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When Gifted Children Hide Their Talent

Updated: Jul 24

I recently came across the following question on

Teachers, have you ever found students trying to hide that they’re smart?

It took me back to my sixth-grade class of 2016, one of the top five toughest school years in a 30-year career thus far. Two of my students were best friends, buddies since kindergarten. One of them, Gil, was mediocre in his knowledge of most school subjects, and his work ethic was non-existent. He preferred to enjoy joking around over bettering himself. His friend, Eli, was a natural brainiac who didn’t have to work at all to keep up with an average level of achievement. As a result, Eli kind of carried his friend, intellectually. That is, when they both weren’t joking and stalling and generally wasting time. When push came to shove, Eli would miraculously guess what to put down on paper, and Gil would copy it. These two boys were nearly identical in their character, lack of work ethic, and love of humor. The defining feature setting them apart was their intellect.

Observing them, and knowing what I know about how the gifted mind works, it often amazed me that Eli continued to have patience for ‘working’ with someone who clearly was not at the same cognitive level as he. Then I realized that his primary motivation in school was maintaining his life-long friendship with Gil. Eli had purposely set aside his own needs so his friends would not feel dumb.

This was most apparent in math. As I was teaching pre-algebra concepts of factoring and working with multiples and exponents, Eli kept a watchful eye on his friend. If Gil seemed to be picking up on the lesson, Eli would become more serious and work harder. If Gil was more in a joking and uninterested mood that day, Eli followed his lead and also fooled around.

I tried putting them in work groups that matched their abilities but that did not work at all. Eli never participated in his own group; he was always watching Gil from across the room, and the two of them would make inane eye contact and even try to play notebook-paper football from a distance. It made more managerial sense to place them together so I could contain their shenanigans in one, isolated spot. At least then, they were not hampering anyone else’s chance to learn, and on those isolated days when Gil did try, Eli was there to help him. ​ Eli is easily one of the most capable learners I have ever taught, and it would have been fascinating to have him in a class of gifted learners and watch them all bounce ideas off each other. Concepts came to Eli so quickly that I’m sure he was often bored in the general classroom…and had been since probably 1st grade. I also cannot believe I am the first teacher to have noticed this about him. Yet nothing in his record indicated it. Teachers often keep unofficial notes about children: their cognitive aptitude, their classroom demeanor, their work completion record. The notes I received from 5th grade indicated that Eli was a behavior issue who rarely used his time well. It said nothing about the advanced nature of Eli’s ability to learn. Incidently, Gil and Eli had been placed together in class since third grade. In all that time, no one noticed that this was not ideal for either boy? Why do children hide their abilities and focus only on their social ties? Because they’re children! They do not have the maturity, usually, to place their energies on the things they should before the things they want. This is another elephant in the living room that no one wants to address: how we group children for learning matters!

For more on this topic, read the chapter on Differentiation in my book Chaos in Our Schools.

Read our other Sunday Journal posts here.

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