Teachers face a diverse population of student learners every day. Academically gifted students, students with learning differences, students with behavioral challenges, English Language Learners, and students with particular learning styles enter our classrooms each day. As their teachers, we need to provide them with the very best instruction within our equally-diverse fields. What if students fall into not one, but multiple categories? What should we do when faced with a student who, at the age of 9, is reading at a 12th-grade reading level but fails every spelling test she receives. What about a student who is a gifted writer, crafts incredibly detailed historical works of fiction, but requires a calculator to perform basic elementary math skills?
The students described above and those like them are called twice-exceptional students. These students are best described by the 2E Center for Research and Professional Development as “learners who demonstrate the potential for high achievement or creative productivity in one or more domains such as math, science, technology, the social arts, the visual, spatial or performing arts or other areas of human productivity AND who manifest one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria.” Twice Exceptional (2E) students fall into one of the following categories:
- students whose giftedness masks their learning and attention issues,
- students whose learning and attention issues mask their giftedness, or
- students whose learning and attention issues and giftedness mask each other.
In addition to their giftedness and learning/attention issues serving as a mask to one or the other, these students often suffer from a multitude of other issues including perception or a heightened sense of being bullied, the risk of being identified as a “gifted underachiever,” and ultimately, missing out on helpful screenings or special education services due to their perception of simply being “lazy” or “unmotivated.” A large portion of these students can escape our attention because their achievement is marked at just below or hitting “grade level.”
It can be difficult to identify twice-exceptional students. Students may appear exceptionally gifted in one area yet display characteristics similar to the following:
- possess a specific learning disability (i.e., dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, etc.),
- exhibit forgetfulness or show difficulty with memory tasks,
- display delayed reading or mathematical skills,
- have trouble organizing written and/or spoken ideas, or
- show incongruity between written and verbal communicative skills.
Students with an emotional or behavioral issue may focus on their limitations, become easily frustrated, and possess a poor sense of self. Students on the Autism spectrum may focus on a preferred subject, have difficulty making and maintaining relationships or friendships, and could display what might be considered “uncooperative behavior.” Those students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might find it difficult to focus, are disorganized, or “have difficulty maintaining attention during less preferred tasks.”
It is important to remember that although observation alone cannot identify a student with a learning difference, it could start an important conversation with the student's support team. In the case of 2E students, it is the combination of the support of their learning difference in conjunction with the enrichment of the students' strengths that offer us the key to their success.
Twice-exceptional students are much more than gifted students or students with learning differences and require a unique approach to differentiated instruction (modification or accommodation in the areas of content, process, product, or learning environment). Twice-exceptional students are best helped when their instructors know how their exceptionalities interact with one another (their giftedness vs. the learning difference), when these students are offered educational opportunities that serve to meet their learning needs while also developing their strengths and interests, these students are given the appropriate accommodations and modifications, specialized instruction, and possible therapeutic measures or interventions. This requires a significant amount of collaboration on the part of the general education teacher, special education team, gifted teacher, and of course, advisor, family, and in the case of our Rectory students, their dorm parent.
What does all of this information mean for educators and parents alike? Strategies that can be employed both within the classroom and at home or on the dormitory should include:
The emphasis of the student’s strength first: when appropriate, allow opportunities for the student’s choice and allow them a multitude of ways to access and respond to content.
Link new content to prior learning experiences as well as teach and guide new organizational skills.
Support the student’s social-emotional needs: Allow them time to complete tasks in order to alleviate anxiety, help them develop self-advocacy, and teach and model stress management and mindfulness techniques.
Recognize that there is a clear difference between twice-exceptional students and gifted underachievers: Gather assessment data and provide support.
Collaborate and communicate!: Involve those who know the child and their learning experience in meetings. Invite those trained in support of students who display specific learning disabilities/gifts.
So what does all of this information mean? For educators, this means that we must continue to approach teaching and learning with a keen sense and critical eye. We must remember that there is no “typical” learning profile (twice-exceptional or otherwise!) that all students possess strengths that can be used to help with weaknesses. We should never assume that students are simply “gifted underachievers” or are “lazy,” and that accommodations should never draw attention to a student’s differences, but rather, help them to feel genuine success. Above all, teachers can emphasize that differentiation is a tool that can and absolutely should be used at all levels of teaching with all types of students. Whether or not a student displays a particular kind of learning exceptionality, all learners, when given the tools, can become exceptional students.