Twice-Exceptional Black and Brown Kids
Skip to content

Twice-exceptional Black and brown kids

Kids who have learning and thinking differences or other disabilities can also be gifted. This is known as being “twice exceptional,” or “2e.” But what does twice exceptional mean for Black and brown kids? 

In this episode, hosts Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace explore how kids who struggle with learning can also have incredible talents and skills. But for marginalized kids, these abilities are often overlooked. Gifted testing may be biased against them. The hosts react to startling statistics about how few kids of color are in gifted programs. Listen for thoughts and advice on how families can get schools to focus on their kids’ exceptional abilities, not just their challenges.

Related resources

Public school gifted or 2e programs mentioned in this episode:

Episode transcript

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us.

Welcome back to "The Opportunity Gap." What's up, Marissa?

Marissa: Good to be back. How are you doing, Julian?

Julian: I've got to take a deep breath. If I'm being honest.

Marissa: We can do that.

Julian: Today was a day. Today was a day. You know, tomorrow's a new day, so we start fresh tomorrow and we see where it goes.

Marissa: And it's Friday tomorrow.

Julian: It is Friday. Fri-yay!

Marissa: And Lincoln's birthday! We have a 6-year-old in our house tomorrow, so that's happening.

Julian: Oh, snap, OK. What are you going to do for the little guy?

Marissa: He's actually going to have a dance party. So he's having a hip-hop-themed dance party.

Julian: Well, hopefully his dad is not going to be teaching him how to dance. Because I've seen that man try to get on the floor and he just needs to sit down, take a seat.

Marissa: Lincoln's got it.

Julian: Lincoln will dance circles around him. I'm sure he'll do the wobble and everything else. So, I'm actually pretty hyped about today's episode because it really is hitting at the intersection of a lot of the things that we've been talking about. And so I want to really dig in and dive in to the idea that there's so many exceptional students out there. So many students that have gifted possibilities. So many students that also have learning disabilities and learning and thinking differences. And so many of them that are Black and brown students that are not being given the services that they deserve.

So let's go into Julian as a teacher. Back in the day, I was the history teacher, and I was definitely a popular teacher and the kids liked me. But I also knew that there was a lot of things I didn't know about how to teach, especially when it came to students with learning and thinking differences. 

And I remember this one student, his parents were immigrants. They were refugees. They had come from Central America, and neither one of them spoke English. But he had learned English on his own, and he was kind of a quiet, brooding type. He'd kind of chill in the back, not really talk too much. But he had been identified as having a learning disability. And so a lot of his teachers thought that he didn't really want to be engaged with the activity. He'd never acted out or anything. He just kind of just sat there and didn't really do much. So this one in particular, though, because I taught history, for some reason, it sparked an interest in him.

And so, when he came to my class, we would have these crazy-deep conversations about his thoughts on history. When I taught about World War II, he had such an in-depth knowledge of Nazism and of the Allied forces. He could name every single general on the Allied side, with the correct pronunciation for the French generals. He could name the different battles. He could tell me every single type of airplane, the B-52s, and all of the things that were involved in this war. And I found out that he had gone home and memorized everything. And I'm sitting there like, "Bro, you've been sitting in the back of this class for the last, like, three months, not saying a word. And then out of nowhere, you come out and have all of these facts. Where does this come from?"

So, as I got to know him more, I've found that the learning disability manifests itself in his struggle to stay focused in the moment. But if he found something that interested him, he was completely bought in. And so we worked together with him and some other male teachers, kind of got together and really tried to push him to show what he really knew. And over time we found out that he really loved writing, he really loved history, and he loved to write about his experiences. He graduated eighth grade, he went on to high school, he went to college, and he has just finished writing his first book.

Marissa: Wow.

Julian: And he is going to different places around the world to learn more about the history so that he can write about them. He actually participated in Bernie Sanders' campaign. And one of the coolest pictures that I've ever seen is this student in the back with the Bern, hanging out with him during this campaign. And I'm thinking back to when he was an eighth grader, sitting in the back of my class, telling me about World War II and Allies and communism and Nazism, and here he is, working with this man that is in big-time politics. And it makes me think, "Why did we never test him to see if he was gifted?"

