News Flash: Your 4-Year-Old Isn’t Gifted

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Gifted and talentedI have a confession to make: my four year old child might not be gifted or talented. I mean, she might be. There’s obviously a possibility that the amazing little human being I call mine could be a complete genius who goes on to cure world hunger and establish peace in the Middle East. There’s just also a possibility that she might not. And call me crazy, but I don’t expect to know that when she’s still working very hard to master writing her name.

The Maryland State Board of Education is encountering some serious flack for considering a mandate to make schools identify and accommodate gifted and talented students from pre-kindergarten all the way through high school graduation.

The problem, argue groups like the ACLU and NAACP, is that identifying children as gifted and talented this early creates two separate tracks of education. The early-labeled gifted students get special attention and encouragement from the start, while other kids might not be given the chance to join advanced programs later on due to early learning difficulties. Says Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a politician who opposes the new mandates, “When you label kids, you have winners and you have losers, and the losers are black, Hispanic and low-income.”

Traditionally, minority and low-income children have less access to superior early childhood education. These kids are often coming to pre-k with little to no training or basic knowledge. Often, their parents haven’t had the opportunity to introduce them to letters or numbers yet. It’s not that these kids can’t learn or excel in school later, it’s that they’re starting off at a disadvantage. For these children, early labeling might stick them in a program where they don’t fit. And once the gifted and talented programs have been decided, it’s difficult to switch groups.

Personally, I was lucky enough to be labeled as an “advanced” child from a young age. I started taking extra lessons in elementary school and it lasted all the way through high school. I was on the privileged end of this early labeling trend. But I realize that for a child who didn’t start receiving this extra attention early on, it would’ve been almost impossible to catch up later in their academic career. In middle school, I started taking honors math classes. If I hadn’t made that choice in 6th grade, I wouldn’t have been able to take honors or AP math classes in high school. That’s seven years of math education that would’ve been very different without being considered an “honors student” at ten years old. Do we now want to start that process even earlier?

Looking at my four year old daughter, I’m worried about the propensity to label early on. What if she takes longer to adjust to school? Could that condemn her to remedial classes for the rest of her education, because she won’t be properly prepared for honors courses later? Or maybe she’ll be consider gifted and talented from an early age, only to become frustrated and nervous because of the pressure to constantly maintain that status.

I understand the need to address students at the level they’re studying. I think teachers need to make sure that they are challenging students, no matter what their initial educational aptitude is. But I agree that early labeling sets children on a path that can be hard to move off of. And it’s too difficult to tell at these young ages who is going to excel in certain areas and who is going to struggle. Children need time to develop their own learning format before we can determine what type of challenges they’ll need.

Perhaps we should be focused on lifting up every child, instead of creating a system that separates kids at such a young age.