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Studies as early as the 1970s indicated that students from special populations could also be gifted. In 1981, a colloquium held at Johns Hopkins University convened experts from the fields of both learning disabilities and giftedness to consider this issue. At the time, interest in meeting the needs of gifted and talented students, as well as students with learning disabilities, was evident on many levels; but students who exhibited the characteristics of both exceptionalities, twice-exceptional (2e) students, had received little attention. The participants at the Johns Hopkins gathering concluded that 2e students do, in fact, exist but are often overlooked when assessed for either giftedness or learning disabilities (LDs). The colloquium did much toward establishing criteria for identifying 2e students as a population with special characteristics and needs (Fox, Brody, & Tobin, 1983).
In the intervening years, the concept of the 2e student has become commonly accepted among education researchers. Many books have been written on the subject, articles appear regularly in journals, and national education conferences focusing on either LDs or giftedness consistently include at least one session on the 2e student. Research has produced a generally accepted definition of the 2e student and the realization that 2e students require a unique combination of educational programs, enrichment, and counseling support.
Since 2e students were first identified as a distinct group in 1977 with the publication of the book Providing Programs for the Gifted Handicapped (Maker, 1977), their education has been of growing concern to an increasing number of researchers within both the realm of gifted/talented education and the field of special education. At the turn of the millennium, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, began to collect data on the number of K-12 students identified as gifted/talented and receiving services for an LD. In the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA), these students are defined as having:
“A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”
In 2006, the most recent year for which these statistics are available, the number of K-12 students identified as 2e reached nearly 70,000 among school districts that voluntarily tracked and reported this data. This number represents a percentage consistent with estimates that two to five percent of the gifted population have LDs and two to five percent of students with LDs are gifted. This number will continue to grow as more school districts become aware of twice exceptionality and as more districts participate in reporting this data.
However, despite a growing awareness of twice-exceptionality, 2e students are falling through the cracks of our educational system. With few exceptions, neither public nor private schools have kept pace with the research on who 2e students are and what they need to succeed. Furthermore, identifying students for gifted programs and identifying them for special education programs continue to be mutually exclusive activities (Boodoo et al., 1989).
Who are 2e students? What are they like?
At his third birthday party, Julien either ignored his guests or – using his vocabulary of 12 words – told them what to do. He ran around nonstop, touching everything and everybody, but made only fleeting eye contact with anyone. He also spent an hour by himself building an elaborate bridge system using Duplo® blocks. Earlier that year, during a state-mandated IQ test, he largely ignored the tester and was determined to have an IQ of 84. But later that year, Julien learned to speak and read almost in tandem. A visit to one renowned psychiatrist yielded an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis; a psychologist cited AD/HD “tendencies”; and a neuropsychologist suggested Julien’s hearing be tested. His pediatrician insisted Julien was a brilliant child on his own trajectory who just needed speech therapy.
Between the ages of three and nine, Julien attended four special education and three general education schools, none of them a good fit. He didn’t score well on a kindergarten screening test for gifted programming because he couldn’t stay in his seat during the test. He was removed from two general education kindergarten classrooms for calling out answers and asking off-topic questions, not sitting during circle time, and other “disruptive” and “noncompliant” behaviors.
Over the years, many teachers complained that Julien wasn’t trying hard enough, that he didn’t pay attention during group lessons (though he remembered everything that was said), that he refused to do worksheets in school, and that he would have a tantrum when asked to write. Julien complained that school was too hard and too easy. Because the special education schools he attended were so focused on controlling his classroom behavior, remediating his writing challenges and finding productive outlets for his talents were neglected.
Julien, now 10 years old, is both “gifted” – with a full-scale IQ of 136 – and “learning disabled,” with diagnoses of AD/HD (combined type), generalized anxiety disorder, and a disorder of written expression. He writes like a 2nd grader, but works on 9th-grade math, with college-level concepts thrown in “for fun.” With his jigsaw collection of talents and relative deficits, Julien is a “typical” twice-exceptional child.
The first sign that Simon was out-of-sync with his age peers was when, at the age of two, he was kicked out of a playgroup. Parents complained that, though not aggressive, Simon was too physical with their children (e.g., grabbing and hugging too hard). Precociously verbal, Simon seemed to be trying to get and sustain his playmates’ attention in a way he thought they’d understand.
In a Montessori preschool, Simon thrived at first; but as he sped ahead of classmates in reading, he became bored with the learning materials and increasingly disrupted the classroom routine. He narrowly missed score cutoffs for gifted kindergarten programs and was rejected by numerous private schools for being disrespectful at interviews and disobedient during group activities.