Marissa: Absolutely. Thank you, Julian, for sharing that story. I think it's really a fantastic way to start this conversation. If I think back to 12 years ago and where I was as an educator, I don't think I was able to navigate students who had this twice exceptionality.

Before we really get in, let's talk a little bit first and foremost about some of these definitions, right? So, when we're talking about twice-exceptional kids, understanding first, this idea of gifted, right? So what gifted is, is this exceptional talent or a natural ability compared to others, right? So, if we look at, like, you know, what's considered average, these are individuals who perform above average compared to their peers and their experiences, their environments. They're performing above average. So, a child or individual who's twice exceptional is a child who also has this gifted ability, this exceptionality, and also a disability. So, some other ways we can think about it, right, is a kid who has learning and thinking differences but also has, like, a really exceptional ability when it comes to their cognitive ability, their processing skills, right?

There's, like, natural talent that they have. I know parents, I talked to there's this reference to 2e, if you hear Julia and I interchange and say the word 2e —

Julian: It's like a superhero: 2e.

Marissa: Twice exceptional. Yes, exactly! Right. I love it. Like, it's such a cool term. I think it's still like, we're breaking through some barriers in this conversation today. But I'd love for us to just keep these terms in mind as we go through the conversation and just give them some power in some shout-outs.

So let's just dive in to what does giftedness mean for Black and brown kids? Let's start with that.

Julian: I will say that my personal experience is that I have lived as a Black man in this society. I am also Hispanic, but my primary experience has been as a member of the African American community. When I think about students, though, specifically Black and brown all across this country, giftedness is — it's a very unclear topic. Traditionally, giftedness falls into the academic realm. There's a variety of tests that are taken, and those tests relate to an IQ score. And that score is determining whether or not that student is considered gifted because their score puts them so far above what the average IQ tests would be for the average student.

So, let's unpack that a little bit. As we know, or maybe you don't know, standardized tests historically have been very biased, from the way that they are written, the questions that they are asking, the background knowledge that they are referencing. And in many cases, the people that are giving the test, all of those things include biases that are oppressive to marginalized communities and specifically the Black and brown kids.

The prevalence of those tests and the identification process for students to potentially even be considered gifted also is not nearly as strong in urban communities where many of our Black and brown kids live. It's one of the things that gets cut first, when we talk about schools that are strapped for cash.

And so all of that leads to a situation where many of our students are not even being pushed to be considered as being gifted in the academic realm. But on a personal level, I'm also thinking of the idea of this word "exceptionalism." You said when you define "gifted," it's being exceptional. So, for somebody that lives in a society that is already designed to support a specific group of people, on a racial level, for them to exist, just to exist, that, in my view, makes them exceptional. For somebody to have multiple barriers to success, whether it be socioeconomic status, whether it be race, ethnicity, language, documentation or lack thereof, and still to be able to be successful and thrive in that. Doesn't that make them exceptional too?

Marissa: We haven't even started to talk about the other ways in which someone can be exceptional. All the creative ways in which someone can show forth art, music, talents that we don't look at either. I think just overall there's like this lack of looking at strength and looking at, and like you said, like, what are we comparing it to? You said it perfectly when you were talking through how these standardized tests and the assessments and what is done to go through the evaluation process to be identified as gifted. It is very biased, and it's just not happening in a lot of schools. Even just talking about the student you were sharing about in the beginning, that kid probably went through K through 12 without being identified for his exceptionality. And clearly he had an exceptional talent that thankfully you saw, but why did it have to take that long?

And why did he have to be, like, the kid in the back of the classroom who's withdrawn?

Julian: You multiply that by millions of people over decades, and you think about how many of our Black and brown students over decades of being in schools have not been even given a chance to increase their exposure to challenging topics, to show and demonstrate their giftedness.

