Gifted Does Not (only) Mean Smart

Julie Skolnick

What does gifted mean?  The usual answer includes smart, bright, potential, and ability. But really, that only captures a shred of the internal experience of being gifted.

Assumptions are made about the gifted profile. Either expectations are set high and gifted folks feel like imposters, or their perfectionism kicks in and they are sucked into a downward cycle of underachievement – “Why should I bother trying if I can’t meet the expectations everyone has for me, or that I’ve set for myself?”

Recently the acumen of gifted classrooms has been debated in the press. Gifted is labeled as elitist, marginalizing, and racist. People have gone so far as to compare the shame of the college admissions debacle to advocating for gifted classrooms – stating that the same people who buy their way into college buy their way into gifted classrooms and labels. Heads of Schools have said to me “I don’t like the word gifted, every child has gifts.” That is true. Every child does have gifts, but that does not mean they are gifted.

Being gifted does not come with a receipt and it isn’t returnable. I liken giftedness to a three-layer-chocolate-cake.

The frosting is the ability everyone assumes they know when they see it. The three layers include asynchronous development – different abilities and skills developing at different rates and speeds, perfectionism – a trait that often comes with intense anxiety and challenges that affect work output, and intensities or overexcitabilities (OEs). This combination of traits leads the gifted person to feel out of sync and off kilter. Combine this with the inaccurate assumption that all gifted people do school well, are bright and high achievers, and we end up with classroom strategies involving more work, rather than meaningful work. There is a big difference between gifted and school-y. One likes to do school; sit facing forward, follow teacher instructions as much for teacher praise as for completing the assignment, these drive the school-y student. Gifted students question authority. They need and crave meaningful, relatable work, and refuse to do meaningless busy work that reiterates what they already know.

As to marginalized minorities, it’s true. There are not enough minorities identified as gifted. They exist and the distribution is the same as the general population.

We must do something about the identification of gifted minorities – using local norms, universal screening, and assessing students based on their experiences and language and compared to their peers.

Here are five important considerations for understanding the gifted experience, no matter the race, income status or culture:

  • Gifted and 2e children are neurodiverse and need a similar peer group.
  • Gifted and 2e children prevented from being with their peer group are lonely and often become self-critical.
  • It's hard to find your gifted and 2e peers in the general population.
  • Gifted and 2e people think differently and need to feel safe sharing their thoughts in a classroom.
  • Gifted does not mean smart. Gifted is a brain-based difference that is sometimes a gift and often times comes with a challenge, especially when trying to fit in with the general public.

There are three distinct action items that can addressed and serve all learners:

  1. Gifted assessments that capture a broader scope of truly gifted and 2e students crossing demographics,
  2. Teacher training that addresses gifted and 2e students’ needs, including: existential considerations, social emotional challenges and strengths (deep empathy), and the need for meaningful and relatable work, and
  3. Curriculum geared toward talent development, and student strengths.

True, a lot of work needs to be done. History is full of marginalizing the minority. Gifted and 2e are minorities. We must ensure that all gifted and 2e students are identified— stop negating the existence of this neurodiverse population and instead bolster the assessment and identification process to capture as many children as possible. Create safe environments for these deep thinkers to think, these intense feelers to feel and perfectionists to take risks.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, a service through which she guides parents of gifted and 2e children, trains teachers, mentors 2e adults and collaborates with clinicians on how to bring out the best and raise self-confidence in 2e learners. Ms. Skolnick produces 2 Days of 2e virtual conference featuring expert presentations, continuing education credits, discussion forums and a virtual exhibitor hall including resources for the 2e community. 

The views expressed herein represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.