Giftedness: The Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name?


Many people, including educators and academics, state that we should not use the term ‘gifted’. To be honest, there are better words that I believe suit gifted children: asynchronous, cognitively advanced, and so the list goes on! However, whilst ‘gifted’ is a loaded term, and one that is unfortunately all too frequently associated with elitism and academic hothousing, it is not simply a word that we can take or leave. It is a label that many children are stuck with, for lack of common consensus regarding a better alternative.


After researching this area for many years, I agree that the gifted label can be damaging, as can any label. However, such labels considered in an educational setting are little more than shorthand for conditions that may require modifications in the academic and/or social setting. They provide us with a ‘go to’ list of possible accommodations and suggestions that may help our children. Importantly, labels can also generate greater levels of self-understanding and acceptance relating to why as individuals we may feel, act and behave the way we do. In short, labels can be positive or negative depending on how we respond to them. However, as soon as a child builds an identity around nothing other than a label, any label, we are in trouble. Labels are reductive and limiting. No person should be defined by the subtotal of his or her diagnoses.


It is, however, concerning that some educators and academics believe that perfectionism and other unhealthy characteristics are a result of a child being labelled gifted. This isn’t necessarily true. Many parents only learn their child is gifted after seeking help for their child’s anxiety and/or perfectionism, or other concerns. These are in fact factors which come about as a direct result of these children all too frequently being robbed of the opportunity to develop resilience and self-regulation skills due to a lack of challenge in the school setting. To blame the process of labelling itself is far too simplistic. Instead, we sometimes need to use labels to aid our understanding, particularly at a given point in time. Yet we must, of course, also ensure that our approach to a child’s development is holistic. Furthermore, we would be better served by taking a more dynamic approach to labels in the wider context.


Is ‘gifted’ a good, or even accurate, label for cognitively advanced kids? Due to the ingrained sense of hypercompetitiveness that is prevalent in society, sadly not. Although, it is interesting that our greatest athletes are supported and lauded in school communities across the country whilst our brightest kids often struggle to simply be accepted. ‘Giftedness’, then, is a label that has become loaded with a secondary evaluative meaning since it was first introduced by Leta Hollingworth as a descriptive term around one hundred years ago. What we need to remember is that the misconceptions relating to giftedness are often a matter of semantics. Most importantly, this all too frequently derided label is not the fault of the children who receive it – children who often desperately need our support.


Can we meet a gifted child’s academic, social and emotional needs without the label ‘gifted’? Sadly, I believe not – at least not in our current education system. Schools may be a good fit for those who are neurotypical – those who fit inside a box, according to their chronological age. For those who do not, for whatever reason, the results can be catastrophic. To silence or stigmatise the voice of these children and to ignore their needs because they are stuck with a label that they did not choose is wrong.


Many gifted children and their families are embarrassed to use ‘the ‘g’ word’. They will often refrain from using the term or even admitting the precocious nature of their children for fear of being ostracised. However, the more parents keep quiet about their child’s giftedness the easier it becomes to ignore that gifted children even exist. Yet, to ignore the needs of gifted children makes us negligent. Negligent towards a population of children who need to be considered as special needs within the school setting. At this point in time, the label is necessary to ensure these kids have the best possible chance of having their needs met. In a system that groups children by age alone it is frequently the outliers that may struggle the most. It is not until we have an educational system that we can categorically state meets the needs of each and every child that we can claim that labels are not necessary, ‘giftedness’ included.