Marissa: So as we're kind of discussing this, Julian, you know, it keeps coming through my mind, like, you know, I know from my research alone that there is this overrepresentation of students in the Black and brown communities that are identified in special education, but an underrepresentation of Black and brown individuals within a gifted identification. So I'm curious, Andrew, what are our statistics in this area?

Andrew: We had been talking, right, before this episode about some of the statistics around gifted education and disability. So, I looked it up on the National Center for Education Statistics, and, yeah, there is a disparity. Around 8 percent of white students and 13 percent of Asian American students in public schools are in gifted programs. And then by contrast, it's only about 5 percent of Hispanic students and 4 percent of Black students. It actually gets down even less than that in some years.

Julian: Wow. A third for Asian versus Black and Hispanic.

Andrew: And on the other side, if you look at kids with IEPs, comparing them by race, you know, again, Black students, 17 percent have IEPs, which is higher than the average of 14 percent of students. So, they're overidentified in special education, underidentified in terms of being part of those gifted programs. Interestingly enough, in those statistics are the underidentification for giftedness, just by a percentage, is actually bigger.

Julian: I mean, I just have to let that sit for a second. Hearing those numbers, it always, it always hits home when the data speaks. And the data is speaking to us and saying that clearly what we're saying anecdotally is actually truth.

Marissa: Exactly.

Julian: What I'm interested in, though, is digging more into the fact that Asian and those who identify as white, the higher prevalence of those students in gifted programs. And wondering what are your thoughts on that? I mean, 13 percent of Asian students in gifted programs, like, that's a really fascinating number given that cohort of students is also a minority in our country.

Andrew: As someone who's looked at this issue and is also Asian American, I feel like I can speak to this. So, the Asian American community is very diverse. If you look at Cambodian or Vietnamese Americans, for example, they are underrepresented in gifted programs, while other groups are overrepresented. People tend to lump all Asian Americans together, but there's actually a lot of differences between communities. You know, some groups came to the United States as refugees without any money or resources. Other groups came because they had some specialized skills and were recruited by companies. So, it's really hard to generalize and that's going to impact whether or not a family's kids have the advantages to be able to get into a gifted program or be in the right neighborhood. The other thing I would say is that just because you're in a gifted program, it may not be serving you in the best way. You know, a lot of the Asian American people that I speak to feel like there's not enough identification of Asian American kids for learning differences and ADHD. You know, the feeling is you're Asian American, you must, you're too smart. How do you have this problem? Just work harder.

Julian: Well, that that's that model minority myth. And I love that you brought up the diversity within a subgroup.

Marissa: Absolutely. Andrew, I appreciate you sharing some of that information and your experiences because it does, like, these statistics, while they're jarring, they're not surprising.

Julian: Let's go back to our Black and brown kids' learning and thinking differences, but also gifted, 2e.

Marissa: 2e, let's do it.

Julian: Marissa, I'd love to hear more about what you've learned in your studies and your dissertation work, and in general, how does this play out?

Marissa: The main thing is that in general, 2e students are not receiving appropriate programming across the board. I see that a lot, especially with our Black and brown students, because again, based on kind of the experiences they have within schools, educators are very quick to see a behavior. And that behavior becomes the problem they need to address. Right? So student's withdrawn; student can't sit still; student has outburst, right? They're calling out during class. There's behaviors that are disrupting what they believe an ideal classroom looks like. They must need support or services. So then the process usually starts where they're being evaluated to receive special education services.

Now, oftentimes there is an aspect of it that does focus on academics and does focus on cognitive ability. Those tests are also done, correct? Now, I think more recently, we're starting to look at those scores more so than we did in the past and be like, "Oh, wow, like, this child is performing above average cognitively, academically," and then they are receiving that twice-exceptionality — that 2e — identification.

