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How to Help Twice Exceptional Learners Succeed

Students who are gifted and have conditions such as ADHD or autism, can feel frustrated. But parents and schools can help them live up to their potential.



Twice-exceptional students are both gifted and have a special need or disability.

When a bright college freshman from an extremely academic family flunked out of college by the midterm of her freshman year, she felt ashamed. She always felt like the smartest person in the class, but somehow couldn’t turn her homework in on time. An evaluation determined that she had a 140 IQ, but also had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Once her ADHD was treated and she was able to concentrate on her homework, she went back to college and graduated with an A average.

She is one of an estimated 350,000 children in the US between 5 and 18 years old who are considered twice-exceptional — both gifted and with a special need or disability, says Peter Wiley, a psychologist in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences as well as in its Center for Management of ADHD.

These students typically have an IQ of about 130 — the top 2 percent — but may have retention problems with reading or math due to ADHD, for example. Dyslexia can inhibit their reading; autism can affect them socially.

“We don’t ever want to say that a child who is gifted, but who is not doing well, is lazy if the real explanation is she has a learning disability or ADHD,” says Wiley. “That just knocks the child’s self-esteem even lower.

“Conversely, if they have ADHD or a learning disability, it should not preclude them from being in the gifted program.”

How gifted students are identified

Twice-exceptional students are often identified first as gifted and then additional tests reveal a deficit. Brandywine School District in Wilmington, DE tests all students between PreK and Kindergarten to identify gifted children. Those scores are reviewed by a Gifted Education Panel Review team. Another assessment is done in kindergarten and students continue to be monitored for giftedness individually through 8th grade.

“Any person — a teacher, parent or counselor — can refer a student to be reviewed by the panel,” says Cary Riches, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment PreK to 12 for Brandywine. “We spend a minimum of a half-hour on every student looking at exact evidence — student work and teachers speaking to the student’s specific needs.”

In the Moorestown Township Public Schools, staff keep an eye out for students who may show an expertise in a particular discipline, says Carole Butler, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “If a parent notifies us first, we will work with the parent to come up with a solution that meets the needs of the child,” she says. “Each year, we do an annual review of the child to determine the next course of action.”

Sometimes a student with an educational deficit, such as a learning disability or physical impairment, proves to be exceptional in another area. Many people, famous for a particular talent, have had deficits, including Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, and Albert Einstein and Tom Cruise, both of whom were diagnosed with dyslexia.

Parents are their child's best advocate

Parents know their children best and are often their strongest advocates. Lisa Lawson, director of special education and student support services for Brandywine, used as an example a gifted student whose need for A’s caused her to literally pull her hair out and her parents turned to the school for help. “We were addressing her social/emotional health and needs at the same time that we were trying to enable her to continue her high-level work.”

The National Association of Gifted Children encourages parents to help keep their twice-exceptional students organized through checklists and frequent reminders of due dates.

Students can become frustrated, struggle socially

Twice-exceptional students can feel frustrated; they know they are bright, but still struggle to read or concentrate, for example. That can lead to low self-esteem. He might think, “I’m a failure. I seem to have all this talent but I can’t get the job done,” says Wiley.

They can also feel socially isolated. Though exceptionally bright, students on the autism spectrum may struggle with the social skills needed to understand body language, sarcasm and abstract concepts. They may require specific specialized instruction in those areas to be able to fit in with their peers.

Teachers can also adjust the curriculum to fit a particular student’s needs to keep that child interested and motivated. “For example, with a science unit, a student could do a rigorous project where she chooses an area of interest related to the core lesson,” says Riches. “The teacher is trying to build a unit where the student has the opportunity to use a different lens.”

Terri Akman is a contributing writer for MetroKids.

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