Why We Need to Be More Mindful of How We Say “Gifted” {GHF Blog Hop}

In clarifying what "gifted" means in individuals, we distance ourselves from too narrow metrics.

Related: Why the Word “Gifted” Still Matters

 This essay is part of a GHF Blog Hop, which goes live at 8AM PT.

Last week my friend Celi Trépanier shared a link via Twitter to this article about the underachievement of verbally gifted children. I retweeted it, but I did so with mixed feelings.

On the one hand I think the article makes a lot of good points about how verbally gifted children learn holistically. Here at home we call this “code breaking.” This isn’t a reference to Alan Turing or 1940s era female codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. Rather it’s a reference to a long lost article I read years ago about how kids who teach themselves to read without aid from their parents–and before preschool age–are called “code breakers.”

Although I qualify as “verbally gifted,” I didn’t teach myself to read early. My kid did, however. And “how” he learns best is illustrated beautifully in this paragraph in that article:

Richard Redding believes that one reason verbally gifted children are at risk is because of their learning style. These children tend to be holistic or global learners. This means that they want to understand the “big picture” first and get the details later. They look for meaning and want to understand concepts and what those concepts imply. They aren’t motivated to memorize detail, which is usually what is found on tests, and are likely to see rote memorization as meaningless. For example, holistic learners aren’t motivated to memorize the multiplication tables. They would prefer to learn multiplication facts in a meaningful context. {Read more}

For the most part the article is fine, predictable even. Basically, traditional teaching skills are a poor fit for many verbally gifted kids.

What I disagree with in it most fervently is this sentence—and the sentiment that goes with it: “Verbally gifted children may actually be more at risk for underachievement than many other children.”

The Fault in Our Metrics

It’s pretty common in gifted literature to bump into the “oh, those poor underachievers” mindset. Mind you, there are kids and adults—many of whom are twice-exceptional–who struggle to live and learn optimally for a variety of reasons.

Hopefully, all gifted advocates want to see them get the help they need.

I disagree strongly, however, with the lingering conventional wisdom in the gifted advocacy world that dictates the primary yardsticks for lifetime “achievement” are necessarily the standard academic metrics: great grades, fantastic ACT or SAT score, top college, and a vibrant, public, bank-account-filling career.

In my experience working with gifted young people and adults (first as a university administrator and now as a gifted advocate), many of them—especially those who are verbally or artistically gifted—have their own internal metrics for success. They choose to live their lives in a way that feels optimal to them and may be in opposition to the “shoulds” of educators and researchers.

The reliance on an internal set of metrics is good for all of us. It is an especially good thing for verbally gifted people to have because, in contrast with gifted math or science folks, the number of opportunities for ample scholarships or prime, high-paying job opportunities are comparatively narrow for them.

Verbally Gifted in the Age of STEM

We live in a culture that has decided that STEM training is more economically viable in the workplace and relevant for all sorts of growing fields from solar power to national security. Yes, I know STEAM is the thing now thanks to the realization that design thinking is a a great skill–which opens us up to embracing a certain kind of creative thinking, but STEAM still leaves a lot of us out.

As a former director of a university career center, I am not disagreeing with the marketability of STEM degrees in adulthood, but let’s at least give a nod to another reality: the kid who geeks out on philosophy, linguistics, or medieval history has fewer direct, long-term, obvious, career options than her mathematically or globally gifted counterparts. [ETA: Interesting article here by Michael Ferguson regarding limitations on academic careers for high IQ individuals. H/t again to Celi.]

No wonder many of us look like “underachievers.” The metrics are oppositional to our impulses and inclinations. It’s discouraging.

“How” Matters as Much as “Gifted”

This brings me to my own answer to today’s GHF blog hop topic: “How do you say ‘gifted?’” Personally, I’m working on better qualifying what I mean when I use that word in the context of talking about a specific person. I’m working on saying “how” a person is gifted, signaling with my words what floats his/her mental boat and brings him/her to a state of “flow.” (More on flow here.)

Along those lines for me there’s a significant difference between being cognitively gifted* and being academically gifted. Oh, sure, there’s overlap between the two. If we drew a Venn diagram to illustrate this distinction, we’d find at the point where these two types of giftedness intersect, we’d find the “golden children” of public and private education: the kids with the stellar transcripts and resumes that lead educators to peacock about their alumni’s achievements.

How most people think of "gifted" | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.com

There are a lot of cognitively gifted people who would rather [fill-in-the-blank with something awful of your choice here] than sit in a classroom again. Might some of these people, now adults, may have or had undiagnosed dual exceptionalities? Sure. That might explain why they felt out of step in school.

It doesn’t mean, however, that their life and education choices—if satisfying to them—are less than ideal or nothing other than marks of “underachievement.”

Likewise, there are some bright young people who are “borderline gifted” and yet achieve “more” academically than their peers with higher IQs because they have an inborn knack for figuring out the game of academia and relish playing it. That’s fantastic.

But that academic path is not optimal for everyone–not even all the mathematically gifted people, and we need to stop holding all gifted people to the same narrow standard.

Why All of This Matters

Failure to acknowledge individual differences in experience, needs, and goals keeps us defining “success” by the same narrow standards in a way that is problematic and short-sighted. It reduces people to numbers in childhood and early adulthood rather than encouraging us to see the myriad facets of the gifted experience across the gifted lifetime.

