Understanding Twice Exceptional Kids
How to identify a gifted child who also has learning challenges
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The term Twice Exceptional, or 2e, is used to describe complex learners who are both academically gifted and, at the same, time challenged in some way. These unique and complicated combinations often make school and life activities more difficult for them to manage.
According to Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman, Senior Scientist Emeritus at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, twice exceptional individuals typically present themselves in three different ways:
1. An individual who is obviously gifted, be it academically, artistically or kinesthetically, but who also struggles with memory, organization, learning to read or even just sitting still in his or her chair. Parents and teachers often recognize their strengths but don’t understand that their challenges are caused not by choice, but by an underlying physiological or neurological issue. These learners are often mislabeled as lazy by parents and teachers.
2. An individual with an obvious disability, be it neurological or physical, who also has exceptional strengths, gifts or talents. These children can be challenged by social interaction, completing tasks or even communicating effectively. Their frustrations can lead to temper tantrums, withdrawal or aggression. In these instances, we may miss seeing their strengths because we are distracted by their behavior.
3. An individual whose strengths are masked by the disability and challenges or, the reverse: The challenges in the disability areas are propped up by the strengths. This way is the hardest to identify. The truth of the situation is masked and they learn how to just get by. They might present as average “C” students but are often battling a deep inner struggle because while they have strengths, they don’t understand why some activities are so challenging for them. This can lead to insecurity and low self-esteem, as they feel like no matter what they do, or how hard they try, they are going to fail. These children often slip through the cracks, unidentified and unsupported.
Coleman describes 2e children as snowflakes. “They are all unique and their tensile strength is quite strong. However, when pushed too far they don’t break, they shatter.”
This can take the form of tantrums, meltdowns, rage, despair or self-loathing. It is extremely challenging for these children to recover from such situations, Coleman says, which is why it is important to identify them and provide the support they need to succeed.
Identifying 2e Children
Coleman says it’s very difficult to obtain an accurate number of how many children are twice exceptional. Within the disability population, at least 3% also have strength areas that qualify them as twice exceptional. Accurate identification of double-masked kids would make the number higher.
Twice exceptional expression exists on a continuum. Many parents will recognize aspects of it in a child children, but that doesn’t mean he is twice exceptional. For this to be the case, Coleman says, the presentation must be extreme and sustainable — obvious, asynchronistic strengths and challenges that don’t go away.
Identification usually starts at school. If you detect twice exceptional characteristics in your child, begin a conversation with her classroom teacher. Bring documentation with clear talking points regarding your concerns. What you see at home may not be what the teachers are seeing at school. For example, a child might seem fine at school, but when challenged at home, she may have a complete meltdown.
Teachers can try intervention techniques and provide support at school. If that doesn’t solve the problem, your next step should be to request a formal assessment. This can be done at the school or by a private child psychologist who has experience working with twice exceptional children. Once the assessment is done, decisions must be made about what to do next. This often includes setting up an individualized education program or a 504 plan with your child’s school.
Tips for Parents
Coleman offers the following tips to help parents who are raising twice exceptional children.
1. First and foremost she believes “a parent’s primary job is to provide unconditional love for their child. Simply love them as they are and don’t try to fix them. They aren’t broken,” she says.
2. Because there is often a genetic component, one or more of a twice exceptional child’s parents might struggle with the same issues, and may carry a sense of guilt or shame for giving this to his or her child. It’s important to work through these feelings.
3. Provide opportunities for your child to shine by supporting his interests. If your child loves animals, go to a shelter or rescue. Find places in the community where your child can be engaged, and nurture the area where he shines.
4. Tied to that is to help introduce that area of interest into your child’s school setting. Work with her teacher to organize a field trip or special assignment where your child can be the expert. Allow the other children and teachers to see your child shine.
5. Provide academic support, if needed, be it through tutoring or remediation. However, Coleman cautions that parents should not fulfill the role of tutor. Inevitably, working with twice exceptional children can be frustrating. She also cautions that while remediation helps fill gaps, it must be done with laser focus only in the areas the child needs. Remediation should be handled in a more formal school or professional tutoring setting.
6. Parents must advocate for and help their child advocate for an appropriate amount of homework and daily work. Ask teachers to be very clear about what they want your child to accomplish. Sometimes less is more for twice exceptional kids. Busy work for them can be exhausting.
7. Make sure they are in a classroom where the teacher and teaching style fits. When children and teachers aren’t getting along, it can be hugely problematic. Twice exceptional children need classrooms with flexibility and that offer room for self-expression. They need to feel nurtured. The environment should provide structure and predictability, and the content should be organized for learning.
Long-Term Benefits of Being Twice Exceptional
The good news is, successful twice exceptional children develop:
- A clear and honest self-assessment and self-awareness of who they are and what they are capable of.
- A deeper sense of tenacity. They know they must work harder because they have always had to. They know how to get a job done and how to overcome challenges. They have strong coping and problem-solving strategies.
- A deep sense of empathy for others who struggle and for people who don’t quite fit in.
All of these are win-win-wins in the real world.
Maureen Churchill lives in Durham with her husband and son. She blogs at carolinaparent/com/cp/blogs/main/searching-for-balance.