By: Paloma Santiago Shelton, 14 years old

After 5 years in the Gifted program, I still don’t know how to answer this question. The literal definition of giftedness is easy enough: The Ontario Ministry of Education defines giftedness as “an unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided”. In order to meet the learning strengths, interests and needs of the gifted learner, the program is differentiated by depth, breadth, pace. But that doesn’t quite answer the question of what it means in practice to be assigned as gifted. 

It’s no surprise that parents of gifted children are generally thrilled with the idea of their child being in an enhanced program. Who wouldn’t be pleased to hear that their child had an opportunity to engage in a more comprehensive education? Even so, giftedness and being in the gifted program come with a surprising set of problems that may not be evident when a student is first labelled as such. A lot of them are also things that I wish parents understood when selecting the Gifted enrichment program. 

For one, I’ve experienced the feeling of being put on a pedestal since I joined the gifted program, facing pressure from seemingly everyone. Even if they are unaware of it, parents, teachers, peers, etcetera all pile onto my own growing expectations for myself, making the idea of failure a truly frightening prospect. Many of my classmates and I have become unsympathetic for any failure we encounter, whether it be our own or that of others. As a result, many kids classified as gifted in elementary school bring the stress and anxiety from their elementary education with them to high school.

Beyond just churning out high-achievers obsessed with reaching perfection, the demands for high achievement cause other problems: gifted students feel discouraged from asking for help, feel competitive with even our closest friends, and have a sense of separation between gifted students and non-streamed students. Another challenge of giftedness that doesn’t get much attention is how some gifted students rely on their talent and never learn to work hard or efficiently. Because of so many tasks coming easily at a young age, gifted kids may never develop a positive work ethic to help them as they get older and as the work becomes more difficult. 

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all gifted students, but there are common problems we face. Students like me tend to procrastinate on starting work, yet spend excessive time on it due to a desire to make everything perfect. All this is then combined with problems that young teenagers deal with which aren’t sparked by giftedness, such as bullying, anxiety, insecurity, etcetera, putting an even greater load on our shoulders. Nor does giftedness necessarily provide any protection against broader societal problems such as sexism, racism, homophobia, or other forms of bigotry. 

Nevertheless, there’s no denying that being in the Gifted program has its benefits. It has exposed me to new academic challenges that helped me learn and grow, engaged me with my education, and introduced me to other students who think similarly and are passionate about their learning. Despite the challenges I had to overcome, I’m tremendously grateful for having access to a program that was better suited for me. 

I’ve always been an avid learner, devouring literature and constantly with my head in a notebook. That’s why I chose the International Baccalaureate (IB) program for high school, so that I could pursue my interests, develop skills for the future, have an enhanced academic education, and learn global citizenship. The draw for the Gifted program was that I could be an avid learner in a place that supported and encouraged kids with a similar inclination. It focused on the specific skills I wanted to improve: critical thinking, independent study, cooperative learning, and the social-emotional domain. 

Of course, I can’t speak for every gifted child there is. Just being in the same academic stream doesn’t mean we have a complete shared experience; I’ve been privileged in a lot of ways that others haven’t been, and I’ve had different struggles than others. Not to mention, despite still being classified as gifted, I’m no longer in the gifted program. I can’t definitively answer the question of what giftedness is. However, I wanted to write about what being gifted means to me, and how the experience of myself and my peers has shaped my life and my current experiences. 

So, as a general rule, what does it mean to be gifted? It means that as a young student, the rest of your elementary and middle school is going to change. Your academic journey will differ from those of others, as will your mental outlook. There are some positive and negative aspects to the new path you’ll take. There will be ups and downs, just as there would be by remaining in a mainstream program. It will shift your outlook on education and your future entirely.