Unpick some of the common unhelpful assumptions about ‘gifted students’ to better support individual needs, with Jamie Lynn Neal.

Take a moment and imagine the most intelligent person you can think of – perhaps it’s a real person, perhaps it’s a television character. Depending on your generation, you may visualize Doogie Houser, Sheldon Cooper, or even Jimmy Neutron. All of these television characters are highly motivated, organized, driven, and intelligent. They are also all gifted in a science-based category. Giftedness isn’t just science, and gifted people aren’t all driven and goal oriented. If a student is identified as gifted in Math, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically gifted in their English Language Arts (ELA) class, or a highly talented musically inclined student may be incredibly forgetful and disorganized.

Gifted students are some of the most misunderstood individuals and arguably the most underdeveloped resources we have as a nation.

What are the common misconceptions?

They are misunderstood because we often categorize them as science nerds stereotyped by a television character. To begin to understand gifted students, we need to understand that a gifted student is leaps and bounds different from every other gifted student in existence. No two can be understood or have services provided to them in the same way, pace, or space. A common misconception is that a gifted student is simply “smart” and with that comes the identification of being responsible, driven, and active in their school. This is a narrow and inadequate perspective. This characterization may be true for some gifted students; however, it is not fair or effective to generalize these students. Gifted students could be gifted in the following areas: content-specific giftedness (music, science, ELA, etc.), leadership, athletic, creative thinking, and twice exceptional. Content-specific giftedness is an area where educators have the most experience and therefore are more comfortable offering services in a specific context.

Why can gifted students be overlooked?

In a modern classroom, educators are responsible for perhaps 30-120 students, including the state standards, evaluations, administrative paperwork, student relationship building, parent communication, differentiation, and Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Educators have a lot on their plate, each with their own regulations and even law-binding requirements. When an educator is gifted with a talented student to whom the content seems to come naturally, they worry about them less; that student is ‘fine’, and they get the content. Perhaps when they finish early, you give them another worksheet, use their work as an example, have them grade essays for another class, or even help the struggling students better understand. Unfortunately, this gifted student is being conditioned to view school as extra work or they are taught to feel responsible for other students who struggle. This creates an environment where the gifted student begins to resent school and their intelligence, even hiding their giftedness by intentionally performing poorly on assignments. Students learn this early in their school career and, by the time they get to middle and high school, they can be angry, with their head down in class, failing.

Supporting mental health

The mental health struggle of gifted individuals is a real and present issue. Gifted students often feel misunderstood both at home and in school, they can be isolated, and have not developed the skills necessary to understand and utilize their ‘gifts’ and interact with their peers in a healthy way. The first step to doing better as a parent or educator is to understand that all students have individual needs. Find something that the student connects with, discover what their strengths and interests are and, from there, try to link your content back to an interest or strength they have. For example, if you teach history and have a Math-gifted student, find a way for them to do the Math behind military expenses or troop to weapon ratios in specific battles.

The human mind is a complex system and our understanding of how and why it functions the way it does is as limited as the percentage of its potential that we utilize. It is important to remember that all students have areas of strength and if those areas can be tapped into early and nurtured, students can have a more positive school career with fewer mental health struggles; they can discover their passion and purpose and lead a more productive and fulfilled life.


  • Jamie Lynn Neal

    Jamie is a 7-12 ELA teacher with an endorsement as a Gifted Intervention Specialist. She has an MA in Education and a BA degree in English and journalism with minors in history, applied writing and digital media technology. She came to Education in an informal way by teaching in Florida while taking education classes at night.

    View all posts