In theory, the gifted program in K-12 schools should be a good thing, right? The best and the brightest are selected at a young age and their academic talents are fostered, with engaging projects and math worksheets way beyond their grade level.
Then comes high school, and the academic intensity can take a turn for the worse. Students compete in virtually everything, from AP and IB classes to class elections, all with the hopes of getting into a top college. All-nighters and caffeine addictions are the norm, as well as founding your own nonprofit and maintaining a perfect GPA. This competitive environment isn’t healthy and must take a toll on students’ mental health, and the gifted program’s selectiveness can start that cutthroat mindset from a young age.
Student selection into the gifted program also highlights inequities in the education system, often segregating students by race and class. Some politicians in office have even made the gifted program a part of their platforms: Former mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio announced his plan to overhaul the city’s gifted program last fall, instead opting for all students to receive accelerated instruction in the classroom. (Mayor Eric Adams has since announced a plan to expand the gifted program instead, while exchanging the old admission test for a universal screening and lottery system.)
The gifted program may also have long-term impacts on the self-esteem and perspective of its young participants, who are taught to believe that they are (and must continue to be) special. What happens when these students go off to college and have to navigate no longer being a big fish in a small pond?
To find out, Her Campus spoke to a former gifted program kid and a mental health professional about the program’s impacts they have witnessed in early adulthood.
Systemic Inequities Playing Out in the Classroom
Jane, 20, had to “test in” to the gifted program. Applicants spent a weekend afternoon taking the test in a large classroom alongside one another, similar to the experience of taking an AP exam or the SAT. The test is similar to the popular CogAT test, the Cognitive Abilities test that measures reasoning skills through various multiple-choice questions. Some parents choose to have their child go through test prep books to prepare, while others don’t. Jane remembers it feeling low-stakes for her; her parents dropped her off and told her to try her best.
Jane began the gifted program in fifth grade, though students in her district entered the program as early as first grade. Students in the program had their own class, usually one class per a grade, separate from students on the “normal” track. As a result, students in the program were mostly socialized with one another and so their experience felt “normal,” according to Jane.
Despite this sense of normalcy, Jane also recognizes what a privilege it was to be in the gifted program. She feels that these programs put you on a certain track to success, “not only with the educational opportunities but also the beliefs and mindset the program reinforces.” Jane says she and her peers “had the opportunity to study subjects at a higher level and in an engaging manner” that would not have been afforded to them in normal classes. For example, students had the chance to collaboratively run their own town in the classroom as a way to learn economics and civics.
Her program also gave her access to resources and personalized support — with small class sizes, teachers were not stretched too thin to support these “exceptional” students. Her program also reinforced the idea that she was a capable student by allowing her to learn independently at a young age, with independent research projects like National History Day. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that she was an exceptional student that led her to succeed — it was more that others believed that she was exceptional and treated her as such.
But that pressure can be a double-edged sword. Jane felt like the gifted program had a significant impact on how she viewed herself. “When you are constantly told that you are smart and special, you feel like you have to uphold that reputation,” she tells Her Campus. Throughout high school and while applying to college, Jane grappled with this internalized pressure to succeed to the standards implied by others.
Now, Jane attends an Ivy League institution, where she sees the effects of specialized education systems. “There are a disproportionate number of wealthy white students that know how to navigate higher education, the internship and job search, and other aspects of the socioeconomic hierarchy,” she says. Jane feels that gifted programs reflect privilege and inequities more than anything else, a phenomenon backed by research — nearly 60% of students in gifted education are white, compared to 50% enrollment in public school overall. Jane grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, within the tech bubble of Microsoft and Amazon. Her gifted program consisted of students who often had the privilege of outside tutors and engaging extracurriculars, as well as the presence of highly educated parents, and it changed who she socialized with as a young child and now in college.
As much as Jane appreciates her experience in the gifted program, she notes the experience of those who didn’t have the same opportunity. Being faced with the attitude from others that they see you as capable gave Jane the confidence to achieve at a high-level, and she believes that “the same attitude should be afforded to students no matter if they’re considered gifted or not.”
How Intelligence Can Help and Hurt Your Mental Health
Jane is not the only college student who still feels the effects of the gifted program on her self-image years later. Jody Dianna, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in work with young adults, shared her perspective on the mental health impact of the gifted program on students with Her Campus.
Working with many people in their 20s that are the product of gifted programs, Dianna has noticed “an unfortunate trend” that she calls the “missed opportunity for people to see how their intelligence can be helpful to their mental health.”
Dianna’s clients reach out often because they want help with anxiety. When they dig a little further, they almost always have severe stress about grades, which is “a complete mismatch from their actual grades,” she tells Her Campus. Her clients share that “they have panic attacks on the way to class and will walk out of every test claiming that they ‘failed.’” At the end of every semester, they made straight As. Then they start the cycle over the next semester.
As their counselor, Dianna collects their history, how they see themselves as a student, and how capable they think they are as a human. She notices there is an odd trend in those that are very capable not having confidence to accompany their skills. When she asks about gifted education, they will note accelerated coursework and that facts were drilled in their heads harder and faster, but nothing about what it means to be a gifted human and how their brains work differently. They haven’t had practice coping with struggle, and then when they do finally get challenged — sometimes not until grad school or in their first job — they panic because they feel like they are severely flawed. Over time, Dianna works with them on learning that their ability to think outside the box has translated into overthinking and they just need practice figuring out difficult things.
Dianna thinks that more emphasis on a growth mindset — seeing failure as an opportunity to develop and grow — in gifted programs would be helpful for students’ mental health. By the time someone is an adult, their perfectionistic tendencies are well locked in. Her work helps them seek out failure and to practice coping with that disappointment, to detach from feeling they are flawed because they didn’t know something automatically. Many of her clients think “because most things come easily to me, I should be good at everything,” and as a counselor, she helps them work to untangle that inaccurate belief.
Coping and Growing as the Landscape of Education Shifts
While gifted programs offer unmatched opportunities for education, they also contribute to unrealistic personal expectations for students, systemic inequities, and mental health challenges later down the line for students. As cities like New York grapple with the question of whether they should phase out their gifted programs in favor of advanced education across the board, the landscape for gifted education will begin to shift. This change could be positive for the mental health of gifted children, and it could also help to reduce systemic inequities in the education system.
Former gifted students can look to mental health professionals and their advice for guidance. Putting into practice ideas like a growth mindset, suggested by Dianna, could mean learning to take failures in the workplace as an opportunity to learn and improve, as well as separating self-worth from performance at work or in classes. While it isn’t easy, this awareness helps work towards untangling inaccurate beliefs and mindsets that being gifted may have contributed to.
As the education system evolves, we may no longer have the gifted program in the same capacity, but we can work to recognize and learn from the programs’ lasting impact, both on an individual and systemic level.
Jody Dianna is a licensed clinical social worker providing psychotherapy via telehealth from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her speciality is helping hard working college students stop spinning out from existential dread and relax. To find out more about her practice go to www.jodydianna.com.