Under Pressure: Do Gifted and Talented Academic Programs Do More Harm Than Good?
One young woman who was in the gifted and talented program at school throughout her life says that even though she excelled academically, she still felt inadequate.
Growing up, Sneha Santosh, now 20 and a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, was in the gifted and talented program at school for as long as she could remember.
Whether in the form of pull-out classes with a more challenging curriculum in elementary and middle school, or honors and advanced placement courses in high school, the central New Jersey native was always a few steps ahead of her peers academically.
Because of the gifted and talented program, Santosh thought she was set up for success — destined for it, even.
Santosh went to a small high school that valued acceptances to Ivy League colleges. She was among a graduating class of only 47 kids. Everyone at school knew who she was. She says she was perceived by others as a star student who took on copious extracurricular activities, earned stellar grades, and was in good standing with all her teachers. She was the valedictorian of the graduating class of 2020.
However, Santosh says, this reputation made her afraid to complain about how stressed she was, to fail, or to pursue the college she truly wanted to attend — Georgetown University in Washington, DC — rather than the Ivy League college her peers, her school guidance counselors, and her family and friends wanted her to pursue: the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Everyone had an outlandish perception of who I was and should be,” says Santosh. “There were times when I wanted to say, ‘I’m so tired, and I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But I couldn’t say that. As a gifted kid, the worst thing you can be is ordinary,” Santosh said.
As she applied to colleges in 2020 during her senior year of high school, she found herself having anxiety attack after anxiety attack and feeling empty. The closer the deadline for applications drew, the more terrified she became of the possibility of trapping herself in a box made up of the facade she was living in for the majority of her grade school career.
Santosh eventually realized that all the time she spent trying to prove herself, working to a higher standard and spending sleepless nights completing assignments, was never for her own self-fulfillment. And although she had achieved so much academically, she felt like a fraud.
Mental Health Issues Aren’t Uncommon Among ‘Gifted’ Young People
Gifted and talented programs — academic programs in which children who’ve demonstrated strong abilities in one or more subject areas in school compared with their peers are placed in accelerated or enrichment-based classes geared toward further developing their abilities — have their advantages, especially for young people who want to take their academic career to the next level.
“It’s always good to be challenged. It’s good for young people to understand that it’s good to be challenged, and if you’re not challenged, you’re not learning,” says Allison Young, MD, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine in New York City and a psychiatry medical reviewer for Everyday Health.
However, although intended to help kids and teens get ahead academically, these programs can sometimes come with unintended consequences for many.
For instance, explains Dr. Young, “When kids enter these programs, it might not always be explained to them that they’ve been placed in this program because they’re excelling. And if this program is challenging for them, they may just start internalizing this challenge.”
As a result, Young explains, instead of their self-concept (how a child defines themselves) being, ‘I’m academically gifted,’ it may become, ‘I’m not smart enough or good enough for this.’
One small?Turkish study, published in June 2018 in the Archives of Neuropsychiatry, found children who are gifted in one area (such as mathematics) but have average abilities in other areas may believe that there’s something wrong with them, and that they often experience feelings of inadequacy in their studies and a lack of self-confidence along with symptoms of depression. The study included 49 gifted children between 9 and 18 years old and 56 children who were not identified as gifted.
Gifted and talented programs may also lead young people to feel like they have too much on their plate and that they don’t have time for other things like socializing with their peers because they have to devote so much time to their academics, adds Young.
“The downside is [that] more time is going into that academic focus and not into social development, which is so important — especially for young children,” Young says. “There are skill sets that kids need to develop when it comes to learning to talk to peers from a variety of backgrounds, or to talk to adults, that we need to make sure aren’t lost while the majority of their time and focus is spent on academics in gifted and talented programs.”
This level of commitment can cause overwhelm. In another?study, published in Gifted Child Quarterly, in which researchers studied 121 gifted children for 11 years, they found that although all these students were high-achieving throughout their academic careers, they were overextended, overcommitted, and overwhelmed by the amount of academic work and extracurricular activities they were involved in.
Is There a Chicken-and-Egg Issue at Play?
For researchers, some lingering questions are: Are kids who are drawn to gifted and talented programs inherently susceptible to mental health issues? And what role do external factors, like parental influence, play?
“Some research has tried to look at whether any innate factors — such as perfectionism — could lead a child in a gifted program to have mental health problems,” says Young. According to the Gifted Child Quarterly study, the students who participated displayed high levels of perfectionism and self-criticism, traits that are statistically common in children who were placed in gifted and talented programs in their youth, the authors of the study noted.
More research is needed to know whether parental expectations or other external factors may be involved as well, adds Young. While gifted and talented programs encourage students to work toward excellence by maintaining high grades and participating in multiple extracurricular activities, the expectations that many students face as a result of being in a gifted and talented program can sometimes invalidate their personal desires and identity.
“I think another issue is when it’s really the parents' desire to have their kids involved in a gifted and talented program rather than the child’s desire to be in it,” says Young.
Even if well-intended by parents, environments like these can have consequences, including conditioning children to think that they need to choose an academic or career path that others deem “the best,” even if it’s not truly what they want for themselves.
