When you were in school, you always knew who the smart kids were, right? They were the kids who raised their hands every time and knew the answers when they were called on. They could go up to the board and show their work. They were well-organized and always had their homework done on time. They got straight A’s and were frequently asked to help other students in the classroom because they’d finished their work before everyone else. They were bright, high-performing students, the kids who were chosen to participate in special programs for the gifted and talented. This is the stereotype of a gifted student. Unfortunately, this stereotype leaves out a whole group of kids who are just as bright but don’t possess the skill sets that would obviously identify them as gifted: our twice-exceptional (2E) learners.
So who are these students? Dual-exceptionality refers to children who have intellectual ability that measures in the gifted range on standardized IQ measures but at the same time have a diagnosed learning disability that prevents them from readily demonstrating that ability, particularly in a classroom setting. These kids run the gamut in terms of the learning differences they possess: ADHD and difficulty with executive functioning; dyslexia and dysgraphia (trouble with written language); difficulty with processing language; difficulty with short-term memory – just to name a few. Because of their learning differences, many mainstream educators identify 2E kids as average, or sometimes even below average, students. The sad result is that many of these kids come to believe that they are not bright or capable, and they never have the opportunity to develop their gifts into true talents.
Twice-exceptional students are a wide and varied group, and the misunderstandings surrounding dual-exceptionality are equally variable. When a highly verbal student can answer any question in great detail orally but can’t write a complete sentence on the same topic, for a special educator the challenge is easily visible. But for a mainstream educator not trained in these challenges, although dysgraphia or difficulty with written organization of language can be the root cause, often the failure to produce is perceived simply as a matter of resistance or laziness.
Some 2E students’ learning challenges are not at all obvious. These are more often students with language and other processing difficulties. Slow processing speed, auditory processing deficits sometimes tied to hearing loss, and expressive and receptive language difficulties can impair these students’ abilities to absorb new information in the language-laden environment of school. Some of these kids just require written directions or multiple repetitions of instructions to understand what is being asked. Perhaps they require extended time to complete tests and other assignments. As you dig down into the complexities of these students, it’s easy to see that their educational profiles do not match those of the kids who are most often identified as gifted.
Gifted kids with ADHD are particularly likely to face misunderstandings in the classroom. Bright kids who are bored with what is being taught because they already know the content can be identified as having behavior problems when they find other ways to occupy their time – often with activities that are found to be disruptive or annoying in the classroom. This situation is exacerbated further in the case of ADHD students who already find it a challenge to remain focused.
Teachers, even those in a mainstream setting, are increasingly well-trained to recognize and serve 2E students. Some are doing great work with limited resources. But the learning profiles of these children are highly complex, and many are still misunderstood and underserved. Identifying the path to serving these students requires expertise, understanding, and the dedication to dig deep and provide instruction in creative and dynamic ways. It’s a lot of work for teachers but the payoff in developing the cognitive capacity of these incredibly bright young learners is rich. Our world needs empowered, motivated young people. The more we as educators understand how best to serve our twice-exceptional learners, the more children will be given the chance to truly reach their potentials and become their best selves.
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