Misdiagnosis: What We See and What We Don’t

It has been very humbling for me to attend a drawing class with my teenage daughter. The instructor tells me that it is harder for me (the old one) to see the pear we are drawing because my mind wants to draw what it thinks a pear looks like. Look for form he tells me. Recognize and mark the edges. Notice the shadows and the light.  Consider values as you begin to shade it in. Two hours and 20 sketches later, I think I am making progress. When I get stuck in my “way of seeing” he will ask if he can take a turn and I  watch to see which forms he draws, where he makes his marks and how he approaches shading.  I am startled to see things on his picture that I hadn’t seen myself and when I look back at the pear, I realize they were always there. How could I have missed it? He tells me that he has been learning to see what he is drawing for years.

Having worked with gifted children for 14 years of my career, I have come to understand that for many it can be hard to “see” children who are gifted. There are plenty of archetypes that that can inform understanding as well as varying definitions that can predispose us in a particular way and so it isn’t surprising when people are confused or frustrated by what it means and doesn’t mean to be labelled “gifted”. I was reminded of this the other day when a colleague sent me a link to the video Rethinking Giftedness. In it, Stanford students reflect on the impact the gifted label had on them, and their responses were primarily negative. The video makes a very compelling argument about the danger of labels for both students who are gifted and those who are not and it is easy to be drawn in to the argument that we should focus on a growth mindset as opposed to gifts which makes perfect sense…if you think giftedness is about achievement.

It is important to note that I do not doubt the veracity of the statements and observations shared by the students in the video, in fact I applaud their courage in sharing their insights. Their struggles are very real and I have seen them reflected in many of my  students. Part of what I try to do is help students understand what giftedness is and what it is not because many of the students who are referred to me are referred because they are struggling; the label simply gives us some insight into what might be the nature of that struggle. But if they or the people in their lives don’t understand the many “forms and shades” of giftedness, the label can create all kinds of problems. Does that mean we should stop identifying and supporting these children? If we don’t “identify” the giftedness they can often be “misdiagnosed” with other labels: behavior problem, superstar, rude,  immature, rocket scientist, arrogant, brainiac, annoying, intense, over-emotional, lazy… many of which I know can be just as problematic and fail to “see” what might really be going on. Having the label gives us another way of “seeing” them, if we understand what the label means in all of its complexity. But there is a point in the film that is well made- the label should not be the identifier. Children who are gifted are first and foremost human beings, just like everyone else, wonderfully unique in their own individual way, who may or may not be achievement oriented.

For other insights into misdiagnosis, please check out some of these fine posts here or click on the link below:

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4 responses to “Misdiagnosis: What We See and What We Don’t

  1. “Children who are gifted are first and foremost human beings”
    Yes!
    Unfortunately, as long as the gifted talent development people continue to push their faulty model of student achievement as soon and as great as possible, kids will continue to view the gifted label as a curse.

  2. I completely agree with your statement about the importance of helping children understand their giftedness. We must help them come to terms with what it means so that they do not feel pressured and confused by the label. I also support your point that they will be labeled anyway, and the gifted label provides clarity and understanding about their unique differences.

  3. Yes! That was exactly my reaction to the video, too. When a label is used, but not explained, it is of little help, and can be damaging. We need to identify and then take it to the next step to help gifted kids and adults understand all the complexities of their particular brand of giftedness, and to help others in the world understand it, too. Thank you for the work you do!

  4. Thank you! Until more people thoroughly understand the term “gifted” and all its many potential facets, the gifted will continue to suffer with mislabeling and misdiagnosis. This said, the label is vastly important to educators, medical professionals, parents, and the gifted individuals themselves when it is used to shed light and provide the needed support regarding the often nonlinear trajectory of gifted development. I wish there were a better term, but nothing has stuck thus far. I nominate “complex learners”.

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