In recent weeks, the only constant has seemed to be that there is no normal. Every day we are inundated with reports and numbers and projections that do little to quell the collective anxiety we are feeling. Parents, in particular, are struggling to balance suddenly having to homeschool their children in addition to keeping up with whatever demands their work requires. It can be hard to see past the immediate uncertainty and fear, but once we do, we find that much can be learned from this situation about our children, how they learn, and how to educate them most effectively. Remote learning opens up new possibilities for individualizing education. Individualizing education, in turn, allows us to encourage curiosity, internal motivation and learning beyond studying for tests. One population in particular that can benefit from this kind of individualized approach to learning are twice-exceptional children.
Twice-exceptional children are children who are both gifted (generally accepted as having an IQ of 130 or above) and have a learning, emotional, physical, sensory, and/or developmental disability (4). Many twice-exceptional children go unidentified or are misdiagnosed. A report from the National Educational Association has called these students “the most frequently under-identified population in our schools” (4). There are three common reasons why the struggles of twice-exceptional children often go unnoticed or are misunderstood by the school:
- Giftedness masks disability: Because of their high intelligence, some gifted children are able to compensate for their disability, at least initially. This might lead educators to not notice the problem, delaying the evaluation and the identification of the disability. For example, a gifted seven-year-old girl might memorize a book or guess words from context, so her dyslexia goes unnoticed.
- Disability masks giftedness: For some gifted children, their disability prevents them from being able to show their intellectual capabilities. Therefore, they are never referred for gifted programming. For example, a child with ADHD might not be able to get through very simple math problems, yet when given the right level of challenge, can solve math problems far above his grade level.
- Giftedness and disability mask one another: Children do not display any particular strengths or weaknesses to a degree that would seem to require intervention or identification. They achieve grade-level expectations and are assumed to have average ability. In reality, these children have learned to compensate for their disability with their intelligence. However, the disability also prevents them from learning up to their full cognitive potential.
Dr. Emily W. King, a North Carolina-based psychologist, has commented that “twice-exceptional students are often caught between two worlds” (1). They don’t feel as though they fit in with gifted students or with students with disabilities. Many have become incredibly frustrated and have difficulty coping with the significant discrepancy between their high intelligence and their particular areas of weakness. To truly meet the needs of twice exceptional children, it is imperative to use a two-tiered approach that addresses both their areas of strength and challenge.
“Twice-exceptional students require a … combination of gifted and special education. Rather than satisfaction with at or near grade- level performance, schools should provide special services, programs, and instruction to address both giftedness and disability, thereby teaching the whole child” (4). Currently, twice-exceptional students are frequently denied access to gifted services because of their disability. Alternatively, gifted programming is dangled as an incentive for children as a way of addressing problem behaviors (“you can go to the higher-level math class, but only if you keep your desk organized”). Unfortunately, these types of practices have a negative impact on students’ motivation and self-concept, leading them to disengage from school and the learning process. When it comes to teaching twice-exceptional students, educators should never take time away from their strength areas to create more time to work on their deficiencies (8).
We recognize that given a student’s particular disability, access to gifted programming may be difficult to implement. Gifted programming might need to be modified – not in content, but in the method of delivery and requirements for work output. In addition, appropriate special education services and accommodations should be put in place to properly address the child’s particular area of disability. These services could range from tutoring in specific academic areas, to specific skills training, to classroom accommodations, such as extra time on tests.
Dr. Ross Greene, clinical psychologist and author of Raising Human Beings, believes that “children do well if they can.” Therefore, if we implement the two-tiered approach described above, twice-exceptional children can thrive as students. Just as children do well if they can, we believe that teachers do well if they can, as long as they’re given the proper training, tools, and support. With no federal mandate to identify or serve gifted students, legislation addressing gifted education is left up to the states and, often, to individual school districts. In the many districts where there are no specific guidelines addressing gifted education, teachers are left to fend for themselves in figuring out how to educate gifted and twice-exceptional students.