His public school kindergarten teacher tried engaging Simon by giving him extra homework; but Simon had trouble with everything from transitions, to standing in line, to the curriculum itself, which was several grades below his abilities. He got into trouble in class so that he’d be “punished” by having to sit outside the principal’s office all day reading. On the playground, he was reprimanded for telling the other kids he was a monster. Later, Simon would later tell his mother, “I wasn’t pretending. I am a monster. I’m a freak.”
First grade in a private school was similar – except that Simon had no problems whatsoever during his twice-weekly one-on-one periods with the school’s learning specialist. He was asked to leave halfway during the school year.
Unfortunately, Simon’s mixed bag of strengths – high creativity, precocious general knowledge, college-level reading skills – and his (relative) weaknesses – average processing, visual/spatial reasoning, and math skills, plus low frustration tolerance – make it hard to assess his abilities via formal testing. He frequently refuses to answer questions or complete tasks that are too repetitive, too simple, or too difficult. Also, despite his early advantage of being identified at the age of three both as gifted and as having AD/HD (inattentive type), the absence of a school that could support both his exceptionalities has meant that, at the age of eight, he has four years’ worth of negative school experiences under his belt. Simon fears that no school teacher will ever accept him for who he is.
Ten-year-old Cameron is a classic example of the child who falls through the cracks in school because his gifts and learning disabilities mask each other. Because he performs at or above grade level across the board and causes no disruptions in the classroom, Cameron’s teachers see him as a model student. He’s also very popular with his classmates. But Cameron dreads school and has been placed in five different schools in only four years.
In kindergarten, Cameron started begging his mother not to make him go to school. By second grade, he was getting sick to his stomach as he approached the school building. Cameron’s undiagnosed dysgraphia made certain fine motor tasks laboriously difficult, causing him to work much harder than his classmates just to complete worksheets and writing assignments. His teachers suggested that he just wasn’t trying hard enough. Though he wanted very much to please his teachers, Cameron’s AD/HD (hyperactive type) made it extremely difficult for him to sit still at a desk all day.
Despite his challenges, Cameron’s superior-level intelligence, knack for higher-level science and abstract thinking, and high math aptitude helped him keep up and, at times, even exceed grade-level expectations. But because he was using all his mental and physical energy just to survive the school day, his gifts went unnoticed and unencouraged. When Cameron got home from school, he would fall apart, tell himself he was stupid, fear leaving home again, and cry himself to sleep. Although an enthusiastic learner, he became completely school avoidant at the age of eight, and his parents have home-schooled him for the last two years for lack of a better alternative.
Alex has always been precocious as well as stubborn. At 18 months, he would tell his parents the colors of passing cars; and, if he didn’t get what he wanted, he would cry until he threw up. He was reading by three; by eight, diagnosed with diabetes; and by ten, enrolled in his third school in three years.
Alex has a superior-range IQ but is struggling to hang on in his gifted public education fourth-grade classroom, the last stop before his parents consider special education. His executive functioning challenges make it hard to organize his thoughts and work; and his diabetes makes him feel doubly different, physically and socially. What’s hard for Alex academically is translating his ideas into something others can recognize and assess; so he struggles to write even a three-sentence essay (though he reads 500-page books voraciously) or to show his work on a multi-step math problem he understands intuitively.
When faced with a task that comes easily to him, Alex doesn’t read the directions; he rushes ahead and makes careless errors. When faced with a challenge, he either gives up quickly or refuses to try at all. Because of the vigilance and control his chronic illness requires, his parents feel Alex has a hard time accepting direction and control from authority figures in school. Because he’s so empathetic and socially adept, he’s well-liked among classmates; but because he’s so bright, perfectionistic, and self-directed, his teachers regard him as arrogant. Ultimately, Alex’ anxiety is his undoing, causing him to disengage from the education process altogether. He refuses to do his schoolwork, or he simply refuses to go to school at all.
As these profiles show, there are many expressions of twice exceptionality, even among children with identical diagnoses. It also merits mention that 2e girls, according to experts in the field, tend not to call attention to themselves with “disruptive behavior” until late middle school or high school, when their challenges start to exceed their ability to hide them. What binds these children together are their exceptional general intelligence, their asynchronous (unevenly developed) skills, their highly discrepant challenges, and the anxiety their differences cause socially and academically in typical classrooms. The challenges parents of 2e children face in finding appropriate, nurturing, and enriching environments are more than daunting. Specialized schools, both public and private, usually cater to children with learning disabilities or with gifts and talents, but not both.
While 2e students have characteristics of both gifted and learning disabled students, they also have their own unique characteristics. Therefore, they need to be treated as a separate population. Unfortunately, although education researchers have known about 2e students for decades, most teachers and administrators are still largely unaware of these children, leaving them overlooked and underserved. An ongoing survey of school districts nationwide started in 2000 by Johns Hopkins University has indicated that the majority of school districts have no procedures in place for identifying or meeting the education needs of 2e children. At the same time, many of these same districts have indicated an interest in improving in this area.
