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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

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."

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."

After a couple of days at Westmount, by contrast, "[Avalon]said, 'Mom, I've met my people.' She found her tribe."

Still, once a child's in a targeted program or school, it's not all smooth sailing. A few more uncomfortable truths may have to be addressed - such as the fear of having the gifted label slip away.

"Gifted kids will often experience their giftedness as a big bag full of expectations. So there's some anxiety about being able to live up to those expectations," says Mr. Curties.

To help deal with such non-academic problems, Westmount teachers are now launching a pilot version of an "affective" (emotional) curriculum in their middle school.

For instance, teachers will lead kids into "supported failure" by asking them open-ended questions - such as whether euthanasia is ever justified - so that they can experience the frightening truth that there's not always a correct answer.

Skeptics to the left of them, budget-cutters to the right

Other critics, however, are calling into question the wisdom of bestowing the gifted label at all.

Dr. Dweck, the Stanford researcher, is known for her recent work distinguishing what she calls the "fixed" mindset from a "growth" mindset.

She has found that children who are designated bright after an IQ test are then less likely to try potentially difficult tests; over time, they often fail to match their original scores. Kids praised for their effort, not their smarts - those with a "growth" mindset - were able to improve their scores by 30 per cent.

Dr. Dweck believes being labelled gifted has the same effect, and many in the gifted-education community have embraced her perspective.

She is addressing a conference of the National Association for Gifted Children on Saturday in Atlanta, where she plans to outline the tension between the lingering attachment to the IQ test and the growing evidence that labels, however positive, hurt both the anointed and those left behind.

"Do we want to be remembered as people who categorized and labelled children," she says, "or as people who helped all children fulfill their potential?"

Eminent zoologist and author Desmond Morris recently stepped into the debate with his new book, Child: How Children Think, Learn and Grow in the Early Years - a look at human development from 2 to 5 in the same spirit as the author's famous The Naked Ape. It includes a chapter called, "The Dilemma of the Gifted Child."

"By all means, let that child develop. Don't hold it back," he says by phone. "But on the other hand don't make it feel too special. If you do, it's going to develop into being too odd. Into a kind of freak."

Meanwhile, the place of gifted education relative to the mainstream is very much in flux. On one hand, it has influenced the current thinking on how all students should be taught.

At the Atlanta conference on Saturday, gifted-education expert Joe Renzulli's talk will lob out this challenge: Now that general education has appropriated techniques such as creative problem-solving, thinking skills and problem-based learning, what's left?

"We used to think these were the province of gifted education, but now all kids should develop them," says Dr. Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talent at the University of Connecticut.

"So if they've stolen our thunder, what should we be doing to justify a separate expenditure of teacher training, research and things like that?"

On the other hand, Joanne Foster, who teaches at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, says the field is full of new ideas about how gifted children learn, but the implementation is spotty.

"The biggest problem is lack of appropriate teacher training," says Dr. Foster. She leads the sole OISE course on the subject. It is optional, and there are currently only 30 students in it.

The question is especially pressing because, bureaucratically, most gifted programs are housed in the special-needs departments of school boards. This sets them up to compete for funding with other kinds of special education.

Under current economic stresses, many people in gifted education say their best intentions are hampered by reduced funding and a patchwork approach that can vary even between schools in the same board or district. Their programs are made extra-vulnerable by the popular perception of giftedness as a lucky bonus, not a potential handicap.

Many critics also point out that the socio-economic status of the families of gifted learners is disproportionately high.

School boards across the country have responded by developing initiatives to raise the profiles of visible-minority, second-language students and recent immigrants in the gifted population, believing that giftedness occurs in about 2 per cent of the population, period. Still the stereotype persists.

For all these reasons, Mr. Curties, the Westmount vice-principal, notes that when cutbacks strike in many regions, the gifted co-ordinator is among the first to go.

Dissatisfied parents are looking elsewhere

Parents, in turn, have had to become professional advocates for their children. Vancouver mother Faye Parlow's two sons are now in their teens and spent their elementary years in gifted programs with tutorial support at the Vancouver Learning Centre.

But when her first son was having problems in kindergarten, Ms. Parlow says "the school system could give us no insight at all."

"We took abuse like you wouldn't believe. We were called pushy West Side parents. We were asked if the psychologist who did the testing was a friend of ours. The implication was, 'Had these been skewed?'"

Things worked out for the Parlows, but there are other refugees who aren't waiting for answers.

One Toronto mother, who asked that her name not be used, says well-meaning educators failed her when she was trying to find the right program for her son, now 15 - the kind of kid who, at at age 4, spends a summer making a violin and cello section of an orchestra out of strings and cardboard.

At school, though, he wasn't great at sitting still. "I kept hearing 'The problem is, he's bright.' … He was just scraping through."

They considered private schools and gifted programs, but the family found them too segregated. "I looked at every program in town and, frankly, they were all little white boys," the mother says. "We live in Toronto. I don't see the point of that."

Finally, after a period of home schooling, they found an alternative school that started in Grade 7. "Now he's right in the middle of everything."

Melinda Meszaros, also disappointed with the school system, has been home schooling her 13-year-old son - a big fan of particles and astrophysics - since he was assessed as gifted when he was 6.

She turned to an online academy many in the gifted community favour, Ebus Academy. "It made life possible for us," she says.

Erin Dyer says that home-schooling, using the Vancouver School Board's distance-education system with some tutorial support, also has worked for her son, now 10. His health is flourishing and he's become engaged, excited and confident.

"You seem very happy," she recently said to him as she picked him up after a tutoring session.

"He said, 'Well, people are happiest when they are allowed to really think, aren't they?' "

Other options, depending on a child's needs and a family's means, include private schools, International Baccalaureate programs and French immersion. There are also specialty programs such as the elite Grade 12 program run by the Ontario Science Centre in conjunction with the Toronto public-school system.

Some parents are also using pre-school programs to help iron out the challenges gifted kids face in advance. The owners of the Thronhill, Ont., branch of the tutoring chain FasTracKids - although as success-oriented as many others - say their own experiences in such programs led them to embrace a model that focuses on developing the kinds of "soft" skills that brainy kids need to avoid being singled out as oddballs.

'We believe all children have talents'

One school in Canada has already fully adopted Dr. Dweck's theories: At the Fern Hill elementary schools in Oakville and Burlington, Ont., there are no gifted designations.

Teachers specialize in single topics, so they can encourage children to proceed at their own pace. And every child undergoes Dr. Dweck's "Brainology" computer training, which helps them understand how their own brains work and the merits of effort over innate talent.

"We believe all children have talents," says Debbie Bell, head of the Oakville campus.

And then there are the parents whose greatest hopes for their children are that they remain brilliantly ordinary.

Vancouver mother Sonia Macnair, for one, is clear about the perils of the "gifted" world. After running the gauntlet with her son, she's not keen to do it again.

"We have a daughter, now, too, and she is almost 3. And when people ask me if I think she is gifted too I say that we hope not!"

Likewise, though Daria Hasselmann's six-year-old son Noah has had an impressive vocabulary for years - and a sideline in foreign accents he ascribes to characters in books - the Vancouver mom has resisted all advice to have him tested.

"Do I think he's gifted? Sure, in one area. But I think all children are gifted in one area," she says.

"Did I want to put him in a specifically gifted program? No."

Tralee Pearce is a reporter for the Life section of The Globe and Mail.