Teacher Training/Professional Development
In order to effectively implement the two-tiered strategy described above, training and resources need to be made available to teachers and school administrators. Currently, many colleges offering degrees in education do not have courses dedicated to gifted education. Out of the approximately 5,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States, only 36 offer certificates or graduate degrees in gifted education (5) (2). Interestingly, out of the 151 colleges and universities in Massachusetts, none offers one of these programs (3).
Gifted students have unique needs. Without specific training in gifted education, teachers cannot be expected to know how to meet these needs. When, in addition to being exceptional for their giftedness, students have learning or emotional challenges, teachers have an even more formidable task. To rise up to this challenge, teachers need to have access to professional development and training opportunities regarding gifted and twice-exceptional students. In addition, it would be helpful for schools to have a staff member with specific expertise in gifted and twice-exceptional education. This person would be a resource for teachers and administrators, as well as an advocate for the students. If teachers suspect they have a gifted or twice-exceptional student, or they are unsure of how best to support that student, there would be a person with whom they could consult. This resource person would also be involved in the process of class placements to ensure gifted and twice-exceptional students are not isolated in their class.
While the idea of integrating twice-exceptional education into a public school might sound foreign, there are school systems across the country that have accomplished that goal. In Colorado, twice-exceptional education falls under the Department of Gifted Education. The state established “The Twice-Exceptional Project” as a collaboration between the Offices of Gifted Education and Special Education as a means of providing statewide professional learning around identification and support of twice-exceptional students (6). There are trainings in twice-exceptional education multiple times a year, and resources for teachers and parents are readily available on the Colorado Department of Education’s website.
In the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland, there are multiple educational options specifically designated for twice-exceptional students (7). MCPS refers to twice-exceptional students with a specific learning disability as GT/LD students, and use this designation when referring to the supports available for this population. Specialized programs for GT/LD students begin in the 3rd grade and continue through the 12th grade. There are eight schools in the county that have these specialized programs (two elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools). The county indicates that most twice-exceptional students are able to be accommodated in their neighborhood schools with the support of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, if the neighborhood school isn’t able to offer the necessary level of support, the IEP will be revised to indicate that the student will be attending a GT/LD program. In this way, there is district-wide coordination to ensure that the students are receiving the best kind of instruction and support for their specific needs.
At the moment, it’s hard to imagine what the world will look like once children are allowed to go back to school. It’s impossible to predict what will remain the same, what will be different, and even when that might happen. As challenging as this time period is, it also provides an opportunity for parents to learn something new about their children as students, and for teachers to find new, creative ways to reach their students and individualize instruction. Schools will reopen, and when they do, we can carry over what we have learned and integrate it with what we already know. Just like all other students, twice-exceptional students will benefit from adults getting to know them better as learners, from teachers finding new and creative ways to educate, and individualizing their instruction based on the students’ specific needs.
This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Courtney Plutte, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Courtney is passionate about improving the lives of children with developmental disabilities and has become increasingly focused on bringing awareness to the unique needs of twice-exceptional children. In the future she plans to work as a psychologist to help children and families through assessment, consultation, and treatment.
(1) King, E. W. (2005). Addressing the Social and Emotional Needs of Twice-Exceptional Students. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 38(1), 16–21.
(2) National Association for Gifted Children (2017). Graduate programs offering training in gifted education. https://www.nagc.org/sites/default/files/Network_Newsletters/University%20Programs%20in%20Gifted%20Education%209%2022%2017.pdf
(3) National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.). College navigator: Massachusetts. https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=MA&l=91+92+93+94
(4) National Education Association. (2006). The twice-exceptional dilemma. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/twiceexceptional.pdf
(5) Selingo, J. J. (n.d.). How many colleges and universities do we really need? Washington Post. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/07/20/how-many-colleges-and-universities-do-we-really-need/
(6) Twice-exceptional (2e). (n.d.). Colorado Department of Education. Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://www.cde.state.co.us/gt/twice-exceptional
(7) Twice exceptional students: A staff guidebook for supporting the achievement of gifted students with disabilities. (2014). Montgomery County Public Schools. https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/curriculum/enriched/programs/gtld/0470.15_TwiceExceptionalStudents_Handbook_Web.pdf
(8) Winebrenner, S. (2003). Teaching Strategies for Twice-Exceptional Students. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38(3), 131–137. n