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Identifying the twice-exceptional child and determining what to do next

Sharon Arthur knew her son James was unusually smart, but report-card time yielded nothing but disappointments and confusion. “At 2 years old he was obsessed with dinosaurs and studied his picture books until he could point and name each one,” Sharon recalls. With his love for learning, the Arthurs looked forward to the school years as a time when James would blossom and grow, but the reality was far different – barely passing grades. “In first grade, we chalked his grades up to being a wiggly little boy who was getting used to school,” the North Texas mom says. “In second grade, it seemed like we had a bad teacher who didn’t understand James. By the third grade, his grades were not improving, and we began to worry.”
 
The Arthurs planned a conference with James’ teacher, and she agreed that their son was indeed very smart. Her reports about his participation in class were glowing; still, she couldn’t explain his low grades and his growing frustration with school. “She wanted to be encouraging and told us not to worry,” Sharon says. “She was certain his grades would come up eventually.” The teacher suggested that James might just need more time to mature or that he could even be bored, but Sharon felt deep inside that there was something more. “I could see his love of learning slipping away with each bad report card,” she says. “However frustrating this was for us, I knew it had to be even more frustrating for James.”
 
Because James was performing at grade level, his school was hesitant to test for special needs, so the Arthurs turned to outside testing to fill in the blanks. James’ eventual diagnosis was a huge jolt. They’d never even heard of the term twice exceptional, a confounding mix of giftedness and learning disability, and were even less assured of James’ future than they were when they began the daunting diagnosis process.
 
James had endured a battery of tests that lasted many hours and cost the Arthurs $1,500. At the end, a stack of reports was presented to the anxious family. They weren’t surprised to hear that James had scored above average on his IQ test, but they were shocked to hear that his IQ level placed him in the gifted range. Before they could feel too pleased about this news, the analyst began to list the other findings, including dysgraphia, an auditory processing disorder, and some strong indications of attention deficit disorder. The analyst went on to explain that with the combination of high IQ and learning differences, James would be classified as twice exceptional.
 
Sharon felt a sense of relief that there was finally a label for James’ struggles, but inside she knew that this was only the start of a long journey.
 
What is it?
 
The term twice exceptional – often abbreviated 2e – applies to intellectually gifted children who have also been diagnosed with some form of learning difference. In layman’s terms, a 2e student is best described as a smart kid who isn’t reaching his or her potential. There are three main subgroups within 2e: those who’ve been identified as gifted but have behavior or learning problems that interfere with learning; those with diagnosed learning differences who haven’t been identified as gifted yet; and those who are struggling in school and have never been identified as either gifted or learning disabled.
 
Most often, 2e kids are a lot like James – smart students who fall through the cracks in schools because the learning disabilities and high intellect mask each other. The risks for these dually challenged learners are intensified by the unique conglomeration of their abilities. 2e students are in danger of not achieving their potential because of the conflicting nature of their diagnoses but also because they’re a frequently under-identified population in the school system. When 2e students are identified, parents and teachers are often forced to choose between services that address one exceptionality or the other, leaving half of the student’s learning needs untouched. Parents must be ready to advocate firmly for services that address every learning challenge and push for an educational model that considers the whole child.
 
Getting an accurate diagnosis
 
Looking back, Sharon can pinpoint some of the earliest signs of 2e in James. Peeking in on his church preschool class, she noticed that the other children were gathered in a circle, but James was off on his own. “He could remember the stories in great detail, but his art projects were always a scribbled mess, and he didn’t seem to have any friends,” she says. The Arthurs were content to brush off these observations as quirks of James’ personality early on but now see that they were signs of the struggles to come.
 
A list of characteristics associated with twice-exceptional students is only a guideline for helping parents to begin to explore dual exceptionality. High capabilities and limitations are often in conflict, with characteristics from each exceptionality melding and overlapping to create a complicated mosaic of learning differences. No two gifted/learning disabled children will display the exact same set of characteristics – one of the greatest challenges for parents, teachers and diagnosticians. No single trait is enough to warrant the 2e label, but many of these characteristics indicate the need for further testing.
 
