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Being Bright or Gifted

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: What are the effects of identifying a "bright" student as gifted?

Background: In 3rd grade, I was selected to take the test for giftedness. My parents received a letter saying that although I was not gifted according to the test (I was only a fraction of a point off according to my mother.) I would be put in a gifted classroom anyway.

I spent 4th and 5th grade with the same class, I got A's and B's but the rest of my peer tended to get straight A's. In middle school, I was removed from the gifted class and put back with the "general population" due to class size constraints. In these classes, I was bored out of my mind and I believe I fell into some sort of mild depression.

I moved to a new school that same year and requested to be tested for giftedness (I was in a new school district and had been told that the requirements were slightly different.) I was not identified as gifted.

I continued throughout middle school getting average grades and being angsty but when I got to high school my grades and overall outlook improved. I was getting straight A's without much effort, praised by my teachers, and gained a little more confidence. I decided that I wanted to apply for this summer residential program, where I could learn on a college campus for a month.

While going through the application process, I learned that the program was only open to gifted students and so I told the gifted counselor at my school my history with giftedness and she urged me to take the test again so that I could try to apply for the program.

The results came in after the application was due, so I never got the chance to apply but I was identified as gifted. The counselor was sure to tell me that the test is not all that was used to identify gifted students, the board would review my school records, talk to my teachers, look at my grades, as well as the test.

It feels like a fluke. I don't really believe I am gifted. I have poured over sites that list the characteristics of gifted children and teens. I don't believe I fit the bill. My best friend is actually gifted. She is a slacker because she can get by with minimum effort, she is articulate, and she is quick-witted. She says I am smart and she knows that because she wouldn't be able to relate to me as well as she does if I wasn't. She then tells me that there is a difference between being bright and being gifted, which I know, I mentioned how I've poured over the websites.

There is a clear difference between us and it really makes me feel inadequate at times.

I think putting a bright kid in gifted classes is good because it gives the kid something to strive for and really improves work ethic. It's bad because here I am a "smart kid" who can see so many flaws in herself and in others. I place all of my self-worth on my intelligence. I'm not sure how I could convince myself to do otherwise. I'd like to know more about how a bright kid is affected by being identified as gifted.

A: I read your letter with great interest and I hope I will be able to shed some light to your concerns. The main concern here is, as you are aware of and rightly said; placing all of your self worth on your intelligence. You have been reading too deeply into intelligence and giftedness. Being bright or gifted are just terms used in the educational world and there are no clear-cut criteria of what determines one or the other.

You could probably be gifted based on the criteria used today but not then. Perhaps criteria then may be a little different and was not something you could be inclined to. Missed case? Yes, probably. It was obvious that the GEP suited you well – at least much better than the mainstream curriculum. It could also be that in middle school, there were others who did better than you – and since there was a size constraint, you were placed into a regular programme. You became bored – probably because challenge was lacking and started feeling low. Your emotions could have taken over and you just did averagely. Bear in mind that in middle school, the load starts becoming heavier which is the reason many students tend to do less well compared to primary school. For gifted students, this is usually the case; breezing through primary school with little effort but come middle school, the similar effort does not work anymore. There is no escape from hard work.

In high school, subjects are more in depth rather than breath so an above average student usually gains interest in studies as it becomes more stimulating. This could have happened in your case. You understood quickly, a rapid learner and were probably interested in your work, which led you to work harder and explore further – all which led to better grades. As you mentioned, your overall outlook improved which could also be a reason to your success in high school. Perhaps all you required was some motivation and appreciation, which you got in high school.

The summer residential programme that you applied for could have been excellent for you. I am not sure if you could have requested for an extended deadline especially if you have someone from school to back you. Of course, the best determinants for admission into a programme for the gifted should not rely on tests alone. Other criteria are looked at especially today.

Whether you are gifted or bright does not really matter; what matters is that you should be getting an education that matches your ability. Usually students are selected into various programmes but not every case is a typical one and some may be misidentified especially then compared to now. Gifted education is much more comprehensive today than it ever was. I do agree with you that bright students do benefit from a GEP. However, the main difference is that the gifted student will be able to go much deeper into any such programme and are very passionate with independent research that challenges them. This is the thirst for knowledge that they have.

I am not able to tell if you are gifted or bright but at this point it should not make a difference. With hard work, one can achieve so much. I feel that you have spent too much time in this gifted/bright debate and it would be better if you spent that effort in a passion area. There is a thin line of difference here and regardless of a misidentification; a misdiagnosed gifted child would be more at risk as compared to a misdiagnosed bright child.

My advice to you is to stop reading into giftedness too much or comparing yourself with anyone. You are what you are and I believe you want to be appreciated. You are doing well now which shows that you can do well - keep up the good work and be the best that you can be. Think about what you would like to do and what you are good at. Then go on with that passion and do something that makes you happy. Usually gifted students are very passionate with world concerns and would get immense satisfaction when they are able to contribute to make a difference. Find your passion now - the past has gone and GEP today is way better than it ever was - so is the mainstream curriculum.

Wishing you all the best in your beautiful journey!


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