Unpacking What it Means to Be Gifted and Talented

This blog is a follow-up to a post about gifted burnout, the effects of the pressure of Gifted and Talented programs, and how to heal from the insecurities that develop and manifest from childhood to adulthood. Read that post here: Achieving for Love: How Gifted Kid Burnout Manifests in Insecure Adulthood (And How to Fix It)

Photo from Pixabay via Pexels

My background is undeniably one of privilege. I am white, I attended a “good” public school system, I am educated. The more I learn (and unlearn) about white supremacy, the more I realize how many things I took for granted as universal experiences simply aren’t universal at all.

Gifted education’s racist history (and present)

I wrote in The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation about the discrepancy in school treatment between white and Black students, with Black students disproportionately suspended starting in preschool. Preschool.

The more Black students are suspended, the more impact their treatment impacts their families and parents’ ability to go to work, thus putting parents’ employment in a more precarious situation than white families who aren’t subject to these harsher punishments. And so on and so forth, leading to a wide gap in access and achievement in school for students of color.

This imbalance is baked into our education system, including Gifted and Talented programs.

As mentioned previously from this Hechinger Report article, “Wealthy schools identify more children as gifted than do poor ones. Black, Latino and Indigenous students are often left out.”

And they’re left out at staggering rates.

  • In Cincinnati, Black students made up 63 percent of the student body but 16 percent of the gifted program
  • New York City schools have 65% Black and Latino enrollment, but these students make up only 22% of their gifted program
  • South Dakota and Alaska enroll a total of 46,000 Indigenous children, and only 0.6% are considered gifted

More students are being left out (3.6 million) of gifted programs than are enrolled in them in the first place (3.3 million).

While Black and brown students are unfairly left behind when it comes to admission to Gifted and Talented programs and cultivating of their talents, they are absolutely not insulated from burnout or being held to impossible standards.

These students are pressured into obedience and compliance for fear of disproportionate punishments, including physical punishments and the risk of having police involved, which can be deadly. Or, they may be written off by educators as a lower priority and thus fall further behind in academic achievement.

These racial biases are being studied more frequently as critical race theory and the ongoing social uprising around the Black Lives Matter movement demand more accountability for prejudice and racism in American systems.

For example, in a study of over 32 million students, Princeton researchers Travis Riddle and Stacey Sinclair point out, “Overall, there is consistent evidence that black students’ behaviors are both perceived as more problematic and are punished more harshly compared with white students.”

This is a hostile learning environment.

Our education system at large, including Gifted and Talented programs, continues to create negative outcomes for those that fall outside its focus and attention — as well as those who are prioritized and held to perfectionistic achievement standards.

Besides the obvious racial and class barriers in access to Gifted and Talented support in our school systems, these programs also place so much focus on academic achievement, test score qualifications, and being a “good student” that they often leave out all those things the federal definition of gifted aspires to include.

Students gifted in “intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields” will not necessarily receive instruction in the area where their gifts and talents have been identified.

It’s up to parents to put their children into private lessons to hone musical gifts or artistic talents, which limits access once again and allows children from wealthier, more privileged backgrounds to receive support.

This isn’t to say that private lessons aren’t okay — but it is a privilege to afford them. If your child is in private lessons for art or music, consider an institution that provides scholarships to marginalized children to afford them access. Reward organizations that are doing the work to dismantle these systems.

The other end of the spectrum

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make mention of the concept of “twice exceptional” or 2E students, considered both Gifted and Challenged. 

This group includes many neurodivergent students, including autistic students and those with ADHD. On the other end of the school intervention spectrum from Gifted and Talented is Special Education. 

Autism is sometimes comorbid with learning disabilities and developmental delays, but they are not one in the same. Many autistic students are considered “high functioning” (an ableist, arguably eugenicist label) and may be identified as Gifted and Talented, while autistic students with additional disabilities may be identified for special education intervention.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children,

Like other gifted learners, 2e students are highly knowledgeable and talented in at least one particular domain. However, their giftedness is often overshadowed by their disabilities, or these students may be able to mask or hide their learning deficits by using their talents to compensate. Sometimes a twice-exceptional child’s special education needs are overlooked until adolescence or later, or are never identified throughout his or her life.

The concept of masking is a huge contributor to burnout, especially what’s known as autistic burnout, when an autistic person’s ability to mask or pass for neurotypical finally reaches a point where it’s too hard to keep up the appearance. (Which is why I didn’t realize I was autistic until I was thirty and didn’t get an ADHD diagnosis until 32.)

Another point: We need to pay teachers more. Ideally, lessons plans could be made more or less complex in order to teach the same material to the majority of students without needing to isolate them. But teachers are already overworked, underpaid, and under-supported, and this isn’t always feasible.

Does Gifted Really Mean Anything?

By definition, yes, gifted means especially gifted and talented at something. We can and should celebrate the gifts of all people, and the different ways our talents can come together to create a community of various gifts, skills, and passions.

In practice, we can’t really put stock in a system that leaves so many children out instead of building them up.

A rising tide raises all boats — but the rising tide of Gifted and Talented programs is leaving some children on the shore instead of on board.

Please subscribe and listen

This blog is a companion to Episode 19 of Run Like Hell Toward Happy, “Recovering from Gifted Kid Burnout,” available on all podcast platforms.

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