 
Undiagnosed 2e learners will often fly under the radar, slowly building to an academic crash. “As soon as kids start to suffer low self-esteem or avoid school because of poor performance, it’s time for parents and teachers to start looking for a solution,” says Jennifer Premo, director of testing and diagnostics at The Winston School in Dallas.
 
A big hurdle for parents advocating for 2e children is that these students use their giftedness to compensate for their special needs so well that they perform at grade level. This can make it difficult to persuade schools that they qualify for special-needs testing. With a background in public education, Premo has experienced this first-hand. “The only reason public schools test students is to refer them to special education,” she says. “They do not want to test for learning differences.” Parents should know that a policy letter published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs states that a “student who qualifies for special services cannot be excluded from such services based solely on the fact that the student is performing at grade level. Likewise, students whose academic achievement is limited due to learning difference should not be denied gifted enrichment.”
 
With that in mind, many school districts are willing or can be persuaded to pursue testing for possible 2e learning challenges, but many parents turn to outside testing to jumpstart the process. There is no one absolute identification method for twice-exceptional students. Most experts recommend using IQ and achievement tests along with other data that will produce a well-rounded picture of the complex learning needs. Additional data may include analysis from teachers, creativity tests, student interviews or a portfolio.
 
Making sense of the challenges
 
Like James, 8-year-old Kacie Bentley (not her real name) of Carrollton has been a struggling learner since she started school, with each year presenting a new challenge and diagnosis. Kacie began kindergarten as one of the only pupils who could read fluently, but her teacher quickly noticed that she had trouble with handwriting and fine motor skills. She was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a deficiency in the ability to write, but continued to struggle with school despite accommodations and therapy. In an effort to meet her needs, the Bentleys tried a variety of learning environments, but the challenges re-emerged in each new classroom.
 
“Because our daughter was not a behavior problem, she slipped through the cracks,”
mom Tonya Bentley says. “She was able to compensate to appear like the other students but wasn’t able to really grasp the content.” Each school year, Kacie would undergo more tests and receive new diagnoses – all in an attempt to correct her uneven school performance. In third grade she was officially diagnosed with gifted non-verbal disability, a neurological disorder characterized by exceptional verbal skills and deficits in non-verbal areas of learning. The overarching finding: She is 2e.
 
Receiving a 2e diagnosis is the first step, but the Bentleys and other 2e parents face the even greater task of understanding the challenges unique to the diagnosis. Experts note several concerns for parents and teachers to consider:
 

  • Determining what to do with the diagnosis. Often the toughest task is translating the diagnosis to a plan that will meet the child’s needs. Bentley shared her frustrations with the uneven approach to her daughter’s learning needs: “She has more difficult spelling words than the rest of the class but is still offered the same reading material, even though she is three years ahead in her reading ability. She has been evaluated for the gifted program but denied because of her low math scores.”
  • Low self-esteem. Struggles with self-esteem are common as 2e students try to make sense of their often-hidden deficits. They see themselves as deficient, which decreases their motivation to tackle academic tasks. Often this also increases the chances that they will be off-task or disruptive in the classroom.
  • Lack of friendships. A 2e student’s combination of strengths and weaknesses creates an unusual profile in which the child is a subset of one within her class. 2e kids don’t easily fit in with the high achievers because of their learning differences but don’t fit in with the average learners because of their creativity.
  • Danger of misconceptions. Parents and teachers struggle to reconcile the most obvious exceptionality with the results, creating a pigeonholed effect for the student. Gifted students can be tagged as “lazy” when their uneven school performance doesn’t match their IQ. Likewise, students with learning differences are often overlooked for gifted classes.
  • Fear of failure. Gifted kids typically have high expectations of themselves, but those with accompanying learning differences often find that they’re consistently falling short of their own expectations as well as others’. Says Bentley: “Kacie is very sensitive and intimidated by her teacher. She has even told us that she knows she is supposed to know the answer, so she is afraid to raise her hand for help.”

