Home > Advocacy and policy, Parenting > When academic awards season means hurt feelings for the gifted

When academic awards season means hurt feelings for the gifted

For the metro Atlanta area, May brings the end of the school year, and with that comes academic awards season. It can be a surprisingly difficult and disappointing time for gifted children.

Gifted kids will receive their Principal’s List awards for earning all A’s, but when it comes to those big awards — the special awards that are accompanied by a teacher’s speech about how wonderful the child is — gifted kids often are passed over in favor of students who have struggled through school.

I am all in favor of rewarding hard work in the face of adversity. I am often moved to tears when the teachers describe a child who, for example, started the school year not speaking English and now is reading independently. That child absolutely deserves praise for what they have achieved.

But how do I look into the saddened eyes of my child and explain that although she is at the top of her class academically, is helpful, respectful, responsible and well-behaved, she is never chosen for this standout award?

I try. I compare these awards to what on my sports teams were called the “Coach’s Award” or “Hustle Award,” an award the coach gave to a player who worked hard but who didn’t have the skills to be the best scorer, defender, or all-around athlete. The problem is, at least in my child’s school, there is only one special recognition award per class. So if the award goes to a kid who has struggled to get from the bottom to the middle, it will never go to a child who has consistently been at the top.

The “Crushing Tall Poppies” blog addressed this dilemma in a recent post, “Not the Underdog, Yet, the Underdog.” The author, Celi Trépanier, is a former teacher and a SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) facilitator. She argues that it’s human nature to give additional support and encouragement to children who are struggling, but points out that this can translate to neglect of well-adjusted, high-performing kids in school. She writes:

Cutting down the tall poppies does not level the playing field; it promotes an unfair and inequitable situation. What many seem to forget is gifted children are human and they are children—children who have feelings, who have flaws, and who can also have physical and learning disabilities. Gifted children, like all children, need positive feedback, encouragement, and they need to be nurtured and supported like every other child. When support, encouragement and positive feedback is denied to a gifted child based on the assumption he or she probably does not need anything more, they grow up feeling left out and shunned.

And so we go into awards season, my child hopeful, me filled with the dread of another disappointment, of trying to explain once again why her success isn’t enough to earn her the recognition she craves.

  1. Lene Costa Fleury
    May 12, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    SERIOUSLY?!?!?!?! Talking about ” first world problems…”

  2. AA
    May 12, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    omg! You touched a raw nerve, Dori. I never thought about approaching the school for that. But what you just said, makes sense.

  3. Molly
    May 13, 2016 at 7:39 am

    My guess is that the child who arrived at school not speaking English and is now reading independently is a gifted child as well.

    Personally, I don’t think that awards do a gifted child any favors. They tend to shift the child’s motivation from intrinsic curiosity to an external desire to please others. Rewarding the academic high performer for something that often comes without much effort can do more harm than good. Gifted children are less likely to take academic risks down the road if they wind up focused on protecting their GPA because they have learned that being the top scorer is what earns them the rewards they crave.

    • ABern
      May 15, 2016 at 10:51 pm

      Be careful what you ask for. My oldest daughter is a prime example of what you describe. For years she received all A’s with little to no effort and racked up many awards for doing what was easy and came naturally. In a self contained, gifted class she was not challenged. Didn’t even have the opportunity to struggle and learn from failure when it didn’t really matter. Now, in HS, she is filled with self doubt and gives up rather than struggle because she’s supposed to be smart. Thinks she’s only smart if it comes easy. I wish she hadn’t gotten those awards. Awards should be for overcoming obstacles and even gifted kids should have them. If she had truly been learning at HER level, that would have happened. And those A’s and awards would have meant more. – Just a few weeks ago she asked me, “Why do people even enter contests that they don’t know that they’ll win?” I cried. Tell your child that the recognition for doing the required work is the knowledge gained and good behavior earns respect both of which will take you much further in life than a trophy.

  4. Beth Smith
    May 13, 2016 at 8:20 am


  5. May 15, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    This is a typical example of how gifted children’s efforts are minimized because of their abilities. They are expected to be mature and not care that that they are overlooked, since they are already so capable. This fuels resentment, apathy, and a distrust of the system, as they clearly recognize the inherent unfairness with how they (and other gifted children) are treated.

    • Molly
      May 17, 2016 at 8:00 am

      The unfairness is that gifted children aren’t provided a appropriately challenging educational environment not that they don’t receive a special award for being more academically advanced than their peers

  6. Jenny Martin
    May 15, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    I remember when two girls in my son’s fifth grade classes won that award because they “tried so hard.” These same two girls had previously won a reading contest that same year when they read 10 third grade books over 6 weeks (while my son read the entire Lord of the Rings series over the 6 weeks, but got no recognition even though several other students tried to read the series also but couldn’t get very far in the books before giving up). Unfortunately, neither girl passed the annual high stakes assessment test that year, so neither was promoted to 6th grade. Because the girls jointly won the Outstanding Student award in a big student assembly, the entire school later found out about their failure and that failure became the talk of the school (where it would have gone unnoticed if they hadn’t won the big academic award). I felt badly for those girls because the school set them up for all of the horrible gossip that followed them.

  7. Pam
    May 16, 2016 at 5:55 am

    Do the strugglers cinch the scholarships to,for their GPA as oppose to the gifted with the advance course curriculums?

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