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The Emotional Cost of Prevailing Myths about the Gifted
Steven I. Pfeiffer, Ph.D., ABPP, Florida State University
There are a number of myths in the gifted field, as there are in all fields. And these myths influence how we view bright kids as parents and as educators. Gifted Child Quarterly twice has published special issues on myths in the gifted field.
In my new book, Serving the Gifted1 I focus on a number of myths in the gifted field. One myth that I’d like to address in this article is the belief that “once gifted, always gifted.” This is, in my opinion, a dated myth that we should shed in the 21st century! This and other myths in the gifted field continue to influence how we approach young children and adolescents at the upper end of the distribution in important talent domains (Worrell, Subotnik, and Olszweski-Kubilius, 2013).
The myth “once gifted, always gifted” reflects 19th and 20th century beliefs that being gifted is something you are either born or not born with. That giftedness is a state of being, not reflective of unusually high functioning or performance compared to other individuals of the same age, experience, and opportunities. The truth is that giftedness is a societal construction, not something that is real. Giftedness develops in different domains, initially as high potential and at later stages, as extraordinary performance or achievement. Giftedness should be viewed as a developmental construct that is always the result of the dynamic influence of many factors–including general and specific abilities, motivation, personality, interest, opportunity, family input, education, and community resources (Ackerman, 2013; Gagné, 2005; Worrell, Subotnik, and Olszweski-Kubilius, 2013).
I often remind my students that there are many stories of late-bloomers who were never identified as gifted when they were young but ended up turning the world on its head with their later extraordinary accomplishments. And that there are also adults who were identified at an early age as gifted, based on a high IQ score (which is really nothing more than a very good but not infallible predictor of later gifted development), but who never later blossomed into extraordinary achievers or performers. The point is that giftedness is best viewed not as a static, “once gifted, always gifted” construct, but rather as the manifestation of the unfolding of outstanding performance, the result of many factors, in one or more culturally valued domains (Pfeiffer, 2008; 2012).
One of the very important implications of this viewpoint–some say it is radical!– that “once gifted, always gifted” is a myth best put to rest, is the notion that there is every reason to retest students who earlier have been identified as gifted. And, for that matter, to invite students who were not identified as gifted at a younger age because they just missed a specific cut-score, to be re-evaluated for gifted status. Periodic gifted re-evaluations in the schools makes perfectly good sense as best practices in gifted identification (Pfeiffer, in press), but is rarely practiced in today’s schools. Periodic gifted re-evaluations is consistent with everything we know about cognitive, neurophysiologic, and intellectual development: children change, sometimes a great deal, over time for a variety of reasons–sometimes children become smarter, and sometimes children become less intellectually proficient (Ackerman, 2013; Kaufman, 2013; Tough, 2012).
Research in my lab, following a cohort of students from kindergarten through the sixth grade, found that although IQ scores and scores on the teacher-rated Gifted Rating Scales (GRS; Pfeiffer and Jarosewich, 2003) were, in general, fairly stable over time, a number of students’ scores in our sample shifted significantly during the six-year period. Not just one or two students! In some instances, the scores shifted by 10 and even 14 points! Some students whose initial scores fell below the gifted threshold, upon second testing six years later obtained scores in the gifted range! And some students’ scores declined and actually shifted out of the gifted classification status! The take-home point is this: A child’s cognitive and intellectual status, although influenced, for sure, by genetic and neurobiological factors, is not static and far from set-in-stone; the trajectory of a child’s intellectual development can change, in a favorable or undesirable direction, based on a number of factors and influences over the course of his or her development (Ceci and Williams, 2011; Lohman and Korb, 2006).
Back to my concern about the emotional cost of the myth that giftedness is set in stone, that “once gifted, always gifted,” that giftedness is something that you are either born or not born with. The young child identified as gifted based on a high IQ score and the bright child who is tested but doesn’t quite score high enough to be considered gifted are both at risk for emotional difficulties–if parents and teachers believe the myth “once gifted, always gifted.” For bright children who test within the gifted range, the risk is that they can come to believe that their intelligence is a fixed entity within their brain, and that they don’t need to work too hard to stay gifted because they are gifted. Similar logic can cause confusion for bright children whose test score fall short of gifted. They can come to believe, if their parents and teachers accept the notion that one is either born gifted or not, that effort, hard work and motivation won’t help all that much; they’ll always be stuck as bright but never perform like a truly gifted person. This is obviously a dangerous and, of course, flawed and invalid belief–a myth! A myth that can come to play havoc on any developing child, either one who was identified early as gifted or as not gifted. The child risks not learning from his or her parents and teachers the very important lesson that hard work, frustration tolerance, motivation, perseverance, grit, commitment, and passion for a field always leads to good outcomes, and in some rare instances, even eminence in a field! Success in the classroom, in the lab, and in life, irrespective of tested IQ, is always a matter of one’s attitude, passion, commitment and motivation to succeed. IQ is important, for sure, but it will only get you so far.
Ackerman, P. L. (2013). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance: Talent and individual differences. Intelligence. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.04.009
Ceci, S. J., & Williams, W. M. (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s under-representation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 106, 3157-3162.
Gagné, F. (2005). From gifts to talents: The DMGT as a developmental model. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), Conceptions of Giftedness (2nd ed., pp. 98-120). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. New York: Basic Books.
Lohman, D. F., & Korb, K. A. (2006). Gifted today but not tomorrow? Longitudinal changes in ability and achievement during elementary school. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 29, 451-484.
Pfeiffer, S. I. (in press). Essentials of Gifted Assessment. New York: Wiley.
Pfeiffer, S. I. (2008). Handbook of Giftedness in Children. New York: Springer.
Pfeiffer, S. I. (2012). Serving the Gifted. New York: Routledge.
Pfeiffer, S. I., & Jarosewich, T. (2003). The Gifted Rating Scales. San Antonio, Texas: Pearson Assessment.
Tough, P. (2012). How Children Succeed. New York: Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Worrell, F. C., Subotnik, R. F., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2013). Giftedness and gifted education: Reconceptualizing the role of professional psychology. The Register Report, Spring issue. Pp. 14-22. Washington, DC: The National Register of Health Service Providers.