I’ve been thinking lately about how “smart kids” are often at risk in ways that are easy to overlook, and what we can do about it. And I would like to hear your thoughts, too.
In fourth grade, I was one of three students selected to participate in a “Gifted & Talented” program. My parents were so proud; I was one of the “smart kids,” a brilliant writer and a natural actress, and life was going to be so easy for me.
And sometimes, things were easy for me. But sometimes, they weren’t.
Being a “smart kid,” whenever I struggled with something that wasn’t immediately easy, I felt profound insecurity. What if I wasn’t “Gifted & Talented”? What if it was all a mistake? What if I was…an impostor?
With that insecurity always in the back of my mind, getting the right answers, best grades, and lead roles in school plays wasn’t about learning; it was about proving, to myself and the world, that I deserved that “Gifted & Talented” distinction.
Perhaps worse, I was afraid to take risks that might show me off as anything less than innately brilliant. When given more choice in my high school classes, I avoided subjects I found difficult, padding my schedule with all English and Social Studies while skipping Math and Science. I stopped trying out for school plays, afraid of not being cast as a lead. And when college application deadlines loomed, I had a nervous breakdown, so terrified that certain schools might reject me that I couldn’t even bring myself to complete the applications.
And as for writing, supposedly my greatest “natural talent,” I hoarded everything I wrote and never managed to finish or submit a single manuscript for publication. Because even one rejection letter wouldn’t have just meant that my story wasn’t good enough; it would have meant that I, as a human being, was not good enough.
I’m grateful that schools such as mine want to invest in developing students’ talents and gifts. But at least for me, the “Gifted & Talented” label unintentionally contributed to what psychologist Carol Dweck would call a “fixed mindset”: the belief that our traits, such as intelligence and talent, are fixed and unchangeable. You’re either smart, average or dumb; good at something or not. The idea that I could make myself smarter by studying or practicing, or that my teachers actually had anything to teach me, didn’t factor into the equation. Smart = good grades = smart, that was all I knew.
Today, thanks to the work of Dweck and others, we understand intelligence and ability so much better. We know these are things you can improve with learning and time. The categories are not “smart” and “dumb”; they are “learned that already” and “haven’t learned that yet.” As a fourth grader, I wasn’t more gifted or talented than anyone else; I had just learned a little more about theater, literature and writing, thanks to my parents, than many of my peers had. That didn’t make me smart or talented any more than it made my peers stupid.
It’s amazing how this simple shift in the way we think about intelligence can change a child’s life. In the EduGuide program, students complete short, weekly activities enabling them to develop their own growth mindsets. I am moved every week by the responses I see from these students. The activities revolutionize not just how they view schoolwork, but how they view their own identities. No longer burdened by being “one of the smart kids” or “one of the dumb kids,” all of these kids are finally free to learn, improve, and become the people they want to be.
Although I didn’t get involved with EduGuide until my 30s, it has changed me, too. I do the activities, myself. And I no longer feel the pressure I used to feel, to be perfect all the time. After years of never writing anything for fear of negative feedback, I’ve started answering creative writing prompts on Reddit, and sharing my short stories with the online world. The feedback isn’t always positive, but I read all the comments carefully, reflect upon them, and improve my stories and craft.
Because having room for improvement doesn’t mean I’m not smart or talented. It just means I have more to learn.
And this is where I would like to keep on learning with you. What have your experiences been with this issue? How do you think we can help the “smart kids” truly reach their potential?
– Emily Stivers, EduGuide Outreach Manager