Gifted-Beyond the Stereotype

“He is gifted.” Doesn’t that sound pretentious? I have almost as hard a time with this label as I do the ‘scary names’ from a previous post (Our Magical Creatures). People, parents, teachers and all develop notions based on the stereotype ‘names’ like this conjure. We hear the word gifted and we think we know what it is all about. Just like the term ADHD is so commonly heard today, yet I truly think very few people really know all the areas of learning and life that this disorder or giftedness can disrupt. They see a very active child and so begins their commentary “That one must have ADHD”. On one online group for parents of gifted children, I recall a discussion about finding a new name (other than gifted) for our kiddos that doesn’t inspire snide remarks and false assumptions.

I understand why the parents were having this discussion. My husband has recounted to me a day from his childhood when he and his Dad crossed paths with a Mother having a terrible time with her unruly child. She looked to my husband’s Dad and stated apologetically, “He’s gifted” As if that explained everything. From what I am told eyes rolled. According to my husband, his conservative father’s general sentiment was, “Yeah, he’s gifted alright, at working over his permissive parent.” My husband and I have revisited this scenario more than once.

Because we now live it, we are conscious of other people’s views of giftedness, and don’t generally go around announcing it to people, especially while dealing with difficult behaviors. To some the only explanation for a major meltdown out of a child with a higher than average vocabularly is that the parents are doing something wrong. When someone asks about what has been going on with our kiddo, I really have to gauge what information I tell to which people. And the fact that our guy also has some learning and social challenges at the same time, well that is too much for some to comprehend, or more than they need or want to know.

I recall a particular child in my first class, my very first year teaching. He was a physically awkward, sweet, sensitive, and precotious, and he talked my ear half off and argued the other half. His favorite stories, read to him by his mother, were The Chronicles of Narnia. I can still hear his Mom at our conference telling me he was gifted and proclaiming his lack of coordination was inherited from her. She didn’t see the need to encourage outdoor play, because she knew it was not his strenghth. At the time, I thought, ‘Yeesh, this lady needs to get her kiddo off the couch!’ (old assumption number one again)

I am sad to think how little I was able, or ready, or willing to listen to that precocious guy, or his Mom. My first class was an experience like trying to get my sea legs in a hurricane. One girl frequently broke into hysterical sobbing fits, another one or two were likely ADHD, and a little boy who was diagnosed with PTSD and would shut down if the room became too noisy or chaotic. Yeah, to be honest, college didn’t really prepare me for all of that.

Now, I don’t agree completely with that Mom’s fatalistic approach to her son’s skills (I still think it would have benefited her son to get outside more) However I can seriously respect her point of view now. Rather than fatalism, perhaps I was a witness to her acceptance of her son. And sure thing, that boy knew his Mommy loved him just the way he was, There is something big and great to be said for that.  I wish I was that clear with my son when our journey began.

When you think about giftedness, what is the picture in your head? In your mind is he the one who did really great in school acing all the tests? The math whiz who scewed the bell curve? Do you see a child prodigy; musician, dancer, athlete? Are you saying to yourself right now “All children have gifts.”? ie. That kid can run like the dickens, that girl there sings like an angel, and this one can charm the socks off a gorilla. . . Maybe you think there are no gifted kids, only pushy parents. I think you are all right in some way. That is why stereotypes stick around right? If there weren’t some truth in them they wouldn’t be so easy to believe.

But stereotypes don’t help teach our children. It is fact that more than half the children who are gifted develop asynchronously. That means they have areas and skills that develop at a very high level, while another or others lag at a significantly lower level. Gifted children come in all shapes and sizes and economic backgrounds. Some read and speak fluently at or above age level, but struggle with writing, and organizing their life. A gifted musician may write sheet music at the age of 5, but struggle to find friends and read social cues. Maybe the star athlete struggled to learn to read or still struggles. The possible combinations are endless. I am betting the kid who lived across the street from me growing up, a mumbler who was great in math and science is probably a nuclear physicist or something now. The problem is that their difficulties are invisible to the eye. Often they are not seen as gifted or as having a learning disorder, because one masks the other, they look like an average child.

To teach our children according to their needs and abilities we need schools and teachers trained and capable of finding the strengths and weaknesses of every student in order to teach each child to their potential. Teachers willing and able to look beyond stereotypes. Labels can help us group similar children together and organize our thinking about them, but looking at them as individuals with individual needs is the key to their success in school and life.


Princess Morag said...

I'm praying for a great kindergarten teacher for my son in August. I'm getting better at seeing the positives in the way he is, but how well he gets on at school will be greatly dependent on the classroom environment and teacher's approach. So far he has done very well at pre-school, not causing any of the teachers any cause for concern. He saves all his challenging behviour for me at home!

Amy said...

It is hard when they save it for home. But believe when I say it is harder when it becomes a school issue. I wish you all the luck at getting a great teacher next year!

Theresa said...

Amy, I think you're right and that whether we like it or not, we're all quick to judge what we don't know. It's rarely a fair assessment, but seems to be a part of human nature. The more people who can be encouraged (by reading a this post or something like it) to think twice, the more understanding will prevail. As always, I applaud your willingness to see the situation you are in and face it head-on. Keep it up!