Teach the Individual, Not the Label

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Arguments about the term "gifted" pop up constantly. Should we use the term when we talk about our child. Should it be replaced by another term? Is it the right label? Should we even label our kids at all? Those are just some of the questions that arise, inevitably leading to a debate. The questions really aren't that easy to answer, and every answer has valid reasoning. Of course, purpose and context can make a big difference in the validity of the different answers.

Should We Use the Term "Gifted" When We Talk About Our Children?

It's tempting to answer this question with a "no." So many people respond so negatively when they hear the word "gifted" that it can often be counterproductive to use it. It's as though their minds shut down or just switch to automatic negativity. They may not respond verbally, but their body language, including facial expressions, just screams what they're feeling: "I hate hearing about your gifted kid!" "You pushy parents think you're so great, but you're no better than anyone else!" It doesn't help that some parents ARE pushy and think they're great for having a smart kid. It doesn't help that some parents need to live vicariously though their children and so tell anyone within earshot about how smart their kid is. But those are the exceptions, not the rules.

The advantage of using the term "gifted" is that it is familiar and all-encompassing.

It not only covers their exceptional intellectual abilities, it also covers their social and emotional traits in ways that terms like "high ability" don't. The term "high ability" focuses on what a child can do rather than on who he is. Not using a term simply because of the reactions others may have to it solves nothing.

However, we should also be mindful of how and when we use the word "gifted." We should use it as we would to describe any of our child's inherent traits. That means we consider it as we would blond hair, curly hair, height, or anything else that makes our child exactly who she is. We should use it as any descriptor, not as a means of getting praise.

Should the Term "Gifted Be Replaced by Another Term? Is it the Right Label?

Over the years, new terms have been suggested as replacements for the word "gifted." But the goal of finding a replacement is rarely to find a more accurate description. Instead, the goal seems to be to find a word that does not evoke the negative emotions in others that the word "gifted" does. The goal seems to be to make people more open to supporting the needs of gifted kids. After all, if people don't get turned off by the term, they may be more willing to support policies that will help meet the needs of gifted children.

However, iit's really the concept people have a problem with, not the word itself.

Any new word will eventially take on the same negative connotations. That means that over time, once people pick up on the fact that the new term, such as "high ability" is just another way to way "gifted," they will respond just as negatively as they did when they heard the word "gifted."  Only then, we will have a harder time convincing others of the unique social and emotional needs of these children. The term "high ability" does not lead to an understanding of those unique needs.

Should We Even Use Labels?

The temptation here is to answer with "no." But labels are important. Virtually every noun is a label: "mother," "father." "education," "tree," and so on. Life would be much more difficult without any labels. If we know a person is a mother, then we automatically have quite a bit of information about that person already. That is true of every single label we use.

So yes, we should use labels, but again, we should consider the purpose. Are we using the label to enhance understanding or to create an emotional response? For example, if we use the term "gifted" to refer to those children with the traits that make them gifted, we are providing a wealth of information about that child - at least to those who are familiar with the term. But again, that is true for any term. If you didn't know what ADHD is, you wouldn't any better understand a child than you were before you heard him labeled with that term. If you didn't know what a mother was, you wouldn't understand a woman any better if someone labeled her as a mother.

But if a child is labeled - with any term - in order to get people to be envious or proud or ashamed or anything other than understanding, then ANY label is wrong.

How Labels Impact Education

Labels, no matter what anyone tells you, are the hallmark of education. Without labels, most teachers (not all) wouldn't know what to do with students. That is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification, but essentially, it's true. Children with ADHD need certain accommodations as do children with any learning disability. Teachers learn that some students are identified as having some disability or another and then learn what kinds of accommodations should be provided. Unfortunately, most teachers don't learn about giftedness, which is one of the reasons so many of them respond so negatively to it.

All children get labeled - some are poor readers, some are poor in math, some have behavior problems, some are excellent readers, some are excellent in math, some behave exceptionally well. There is simply no getting around labels. They can make a teacher's job easier than it might be without them.

Teaching Individuals, Not Labels

It's easy to say that teachers should teach individual children and not labels. But it's much harder in practice. It should be clear that it is impossible to escape labels.It should be equally clear that labels can be beneficial. So how, then, can educators teach individuals rather than labels?

The best answer is that they could use some labels as a starting point. That's what we do with most labels we encounter. For instance, once we learn a person is a mother, we have an initial set of information to work with, but we know that all mothers are not alike. We can gather additional information about them. What kind of mother? How many children does she have, and so on.

But we have to be careful that we don't rely exclusively on labels. For instance, there may be something about a particular mother that has nothing to do with her being a mother, but is important to who she is as a human being. And we certainly shouldn't think that because a person is a mother, she can't be or do anything else. In other words, the label can help us understand, but it should close off other options.

Also important, though, is the idea that teachers should try to start with a blank slate in mind for each child in their care. This means that they should keep an open mind for each child. We would like to think that a teacher can see for herself what each child can and can't do and then teach to those levels of abilities. She should be able to see if a child can read well or not.

But there is the rub. What if a child can't read well? Wouldn't it help to know why? If the child is dyslexic, then he needs a different kind of accommodation than a child who is reading poorly for another reason. That's where labels are important.

The key is being open minded and considering the needs of each *individual* child. If a child has a problem reading, the teacher should try to find out why and then provide the needed help. If the child is an exceptional reader, then provide him with more challenging reading. This is true for every child and every subject. Expecting a teacher to do all that without applying any labels is simply unrealistic. But we can certainly do a far better job than we are of treating children as individuals, regardless of any other labeling. Labeling can be done to help, but should never be done to hurt or ignore.

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