What I wish someone had told me about the power of words

By Denise Yates, Author, Consultant and Trustee.

What I wish someone had told me about the power of words.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Remember the phrase – or something similar – we are often taught as children to protect ourselves against harsh words, bullying or teasing? How wrong this is. Words are powerful; both for good and ill. Words carrying meaning that can stay with us for a lifetime. They can shape who we are, mould our self-confidence, our feelings of self-worth and our image of ourselves and who we feel we will become.

Do you remember the last time someone – a friend, teacher or family member – said a word to you in passing that was life-affirming and which made you think about yourself positively or in a different way? What about the opposite; a throwaway remark about your work or what you look like, or something you overhear that makes you question yourself, contributes towards self-doubt or challenges your self-belief? Incidents of bullying in schools and elsewhere and the high number of children, young people and adults in our society today facing challenges with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues is often testimony to the power words can hold over us.

That is also true in the world of those children and young people who are Gifted and Talented or Dual and Multiple Exceptional (where they may be clever and also have a special educational need and/or a disability). You know which ones I mean. A few of the words that are more polite include teacher’s pet, swot, brainbox, prodigy. Others, like geek, we are starting to own. Hear the word ‘gifted’ and the image it evokes in some may be things like, exclusive, elitist, successful, white, middle class. Worse still it may conjure the idea of pushy parents hothousing their children’s education to make sure they succeed. Could a word or phrase have that much negative power? Some of us have experience that it can.

In the United Kingdom, some of us who work in the field of high ability or gifted education have been unhappy for years about the hold the G-Word has in preventing us all looking for potential in children and young people beyond what are seen as the ‘usual suspects’.  One different term which has been in use since about 2009 to describe these children is High Learning Potential (or HLP for short) where children and young people have one or more of the following attributes:

  • Exceptional abilities;
  • The ability to attain highly but who, for whatever reason, are not attaining at that level;
  • Those who are Dual or Multiple Exceptional where their high ability is coupled with a Special Educational Need and/or one or more disabilities
  • Profound giftedness (about 0.01% of learners)

From the research done, High Learning Potential is seen by many children, young people, parents and carers and professionals in all fields, (certainly in the UK) as a more positive phrase which does not imply automatic success in life but which suggests that, with the right support and understanding, hard work and resilience to bounce back from life’s setbacks, these children have the potential to become the best they can be.

Rather than being constrained by the G-Word, HLP has the power to open doors and turn over stones previously left untouched to find the children and young people who may sometimes be overlooked, ignored or misdiagnosed in our education system.

A few years back, when I worked at Potential Plus UK (https://potentialplusuk.org) some of us would run sessions for parents, carers and professionals where we talked about the process of identifying HLP akin to identifying fruit. To develop the analogy, most of us would recognise an apple or banana or orange as being a piece of fruit. So, if we ran a gifted session or identified a highly able programme which identified the strengths of our apples, bananas or oranges in the class, we would make a great fruit salad and would think all was well with the world.

However, what about that avocado sitting in the corner? They may also be a piece of fruit but might not have been included in our fruit salad or even identified in the first place as worthy of consideration. But what if we ran a programme that built on the strengths of all our avocados? Suddenly, that avocado who was written off as not contributing to our programme might now be seen as the best fruit ever! Bear with me on the analogy!

The point is that, unless we look in the places we have never thought of before for our children with HLP or DME, we might never know they are there and this potential denied could have an impact on them, their learning and mental health, their families and schools as well as society as a whole. Inclusion in education is not only a right for all children, but it also makes sound economic and social sense.

This week (25-29th October 2021) is Global Gifted, Talented and Neurodiverse (GTN) Awareness Week. This is the week to question where and how we are looking for our children and young people with HLP and to challenge traditional orthodoxy about the state of our nation’s own fruit bowl. The week is being spearheaded by The G-Word (https://www.thegwordfilm.com) which started life in the U.S.A. as a documentary about giftedness, intelligence and neurodiversity in the 21st century (the full film is due out in 2022) and has rapidly turned into a global movement to re-evaluate where we should look for high learning potential in our society. We are not alone in the UK in exploring these issues! Registration is open for GTN and is free. Over the week there will podcasts, webinars, film clips and profile-raising activities on social media. Register NOW by clicking onto this link https://www.thegwordfilm.com/gtn-awareness-week#register

Children, young people and adults with HLP are everywhere. When we use the power of words positively, when we challenge preconceived ideas of who is gifted and who is not, when we work together to raise awareness of what is possible, only then will we achieve real equity and inclusion in education regardless of where we come from, who we are and what potential we bring to the table.

About Denise Yates

Denise Yates has worked in education and training for over thirty-five years to enable all individuals to maximise their potential. Over the years, this has included ex-offenders, children with moderate learning difficulties, adults with numeracy and literacy problems and in inner-city areas working with young people at risk of offending. 

For ten years, Denise was Chief Executive of the national charity, Potential Plus UK (formerly The National Association for Gifted Children). In 2017, Denise left to pursue her passion which could be summarised as ‘hidden potential’; children and young people with Dual and Multiple Exceptionality, those with mental health problems and those who have been failed by the system, for whatever reason. 

A Cambridge economist, Denise is currently, amongst other things, a Trustee of The Potential Trust, a charitable trust which supports more able children from low-income backgrounds, a non-executive Director of Nisai Education Trust which is interested in exploring different models of education and a member of the Above and Beyond group which looks to work in partnership with organisations in the UK, in whatever sector, for the benefit of children and young people with gifts and talents (including those with DME). 

Denise is a Fellow of the RSA, a consultant on issues related to inclusion and also a trained Adviser with Citizens Advice and spends time practically helping individuals and families within her local community.  In 2020, with Adam Boddison, she wrote ‘The School Handbook for Dual and Multiple Exceptionality’ and in 2020 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to children and young people. In early 2022 her second book about DME, written for parents and carers, will be published.


About The Potential Trust.

The Potential Trust is a registered charity (charity number 326645) whose aim is to provide, promote and encourage whatever makes education and learning more interesting for children and young people (up to school leaving age) who have High Learning Potential (sometimes called more able, highly able or Gifted and Talented) or Dual or Multiple Exceptionalities (sometimes called DME, Twice Exceptional or 2e, neurodiverse or gifted with learning differences). We want to support all those children with more than the average share of curiosity, creativity, perception and persistence and to enable them to have access to events and experiences that facilitate their personal and social development and their creative, artistic and practical abilities as well as their intellectual abilities. We do this by:

  • Providing Potential Bursaries
  • Running Potential Conferences
  • Developing Potential Collaborations
  • Being a catalyst for Potential Change.

For more information about how to get involved or to support us, please log onto our website at https://thepotentialtrust.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @PotentialTrust

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own.