Is It OK to Call a Child "Gifted?"

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"Gifted" (or "Gifted and Talented") is actually a diagnostic term that, along with terms like "learning disabled," can help teachers craft appropriate educational programs and experiences for students who learn differently. The reality, however, is that the term is used differently in different places, and the criteria for giftedness vary. While giftedness is a real and significant learning difference, there are debates surrounding the use of the term. Some worry that the label can have a negative impact on the gifted child or others in their lives. In addition, there are significant issues surrounding the gifted label and racial equity.

What Does Gifted Mean?

The term "gifted" has been used for over 100 years to refer to children with unusually strong intellectual abilities. About 6% of American children fall into the "gifted" category.

The Marland Report, an important document about giftedness written in 1971, describes giftedness as: "Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities." This definition is currently included in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

While this national description is used in some settings, the reality, however, is that this broad definition of giftedness is rarely used in schools today. Only 37 states currently have a definition of giftedness at all, and many describe it as a function of IQ. Typically, the term "gifted" is used to describe children with an IQ over 130. In other words, a child may be very talented in music, art, athletics, or other fields, but these abilities don't necessarily qualify them for gifted programming where it is available.

Having a high IQ does not necessarily make a child high achieving, but it does create a range of differences and challenges that are important to address in the school setting. For example, gifted children may find themselves ostracized socially, or they may become easily bored. "With or without the label, their minds work the same way [as any child]," says Gail Post, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist and author who specializes in giftedness. "They may feel confusion and pressure; they may become overwhelmed or anxious; they may exhibit perfectionism or rebellion. But they’re gifted regardless of the label, and will still feel socially different from their peers."

Controversies Surrounding the Giftedness Label

There are several important controversies surrounding the giftedness label. The most significant of these relates to the fact that the vast majority of children with a gifted diagnosis are White and come from English-speaking families.

Minority and non-English speaking children are vastly underdiagnosed, for a wide range of reasons. Racism is, of course, one major obstacle. Achievement tests for giftedness generally favor White, middle-class children. In some cases, wealthier parents pay for tutoring to help their children pass such tests. Scandals in major cities such as New York prove the unfairness of the educational system for families who lack financial and academic resources in their homes and communities.

In addition, says Post, some kids may be overlooked because they don't appear to be "gifted." "They may be shy and quiet. They may change their behaviors to try to fit in. They may not be high achievers. Or they may be twice-exceptional, meaning that they are intellectually exceptional but also have developmental disorders such as ADHD, autism, or learning disabilities," she explains. "Sometimes the struggle cancels out the giftedness, so a teacher will notice the hyperactivity and not the intelligence level." This means that many kids may be overlooked in favor of traditional "giftedness."

While it is clear that the giftedness label is unfairly distributed, it also seems clear that programs for non-White gifted and talented youth are very important, particularly in underfunded districts where opportunities for enrichment are rare and difficult to access.

There can be negative implications of giftedness for siblings and classmates who are not diagnosed as gifted. This occurs when the label is used to suggest personal superiority. In some cases, this type of unfair judgment can lead to sibling rivalry and a range of emotional issues.

Finally, when explained or addressed inappropriately, the gifted label can lead to a range of issues for the gifted child. "Gifted" children can develop emotional and behavioral problems from being separated from one's peers, loaded with high expectations, and told they are "better" than others. These issues might be avoided without the label.

If Your Child Is Diagnosed as Gifted

Often, children are diagnosed as gifted because of the intervention of a teacher or parent. The reasons may vary. In some cases, a child is precociously capable in one or more areas of academics. In others, they may show signs of frustration or boredom that could be the result of unusually high intellectual ability. When referred to a psychologist for testing, most children receive an IQ test, and it is the result of this test that leads to the label.

The outcome of a gifted diagnosis can be positive or negative, depending on the ways in which the diagnosis is explained and if appropriate interventions are provided. When the label is described improperly or undue pressures are placed on the child, the label can result in inordinate stress, anxiety, perfectionism, or other issues. When it is described and addressed properly, however, it can help to relieve the issues that evolve as a result of being intellectually different.

Del Siegle directs the U. S. National Center for Research on Gifted Education (NCRGE) at the University of Connecticut. While he is not uncomfortable with the term "gifted," he notes that the field is moving toward the use of terms that are more specific and address the talent area, like describing a child as "mathematically advanced."

Siegle also notes that the label can mislead families, leading to negative outcomes. "Parents, teachers, and the child might falsely believe that being gifted means you don’t make mistakes," he says. If too much emphasis is placed on the label, a child may feel they are only valuable for their giftedness, rather than for who they are. This adherence to the label can have negative consequences. "[Children] may avoid challenging tasks where they won’t perform perfectly for fear that any performance less than perfect means they are not 'really gifted,'" Siegle explains.

A Word From Verywell

The term "gifted" is so well-established and so commonly used that it's unlikely to disappear. Being diagnosed as gifted is certainly not a problem in itself, as it can lead to your child receiving the supports, enrichment, and resources they need to succeed. The key to avoiding potential issues, however, is to explain and describe giftedness appropriately, not only to your child, but also to their siblings and friends. Yes, a gifted child has exceptional intellectual abilities, just as other children have exceptional athletic or creative skills, leadership skills, and other strengths. Being gifted doesn't mean the same thing as always getting high grades, never failing a test, or always knowing best!

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cohen, Krystal. Young, Gifted, and Black: Inequitable Outcomes of Gifted and Talented Programs. Journal of Public and International Affairs. Princeton University, 2022.

  2. National Center for Education Statistics. Percentage of public school students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, by sex, race/ethnicity, and state.

  3. Matthews MS, Jolly JL. Why Hasn’t the Gifted Label Caught up with ScienceJournal of Intelligence. 2022; 10(4):84. doi:10.3390/jintelligence10040084

  4. Michigan State University Gifted and Talented Education. What does being gifted really mean?

  5. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection.

  6. The School Superintendents Association (AASA). Expanding the View of Giftedness.

  7. Davidson Institute for Talent Development. How Gifted Children Impact the Family.

  8. Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Gifted Social and Emotional Resources.

  9. Guignard JH, Jacquet AY, Lubart TI. Perfectionism and anxiety: a paradox in intellectual giftedness?. PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e41043. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041043

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.