Examining the Issues of 2e Students with EBD:
A Conversation with an Educator

July, 2012

Whitney Catherine Bilyeu, M.A.T., M.Ed., is an educator with a background in both gifted education and special education. She is currently a specialist who works to provide educational opportunities for elementary-level students with special needs of all kinds. As Bilyeu explains, “I have a personal and professional interest in people who are gifted, but also exceptional in other ways. There is challenge in finding an educational approach or program that adequately meets the needs of these students. In truth, our most profoundly gifted individuals exhibit behaviors and traits that could be perceived as symptoms of disorder. It’s important that educators be fully aware of the intellectual capacity and cognitive ability of their students in order to provide an appropriate education to each of them.”

In her graduate studies Bilyeu did some research into gifted students with emotional disturbance and behavioral disorders (EBD). 2e Newsletter asked her to share some of what she has learned through this research and over the course of her career about twice-exceptional students with this profile. Following is an edited interview conducted with Whitney Bilyeu.

Q: Can you explain what EBD is?

A: It refers to disorders characterized by established patterns of emotional or behavioral responses. Examples are withdrawal, anxiety, depression, mood swings, atypical communication styles, aggression, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Attention-deficit and oppositional-defiance disorders can also be considered here, as well as Asperger Syndrome.

Q: Are gifted children more prone than other children to emotional and behavioral disorders?

A: Considering Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration and the concept of overexciteability [see below], misdiagnosis of gifted individuals is common. Dabrowski would argue that certain neuroses, and even psychoses, are required as one develops his or her personality. So, when individuals are high functioning and/or fully developed in terms of their personality, we should expect them to exhibit certain behaviors and demonstrate certain emotional expressions. Unfortunately, these behaviors and emotions are too often seen as disorders, as opposed to part of the healthy process of mental development.

Overexcitabilities

As part of this interview, Whitney Bilyeu explained that “much of what I say and do these days with my students, parents, and teachers can be explained in the book Living with Intensity (listed in the accompanying resources). It covers much of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s work, which is increasingly being used in education for gifted and EBD students.” Here is a brief overview of Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration and the concept of overexcitabilities (OEs).

Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) was a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who worked with intellectually and artistically gifted adults and adolescents. He developed a complex theory for understanding their emotional development called the Theory of Positive Disintegration.

According to this theory, creatively and intellectually gifted individuals display both emotional richness and inner turmoil. Instead of being a sign of mental illness, as it may often be labeled by the medical profession, this internal conflict is part of a developmental process necessary for advanced personality development.

Dabrowski’s theory also addressed overexcitabilities (OEs), a tendency of gifted individuals to display intensity in the following areas:

Overexcitability

How the Intensity May Appear*

Psychomotor

A surplus of energy that might appear as rapid speech, impulsive actions, nervous habits, or competitiveness

Sensual

Sensory and aesthetic pleasure gained through seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, appreciating beauty, writing, etc.

Intellectual

Learning and problem solving typically displayed through curiosity, concentration, analytical thinking, introspection, and moral thinking

Imaginational

Spontaneous imagery that results in a facility for invention and fantasy, poetic and dramatic perception, elaborate dreams, fears of the unknown

Emotional

An intensity of feeling that produces complex emotions, identification with the feelings of others, extremes of emotion, and difficulty adjusting to change

*Adapted from Piechowski, M. (2006). “Mellow out,” They say. If I only could: Intensities and sensitivities of the young and bright. Madison, WI: Yunasa Books.

Gifted children can easily be misdiagnosed when their behaviors are misinterpreted. Giftedness is not pathological and cannot be diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), nor is it considered a medical condition of any kind. However, when trying to determine why a child exhibits certain atypical behaviors or emotional responses, a medical professional may follow the DSM to a particular disorder based on the “symptoms” the child exhibits. This will lead to a medical or clinical approach to addressing the behaviors and responses. It is also important to note that a gifted individual may, indeed, have an emotional or behavioral disorder but is capable of masking or hiding the pathological behaviors. When this happens, a true disorder may be overlooked and not treated.

Q: Based on your research and experience, what would you say tends to happen in school when a child is both gifted/talented and suffers from an emotional/behavioral disorder?

A: These students are often misplaced and underserved. They may be denied access to gifted programs because of their behavior issues. Instead, they may find themselves in programs with rigid controls that, by their nature, hinder exploration, self-direction, creativity, and independence. So in an effort to address the EBD, the development of their intellect and creative potential is not addressed. Keeping in mind that gifted students can still have EBD, thorough evaluation and accurate diagnosis are necessary in order for these students to receive the appropriate interventions.

Q: What are some specific problems that these students are likely to encounter in school?

A: There are two common issues. The first is properly identifying gifted students, whether or not an EBD is present. The second is overcoming the stereotypes and perceptions associated with them. Educators and researchers Mary Rizza and William Morrison wrote about these issues. They described the results of an experiment conducted to determine the role that experience plays in enabling teachers to identify students who are gifted and students with EBD. The experiment showed that only teachers who had been in contact with these types of students before, or those who received specific professional development or related coursework, were likely to identify and do the right thing for these students. Still, the study showed that both groups of teachers were influenced by stereotypes. They viewed giftedness positively and EBD in a negative light.

These results point out the difficulty educators experience when identifying gifted students who are twice-exceptional. The study didn’t set out to actually identify the students, but to show that perceptions, experience, and stereotypes play a big role in the educational approach. Once an educator has established a clear identification of the student and is aware of the student’s exceptionalities and overexciteabilities, the educator can apply more appropriate interventions and instructional methods. Specifically, a gifted student with attention deficit disorder or oppositional defiant disorder should be served by both a gifted education specialist and a behavior specialist. It is important to provide just as much (if not more) intervention to address giftedness as to address behavior disorders. Too often, teachers of the gifted do not want the behavior problems in their classrooms, despite the fact that the “offending” student is also entitled to the gifted education services.

