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The Effect of Labeling Kids

“Gifted and Talented”, “Advanced Placement”, “Accelerated Learning”. Tell me what doesn’t sound appealing about being categorized in one of those groups. Now imagine if you were a parent and you had the opportunity to have your kids be worthy of the accolade that it is to be regarded as special. Which reasonable parent wouldn’t? Yet, this brings up a problem. In our day and age, with more competitive college admissions and a decreasing job market facing you after that, most people need all the advantages they could get to be successful in this world. For some kids, like myself, those attempts to gain an upper hand over other people started before they could even tie their own shoes. On occasion, though, to be such an impressionable young kid and to have been given such a defining label already may actually cause more harm.

By the 3rd grade, I had already been labeled as one of the “smart” ones. I would do “advanced” math while the rest of the class did the regular lessons and my teachers always had extra work for me since I finished early. I would only hang out with the “other” smart kids and I was never able to connect with kids that weren’t like me. Yet, I still felt content with who I was and I didn’t see a true problem with being an “outcast.” That notion changed in middle school, however. Although most of my classes were blended with all types of kids, for the first time, I felt like I was where I belonged. Granted, I was still labeled as the “smart” one who would help other people with homework and always finish early. Yet, there was one class where I felt like I was an imposter - math. To be frank, I had never been good at math, but because I had been labeled as an “advanced” student, I was obligated to take the harder class so I could keep up the facade of being smart. In hindsight, there was only one real problem with putting up this pretense - I had internalized my label. Even though I struggled heavily during that class, I never asked for help; smart kids don’t do that. I never went to tutorials or after-hours to get extra help; smart kids don’t do that. I never asked questions during class; smart kids don’t do that. In my effort to maintain my reputation, I had lost the spark that made me enjoy learning. I embraced my struggle and did nothing about it. Straight A’s with that one pesky B that stuck to me like the sap on a maple tree. However, 8th Grade was even harder with Geometry. This time I couldn’t fake my way to a B, and I ended up with a C for the first semester. I was devastated. In my 9 years of schooling up to that point, I had never gotten such a low grade. That single grade took all my passion for school away from me. I felt like a fraud like I didn’t deserve to be in that class, and, worst of all, I felt bad shame; how could I disappoint my parents like this? I had set such high expectations for myself that I let a single grade destroy my spirits and question my worthiness. After that, thankfully, school went online and my math grade rebounded, mostly in part to the teachers not putting effort into our class and giving everyone completion grades. That Spring, I graduated and found myself in a completely new place that had its own unique challenges and situations - high school.

I found myself at a different school, having to make new friends, and having to learn a completely different school system. The interesting thing, though, is that I was only with students who were like me, high-achieving, and had high expectations that were also labeled as “the smart ones.” Yet, I felt like high school was the place I best fit in. I slowly made friends and adapted to the system that once seemed so foreign to me. Being in such a competitive school, I watched how my classmates not only accepted this label but transcended it to become the best versions of themselves. Seeing the other kids taught me a valuable lesson; if you are given an ambiguous label, learn how to use it in a good way and don’t let yourself be defined by it. Slowly but surely, I began to embrace this philosophy and I became my best self. I no longer felt like an imposter or like I didn’t belong. Yet, not all kids have the benefit of being exposed to people like them.

I’ve often seen, from both my own friends and on social media, the negative effects of being labeled as something like “gifted” at an early age. For starters, many kids that were labeled as “GT” at a young age also internalized the label, however, the label ended up defining them. They were given such high standards that many of them couldn’t keep up; with higher pressure, there was more to lose. Additionally, most of these kids are essentially forced into higher-level classes, such as AP or IB, which diminish time for extracurriculars. There is also a social impact, as students that are deemed as “higher-level” may slowly develop a superiority complex over those that are “on track.” This problem is most often demonstrated in how schools differentiate between their students. Students taking more challenging classes tend to be given more resources, which does make sense, but the allocation is often disproportionate. “Regular” students are given fewer resources, which can lead to on-track kids with hidden talent not being able to develop to their potential. Ultimately, there may be lots of benefits to these advanced learning programs, but it’s important to realize the potential drawbacks as well.

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