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Why Kids Like Mine Should Be Called 'Special Needs'

My son just finished his first year in a "selective enrollment school." It is also known as a "regional gifted center," one of about two dozen public schools in our city that children need to test into before being accepted.

It sounds crazy, right? Believe me when I say it is. The competition for these slots is fierce and parents, well, tend to feed into that frenzy. There are many hoops to jump through in the process of getting your child accepted into one of these coveted schools (forms, deadlines, tests), and the anxiety runs high.

Animosity towards the kids that are accepted also runs high. Sky high.

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If you spend any amount of time online in social media circles, it is easy to find some of the bias against, and prejudicial thinking towards, children that fall into the category of "exceptionally smart," not to mention their parents. "Gifted" is often said in a sneering tone and is used as code for "having crazy-ass parents who spend way too much time pressuring their children and who, in the process, rob them of a childhood." There is a clear stigma attached to gifted education and, as the parent of a child receiving a gifted education, it's hard to know what to do with it.

One of the main offenses I've come across is the free flowing parent-bashing. There are people who are very vocal about not believing children have the capacity for advanced learning without an overbearing parent in the background, usually a mom, demanding and prodding and pressuring their child to perform and improve. "Perform and improve, dammit!"

This stands in stark contract with some of the other classroom parents I have met this year who all describe the same thing—raising a child they thought was smart, but that they never considered to be "gifted." Early readers, early thinkers, insatiable consumers of information from the first days of toddlerhood. There was no pushing or prodding involved with that, these are just our kiddos.

One year into my son's K-8 school, I am more grateful than ever to have him receive a gifted education, even with the stigma that goes along with it.

I think it starts with the language we use. "Gifted" has a whole lot of negative connotations attached to it. It sounds pretentious and conceited and high strung. There's no disputing that. But there is also no adequate substitute that has entered the mainstream to describe these kids or their unique needs. My guess is that the same can be said for children on the other end of the spectrum. "Remedial" has fallen out of favor, no doubt because of its own stigma. "Special needs" seems to have become universally accepted language used to describe children with unique learning challenges.

It is this concept of special needs that might provide a rationale for gifted education that we as a culture can more fully embrace and support. If you think about any large institution or group of people, there are the vast majority in the middle that are generally well served with services universally provided. And then there are the outliers—those that do not easily fit into the middle and are not well served by the universal. From my point of view, that would involve both ends of the spectrum—those kids that are overly challenged by a universal approach or those kids who are not challenged enough by a universal approach.

When you think about gifted education as simply being the other end of the special needs spectrum, perhaps it becomes less objectionable to acknowledge that some kids' needs are not always easily met by the universal approach taken in most classrooms. It seems to be understood and accepted that children with learning challenges require a different level of assistance from teachers and should not be denied that assistance because of their challenges. Why, then, is it socially acceptable to deny children on the other end of the spectrum that same specialized assistance and then mock them or their parents on top of it?

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One year into my son's K-8 school, I am more grateful than ever to have him receive a gifted education, even with the stigma that goes along with it. The curriculum is tailored to his needs, the children he is surrounded by mirror his pace and the idea that the learning expectations are robbing him of a childhood is absurd. Like most every other kindergarten kid, special needs or not, when those doors open at the end of the day, you've got a room full of 5- and 6-year-olds climbing around the playground like monkeys, happy to run and jump and scream and tussle. They know nothing of what being labeled "gifted" means.

They are simply kids being kids.

Photo via Twenty20/Lynette

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