Q: What do you think is the greatest challenge that the combination of giftedness and EBD presents for a teacher?

A: How to serve the child appropriately both ways — addressing the student’s intellectual needs while having to spend so much time on behavior modifications.

Q: How can teachers meet that challenge?

A: When you’re dealing with students whose characteristics represent both ends of the behavior spectrum, it creates quite the conundrum for those charged with their placement and programming. That’s why it’s so important for educators to have a certain level of expertise with regard to the traits, behaviors, exceptionalities, strengths, weaknesses, and stereotypes of gifted/EBD students. This background will lead to better understanding of the students’ circumstances and increase the likelihood that their needs will be successfully met in the classroom.

Q: What are some classroom strategies that have proven effective with this population of students?

Resources

Here are some sources of information on gifted children with EBD:

  • Daniels, S. (Editor) & Piechowski, M. (Editor). (2008). Living with intensity: Understanding the sensitivity, excitability, and the emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults. Phoenix: Great Potential Press.
  • Galucci, N., Middleton, G., & Kline, A. (1999). The independence of creativity potential and behavior disorders in gifted children. Gifted Child Quarterly, 43(4), 194-200.
  • Morrison, W. F. (2001). Emotional/behavioral disabilities and gifted and talented behaviors: paradoxical or semantic differences in characteristics? Psychology in the Schools, 38(5), 425-431.
  • Rizza, M. G., & Morrison, W. F. (2003). Uncovering stereotypes and identifying characteristics of gifted students and students with emotional/behavioral disabilities. Roeper Review, 25(2), 73-77.
  • Shriner, J. A., & Ysseldyke, J. E. (1993). Examining prevalence at the ends of the spectrum: giftedness and disability. Remedial & Special Education, 14(5), 33-40.
  • Stormont, M., Stebbins, M., & Holliday, G. (2001). Characteristics and educational support needs of underrepresented gifted adolescents. Psychology in the Schools, 38(5), 413-423.
  • Sutherland, K. S., Wehby, J. H., & Yoder, P. J. (2002). Examination of the relationship between teacher praise and opportunities for students with EBD to respond to academic requests. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10(1), 5-13.

A: Authors of an article about underrepresented gifted youth (Stormont, et al. 2001) offer several suggestions for ways of dealing with gifted students under emotional duress:

  • Help these students learn to appreciate their uniqueness and the strengths and weaknesses that accompany it.
  • Teach them coping skills to deal with their angst.
  • Connect them with mentors.
  • Encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings in a reflection journal. The effectiveness of the journal can increase exponentially when a trusted adult responds with honesty and without judgment to the students’ writing.

Another team of authors (Sutherland, et al. 2001) examined how teacher praise affects students with EBD. They found that when these students were given increased opportunities to correctly respond to requests and then received praise, the students’ academic performance improved. Given these results, we can conclude that success breeds success. When these students feel they have done something right and receive accolades, they’ll strive to repeat the behavior. Unfortunately, these methods may not be used as often as we would like.

Q: What else do you think schools can do to help these kids?

A: Provide counseling support. Create for these students a comfort zone in which they can learn to understand their own exceptionalities and abilities. Promote in these children a sense of uniqueness while guiding them emotionally and academically. No student should be allowed to write off his or her own behavior and avoid accountability. Through appropriate, consistent, and compassionate disciplinary methods, these students can maximize the amount of time spent in the classroom with their peers doing what they are there to do — learn.

Q: As a teacher, what would you like parents of gifted children with EBD to be aware of — perhaps suggestions for ways in which parents and teachers can work together to better meet the needs of these children?

A: I would suggest that parents do these things:

  • Approach the school as a partner, not an adversary. An adversarial relationship with school fosters tension, anxiety, and aggression in the students.
  • Be positive, supportive, and encouraging when meeting with school personnel in order to foster the positive energy your child desperately needs. Remember that educators know that your child is exceptional and want the best for him or her.
  • Ask questions and get feedback from the teacher. Communication is essential, even when things are going well.
  • Provide outlets for your child’s interests and talents that give the child opportunities to be responsible and successful while learning self-motivation, self-discipline, and self-sufficiency.
  • Find ways to show that you trust and depend on your child. For example, send your child on an errand.
  • Help your child recognize signs of distress and exhaustion and learn techniques for relaxation and rejuvenation. Model activities that are calming, centering, and therapeutic. Teach your child that time-out is not punishment, but can also be a proactive choice to avoid escalation of undesirable behavior.
  • Consider physical, occupational, and/or emotional therapy for the family.
  • Avoid “helicopter” parenting or living vicariously through your child. It only increases stress and anxiety in the child.
  • Remember that there is no “perfect” environment for your child. We all have to adapt. When you force the environment to adapt to your child, you are setting him or her up to fail in the real world.
  • Help your child set attainable goals and then let your child achieve them. Offer open-ended activities that don’t necessarily have a “right way.”
  • Explore the literature to find answers to common questions and to help in developing intervention plans to use at home to promote school success.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about this population of students?

A: We — parents, teachers, and medical professionals — need to educate ourselves about gifted/EBD and other multi-exceptional children. It would be a shame to lose any more of these kids to failure or even settle for mediocrity from them. Perhaps, with more exposure, we educators will be better able to adequately serve these students.

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