The gifted program does more harm than good

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

T.A.G., Talented and Gifted, Challenge, SAGE, MILE; the “gifted” program goes by many names. 

Many students will remember this program from their elementary school years as a single test that could be taken as early as kindergarten and would determine the fate of their elementary and secondary education from that point on. 

The program champions unique learning opportunities for students who score high enough on the test, lauding them as “exceptional” and “advanced” in academic, creative and social facets. 

Following the test, the students who scored high enough to be considered “gifted” are placed in different classes and told that their “advanced abilities” make them “exceptional” in the eyes of the education system. 

From that moment on, “gifted” will be a label that follows them until their high school graduation. Special treatment for being more intelligent than your classmates might seem great from an outside perspective. 

Still, over the years, a rising number of “ex-gifted kids” have been taking to social media platforms such as Tumblr and TikTok to shed light on what happens after students leave the elementary TAG programs. 

The ideology surrounding “gifted” kids throughout the elementary school years is one of continued accreditation. 

TAG kids have unbounded potential. They excel in school and social settings alike. They are mature and self-driven. They are going to make it in life. They are, to put it simply, different.

As a young child, these ideas are internalized and cemented as irrefutable facts. 

Before they even leave elementary education, these ideas can oust “gifted” kids from their classmates who didn’t make it into the program. There is a distinct divide between the two groups, which might come from the practice of openly calling one “intellectually and socially advanced” compared to the other. 

While the TAG kids get to build relationships with their other “gifted” peers, they inherently miss out on opportunities to form relationships with the rest of their classmates. 

Feelings of being “inferior” to “gifted” kids can also lead to self-esteem problems in students who did not make it into a TAG program.

When the time comes for “gifted” kids to leave the programs of kindergarten through fifth grade, they soon face the negative side of the TAG program.

A recurring theme amongst many of the “ex-gifted kid” social media posts is how the TAG program failed to set students up for success later in their education. The program neglected to teach helpful study habits, instead focusing on simply telling students how smart they were. 

This practice was backed by the straight As of success in educational material that was easier for the “gifted” kids.

Exceptional grades are commonplace for elementary school TAG kids because the material they are learning is not as advanced as they are at that time. As a result, many “gifted” students grow accustomed to earning high grades with little-to-no effort. However, as they transition to middle and high school, the material they were learning began to match their abilities, and it may even surpass them. 

Now met with more complex course material, “gifted” students found themselves unequipped to handle actually struggling in school, leading to overwhelming — sometimes debilitating — mental health impacts. 

Because of all the praise that “gifted” kids receive from adults from a young age, most develop a sense of obligation to succeed and live up to the “potential” they were told they had at a younger age. As they get older, seeing themselves not achieve these goals creates intense feelings of failure, anxiety and depression.

Your first thought upon hearing all this is most likely something like, “why don’t the students ask their teachers for help?” However, even though they are structured differently than their elementary school predecessors, middle and high schools still place “gifted” kids into special, “TAG level” classes. 

These classes will learn much of the same material as the non-TAG classes but are usually faster-paced and more in-depth, requiring students to scramble to keep up with what’s being taught. 

In addition, according to a study by Cambridge University, “Many educators do not recogni[z]e or meet the needs of gifted students as there is a false perception that they can look after themselves.”

This perception of self-sufficiency discourages “gifted” students from admitting that they are having trouble because they feel like they have to meet unrealistic expectations of self-sustainment. The pressure goes past academic success too.

“Gifted” children are also seen to be exceptional in areas of social interaction. 

They are, therefore, highly encouraged to pursue extracurriculars and leadership positions, piling even more onto their schedules. 

The effort exerted into maintaining the demands of school and personal life will eventually take a toll on these “gifted” students, regardless of how “advanced” they might be. 

Most “former gifted kids” report hitting a limit to their abilities but feeling like they need to keep going regardless in order to not feel like a “failure” or “disappointment.” 

This inevitably leads to “burnout,” a term to describe a state of mental, emotional and often physical exhaustion, and “imposter syndrome,” which describes feeling “inadequate” despite apparent, sustained success. Both of these experiences manifest via high anxiety and intense perfectionism. 

Given the stress put on high achievement from “gifted” students throughout their first 12-13 years of schooling, these same extreme standards, though mostly self-imposed at this point due to long-term emphasis, continue into college. 

At Tech, much of the student population comprises of “former gifted kids.” If you combine that demographic with the constant accreditation towards Tech students as being insanely smart, you end up with a very stressed, tired and overworked student population, afraid to make anything less than an A. 

While many universities, Tech included, claim to be taking steps to improve student mental health (seen at GT, specifically in dog visits, SMILE and the Wellness and Empowerment Center), the issue goes back to elementary schoolers taking a single test.