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Teacher Magaret De Jesus shows Grade 12 biology students Chris Chung, Leila Meema-Coleman and Clinton D'Silva, how to use some equipment for an experiment at the Ontario Science Centre Science School in Toronto. The small school, takes on 30 dedicated students to learn about science. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Teacher Magaret De Jesus shows Grade 12 biology students Chris Chung, Leila Meema-Coleman and Clinton D'Silva, how to use some equipment for an experiment at the Ontario Science Centre Science School in Toronto. The small school, takes on 30 dedicated students to learn about science. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

'Gifted' - what is it good for? Add to ...

The applicants at this Calgary school for gifted students are already younger than most: Unlike a lot of similar programs, it starts with kindergarten.

But according to Hal Curties, the vice-principal of the Westmount Charter School, inquiries skew even earlier. "One was for someone who was 18 months old. And one from a mother whose child was in utero - but she was convinced that the child was going to be gifted."

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Such manoeuvres speak to an enduring misconception among parents about the "gifted" label - that it's a prize to covet, a first fateful step on a path to a child attaining the best education and the brightest future.

But a growing group of parents, educators and critics say striving parents should be careful what they wish for. The downsides of both special gifted programs and of childhood giftedness itself are leading some to question the logic behind the label.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor and researcher at Stanford University, is urging educators to rethink telling children they are gifted: "It implies that something was bestowed on them, the 'gift.' Rather than that they've worked for it."

Perhaps more important, it's becoming clear that not every bright child needs a specially enriched program, especially as the educational mainstream shifts toward student-centred learning, which tries to take account of every child's particular needs and ways of thinking.

Instead, the kids who need help are those at risk of dropping out or failing because they are facing emotional and social problems. In many cases giftedness is not a badge of distinction so much as a life problem that needs solving. And in the struggle over definitions and scarce educational resources, they are the ones who could get left behind.

Disabilities often accompany the advantages

Shari Orders, a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Ottawa, has been studying the decision-making experiences of 45 mothers whose children have been assessed as gifted by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

As opposed to the pushy "stage mother" stereotype, many of the mothers found giftedness to be more of a curse than a blessing. It brought with it a host of other issues, including heightened sensitivities, perfectionism and social deficits.

In Ms. Orders' study, 30 per cent of the kids had what she calls a "learning exceptionality" in addition to their giftedness, and, of that 30 per cent, half were identified as having a learning disability.

"People think they want gifted children," one mother told her. "They think they want the extraordinary. … But when you have it, all kinds of other stuff comes with it that you don't want."

One such problem is an "asynchrony" - a popular term in the gifted-education community - between a child's advanced intellect and his or her not-so-advanced age.

"Things you know about the world, you can't contextualize them as an adult. You contextualize them as a child," says Mr. Curties.

Among other things, this can lead to bullying and social isolation.

After her son began to withdraw from his Grade 3 class, Vancouver mother Erin Dyer pulled him out of school and sought a private assessment (his second - he had tested gifted in kindergarten). It got so bad, she says, his physical heath had begun to fail.

"He seemed sick at the very thought of school," she recalls. "He stopped reading and refused to respond to the teachers. He was shutting down, retreating into himself. He refused to participate in so many things that had once excited him. His enthusiasm for life and learning had vanished. He was skinny, pale and anxious. I felt desperate."

She decided to have him assessed at a clinic, the Vancouver Learning Centre. "I remember the night I found the VLC website and read their article on giftedness," she says. "A sense of relief flooded through me: 'Oh my God, finally, somebody understands my son!'"

Over the past few decades the definition of a gifted student worthy of special attention has been evolving away from the IQ-centred ethos that dominated the 20th century.

"The cognitive assessment is only one part of the package," says Deborah Lewis, a superintendent of learning support for the Calgary Board of Education. "There has to be a need. It's not just high grades."

That message hasn't trickled down to all parents, says Melinda Meszaros, who heads up the Gifted Children's Association of B.C.

"There is a huge competition to get into these programs," she says. Some of the parents advocating for their children don't realize their child may be gifted but well-functioning. Ms. Meszaros says the parents of the "mildly gifted" often lobby for spots that should rightfully go to others.

As one educator puts it, when they share the news of a recommendation for a placement, "You're not always congratulating parents."

Still, most parents are relieved. Calgary mother Ralamy Kneeshaw has two children at Westmount. Her son Aidan was admitted last year in Grade 3. And her daughter Avalon is new to the school in Grade 8 this year, coming from a junior high school that was "an 'open the textbook to page 43' kind of place," says Ms. Kneeshaw, where "being smart wasn't very cool."

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