Kim Holloway, a single mom of 10-year-old Joe, knows all about the challenges of a 2e diagnosis, which she found difficult to understand at first. “When Joe began reading at 2 ½, it was easy to see a future of academic excellence,” the Cedar Hill mom says. “I didn’t anticipate how his autism diagnosis at 5 would derail that vision, and it was hard to accept.” Deep feelings of guilt accompanied the diagnosis. “I felt guilty that I hadn’t noticed something was wrong,” she says, “and even worse that I didn’t know how to fix it.” The guilt was compounded by the struggle of dealing with behavior issues. Coping with his deficits during the school day took a toll on Joe’s stamina, so he was at his worst when he was at home with Mom. Things grew so difficult that Kim sought help from a family counselor, who helped her see how the 2e diagnosis impacted Joe and made a plan to help him. “It took some time for me to reframe my expectation and figure out how to deal with the whole diagnosis,” she says.
 
The Holloways ended up looking for school choices that better suited Joe’s needs. “For Joe, a typical classroom was just not feasible, so we chose a university-model school that allows him to split his time between a standard classroom and home.”
 
Celebrate the strengths
 
There is no handbook for parenting a 2e child, but moms, dads and teachers can craft a home and school environment that nurtures the whole child. Success starts at home with extra support. After the diagnosis, 2e kids need to recover emotionally from the failures of the past. Joyce Pickering, Ph.D., executive director of the Shelton School in Dallas, has seen this trauma first-hand. “Many times,” she says, “the family is focused on the problem to the exclusion of anything positive about the student.” She suggests that parents spend just as much energy celebrating the child’s strengths as they do on remediating the weaknesses.
 
Parents should foster a can-do attitude and eliminate “I can’t” from their child’s vocabulary. Pickering advises that parents focus on organizational skills. “For typical students, organization is helpful, but for the students with learning differences it is critical,” she says.
 
Lessons in resiliency benefit any child, especially 2e learners. The ability to bounce back from negative experiences is an essential skill. Actively encourage students to advocate for themselves by asking for help, and help them identify coping skills that will allow them to keep trying. Sharon Arthur keeps a notebook filled with good work from school, encouraging notes and pictures of projects that James has completed. “When he is feeling frustrated with homework, we pull out the notebook, and he is reminded that he is able to achieve with hard work.”
 
Parents should search for a learning environment that offers an individualized curriculum. A program with levels in each subject area is ideal for 2e learners, allowing them to excel in some areas and receive accommodations in others. “Kids who have been labeled lazy and unmotivated start to come alive and believe that they are smart, despite the ways that they struggle,” The Winston School’s Premo says. She suggests finding a program that will teach kids that they’re not defined by their challenges. “These kids need teachers who have a plan for how to tackle and eliminate those challenges so that they can thrive,” she adds.
 
Partner with teachers to assist 2e learners by pinpointing areas where they can shine. Ask the teacher if your gifted reader can be a tutor to other students in the classroom or find an after-school activity that caters to their skills. When schools aren’t able to meet the unique needs of 2e learners, look outside the box. Seek a private school that has experience dealing with 2e kids, or choose a public magnet school that has smaller class sizes. Consider homeschooling when private school isn’t an option or look into tutoring after school.
 
Whatever the academic choice, the key to success is finding a school and teacher that are able to see the big picture. “To learn, kids need to feel safe with teachers who understand and appreciate their abilities so that they can take risks,” Premo says. She also encourages parents and teachers to shake off any negativity and see the diagnosis in a new light. “Cherish and embrace your child wholly and give them every opportunity to grow,” she says. “Non-traditional learning is often a gift in disguise.”
 
James and his family are slowly beginning to see the gift wrapped inside his divergent abilities. At 10 years old, he is finishing fourth grade with confidence. Accommodations for his dysgraphia allow him to dictate his answers to lengthy essay questions. He is also learning to type. An advanced math and reading program has provided him with opportunities to develop his creative thinking. Report card time is much less trying for the whole family. Even though James isn’t a consistent honor roll student yet, the Arthurs are more confident that his grades reflect his ability, and James feels better about himself. “I think he feels less defined by the letters on his report card, because he understands his strengths and weaknesses,” Sharon says. “He knows that he is smart and that he can find a way to achieve.”

Published February 2014