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A Brief History on Gifted and Talented Education and Its Evolving Perceptions

Should I put my kid in GT?

Many advocates for gifted and talented education frequently find themselves having to justify to a parent why they should allow their child to be in their school’s gifted and talented program after they have qualified for it. 

Is it REALLY that much different from the other classes?

Aren’t they just going to have to do more homework?

Won’t they be viewed as nerds?

I’ve seen the GT program here and was not impressed - it’s just a bunch of fluff and silly projects.

I don’t understand why my son was identified as GT. His sister gets much better grades while he spends his days either daydreaming or sitting in the principal’s office

When attempting to justify labeling a student as GT, it all comes back to the social and emotional needs of students who truly fall within this category.

To better understand what it means to identify a child as “gifted”, it will serve well to look back at how the identification and education of gifted and talented students began as a field of research and has continued to evolve over the last 130 years.

Significant research exists to document the changed perception that occurs in teachers, family members, and peers when children are identified as gifted. The influence of these changes on gifted students is only beginning to be understood.

A Brief History on the Effects of Gifted Labeling

“It may be that poor psychological well-being is preventing gifted and talented pupils from fulfilling their potential” (T. W. Jones, 2013)

Early Research in Psychopathology

The first formal links between giftedness and indicators of mental health are traced to the 19th Century criminologist Cesare Lombroso in his 1891 book The Man of Genius. In this work he identifies what he calls the ‘divergence hypothesis’, which argued that exceptionally high levels of intelligence are associated with maladjustment and potentially psychopathology.  His work was later also supported by early 20th century theorists such as Witty and Lehman (1929) & Kretschmer (1931).

Leta Hollingworth (1931 & 1942) found that young people with IQs greater than 160 are too different from their peers to avoid social isolation. She identified the ideal range of giftedness  to be between an IQ of 125 and 155; anything above this may lead to problems with involving a poorer psychological well-being. There is a subset of gifted and talented individuals who experience poor mental health and social adjustment.

The Termites

One of the most famous names in gifted education is Lewis Terman. His work started in the 1920s, but his 1947 work Genetic Studies of Genius is considered by most to be the first empirical study of the attributes, characteristics & outcomes for gifted individuals. His study included a sample of over 1,500 gifted people, referred to as The Termites (all with Stanford-Binet IQs over 140). The results indicated that there was no difference between the well-being of these individuals and non-gifted members of the general population.

Extracurricular Interest, Involvement, and Exclusion

Tannenbaum evaluated adolescent attitudes towards academic brilliance. In 1962 he published his findings which revealed that giftedness was not a stigma in itself; however, it became an unacceptable attribute when combined with other traits such as lack of interest in sports or greater-than-average time commitment to schoolwork. 

Just two years later, Torrence published an exploration of negative peer sanctions used against highly creative children by groups to keep their most creative and talented members in check. However, three studies in the 1980’s [Covington (1984), Marsh (1986); Rosenberg, Schooler & Schoenback (1989)] found robust links between mental health and curricular and extracurricular success. These findings point to the possibility that poor psychological well-being may actually be preventing gifted and talented pupils from fulfilling their potential.

Stereotypes and Labels

There have been several studies that look at the impact of a child being labeled as “gifted”. Halperin & Luria (1989) found strong evidence of negative stereotyping of children labeled as gifted. Patchett & Gauthier (1991) found in their studies that the word gifted comes with a set of publicly recognized connotations that instill respect, yet some  people identified as gifted experience problems in relationships specifically because they have been labeled gifted.

Similarly, Nail & Evans (1997) determined that there is a common perception that giftedness is inexorably coupled with poor psychological well-being. This supports the notion put forth by Cross in 1999 that gifted students are often living in a world that sends them mixed messages, many of which convey unfavorable notions about the meaning of giftedness.

Balanced and Well-Adjusted

While this all may seem bleak, two studies did shine a much more positive light on the development of those identified as gifted and talented. Swiatek (1998) found that the social challenges that come with giftedness produce in many coping strategies utilized by gifted adolescents to reduce perceived social stigmas. Likewise, Walker & Pernu (2002) found that the gifted were in fact better adjusted than the ‘normal’ population

A Brief History on the Effects of Teacher and Family Perceptions of GT Students

“If adults are led to believe that psychopathology in gifted children is natural, or even expected, then they will not see fit to highlight a concern when very able youngsters begin to display signs of mental ill-health” (T. W. Jones, 2013).

Training Matters

As early as 1953, Epstein found that teachers’ perceptions of students labeled as gifted and talented often correspond to the level of teacher training in gifted education or teachers’ beliefs regarding diversity. Not surprisingly, in 1980 Nicely, Small, & Furman determined that teachers with less knowledge of the programs viewed gifted students more negatively.

The research of Copenhaver and McIntyre (1992) demonstrated that teachers’ perceptions of gifted students differed significantly and could be correlated with two factors: whether teachers had taken courses or workshops on gifted education and the grade level that teachers taught.

So Does Experience 

Hansen and Feldhusen (1994) and Hanninen (1988) found definite and measurable differences between experts and novices, teachers trained and untrained in the area of gifted education. The differences were reflected in the teacher–learning process through the use of critical thinking skills and in student–teacher interactions. Clearly, teacher perceptions are colored by their knowledge of gifted programs and their training in the field of gifted education. Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that teacher perceptions produced measurable differences in the classroom.