By analyzing the records of students currently in 2e programs, researchers have developed a profile of twice exceptionality. 2e students typically perform at very high levels on some, but not all, of the gifted screening tests used by public schools. On the other hand, they tend to simultaneously perform very poorly on one or more of the local, state, or national standardized assessments used to measure individual student progress. One of the hallmarks of twice- exceptionality, then, is inconsistency in performance and, in particular, in test results.
Because 2e children are inconsistent performers with uneven skills and asynchronous development, it’s critical to separate out their test scores on IQ tests, education experts suggest. The commonly used Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children (WISC) includes a series of subtests, and a review of these subtest IQ scores can help identify 2e students (Bannatyne, 1974; Baum et al., 1991; Coleman, 1997, Kaufman, 2002).
Most 2e students tend to do well on the WISC’s spatial, pattern recognition, verbal comprehension, and abstract conceptualization measures; there’s a strong tendency for these children to be creative problem solvers. On the other hand, most 2e students tend to do less well on measures of processing details and rote memorization (Baum 2004).
Researchers have worked to shed light on the pattern of abilities and relative deficits displayed by 2e students in order to simplify their identification by teachers and administrators. These students are a diverse group, however, embracing a wide variety of gifts and talents in combination with multifarious learning challenges that often resist categorization. There is, in fact, no single defining pattern of characteristics or test scores. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that hallmarks include:
A multi-dimensional approach to identifying twice-exceptionality should include not only written assessments such as the WISC, but behavioral checklists completed by parents, teachers, and students alike, as well as portfolio reviews and interviews (Krochak & Ryan 2007). Only through a combination of formal and informal assessments can a full picture of an individual 2e student emerge.
The goal of education is to provide opportunities for students to build knowledge, skills, and attitudes so that they can become successful, contributing members of a global society. 2e students need not be excluded from this vision. In fact, according to Thomas West in his 1997 book, In the Mind’s Eye, these very individuals have made and will make some of the most extraordinary contributions to our world.
The needs of 2e students can be met through appropriate identification and an individualized approach to education. However, the classroom teacher must have support from both gifted educators and special educators to implement effective strategies. The best results are achieved where there is collaboration between the classroom teacher, gifted educator, special educator, parents, and the student.
Programming for 2e students must include strategies to:
(Reis & McCoach, 2000, and Smutny, 2001).
Clearly, 2e students have needs that differ considerably from those of gifted students without LDs, students without exceptional abilities who have LDs, and average students whose abilities are more evenly distributed. Individualized instruction is, of course, optimal for all students, so that pace, level, and content can be geared to ability, interests and learning style. However, it is essential for students whose abilities are clearly discrepant. Ideally, a continuum of placement options should be available so that teachers can develop a plan that builds heavily on students’ strengths but also provides academic and cognitive remediation as well as support for social and emotional needs.
A study of 2e students found that those receiving either a combination of both gifted and LD services or only gifted programming reported higher self-concept than did those students receiving intensive or exclusive LD services (Nielsen & Mortorff, Albert, 1989). Thus, there may be positive social and emotional effects, as well as positive academic effects, of making accelerated or enriched academic experiences available to those identified as 2e. Given the strong concern among educators that 2e students be challenged in their areas of strength, placement in a gifted program for at least part of the day is advisable.
There are a number of helpful classroom strategies for 2e students on which education researchers agree. They include the following five strategies.
An encouraging and exciting learning environment for 2e students is one in which their giftedness is recognized first, not their disability. Despite their difficulties in reading, writing, math, or attending to the task at hand, these learners must be allowed to engage in a challenging curriculum tailored to their strengths (Baum, 2004). Strength-based instruction is one of the most effective strategies for 2e students, emphasizing talent development over remediation of deficiencies. In “playing to strengths,” the teacher provides opportunities for high-level abstract thinking, creativity, and problem solving. Strength-based interventions are often more successful because they engage students’ interests and abilities, enhancing motivation and increasing frustration tolerance.
2e students are most likely to accept academic challenge when instruction plays to their strengths. In creating individualized learning programs, teachers will find their 2e students far more motivated to work when given options based on their interests and talents, as well as on their learning style. For example, as gifted education author Lisa Rivero explains: “Visual learners prefer to use their eyes to learn and auditory learners their ears. Kinesthetic learners prefer to use their bodies to learn [through movement], while tactile learners prefer to use their sense of touch. Allowing students to use their preferred learning style results in deeper, more meaningful learning. Being prohibited from using it often leads to frustration, decreased learning, underachievement, and lowered self-concept” (Rivero, 2002).
