Schools have special education programs to provide support for children on both sides of the educational spectrum – gifted and disabled—so that they can reach their full potential and succeed academically. In most American school systems, a structure has been created that makes it seem like the two cannot exist together. For example, in some schools, students with learning disabilities are not allowed to take, or are strongly discouraged from taking, honors or AP level classes, even if they have the intellectual capability to do so. However, there are many students who have both a high level of intelligence and some type of disability that impedes their ability, known as twice-exceptional students.
The mechanisms that lead to giftedness or disability, whether a learning disorder, mental health disorder, physical disability, or something else, are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible for a person to have both. In fact, it is probably much more common than statistics might suggest because the combination often results in average grades and standardized test scores, the most significant indicators used by teachers and other educators to determine a student’s skill level. This means that many of these students go through school not recognizing their problems—or strengths—which only produces additional problems. Many of these students end up having emotional and/or behavioral problems, do poorly in school, and otherwise fail to thrive or excel because their special needs are not identified or met.
Identifying Twice-exceptional Students
Twice-exceptional students are the most under-identified population in schools. It is even harder to categorize them because there is no one typical description of this kind of student. Twice-exceptional students can simultaneously have high cognition skills alongside learning, physical, social/emotional, or behavioral problems. They might also be extremely talented in one area, such as arts or music, but struggle in other areas. Some identifying characteristics of twice-exceptional students include: • Creative • Inconsistent achievement, especially between verbal and written work • Ability to perform tasks requiring abstract thinking • Strong problem solving skills • Anxiety or depression • Behavior problems • Lack of motivation • Poor organization skills • Can commit to something when interested • Shy or withdrawn There are three current categories for twice-exceptional students. The first group is gifted students who have been identified as such, but whose disability is not diagnosed, meaning their giftedness masks the disability. The second is the opposite: a student formally identified as having a disability but not as being gifted, so the disability masks the giftedness. The final group is not formally recognized as gifted or disabled because the two components mask one another. This group is probably the most common, and is the one that most easily slips through the cracks. Their grades and school work are average, so teachers, and sometimes even parents, do not perceive a problem, so they do not get tested for either giftedness or disability.
The Problems Twice-exceptional Students Face
Even if a parent or teacher believes a child might be twice-exceptional, significant hurdles remain for the student to have proper support. Often, the problems of a twice-exceptional child are not recognized until secondary school. By then, most children have already been screened for learning disabilities, so school districts might not be as prepared to test the students. Additionally, many of the screenings are not as comprehensive as they once were. A student might just be screened for one particular problem. However, this does not always help twice-exceptional students. They might have more than one disability, and their strengths and weaknesses might offset or neutralize each other. By using more diverse screenings, a more accurate diagnosis can be obtained, and their needs can be more adequately addressed. Additionally, many of the tests compare students to their peers, rather than focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular child. These students might be doing well in comparison to their peers, but they do not live up to their full potential, which can lead to problems. Too often, a child who has already been branded with a learning disability will not be tested to see if he or she is gifted. The stereotypes that separate the two conditions are too strong, even though someone’s intelligence has nothing to do with whether he or she has a learning disability. Conversely, a gifted student with a learning disability often is just seen as lazy and underperforming, and not pushing him- or herself. Teachers and parents just add more pressure on the student to work harder, intensifying his or her frustration and stress about not being able to achieve. Typically, twice-exceptional students are trying just as hard, if not harder, than their peers. Another problem these special needs students face is that in many schools, even when a twice-exceptional student is recognized, he or she often has to choose which additional programming to utilize, that for his or her disability or for being gifted. Many schools are not set up to adequately handle this special population, and teachers and other educators do not receive the right tools to nurture these students. With growing classroom sizes, teachers already have a difficulty providing the individual attention each child needs to succeed. Special programs also are being cut, which limits the resources allotted to special programs for both the learning disabled and gifted children. Therefore, twice-exceptional students often fall through the cracks, and many school districts do not have the resources to catch them.
Helping Twice-exceptional Students
The best ways to ensure that twice-exceptional children succeed are to nourish their strengths while teaching them how to compensate for their weaknesses. This could include encouraging other types of learning styles, including experiential and conceptual styles, as well as visual and kinetic learning. Additionally, encouraging twice-exceptional students to explore their interests will provide extra motivation for them to work on developing their weaknesses. These students also need to learn coping mechanisms not just to accommodate their disability but also to learn how to deal with the frustration and other negative emotions that come from their struggle. They also might have difficulty forming social connections, and are at a higher risk of developing mental disorders. Parents and teachers need to show their support for these students, as well as encourage them to succeed.
The Risks Twice-exceptional Students Face
Twice-exceptional students are at risk of developing problems because of the divide between their ability and disability. Often, their abilities and disabilities mask one another, so they end up seeming like just average students. They may be frustrated or angry; have low self-esteem, depression or anxiety; act out in school or get into fights. These students are at a high risk of developing behavioral, disciplinary, substance abuse, mental health, and other problems. Often, their acting out and bad behavior is due to frustration with their academic needs not being met. However, instead of recognizing these essential problems, teachers, parents and educators only punish the students, often leading to a cycle of bad behavior and punishment. These issues prevent twice-exceptional students from being successful fulfilling their full potential. They often become discouraged in school, so they do not go on to college or university, and might not even complete high school. However, with the right support from friends, family, and schools, twice-exceptional students can succeed and become great leaders in the community. Many famous, successful people have overcome their twice-exceptional problems to succeed, including Albert Einstein, Beethoven, Temple Grandin, Helen Keller, Steven Hawkings, and Nikola Tesla.