What I think is missing, though, is I still feel like their programming is built upon the behaviors. So it was focusing on the disability part more so than actually challenging them. So now you're seeing situations where a highly intelligent kid is being pulled out, right? Or the weakness is being focused on and not the strength. And it's interesting right now, because I'm talking to families. And I don't know if this is, like, a solution, but it may be for some families. What's working? Some of the families that I work with now left brick-and-mortar schools because it was way more challenging, they felt, for their students to get their needs met there. But because of the flexibility of virtual learning and virtual programming, they're noticing their students who are identified as 2e are having some success because we have the power to be like, "Oh, you're an eighth-grade student, but you're performing above grade level in math? Great. Cool. We're going to put you in a geometry class." And so we can do that because they're not going to different classroom. You know what I'm saying? They're just, their schedule just looks different. They're just attending that 10th-grade class while being in eighth grade. I'm not saying virtual learning is the answer, per se, but I'm seeing it as something that some parents are becoming interested in seeing if this is the programming that works best for their child.

Julian: I'm thinking just on a practical level, say I'm listening to Andrew, Marissa, and Julian talk about 2e and my child is showing signs that they may very well have exceptional ability, but maybe that child already has an IEP for any sort of learning disability. What do I do? What's my next step?

Marissa: Well, one, talk to your student, right? Talk to your team. I always say the IEP team is, like, that first family of people you go to have conversations. And remember the IEP is the individualized education plan for your child. So those would be your first kind of, like, line of defense to start the conversation with. And then you as the parent have the right to be like, "Hey, my kid also needs this."

One thing we should definitely go over too, Julian, is like the idea of a gifted IEP. Because I think even though it's not a federal mandate to have a gifted program, there are states, district, schools that do that and do it well. And so the parents have to know how to ask for those things to be put in place for your student.

Julian: Anybody out there that's listening along with us — families, caretakers, guardians, friends, students, anybody. I mean, thinking about the letters IEP, there's a weight with those letters. There's a weight with that acronym. And sometimes that weight steers to a negative connotation — that it means something's wrong with you, so you need help, right? Like, "I have an IEP. That means that I need to get extra services because something's not clicking right." Let me be the one to tell you you're wrong. And if you think that's what an IEP only is about, you're wrong. An IEP is an individualized education program. It say things that people are going to do as a team to help the student be in an environment that is going to support them to get to the best possible potential.

So, the idea that it's just weaknesses, the idea that it's just going to focus on things that are wrong? No. Don't think that at all, especially for my folks that are students of color, my folks that have already dealt with things that have happened in schools that might not be so great. I understand completely. I've worked in schools for a while, and I know that sometimes we are not treated the way that we deserve to be treated. We got to reframe that. We have to change that and realize that this is a place to be empowered. Having an IEP, especially, pushing the school to figure out what are they going to do for your child if they are gifted?

Marissa: And that's the stepping stone.

Julian: You got to go in there and ask questions.

Marissa: Like, use it as a benefit. That's my push, it's like, regardless of how you got the IEP, right? If your child has the IEP and you feel that there's something missing and you feel they have an exceptionality, use that as that stepping stone, because it is a legal document. So, regardless of whether or not your particular school has a gifted program, like, utilize that to be able to then say, "Hey, like in addition to this particular accommodation or specially designed instruction to help my student with this behavior, can we also put in this extension or this activity or something that can also challenge them and meet their needs academically, as well?"

Julian: I will say that I'm excited to be in the school district that I live in, where my own children attend. There is a pretty robust gifted program.

Marissa: That's awesome.

Julian: And what I've found out is that not only are all students eligible, they do a mandatory gifted screening for everybody. And when this gifted screening happens, if a student has an IEP or learning and thinking differences, any sort of assessments are also in place for the gifted screening. It makes sure that everybody has an even playing field. This program that I see these kids doing robotics and taking Legos and making these really cool structures, and they're going out and doing project-based learning.

Marissa: And that's what it's all about. That's amazing.

Julian: And the district I'm in, it's incredibly diverse. You have Black kids, white kids, Asian, everybody kind of coming together in these groups and really doing some big, powerful things.

Marissa: You found the unicorn, Julian. You found the unicorn school district.

Julian: I mean, it's not the unicorn, but it definitely is, well, this, I mean, we talked about earlier, like it's not something that should be a unicorn.

Marissa: Exactly.