Research shows that 2e children are quite capable of high-level abstract thinking, demonstrate significant creativity, and are able to take unique problem-solving approaches to tasks (Trail, 2000). Offering learning opportunities that draw on these abilities is likely to engage these students and give them opportunities for success. At the same time, caution is essential when setting the level of challenge for 2e students. It needs to be appropriate – high enough so that they must stretch to meet the challenge, but not so high that they will fail. Here is where supports in the learning environment come into play.
2e students need a nurturing environment that supports the development of their potential. An encouraging approach is recommended over implementing measures from a punitive perspective (Strop & Goldman, 2002). Teachers provide a nurturing environment when:
The drive to achieve perfection, common in many gifted children, generates much psychological conflict in academically talented children who have difficulty achieving (Olenchak, 1994). One survey of gifted students with LDs found them to be emotionally upset and generally unhappy because of their frustrations; in particular, “virtually all had some idea that they could not make their brain, body, or both do what they wanted” (Schiff et al., 1981). Furthermore, 2e students can be very self-critical, which can lead to a particularly dysfunctional form of perfectionism. Counseling is recommended to address their unique needs and should be available on an as-needed basis.
The importance of providing counseling for these students has been noted in many studies from the time 2e children were first identified (Brown-Mizuno, 1990; Hishinuma, 1993; Mendaglio, 1993; Olenchak, 1994; Suter & Wolf, 1987). The benefits of both group and individual counseling have been identified by numerous researchers (Baum, 1994; Mendaglio, 1993; Olenchak, 1994). Group counseling can, for example, help students see that others’ experiences are similar to their own. Learning in a classroom with other 2e students, in itself, can go a long way towards providing this support. The counseling role can sometimes be undertaken by teachers who understand well the needs of 2e students (Baum et al., 1991; Daniels, 1983; Hishinuma, 1993). However, some students may require individual counseling. Parents also need information and, in cases, counseling to help them understand the characteristics and needs of their gifted children with learning challenges (Bricklin, 1983; Brown-Mizuno, 1990; Daniels, 1983).
A lack of organizational, time management, and study skills can have a negative impact on both the emotional wellbeing and school performance of twice-exceptional students. Many in the 2e research community agree that it is critical that students receive explicit instruction and support to develop this battery of skills. These students also need prescriptive, individualized intervention services related to their areas of academic challenge, such as reading, writing, or math. This focus on relative weaknesses should, as much as possible, be woven into projects in areas of student strengths, with accommodations and adaptations in place as long as students need them (and no longer). Long-term, project-based learning affords ample opportunities for teachers to naturalistically scaffold acquisition of these skills in both group learning and one-on-one mentored situations.
Accommodations, particularly the use of assistive technology, are highly recommended to help these academically talented students compensate for their learning challenges (Baum et al., 1991; Howard, 1994; Suter & Wolf, 1987; Torgesen, 1986). Such techniques may be helpful to many LD students, but they are especially beneficial to those who are also gifted and in need of moving ahead in their areas of strength. For example, students who are capable of a high level of mathematical problem solving, but who have difficulty with simple computations, could be given a calculator so that they won’t be held back. A laptop computer loaded with voice-recognition software, word prediction, brainstorming/planning software, and a spell checker can be enormously helpful to a student whose problems lie in writing and/or spelling, but whose ideas are complex and sophisticated. Students who have difficulty taking notes in class can be allowed to record lectures. Recorded books and other information sources not dependent on reading (such as films) might also help students who have reading challenges but strong auditory processing skills.
The ideal classroom environment for the twice-exceptional student is very far from what exists. No Child Left Behind legislation has failed to provide services for 2e students, much less offer a framework for identifying them on a large scale. With a handful of exceptions, highly promising, creative students with learning differences continue to be systematically denied what they need in school – a flexible combination of acceleration, remediation, and social/emotional supports – whether the context is general, gifted or special education.
To meet the needs of these children, there must be a paradigm shift from a remediation or deficit model to a strength-based model of education. This is particularly true as a growing body of research demonstrates that learning disabilities also appear to afford and coexist with unique learning strengths. These children need programs and schools that transform the research on twice exceptionality into a daily commitment to combine academic rigor with individualized accommodations and adaptations.
One million of our nation’s most promising, most innovative thinkers – bright children who learn differently, not “deficiently” – constitute a neglected national resource. Twice-exceptional children need an education that fits, and it’s in all of our interests to give it to them.
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Micaela Bracamonte is the founder and executive director of The Lang School,K-8 independent school for gifted children with learning differences that will open in New York City this September. She has spent the last ten years raising and home-schooling her two sons, both of whom are gifted, different learners. She has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe and other publications.