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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

The Dangers of Labeling Children

Linus, the “Peanuts” character, announced after his first day at school that he had the worst thing a kid could have – potential.

This scene may be played out in many families when young children come home and announce they have been declared Gifted and Talented.

In some states, children are declared forever gifted and talented by means of an individual intelligence quotient (I.Q.) test usually given in first grade. The children who achieve a score of 130 are given this distinction even though I.Q. tests are not measures of children’s native intelligence but are measures of children’s performance on that particular test. This score is not a permanent, unchangeable figure.

Children’s motivation and ability to concentrate are only two of the variables that can change scores. In some places, children who do not score high are forever declared ungifted and untalented.

This designation can be a burden for both groups and has the potential for discouragement in families where one member is designated G and T while another member is not.

Again, we are in the business of labeling children. Labels tend to stick and children live up to our best and worst expectations. Families tend to say sentences like: “This is Mary, she’s our brain and this is John, he’s our athlete.”

It has always been a puzzle to me why adults need a score on an I. Q. test before they decide what children can or cannot do.

Even though I had the I. Q. tests available to me, it never occurred to me to test my sons, mainly because the score would not have given me any more information than I already had from knowing them and seeing what they could and could not do. I expressed confidence in them to do their best and was not disappointed.

Suppose I did the testing and one boy scored 100 while another scored l25. Does this mean I should steer one away from calculus while I push the other to excel in it? I. Q. scores do not give that kind of information.

As a matter of fact, calculus is a simple elegant discipline easily learned by all students who have not been brainwashed in advance to fail it or to avoid it. I believe that we have not begun to use the potential of the human brain and most people are capable of accomplishing whatever they set out to do if roadblocks are not put in their way

There are some children who do very well on tests because they have learned the lessons in the textbook well. There are other, equally talented children, who do not do as well on tests because they see another way of doing the problem which may be more creative but does not yield the textbook answer.

Both groups should be rewarded and encouraged. Sometimes the maverick thinker is discouraged by schools because only those who give the textbook answers receive the “A” and recognition. Luckily, most children who act creatively, continue to do so in spite of what schools do or do not provide for them. Adults can be most helpful to them by not standing in their way and by providing them with the materials, the time and place they need in order to carry out their projects. Psychologist Teresa Amabile from Brandeis University studied creative people for nine years. She found that when people were inspired by their own interests and enjoyment, there was a better chance that they would explore unlikely paths, take risks and in the end produce something unique and useful.

Another psychologist, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, found that very inventive people were in many ways quite ordinary. Many were lackluster pupils, neither especially well educated nor particularly brainy.

While creative people were intelligent, high I. Q. was no guarantee of success and sometimes too much education got in the way. The danger in education, he concluded, was that picking up rote methods for doing things sometimes precluded more creative solutions.

My own son’s experience with the Gifted and Talented program probably is similar to that of other children. He was picked by teacher recommendations and achievement test scores. The district falsely assumed that G and T enrichment could take any form since those children so designated were gifted and talented in everything.

This is rarely the case. In his school, the G and T children were taken out of the regular classroom and given extra work in language arts. Since this was a subject my son had to work hard at to earn his “A”, he was not very keen on doing more of the same. He lasted one semester and then asked to be let out of the program.

His main complaint was that he had so much extra work to do that he did not have time for his own projects outside of school.

At that time, he was involved in building rockets with his friends. I never felt he became less Gifted and Talented because he had given up that label at school.

Most students are more motivated by challenging learning environments. All students, who have mastered the basic curriculum, should have the opportunity and be encouraged to engage in enrichment activities according to their talents and interests. Above all, schools should avoid labeling children and thus engage in self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some children whose self-worth is closely attached to the label of Gifted and Talented, become afraid to take chances because they might be “found-out” not to be really gifted. In extreme cases, they might stop trying because of fear of not being perfect. Getting less than an “A” is considered failure by some very talented students. Since all children have the potential of being adept or skillful at some level in some area, that potential deserves to be nourished, nurtured, and encouraged.

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