“Congratulations,” a gifted educator once said to me, after calling to say my child qualified for the school’s gifted and talented education (GATE) program.
She also wrote it on a Post-It Note stuck to a Gifted Eligibility Results Form she sent home.
Although well meaning, the sentiment of a job well done for a needs-based evaluation took me aback. It’s not as if my son had studied for the tests or anything; the tools simply confirmed how he thinks and what makes him tick.
Plus, trying to get to the bottom of his ongoing social struggles is what led me down the long and winding path that revealed he’s differently wired. Those years from kindergarten through fourth grade felt like anything but fun or a reason to celebrate; they were confusing and excruciatingly painful.
Myths about giftedness and achievement
Unfortunately, most people – even staff at some schools – only equate “giftedness” with being a high achiever. Not only is there a lot more to it than that, a “gifted” child (I prefer “kite kid”) may not even get straight As (or Bs), or be a student who scores in the top 2-3% on standardized tests. (My daughter doesn’t even though she reached the ceiling of the WICC-V’s Verbal Comprehension Index.)
In reality, an estimated 25% of these children eventually fall into what experts call the “gifted underachievers” category.
Why “gifted” students eventually struggle
Sometimes this dynamic begins because the student is so intense or quirky that no one even sees their exceptional strengths. In other cases, the child tries so hard to fit in with classmates that it feels safer to mask the extent of his or her abilities.
Another reason some are misjudged is that they’re twice-exceptional (2e) learners, meaning that they have atypical strengths and atypical challenges.
My daughter is a 2e learner. As I shared in an article last month (pictured left), as well as in several recent Instagram posts, she’s “gifted” in some areas, and also has: ADHD (both types), generalized anxiety disorder and mild depression. Like countless 2e students, her immense struggles (including math-related anxiety) overshadowed her unusually high abilities – one of which couldn’t even be quantified because she hit the ceiling of the test.
And yet, before we knew definitively what was causing her struggles, her ADHD- and anxiety-related behaviors were so significant that her teacher questioned if she could handle moving on to fourth grade.
When the student is also in a racial or socioeconomic minority, they’re even more likely to be misunderstood. Twice-exceptional expert, critical-thinking evangelist and achievement-gap educator Colin Seale explained this beautifully on episode 80 of The Neurodiversity Podcast.
After a while, many of these misunderstood students give up on school because it’s such a mental struggle to hide who they are and/or hope that they’ll be challenged at some point. (New information, and new ways of applying it, are things they desperately crave because of their intellectual intensity.)
Support; not superiority
Are you starting to see why I think praising a child (or his mom) for meeting a school’s “gifted” criteria is weird and inappropriate?
To me, saying, “Congratulations!” when a student qualifies for a GATE program probably indicates one of two things…
Either there’s a lack of understanding that “the G word” is a true form of neurodiversity and, therefore, has unique educational (and social-emotional) needs.
Or the school caves to the pressure of parents who want their kids in a program that they mistakenly view through rose-colored glasses.
If we understand giftedness for what it really is – and that it affects the whole child (in some ways that are desirable and others that aren’t) – there’s nothing to congratulate.
GATE programs are a form of support
GATE programs are needs-based. The tools that psychologists and gifted educators use merely determine if the student has atypical needs. If they do have exceptionally high abilities, the school will help address those needs through advanced challenges and the opportunities for divergent thinking, which these students need to thrive.
Qualifying for a GATE program isn’t the same as making honor role. It’s simply acknowledging that the student needs accommodations to flourish; just like a student with autism, ADHD or other type of learning difference.
And why would you congratulate someone for that? As one of my Instagram followers wonderfully pointed out, “It’s like congratulating someone for their height.”
Yes, each type of neurodiversity comes with strengths and super powers – and thank goodness more people are starting to realize that! However, congratulating a student (or parent) when the child qualifies for gifted accommodations isn’t appropriate. It perpetuates myths about giftedness, turning a service for a special need into something that feels like a competition. And GATE programs should never contribute to that.
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