Is Your Child in a Gifted and Talented Program? Here’s How to Help Them Curb Stress
If you’re a parent whose child is in a gifted and talented program, or you’re considering placing your child in the program, know that there are ways to help them get the most out of the program while keeping them from getting too stressed or overwhelmed. Here’s how you can help your child alleviate or prevent mental health problems related to academics:
Reframe Negative Self-Talk
“Help your child understand that it’s good to be challenged, and that if they’re not challenged, they’re not learning,” Young says. “And if they get into a situation that’s challenging for them, it’s important to help them reframe how they view that challenge. For instance, you could encourage them to reframe any thoughts like, “I’m stupid. This shouldn’t be hard,” to something more positive, such as, ‘I’m learning.’”
It’s also helpful to let your child know that everyone has different talents and that there are many ways they can use their talents — but avoid telling them exactly how to use them. “I think it’s important to not guide them in how to use those strengths to the point where you’re telling them what to do. Instead, you could encourage your child by saying, ‘You have these strengths and these talents. What are you interested in? How would you like to use them?’”
Celebrate Even the Smallest Successes — and Normalize Mistakes, Too
Celebrate all your successes, no matter how little they may seem, because reminding yourself of your capabilities can help you develop a positive perception of yourself, says Jessica Vanderlan, PhD, an instructor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
But along with celebrating your accomplishments, Dr. Vanderlan recommends sharing your failures with people you trust or even in a support group. Hearing others’ experiences can help you realize that you are not alone in your struggles, and that failure is not always catastrophic or a justification to beat yourself up. “Normalizing mistakes through learning, among peers, and especially among mentors and teachers can be helpful,” says Vanderlan.
Young agrees, adding that teaching your child how to move forward from failures or setbacks is very important.
Guide Your Child Without Making Decisions for Them
If you’ve enrolled your child in a gifted and talented program or are considering doing so, it’s important to explain to your child what the program is and why they’re going to participate in it.
“Parents need to remember that our ultimate goal for our children is often for them to feel fulfilled and satisfied, and going to the ‘best’ college, for instance, might not be the best thing to bring them that self-satisfaction and fulfillment,” Young says.
“It’s important to guide your children in how they can use their strengths and talents, but not to the point where you’re telling them what to do,” adds Young. “Let your child know, ‘You have these talents. What are you interested in doing with them? How would you like to use them?’”
Other questions Young suggests parents ask themselves when considering a gifted and talented program for their child:
- “What’s the ultimate goal for my child?”
- “What’s the best step for them to get there?”
- “Am I losing sight of that goal in the guidance that I’m giving them?”
Seek Professional Help
If mental health issues related to academics are causing your child significant distress or interfering with their ability to go about their daily life, it could help to seek professional help from a therapist or guidance counselor. They may be able to help them learn healthier ways of thinking about their academic endeavors, says Vanderlan.
Certain types of therapy offered by mental health professionals, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help them manage distorted thoughts, or thoughts that are not based in reality. “CBT is very helpful in helping people identify what thoughts are not realistic, and then finding ways to change or shift that thought process so that you are no longer stuck in that self-deprecating cycle,” explains Vanderlan.
From Stress to Self-Fulfillment: How Santosh Is Doing Now
Santosh says validation of her accomplishments from her family, teachers, and peers became a life source for her to keep going, and coming out of the mindset that required her to be nothing less than exceptional has been a long journey.
“I tied my self-worth to my accomplishments for a long time,” she explains. “When you tell a 7-year-old that they are better at math than the three people sitting next to them, they start to believe that’s the only reason anyone would give them the time of day over anyone else.”
It took several years, says Santosh, to learn to accept that failure is okay. “Working hard for self-fulfillment is different from working hard because someone told you that you should be at a high level,” Santosh said. “Failure is a lot less world-ending when you work for yourself.”
The COVID-19 pandemic allowed Santosh the space to focus on what she wanted — because her school switched to remote learning during the height of the pandemic, she felt no one was watching her every move anymore. When she received a rejection letter from the University of Pennsylvania around April 2020, she was relieved that none of her classmates were there to confront her about it. And most of all, she was relieved that she was not committing to a college that deep down she did not truly want to attend.
“Yes, the University of Pennsylvania was the school I was aspiring to, but I was aspiring to it for the wrong reasons,” says Santosh. “I learned that just because something is supposedly the ‘best’ does not mean I should want it.”?
These days, Santosh is studying accounting and operations and analytics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and aspires to become an investment banker when she graduates. She says she’s still just as driven, hardworking, and ambitious as before — but now, she directs her energy toward goals that are based on self-fulfillment rather than the expectations of those around her.
“When I was a teenager, I wasn’t very optimistic [about the future] at all. I used to think, ‘I’ll end up with a pretty good job and a pretty good salary. I don’t know if I’ll like it though,’” says Santosh. But now, I feel secure enough in my own abilities and what I want for myself that if I didn’t like it, I would leave and find something I like better.
“I don’t think I would’ve made that decision before because I was literally crushing under the weight of so many different people’s expectations,” Santosh says.
Additional reporting by Christina Vogt.