It can lead to a fixed mindset instead of a growth outlook,” cautions Shimi Kang. “And that inhibits trial-and-error thinking and leadership.” 

Being tracked into a gifted group can also limit exposure to different kinds of thinking and skills, which can contribute to what some parenting experts refer to as “bubble wrapping” kids, or overprotecting them from uncomfortable situations. “There’s a real advantage to learning that someone else might be more advanced at a particular task than you are,” says Kang. “That promotes awareness, maturation and mimics the real world.” 

The gifted label can also be a burden of expectation. Vancouver resident Elaine Yie (name has been changed) recently had her 8-year-old-son, Lucas, take a cognitive ability test that is part of the local assessment process for the city-wide gifted stream. Only she’s not sure she wants to learn the results. “I already know Lucas is extremely smart,” Yie tells Yahoo Canada. “But I worry about what labeling could do to his psyche. What if he only does okay in middle and high school? I don’t want him to always feel like he should be doing more. It’s a lot of psychological pressure for a child to bear.” 

Another surprising reason some parents aren’t eager for their kids to be labeled gifted: the competitiveness it brings out in other parents. “Parents today get caught up thinking that their child’s report card is a measurement of their parenting skills,” says Kang. “But the question of giftedness should really focus on ensuring personalized learning and a broad definition of success, not outmoded ideas and status symbols.” 

Elaine Yie finds the topic too prickly to discuss with other parents. “Just mentioning that my son is testing for a gifted program has elicited plenty of snarky comments from other moms,” says Yie. “It’s as if they suddenly have to prove that their kids are smart, too, or else it reflects badly on them.” 

Jennifer Chutter agrees. “I don’t often talk about any struggles I have with Ben and his education because people assume that since he’s gifted, everything at school must come easily to him—and that I’m some sort of Super Parent. But he came wired the way he is. I’m just trying to guide him.”