“Your child is gifted and needs special education?” Many parents are all too familiar with this kind of comment. You may hear it from friends. From family. Even from some teachers and doctors.
Yet there are lots of people who have exceptional ability in some academic areas and significant learning difficulties in other areas. Educators use a special name to describe students who qualify for gifted programs as well as special education services. These children are referred to as “twice-exceptional” learners.
“Some organizations estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of twice-exceptional learners in U.S. schools.”
Consider Tessa: She’s a bright, insightful and enthusiastic fourth grader who is reading at a 12th-grade level. At the same time, she can’t pass her spelling tests, and writing is a huge struggle.
Consider Jamie: At 16, he knows everything about the Civil War, writes beautifully, and can talk endlessly about politics. Yet he needs a calculator to help him with even the most basic math. And he couldn’t tie his shoes until he was in seventh grade.
Consider Steven Spielberg: He’s one of the most successful filmmakers of all time, but reading has been a lifelong struggle for him because he has dyslexia.
Twice-Exceptional and Easily Overlooked
Some organizations estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of twice-exceptional learners in U.S. schools. But there are no hard numbers because so many of these students are never formally identified as being gifted, having a disability or both.
Twice-exceptional children tend to fall into one of three categories. These categories help explain why students often go through school without the services and stimulation they need:
Students whose giftedness masks their learning and thinking differences. These kids score high on tests for giftedness but may not do well in gifted programs. These students use their exceptional abilities to try to compensate for their weaknesses. But as they get older, they may be labeled as “underachievers” or “lazy” as they fall behind their gifted peers.
Students whose learning and thinking differences mask their giftedness. Learning and thinking differences can affect performance on IQ tests and other assessments for giftedness. For example, since many of these tests require language skills, kids with language-based challenges may not perform well. These kids may be placed in special education classes, where they become bored and possibly act out because they aren’t being challenged enough. Some of these children are identified, wrongly, as having emotional problems.
Students whose learning and thinking differences and giftedness mask each other. These kids may appear to have average ability because their strengths and weaknesses “cancel each other out.” Consequently, these students may not qualify for gifted programs or for special education programs.
Identifying Twice-Exceptional Students
Federal law protects students with disabilities. School districts are required to look for children with disabilities and provide special education to those who qualify for it. Gifted education is a different animal.
There is no federal requirement for gifted education. Decisions about gifted programming are made at the state and local level. Few states specify what these services should be and which talents should be nurtured. This is often left up to individual school districts. And funding for gifted services can vary greatly from district to district.
Identifying twice-exceptional students tends to be a low priority. Often it takes a proactive parent to push for testing for both giftedness and learning and thinking differences. But sometimes teachers are the first to raise the possibility.
Here are some early tip-offs that your child could be a twice-exceptional learner:
Extraordinary talent in a particular area, such as math, drawing, verbal communication or music
A significant gap between your child’s performance in school and his performance on aptitude tests
Signs of a processing disorder, such as having trouble following spoken directions or stories that are read aloud
There isn’t a simple, one-test way of identifying twice-exceptional children. Ask your child’s school how it evaluates kids for giftedness and learning and thinking differences. The process will likely include assessing your child’s strengths and weaknesses as well as observing him in class and other settings.
It may be helpful for you and the teachers to keep records of what your child excels in and struggles with. Be on the lookout for “disconnects” between how hard he’s studying and what kinds of grades he’s making.
Social and Emotional Challenges
Giftedness can add to the social and emotional challenges that often come along with learning and thinking differences. Here are some challenges that twice-exceptional learners may face:
Frustration: This is especially common among kids whose talents and learning differences have gone unnoticed or only partially addressed. These students may have high aspirations and resent the often-low expectations that others have for them. They may crave independence and struggle to accept that they need support for their learning and thinking differences.
Like many gifted students, twice-exceptional learners may be striving for perfection. Nearly all the students who participated in one study of giftedness and learning disabilities reported that they “could not make their brain, body or both do what they wanted to do.” No wonder these kids are frustrated!
Low self-esteem: Without the right supports, children with learning and thinking differences may lose confidence in their abilities or stop trying because they start to believe that failure is inevitable. This kind of negative thinking can add to the risk of depression.
Social isolation: Twice-exceptional kids often feel like they don’t fit into one world or another. They may not have the social skills to be comfortable with the students in their gifted classes. They may also have trouble relating to students in their remedial classes. This can lead twice-exceptional learners to wonder, “Where do I belong?” These children often find it easier to relate to adults than to kids their age.
How to Help Your Child
With the right supports and encouragement, twice-exceptional learners can flourish. (Just ask Steven Spielberg!) Here’s what you can do to help your child:
Talk to the school. If you suspect your child may be twice exceptional, request a meeting with the school’s special education coordinator. Discuss your concerns, and ask about types of tests.
Ask to stay in the gifted program. If your child has been identified as gifted but is not doing well in that program, request that he be assessed for learning and thinking differences before any decisions are made about removing him from the program.
Make the most of your child’s IEP. If the school determines that your child is twice exceptional, use the annual goals in his Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address his weaknesses and nurture his gifts. Be prepared to brainstorm—and to be persistent!
Find other twice-exceptional kids. Encourage your child to spend time with children who have similar interests and abilities. This can help him celebrate his strengths and feel less isolated. You may be able to connect with twice-exceptional families through Understood’s parent community.
Empower your child. Help him understand what his gifts and weaknesses are. Reassure him that he can get support in the areas where he struggles. But resist the urge to rush in and rescue him every time he gets frustrated. It’s better to help him learn to cope with his mixed abilities.