Child prodigy tag can be a curse, says study

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Those singled out as gifted risk ending up feeling like failures in later life, professor claims. Julie Henry reports.

BEING labelled a prodigy can be a millstone round a child's neck, new research suggests One of the leading authorities on gifted children has suggested that the "gifted" tag can lead to odd behaviour and unhappiness in later life. The claim comes as the Government ploughs millions of pounds into identifying the top 10 per cent of pupils.

The latest research by Professor Joan Freeman, from Middlesex University, backs up her earlier findings. She has tracked more than 200 children initially aged from five to 14 for more than 20 years. The progress of very able pupils whose parents joined the National Association for Gifted Children was compared with equally able but unlabelled children.

Parents of children labelled as gifted expected that they would behave differently from other children and experience more difficulties.

After 27 years, these expectations have often been fulfilled. Those who had been singled out showed more odd behaviour and unhappiness in adulthood than the unlabelled group.

Some of the pupils failed to live up to their academic potential as gifted children - often because the pressure of high expectations hampered their performance - and were living with a sense of failure.

Professor Freeman said: "There were some who dropped out or were stacking shelves in supermarkets. Singling children out for excessive attention is not good for them."

A review of international research also suggests that both parents and teachers tend to pick the wrong children as gifted. Boys are singled out twice as often as girls and challenging behaviour is often mistaken for a sign that a pupil is very bright, and is misbehaving because of boredom.

Professor Freeman supports the Government's investment in the brightest pupils, but warns that teachers must be given guidance so they can spot high-flyers correctly and that no single teaching strategy suits all of them. However, her findings have been contradicted by Peter Marshall, a member of the applied psychology research group of the University of London.

He tracked a larger sample of MENSA members and found that problems in later life had nothing to do with being gifted. He also said the very able children had fared well in mainstream school without the benefit of special programmes.

About pound;29 million was spent on gifted and talented initiatives in 20002001. A total of 500 summer schools for very able children were run this year.

Lori Ferguson, NAGC educational psychologist said high IQ did not predict success in later life. "We don't really agree with the findings. Even the research admits that family support and personality traits often dictate what happens in adulthood."

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