Supporting Twice-Exceptional Students in the Classroom
We have been talking at length about the unique needs that students are facing after interrupted instruction. Educators are addressing learning gaps and shifting expectations daily. Consideration of providing material that is appropriate in content and grade level for every child is a top priority, along with a long list of other high priorities. Typical classrooms finding it a challenge to meet students where they are, which has historically been the challenge of special education. This responsibility may mean finding age appropriate and skill appropriate content where instruction must be reviewed with an eye toward every child’s special needs.
In education, students who qualify for gifted programs as well as special education services are described as “twice-exceptional” learners. Twice-exceptional (2E) children are gifted children of above average abilities who also have special educational needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, autism or some other singularity.
There are lots of students who have exceptional ability in some academic areas and significant learning difficulties in others. 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.
Because of their unique abilities and characteristics, 2E students need a special combination of education programs and counseling support. Their gifts need to be nurtured and their needs addressed. Twice-exceptional students, whose gifts and disabilities often conceal one another, are difficult to recognize. Without appropriate educational programming, twice-exceptional students and their talents go unrealized.
If we know 2E students exist in our classrooms, how do we identify them, understand the challenges that they face, and support them? Savvy teachers are discovering 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. However, this is complicated by many factors which influence students and school communities as a result of the pandemic. Students impacted by experiencing trauma, reduced access to enrichment opportunities and special educational resources during school closures, disrupted instruction, and other lasting impacts of the pandemic have made identifying the 2E student all the more difficult.
Identifying 2E Students
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 diagnosed with instructional needs in a unique position, and they can easily slip through the cracks.
Identifying twice-exceptional students tends to be a low priority while educators work to address the disruption and learning loss caused by COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, the identification of 2E children would often take a proactive family member to push for testing of both giftedness and learning and/or attention issues to identify a 2E student. If an educator can recognize the traits of these learners and better identify them, then 2E students can start receiving the appropriate support.
Twice-exceptional students may display strengths in certain areas and weaknesses in others, along with other specific characteristics ranging from above average sensitivity to a strong sense of curiosity. The multiple classification in giftedness and disability can complicate proper identification and even lead to a misdiagnosis, so it’s critical to take a careful approach. Take a look at some tips assembled by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development to identify 2E students:
- Take a multidimensional approach to identifying twice-exceptional students, and consider using both written tests and behavioral assessments
- Use both formal and informal assessments
- Separate out test scores on IQ tests; most 2E children are inconsistent performers with uneven skills and asynchronous development
- Reduce qualifying cut-off scores to account for learning differences or disabilities
- Consider oral questioning instead of formal written testing if the student experiences difficulties with processing details
- Extend the time available for the student to demonstrate knowledge
It is important to use assessment procedures that accommodate language and cultural differences to avoid bias in the identification process.
Challenges 2E Students Face
The tell-tale signs of 2E children can be misleading, and false perceptions can lead to them not being provided with the supports they need. Giftedness can add to social-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’ experience in the classroom:
Frequent demonstration of frustration is common among children whose learning needs have gone unseen or are only marginally acknowledged. These students may know they are capable more than they are asked to do, 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 feel they aren’t being challenged enough. They may not stand out in as needing attention, especially when the needs of all students are so great.
Like many gifted students, twice-exceptional learners may also be striving for perfection.
Without the right supports for both their special needs and gifts—2E children may lose confidence in their abilities. They may lose motivation or start to believe that failure is inevitable. Imagine the risk of this and the negative thinking that it brings.
Students who are 2E may 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. Social isolation has been a manifestation of the unprecedented safety measures taken during the pandemic. This in turn might disguise the 2E student further. Is it the pathology of safety or contribute to a diagnosis?
Misdiagnosis/wrongful placement into (or not into) special education programs
Often the typical testing done to identify a disability is problematic for 2E students because a talent can often hide a need. 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.
Once you take these factors into account and then add in the anxiety of pandemic-related classroom upheaval and the missed opportunity to nurture talents, the struggles become more urgent and less conspicuous. The unique challenges faced by 2E students may not only prevent them from reaching their full potential academically but also impede on the social-emotional development of the whole child. Identifying 2E students is critical to not only their success but also their well-being
How to support 2E students
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. Twice-exceptional students can be caught up in that support, as can students struggling with the strain of the pandemic.
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 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
I have personal experience with a 2E student in my life, my niece. She exhibits brilliance and thinks in a way that amazes me, and she has been identified as dyslexic and struggles with reading. She processes the world around her in a way that is unique to her. She struggles 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 dyslexia has significant impacts on her academic performance. Throw into this scenario, working online and the expectation to self-direct, the process of learning got in the way of learning for her. This scenario demonstrates the complexity and unique circumstances educators face in identifying and working with 2E students in a typical year. Surely a student with dyslexia falls into special education services, but when do we challenge the student’s giftedness?
Any students who have been misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed are in danger of failing to reach their academic potential. Children identified as gifted learners but whose disabilities have not been recognized are often able to perform at grade level until middle or high school but then can begin to struggle when the difficulty of the curriculum intensifies. On the other hand, students whose disabilities have been identified but whose giftedness has not, could find themselves under-challenged and uninterested in a program that is not rigorous enough.
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.