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Twice Exceptional Children

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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One of the greatest challenges in education is what to do with children who don’t fit inside the box. For teachers in public or private schools and parents who home-school their children, it’s always easiest when kids perform consistently . Or at least peform within readily understandable degrees of variation across subject areas. They accomplish their assignments, projects, and tests with a measure of success that lines up with their individual potential. Their level of achievement shows consonantce with their relative strengths and weaknesses.

However, everyone involved in education knows kids surprise you at every turn. They defy expectations in the most confounding ways. A thirteen-year-old child might have the vocabulary of a graduate student. They may be capable of engaging in sophisticated conversations about nuclear energy or the orbits of planets. They can still name three hundred types of dinosaurs they remember from grade school. But ask that same child to spell the word “science,” and they might say “s-y-n-z” without skipping a beat. And think they’re totally right.

Another child might be able to spell “velociraptor” and get perfect scores on anything language arts-related. But that same child might have trouble with the most basic mathematical concepts. Effective educational strategies for handling this type of child – gifted in some areas but behind the curve in others – have developed gradually over the past twenty years. This is due in large part to the identification of a unique category of learners: twice exceptional children.

Identifying the Twice Exceptional Child

A paper published in 2006 by the National Education Association entitled “The Twice Exceptional Dilemma” identifies three distinct types of twice exceptional children:

  • Those recognized as gifted but not recognized as having any learning challenges. In these children, giftedness hides challenges
  • Those diagnosed with learning challenges, but not recognized as gifted. In these children, challenges hide giftedness
  • Those recognized as neither gifted nor learning challenged. In these children, giftedness and challenges mask one another

Most teachers and parents have met children who fall into one of these categories. The first two are the easiest to identify because the dissonance between areas of achievement tends to be glaring. A child is a clear math whiz but can’t read their way out of a paper bag. Or, a child struggles with academics, but in person and conversation appears bright, engaged, and filled with potential. The last category of child is the most difficult to identify because they might perform right at grade level in all academic subjects and do just fine in person and in social situations.

Mining the Data

Formal assessments typically reveal twice exeptional students. Testing ofen shows extremely high scores in one area and below-average scores in another. In the case of these children, their exceptional areas bring their below-average areas up to par, and their below-average areas bring their exceptional areas down to average. In years gone by, the results of formal testing on students in all three of these categories have simply left teachers, parents, and school administrators scratching their heads, thankful that in example (1) students are high achievers in some areas, in example (2) students can be assigned to a special education track, and in example (3) students are at least performing within average range, neither breaking the mold nor in danger of failing.

The key to understanding whether or not a child is twice exceptional lies in an intelligent, thoughtful, and careful analysis of testing data. Once the concept of twice exceptionality is brought to the attention of school administrators, teachers, and parents, it’s important to take a close look at all the available information: beginning with early standardized test results or early performance on a variety of tasks, it’s incumbent upon the adults involved to consider the possibility that at a child who displays high scores in one area and low scores in another may indeed be a twice exceptional child and to tailor a specialized educational approach that offers that child adequate support.

Types of Twice Exceptional Children

Since the twice exceptional phenomenon was first formally identified by gifted-child specialist Susan Baum in her 1990 paper “Gifted but Learning Disabled: A Puzzling Paradox,” a wide variety of twice exceptional children have been identified. Research shows that twice exceptionality can show up in children who show evidence that they’re intellectually gifted but might also have physical disabilities, sensory issues, Asperger’s Syndrome, emotional or behavioral challenges, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or other diagnosed learning challenges, such as dyslexia or auditory processing issues.

Identifying twice exceptional children can be especially tricky, as their primary diagnoses can often mask their giftedness. To keep these children from flying under the radar, teachers, administrators, and parents are encouraged to use an array of assessment sources to drill down on exactly what’s going on in the mind of the child. Twice exceptional children often show advanced verbal ability, highly developed imaginative skills, above-average real-world problem-solving skills and startling observational acuity, but at the same time struggle with memory, reading, and other areas related to cognitive processing.

Also, their active, questioning minds and attitudes might also be mistaken for disrespect by adults, when in truth it’s their thirst for knowledge, driven by their exceptionality, that causes them to ask salient questions when other children might choose to remain silent.

Strategies for Helping Twice Exceptional Children

As with any child whose abilities land them outside the lines of traditional approaches to teaching and learning, twice exceptional children need a specialized support program that allows them to maximize their inherent potential. Classroom teachers and parents who home-school are the front-line advocates for this type of child, and the National Education Association outlines five primary considerations in crafting a viable support plan. It’s vital to:

  • Teach to the strengths of the child
  • Give additional support, such as time accommodations, technology aids and reading/repeating instructions, when addressing the child’s challenge areas
  • Give one-on-one instruction when needed in challenge areas
  • Recognize that emotional and social issues may be related to twice exceptionality
  • Recognize that behavioral issues may be related to twice exceptionality

All our children deserve a good education and support appropriate to their needs. Recognizing the unique spark within each child requires diligence, care, understanding and dedication. Twice exceptional children pose a special challenge for educators. Supporting them as they pursue their education is of utmost importance. In the words of noted educator James J. Gallagher, quoted in the introduction to the NEA report mentioned throughout this article,

“…failure to help the gifted child reach his potential is a societal tragedy, the extent of which is difficult to measure. … How can we measure the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we are and what we could be as a society.”

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