Julian: And not to say that the district is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And Andrew has found examples of powerful things happening all across the country. So trust and believe, like, it's not only one place, outside of Philadelphia, that's happening. Like, it's all over the country.

Marissa: Thank goodness.

Andrew: There seem to be roses everywhere from all these different cracks, to borrow your analogy, Julian.

Julian: Is somebody listening to Tupac?

Marissa: Or listening to our podcast.

Andrew: Again, right before we started recording, we did some research just to see, like, where are people doing some interesting things around both gifted programs for kids but also twice-exceptional programs. And there were some really interesting ones. I mean, you just mentioned the universal screening. So, Montgomery County public school district, in Maryland, they actually had some criticism over the years because their gifted programs are very slanted toward white kids. And they really made this effort to do the universal screening, as you mentioned. So, instead of just like you apply to the gifted program, they said, "No, we're not doing that. Every kid, we're going to see if they're gifted. And not only that — we're going to match them up with whatever the screening processes they have for disabilities for learning and thinking differences." And that's not perfect, but that's made some differences there, which I think are pretty cool.

Chicago School District U-46 was really interesting because a lot of people say that they really prove that these gifted programs could be diverse and that they could integrate them. And that was a really cool thing to see. And Colorado — in Aurora Public Schools, what they did was they used different measures. So, you guys talked at the beginning about sort of having IQ tests that have been traditionally biased. Instead, they looked at all the different tests they were giving and they sort of applied them in different ways to make sure that their programs were diverse, were integrated, were not just slanted toward one group or another, but really captured everybody who is gifted.

Julian: Oh, I love that. I love that it seems like they took theory to practice. I mean, the word "equity" and "anti-racism" has been the punchline of the year, but I love that I'm hearing about actual tangible changes that are benefiting everybody. And it seems like these programs you're talking about are exactly it, it's theory to practice. So, that's dope.

Andrew: Let me share one more that I thought was really cool was in Yuma, Arizona. So, Southwest Junior High — and there's a center at Johns Hopkins for, like, talented youth, and they always identify the top 10 junior highs in the country, and they identified Southwest Junior High, near the Mexican-American border, which has a really great gifted program. And the demographics of that school are heavily Hispanic, a lot of immigrant families. So it was just cool to see that happening and to give, like, real concrete stuff. We'll put some links to these programs in the show notes. I'm sure if people dig in, there's always drawbacks, but it's still great to see some of these things happening.

Marissa: There's no perfect scenario yet, right, that we know of, but at least there are educational systems that are taking steps in the right direction to do better.

Julian: So, we just touched the tip of the iceberg. Just the tip of the iceberg. You know, anybody out there that is choosing to listen to us first, we appreciate it. We want to hear from you. We want to hear what you'd like us to discuss. What topics are you interested in? What things should we lift up specifically around the opportunity gap?

You can always reach us at opportunitygap@understood.org. You can call Andrew; he's giving his personal number at the job.

Andrew: That's actually the show voicemail.

Julian: Just kidding, just kidding. 646-616-1213, extension 705. Again.

Marissa: As parents, as educators, like, Julian and I have spent literally over a decade having these conversations, and so we know how meaningful it is for us to discuss some of these topics. So hearing your thoughts, and especially as we dig into something where it may be a new term, this 2e, this twice exceptionality, and we want to know if you have had experiences of success within your own families.

Julian: Please, feel empowered to go to your schools or go to whomever you're dealing with in the educational pathways. What are they doing to help address giftedness? Are there programs out there? What is the gifted program availability? What does the screener look like? What ways are they challenging? Even if your student is not deemed to be gifted, they still deserve to be challenged, and they still deserve to have extra activities to meet their needs. Feel empowered to go in and ask.

Julian: This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you hear today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to u.org/opportunitygap to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at opportunitygap@understood.org. We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.

Stay in the know

We’ll alert you whenever a new episode of your favorite show airs.

Host

  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is an assistant principal in a public school in Philadelphia.

    Tell us what interests you

    Stay in the know

    We’ll alert you whenever a new episode of your favorite show airs.

    Copyright © 2014-2022 Understood For All Inc.