Why We Need the Gifted Label

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Something of a debate rages within the gifted community on whether or not to use "that gifted word." Those on one side believe that the label is somewhat misleading and unproductive. They believe that the term does not adequately reflect who the gifted are and leads to negative responses from those who hear the term. The traits of a gifted person are not "gifts" and it's difficult to discuss the special needs of gifted children when people react negatively to the term "gifted." They prefer terms such as "high ability." Those on the other side believe that terms like "high ability" do not adequately reflect who the gifted are.

There are, after all, more traits to giftedness than ability, traits like intense sensitivities.

A third position is becoming popular today. That position is to eliminate the use of any term at all. The argument is basically that we should treat all children as individuals and provide for their individual needs. If we do that, there is no need for any label. I disagree. Not only are labels important, but the "gifted" label is the best one to use, until we come up with a better one that reflects not just the abilities, but the other traits of gifted children.

What's in a Label?

Human beings label everything. Labels are so common that we don't even realize that many of the words we use are actually labels. Labels are simply the words we use to refer to a group of similar things. We group items according to shared characteristics and then give that group a name, a label. The word "plant," in that sense, is a label.

So is "animal." Or "book." Or "magazine."

Why Do We Label Everything?

Without labels, the world would appear to be a rather chaotic place. When we group - or classify - things, we are providing some order to that chaos. On a very basic biological level, we have plants and animals. We can classify further into trees, shrubs, and flowers, and so on.

Those labels help us understand the items within the groups. We know a tree is not the same as a flower, no matter what kind of tree or what kind of flower.

Labels help us store and retrieve information in our brains. When we hear the word "tree," we mentally call up all the traits we understand that belong to those items that fit in that classification. If we hear the term "evergreen tree," we mentally call up an additional set of traits. We do this automatically. Those labels also help us communicate with others. If we use the term "evergreen tree," we don't need to add a description in order to get others to understand us.

Labels also help us get new information and understanding in ways such as comparing and contrasting. We can, for example, compare and contrast evergreen trees and deciduous trees. Most labels come from our having made comparisons and contrasts to begin with. For example, we notice that while all trees have leaves, some of them shed their leaves in the winter months while others don't.

We give the two types of trees labels so that we can better understand and discuss them.

That "Gifted" Label

The term "gifted" is simply a label for a particular group of people who share many similar traits. When we use that label, we are communicating information. Using "gifted" to refer to some children is far more descriptive than the word "children." To those who know about and understand giftedness, the term suggests ways in which this group of children is different from other groups of children and the different needs these children have.

The problem is that not everyone knows about or understands giftedness. But that is hardly a reason to eliminate the use of the term. It's a reason to work harder to get people to understand giftedness.

Why We Need That Gifted Label

We need the gifted label just as we need other labels. Do we hear about how we should eliminate the label dyslexic? Of course not. If we know a child has dyslexia, we know that the child has some special needs and we know what those needs are. The same is - or should be - true for gifted kids.

The label tells us about the traits of gifted kids and the special needs they have. Those special needs include, not just the academic needs, but the social and emotional needs as well. It is highly unlikely that eliminating the term "gifted" will accomplish anything useful. We can call gifted kids "high ability" kids, but that leaves out other traits, including asynchronous development. We can also eliminate using any term at all, but where does that leave gifted kids?

It leaves them out. We will be stuck with the attitude that either giftedness doesn't exist at all or that all children are gifted. In other words, if a child doesn't have a "problem" like ADHD, ODD, or one of the other alphabet disorders, then he is just like every other child. But gifted kids aren't like other kids, any more than evergreen trees are like all other trees. Gifted children are children, but the term "giftedness" tells us a great deal about those children who are assigned that label. We need to help others understand that label, not work to get rid of it.

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