It’s also subtly disrespectful and marginalizing.

With that “underachievement versus achievement” mentality, we stay stuck in the increasingly antiquated definition of “gifted” as being solely an issue for school settings, as if gifted kids flipped the switch to “Off” on their neurological distinctiveness when they head to the bus line for home.

Don’t forget that there are two opportunities to chat with me in person this week. Look here for a February 19 SENGinar on how to work and homeschool a gifted/2E kid and here for two in-person sessions  (one on homeschooling, the other on bullying) at a February 21 TAGT conference near Austin, Texas.

More GHF Blog Hop stops

February 2015 GHF Blog Hop | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.com

*”Cognitively gifted” can be broken down further into the standard categories of mathematically gifted, verbally gifted, and globally gifted. Also included here would be creatively gifted people (artists and musicians), but they don’t get as much attention in mainstream education.


  1. “In my experience working with gifted young people and adults (first as a university administrator and now as a gifted advocate), many of them—especially those who are verbally or artistically gifted—have their own internal metrics for success. They choose to live their lives in a way that feels optimal to them and may be in opposition to the “shoulds” of educators and researchers.” <—I agree, and the narrow scope of the metrics most people adhere to come from traditional school and it is highly influential and very pervasive. Even as a homeschooler, my son judges himself by traditional school, "academically gifted" metrics–and he doesn't always measure up. It is a huge paradigm shift we all need to work towards changing.

    "But that academic path is not optimal for everyone" Truth!

    And that Venn diagram is spot on! Excellent!

    • I was sweatin’ that Venn diagram, Celi. That thing worked all my OEs and impostor syndrome hot buttons. LOL!

      Ah, the travails of the verbally gifted. 😉

      • I was going to talk about the same bit. I find this with my son. He beats to his own creative little drum and doesn’t give a lick what anyone else thinks about it all. And, do you know what? He’s doing some cool stuff so I’m on his side.

        Also loved the Venn diagram 🙂

        • Leaning into their authenticity is a wonderful gift for any parent to give their child–but an especially powerful thing for an outlier kiddo.

  2. Pamela, I love this. I agree – so much emphasis is placed on the SAT scores and eminence. We lose sight of the fact that giftedness is wiring, not performance. I hope to teach my verbally gifted girls “to live their lives in a way that feels optimal to them and may be in opposition to the “shoulds” of educators and researchers.” They will find their sense of peace and accomplishment there. Thank you for such an insightful piece.

    • It is such an important thing to do and far more challenging for us as parents. But in the end, it’s the right thing to do for our kids–to teach them to gravitate to healthy internal metrics.

  3. Pamela, Such great points about the difference between academic and internal metrics for success. I would identify gifted underachievers not necessarily by how much they have not achieved in the academic world, but by how much they have failed to live up to those internal metrics. There are many gifted kids and adults who avoid, procrastinate, evade, “dumb down” and slack off due to fear, discomfort or lack of practice taking on challenges. They know they are letting themselves down and suffer because of it. While they may be able to rid themselves from the demands of external sources of judgment (e.g., grades, SAT scores), they still have to face why and how they are not reaching their own potential. A very difficult situation.

  4. When you mix self-esteem and a definition of giftedness linked to academic success – what happens when schooling is over? It leaves gifted young adults adrift, not knowing their own value because that value has been too narrowly defined by academic achievement. These are not the singular skills needed for a successful adult life.

    • Exactly. We really should emphasis for all kids to a broader set of values and metrics. It’s just healthier. Thanks for your comment, Maggie.

    • Unschooling can work great for kids in that demographic. Every family should pick what fits them. Many options, all valid if authentic and appropriate to their needs.

  5. Where do I begin? There’s so much here to think about. Basically, the “how” of giftedness is a great way to frame this. You always provide so much rich material, Pamela, with that rainforest mind of yours!

    • I love your “rainforest mind” metaphor, Paula. Sometimes it’s as if I can feel the rain beating on the inside of my brain and the monkeys calling. Nice to have a description to explain it.

  6. Thanks for writing! I love these bits especially: (1) the idea that some kids “have their own internal metrics for success”; and (2) your last line, “as if gifted kids flipped the switch to “Off” on their neurological distinctiveness when they head to the bus line for home.” Well put!

    • Thanks, Wenda. I think that, for some kids, those original metrics are what lead them to be misdiagnosed. For people entrenched in one standard set of norms, they can be very challenging.

      And I liked that last line, too. It sums up so much the issues that parents and educators are moving toward: thinking about the whole gifted child not just the “student.”

  7. This speaks to me where I am and where two of my kids are! Thank you. I think I need to read it again. I love this hop. Perfect timing and wonderful support/information!

  8. As I was reading this, I felt like this described me fully. I was considered “gifted” but I had a knack more for design than actual tests. I was smart but that’s because I wasn’t truly challenged until I got to 11th grade with most things. Even in college, I felt out of place because I like to do more creative things, but it is not encouraged because it does not pay as well or even get as much respect.

    I love this article and really does make me rethink about how my son is “gifted”. I also wish more people felt this way and we could change how things were.

    • Your story sounds like so many of the young men and women that I used to work with. I hope that you have found a good “fit” in adulthood and get to pursue what brings you joy. 😉

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