5 myths of giftedness in children

Common misconceptions about bright students’ can often conceal their special needs and prevent them from reaching their academic potential

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 10:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 10:03am

The public perception of giftedness is skewed, romanticised, and often just downright incorrect.

Some of the commonly held beliefs about giftedness are incorrect and often contradictory. Beliefs shape the way we act, and the policies and institutions we create. We need to change the way we think about and talk about this issue, so we can better support gifted students in our education system. To do that, let’s look at some of the major myths surrounding giftedness:

The Social Ineptness Myth

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about giftedness is that that gifted individuals, while academically brilliant, are socially inept. This comes from media portrayals of giftedness, such as in Good Will Hunting, Sherlock, or A Beautiful Mind. Although entertaining, these portrayals have helped create a belief that giftedness and poor social skills go hand in hand. This is not the case.

While there may be some overlap, there is no concrete evidence that being gifted means being socially stunted. The perception may also be reinforced when gifted children advance in grades. How does a Grade Four child mix effortlessly with Grade Seven students? She probably doesn’t. However, she may be right at home among children of her own age during a play date.

The worst aspect of this myth is that it risks reinforcing itself. If we believe gifted children are, by design, socially inept, then we are less likely to give them the support they need. We should be providing gifted children with more social-skills support, not less.

The Little Einstein Myth

Another myth is that a gifted child is like a brilliant little adult in a child’s body. These pint-sized Einsteins are capable of adult conversations, thought and control, and may even enjoy wearing bow ties in stock photos. This misconception applies mostly to how we view very young gifted children.

A gifted 5-year-old is still a 5-year-old. Gifted children will behave in many of the same ways as typical children. They show the same underdeveloped senses of resilience, self-control, emotional regulation, compassion and patience that are normal in young children.

It can be strange to witness a gifted 5-year-old going from passionately naming elements in the periodic table to having a complete meltdown because his pencil needs sharpening, but it happens. It’s easy to think that the intelligence of the child ought to rationally overcome the 5-year-oldness, but it doesn’t work that way.

The Homogeneity Myth

“Gifted” as a term is often used when we in fact mean to say “academically gifted”, or even more narrowly “high IQ” - specifically, an IQ above 130. This over-simplified definition has several problems, including the validity of IQ as a measure of intelligence. Giftedness is not confined to academics, but this confusion of terms is pervasive in Hong Kong, where academic achievement is king. We need to abandon the notion entirely.

Giftedness comes in many areas. A child doing calculus at 5-years-old is likely to be gifted, but so is a child doing pointillistic oil painting or advanced coding at the same age. We too often constrain the term “gifted” to the academic, “testable by exam” core subjects. The harm in this is that, while academic giftedness is widely recognised and prized, giftedness in sports, arts, abstract and creative pursuits is much less likely to be noted and nurtured.

This myth is part of the reason that if you were to name movies about gifted people you might name the three mentioned (above). However, you would be very unlikely to name Billy Elliot, since the protagonist is a brilliant dancer, not a human calculator.

The Special Needs Myth

Just as “gifted” is incorrectly used to mean “academically gifted”, “special needs” is often used to mean “learning disabilities”. But special needs come in many varieties too, and gifted children absolutely have special needs. When we provide extra support to a child with learning difficulties, we often frame it as trying to enable them to catch up to grade level. With gifted children, since they are often beyond their peers, and beyond grade level, there isn’t as clear a bar to reach. It isn’t as clear what the goal is.

Perhaps our mindset is the problem. In the first case, we shouldn’t be thinking of children reaching grade level, but of reaching their full potential. Both the child with learning difficulties and the gifted child need specific and unique structures to help them optimise their learning, and help them reach as high as their abilities allow. These are their special needs. With gifted students, this tends to mean opening up a fast lane and allowing them to work through content at their own pace, providing the challenge and structure so that there is constantly room to progress, while carefully nurturing their love of learning and monitoring age-appropriate social development milestones. If that’s not a special need, and a big task as an educator, then I don’t know what is.

This shift in perception towards special needs matters because gifted children often fall through the cracks. They end up sitting at the back of the classroom, bored, until the boredom turns to misbehaving.

Once the misbehaviour gets out of hand, they end up being labelled as difficult rather than extraordinary. We must keep an eye out early for giftedness, in all its forms, just as much as we are getting better at doing for learning difficulties, and we have to be prepared to provide the support that the gifted child needs to achieve their best.

The Gifted Only Myth

Similar to the myth that giftedness is not a special need is the idea that learning difficulties and giftedness fall on one spectrum together. That you could draw a single line from learning difficulties to giftedness and every child would fall somewhere on that line. This myth can easily be seen when people put children into three broad categories: learning difficulties, mainstream / average, or gifted.

The reality is not that simple, however. Giftedness and learning difficulties like dyslexia, dysgraphia and AD/HD are not mutually exclusive. Gifted children can also have learning difficulties. These students are referred to as “twice exceptional” learners. Individuals who are outside the norm both in their giftedness and a learning difficulty.

Children who are twice exceptional present a real challenge for educators, who must seek both to use the strengths of their giftedness, and simultaneously navigate and remediate their difficulties in another area. This myth that giftedness is opposite and exclusive to learning difficulties needs to be dispelled because it hinders educators from identifying students who have these unique circumstances - and from supporting them optimally. Twice exceptional students are at risk of being identified for only one of their exceptionalities, and therefore not receiving appropriate support. Among gifted students, estimates are that from 10 per cent to 20 per cent could be twice exceptional.

Where we Stand

Having laid out a few misconceptions about giftedness, it should be noted that these are only some of the issues. How we understand and discuss giftedness is still in development — but we’ve come a long way. There are more resources than ever to help gifted children thrive in Hong Kong. More schools have gifted support integrated into inclusive classrooms, and many are embracing exploration and project-based learning environments that gifted children so often do well in.

We need to change our outlook on giftedness; rejecting Hollywood narratives of brilliant oafs, adorable mini-Einsteins and human calculators. Instead, we can take a view that starts by regarding gifted students as individuals first and foremost. Individuals with complicated special-learning needs who are not easily pigeonholed. I suspect then we would be better able to help them lead rich, fulfilling lives, living up to the promise of their gifts on their own terms.