How Teacher Perception Helps

Equally, if giftedness is shown not to be associated with psychopathology, it is vital that adults working with gifted and talented youngsters are encouraged to highlight concerns over their students’ psychological well-being, rather than dismissing it as merely being part of their expected profile (Nail & Evans, 1997). 

Family Matters

Cornell (1989) reported that parent use of the term "gifted" was negatively associated with several indices of adjustment. Children whose mothers used the term reported relatively lower self-concept, higher levels of anxiety, and lower rankings by their classmates on a peer sociogram. Furthermore, Cornell (1983) found that nongifted siblings of gifted children are significantly less well-adjusted than nongifted children in families without gifted siblings.

These findings directly contradict published studies by Colangelo and Brower (1987) who found that gifted and nongifted siblings did not differ on general self-esteem, even 5 years after they were identified as gifted. Tuttle & Cornell (1993) also determined that labeling someone as gifted does not necessarily negatively affect the sibling relationship.

A Brief History on the Effects of GT Students’ Self-Perceptions

“The gifted and talented label is often seen as a mixed blessing” (Hickey & Toth, 2009).

It's Mostly Positive 

Guskin, Okolo, Zimmerman, and Peng's (1986) research found that gifted students have highly favorable views of themselves, they believe that giftedness can be attained by hard work, and they also perceive others as treating them no differently or more favorably. Only a minority reported negative reactions from peers. Students reported that they perceived the gifted label as associated with high status, especially from parents and teachers.

But Not for Everyone 

In Gifted: The Two-Faced Label by Robinson (1989), it states that labeling is a social process that can have both positive & negative effects on the labeled student. A majority of students report positive or neutral comfort levels with the label of gifted; approximately 1 in 6 gifted students indicates extreme discomfort.

Gender Differences 

Bartell and Reynolds (1986) determined that gifted girls experience more positive psychological well-being than gifted boys and had higher self-esteem than gifted males while

Loeb & Jay (1987) found better self-confidence and self-concepts for gifted girls compared to gifted boys. 

Baker (1995) states that gifted boys were found to experience lower levels of depression than the gifted girls. Similarly, Cross, Cassady & Miller (2006) reported that gifted boys experienced less suicidal ideation than the gifted girls.

Personal Versus Social 

While it may seem to go without saying, Davis and Rimm (2004) found evidence to support that labels cause children to perceive themselves differently. And, Feldhusen and Dai (1997) determined that most of the students viewed their own ability as something that grows with effort (it is incremental).

Kerr et al. (1988) published that gifted adolescents viewed giftedness as having a positive effect on self but a negative or ambiguous effect on others. Giftedness was perceived as an advantage in terms of personal growth and academics but, at the same time, was perceived as having strongly negative social implications.

Hoge & Renzulli (1993) explored the issues of (a) whether the self-concepts of gifted and average children differ, (b) the effects of labeling on self-esteem, and (c) the impact of special placement on self-concept. They said that gifted children display only a moderately higher self-concept than more average children. Manaster et al. (1994) found that these negative stereotypes come from those who know them the least, their classmates in general, not from those who know them the best, their parents, teachers, and friends.

To Sum It All Up

According to Moulton et al. (1998), the five most positive attributes identified in gifted students were internal gratification, unique identity, advanced learning in school, interaction with other gifted students, and special experiences in gifted and talented classes. Stereotyping remained one of the five most negative aspects. Also included among the five most negative attributes, and not reported previously in the literature, were pressure/expectations of parents and pressure/expectations of teachers.

Most of the information in this post was taken directly from the following articles:

Berlin, J. E. (2009). It's All a Matter of Perspective: Student Perceptions on the Impact of Being Labeled Gifted and Talented. Roeper Review, 31(4), 217-223. 

Giani, M., Alexander, C., & Reyes, P. (2014). Exploring Variation in the Impact of Dual-Credit Coursework on Postsecondary Outcomes: A Quasi-Experimental Analysis of Texas Students. High School Journal, 97(4), 200-218.

Greene, M. J. (2006). Helping Build Lives: Career and Life Development of Gifted and Talented Students. Professional School Counseling, 10(1), 34-42.

Jones, T. W. (2013). Equally Cursed and Blessed: Do Gifted and Talented Children Experience Poorer Mental Health and Psychological Well-being?. Educational & Child Psychology, 30(2), 44-66.

Kezar, A. (2001). Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Implications for Higher Education. Innovative Higher Education, 26(2), 141.

McHugh, M. W. (2006). Governor's Schools: Fostering the Social and Emotional Well-Being of Gifted and Talented Students. Journal Of Secondary Gifted Education, 17(3), 178-186.

Morrison, W. F. (2001). Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities and Gifted and Talented Behaviors: Paradoxical or Semantic Differences in Characteristics?. Psychology In The Schools, 38(5), 425.

Reis, S. M., & Renzulli, J. S. (2004). Current Research on the Social and Emotional Development of Gifted and Talented Students: Good News and Future Possibilities. Psychology In The Schools,41(1), 119-130.

Seeley, K. (2004). Gifted and Talented Students at Risk. Focus On Exceptional Children, 37(4), 1-8.

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