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[Special Populations] Supporting Twice-Exceptional Students in the Classroom

[Special Populations] Supporting Twice-Exceptional Students in the Classroom

One of the challenges teachers face, in addition to everything else on their plates, is providing material that is appropriate in content and grade level for every child. When discussing students with special needs, this can often refer to age-appropriate and skill-appropriate content. But, there is another population of students that must be reviewed with an eye toward their special needs. These children often get lost, and because of their talents, these students often find themselves hiding in the “average” populations.

In education, students who qualify for gifted programs as well as special education services are described as “twice-exceptional” learners. Twice-exceptional (or “2E”) students demonstrate significantly above-average abilities in certain academic areas but also show special educational needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or autism spectrum disorder. Because their giftedness often masks their special needs, or vice versa, they are sometimes labeled as "lazy" or "underperforming," even though that is not the case.

Students who are 2E often become lost in a school’s special education or Individualized Education Program (IEP) system, having their talents neglected in favor of remediation. Other times, these students confuse diagnosticians, so they do not qualify for much-needed specialized instruction. Their gifts must be cultivated and their needs addressed. Frequently, students receive a diagnosis that demonstrates gifts in one area, but they must learn to compensate to academically perform in other areas.

Educators recognize that 2E students exist—often in the shadows—of the classroom. However, the real challenge is how to accurately identify these students, understand the challenges that they face, and implement whole-child-based strategies to best support them. Savvy teachers are now learning how to allow these students to experience the same opportunities available for gifted students and learn in ways that highlight their strengths, while addressing their challenges.

How to identify 2E students

Identifying twice-exceptional students tends to be a low priority in schools today. Often, it takes a proactive parent to push for testing for both giftedness and learning and/or attention issues. However, knowledgeable teachers are also in a great position to raise the possibility. A number of studies commonly suggest that two to five percent of school-age children are 2E, with some reporting a much-higher estimation. Additionally, some research has also shown that dyslexia is more common among gifted people in spatially oriented occupations, such as art, math, architecture, and physics. Educators need to be trained to recognize the traits of these learners so that they can start receiving the appropriate support.

I have personal experience with a 2E 5th grade student in my life, my niece. She exhibits brilliance and thinks in a way that amazes me, yet she has been identified as dyslexic and cannot read. She processes the world around her in a way that is unique to her. She can struggle with comprehension and verbal instruction; however, once she gathers what you are asking of her, the poetry of her thoughts and the depth of her answers are astounding. Her spatial orientation and creative processing are significantly above average, but tapping into those abilities to help her crack the code on reading has been the challenge. She is clearly a talented student, and she demonstrates gifted abilities, but her dyslexia diagnosis has significant impacts on her academic performance. This scenario demonstrates the complexity and unique circumstances educators face in identifying and working with 2E students. Surely a student with dyslexia falls into special education services, but when do we challenge her giftedness?

School districts are required to look for children with disabilities and provide special education to those who qualify for it. Giftedness is also screened for, but it is often provided separately from special education programs. As you can imagine, this puts students who are gifted and disabled in a unique position, and they can easily slip through the cracks.

Here are some signs to look for as educators of these special students. Note that this is not a comprehensive list and that a larger list of common characteristics can be found here.

  • Highly curious, divergent thinker
  • Extraordinary perceptions and/or abilities in one or more areas
  • Tendency to overthink questions; may take a long time to answer a question
  • Very motivated to achieve mastery; may abandon subject due to perfectionism/unrealistic expectations
  • Likes to see big picture first and then fill in details; dismissive of details in quest for big picture
  • Dislikes linear learning or rote practice
  • Superior vocabulary

The tell-tale signs of 2E children can be misleading, and false perceptions can lead them not being provided with the supports they need. Giftedness can add to social and emotional challenges that often come along with learning and attention issues. Students face challenges tied to their disabilities, as well as the strengths of their talents and intelligences that can camouflage and interrupt learning. With this background knowledge in place, here are a few things to keep in mind about 2E students’ daily lives and this background knowledge in place.

Frustration

Frequent demonstration of frustration is especially common among children whose talents and learning issues have gone unseen or are only marginally acknowledged. These students may know they are capable of much and resent the low expectations that others have for them. They may crave independence and exciting projects and may resist the need for support for their learning and attention issues. These students may be placed in special education classes, where they become bored and possibly act out because they aren’t being challenged enough.

Like many gifted students, twice-exceptional learners may be striving for perfection. Students who are 2E often say that they cannot make their brain, body, or both do what they want to do. No wonder these students are frustrated!

Low self-esteem

Without the right supports—by that, I mean supports for both the disability and the gift—2E children may lose confidence in their abilities. They could stop trying because they start to believe that failure is inevitable. Imagine the risk of this and the negative thinking that it brings, including an increased risk of depression. Providing appropriate services and plenty of positive reinforcement is key.

Social isolation

Students who are 2E often feel like they don’t fit in. They may not have the social skills to be comfortable with fellow students in their gifted classes, and they may have trouble relating to students in their remedial classes. Many 2E students find it easier to talk and interact with adults. While associating with adults can be a great outlet, it may make it more obvious to 2E students that they don’t fit in with students their own age.

Misdiagnosis/wrongful placement into (or not into) special education programs

Often the testing done to identify a disability is problematic for 2E students because a talent can often hide a need. As such, some of these children are misidentified as having emotional problems. Most easily missed are those students whose learning and attention issues and giftedness mask each other. These students 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—but that does not change their need of supports.

How to support 2E students using the whole-child approach

Strategies for serving twice-exceptional students include addressing students’ strengths and interests; providing appropriate social and emotional support; offering adaptations for academic strengths and accommodations for learning needs; and creating a supportive, safe, problem-solving culture that values the success of every student.

As educators, there are certainly steps to take to become advocates for these special students. More than identifying students’ most obvious needs and creating thoughtful IEPs to address them, it is critical to follow the lead of recent legislation and find the best way to educate ALL students and assess them in ways they can shine.

Start with these high-level strategies:

  • Take a developmental perspective toward understanding the student, the assessment, and the interpretation of test results
  • Advocate for broad behavioral assessments and eligibility for services that include appropriate treatments for both giftedness and dyslexia
  • Be aware of the special emotional needs and struggles of 2E students
  • Ensure that both the disability and the ability are addressed

Any student who has been misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed is in danger of failing to reach his or her academic potential. A child identified as a gifted learner but whose disability has not been recognized is often able to perform at grade level until middle or high school but then begins to struggle when the difficulty of the curriculum intensifies. On the other hand, a student whose disability has been identified but whose giftedness has not could find himself or herself under-challenged and uninterested in a program that is not rigorous enough.

Finally, a 2E child who is neither identified as either gifted nor disabled may perform at average levels, leaving parents and teachers to simply assume the student is “average.” With background knowledge, careful observation, and thoughtful evaluation, educators can be a critical link to help identify twice-exceptional students and provide them with the right supports, encouragement, and individualized attention to achieve all of the amazing things they are capable of.

Looking for additional resources to support your 2E learners? Join us for a live webinar on Tuesday, March 12, to learn about the latest trends in special education!

winnie.oleary's picture

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day. 

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