Downsides of Labels: Gifted and Talented

Whether you knew one or were one, all of us have heard of GT students. GT stands for “Gifted and Talented” and it’s a label given to “children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment” (US Department of Education, 1993; borrowed this quote from the National Society for the Gifted and Talented website). Me, I was one for a while, but I was pulled out of the program for one basic reason: labels don’t do students any favors.

Since I’ve started taking education classes this semester, I’ve been talking more to my math teacher mother (you can laugh, it’s okay), who teaches all of the advanced sixth and seventh graders at Lucille Erwin Middle School. We talk a lot about these accelerated kids because teaching smart kids and teaching Intervention kids (which is what she did last year) are two completely different ball games.

As someone who spent the last three years of high school surrounded by the same forty (smart) people, let me outline some of the common characteristics of gifted and talented students:

  • Perfectionist
  • Frighteningly competitive
  • A “know-it-all” who likes to rub it in your face
  • Varying levels of antisocial-ness
  • Insist on individual teaching time with the teacher (sometimes in a class of 35+)
  • Won’t accept anything less than a 90% grade (may cry, scream, or call parents in order to get an A)
  • HUGE life plans (not goals) like going to Harvard or taking over Google
  • And, worst of all, arrogant to the point of exhibiting contempt whenever forced to associate with mortals of “lesser” intelligence

Okay, so some of these are a bit exaggerated and the NSGT website (under “Characteristics”) puts much nicer, but let’s face it: unless you were one, you probably didn’t like GT kids. And being one wasn’t a guarantee that you would either (I know).

I point out all these characteristics because these aren’t personality traits you’re born with. They’re learned behaviors you pick up from family, friends, peers, and other adults like, say, teachers. The problem with being labeled “gifted and talented,” especially at a young age, is that kids begin to pick up one, if not all, of these unsavory behaviors, and once you have them, it’s hard to lose them.

“But Kayla,” you might argue, “what’s wrong with having goals like attending an Ivy-League school or becoming a CEO? Don’t you want your students to aspire to big things?” Of course I do; I want all my students to succeed, as should every teacher. But when your student’s sole goal in life is to become valedictorian and attend Stanford University and she’ll just die if she doesn’t, you start to have problems (I knew a girl like that; valedictorian but studies at Mesa in Grand Junction).

The characteristic I’ve always had the biggest problem with is arrogance. Who likes being talked down to or treated like they’re five years old? I certainly don’t. Few things make me angrier than being treated like an idiot; even people who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed don’t like to be talked to. But GT students internalize adult praise of their mental capabilities until it becomes not just a source of pride, but a sense of entitlement. They’re better than you, they know it, and they make sure you never forget it.

Bad social skills stem from this arrogance – who wants to talk to someone who treats them like they’re stupid? My mother’s math classes are a perfect example. Her students always sit in groups of four – four brains are better than one, right? – and only the “resource manager” is allowed to raise their hand and ask a group question. Do you know many times my mom still gets called over by someone who’s not the resource manager to answer an individual question? This is how the conversations usually go:

[student raises hand; teacher walks over]
“Mrs. Martinson, how do you find—”
“Wait! Is this a group question?”
“No, it’s my question?”
“Did you ask your group?”
“Umm… no.”
“Are you the resource manager?”
“Okay, then. Ask your group.”

Teamwork is an important life skill that GT students are rarely exposed to because GT programs encourage independent work. But students who can’t play nice and work with others are at a serious disadvantage when it comes time to join the workforce which, for the most part, involves working with other people. My computer engineer father emailed me this article once, and it argues that managers are more likely to hire or promote a person who’s a great employee (read: easy to work with) with not-so-great coding skills over the phenomenal coder with the social skills of a wet tissue.

To come back to my original point, my parents pulled my sister, brother, and I from the Gifted and Talented program at our elementary school because they could already see the seeds of arrogance, entitlement, and very bad social skills being sown. My parents wanted us to have as normal a childhood as possible, and being trained into little elitists wasn’t the way they wanted to go.

I’m glad they pulled us out. I’ve known people who have been marked as GT all their lives, and they can be some of the rudest, most unpleasant people you’ll ever meet (and you don’t want to). The saddest part is that it really isn’t their fault, but the faults of the people who have pampered and coddled and isolated them since they started school, the people who select the students they feel possess such an elevated level of giftedness they need to be separated from “regular” students. And in the big scheme of childhood and schooling and the idea that we’re preparing students for the much wider world that isn’t ruled by standardized test scores, who is this benefiting? And who is hurt more – the “smart” kids who struggle to interact normally with their peers, or the unpicked students who must cope with the idea they aren’t “good” enough to be fitted with such a label?

Final note: I’d just like to clarify that I do not believe all GT-labeled students behave in such a negative way, nor do I believe they pick up all the unfortunate habits from my above list. Most, in fact, are nice and pleasant individuals who sometimes just have enormous egos. And sorry this is so long.


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