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This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of Los Angeles Parent Magazine and is used here with permission.
“My son is gifted!” “My son is learning disabled.”
The peculiar thing about these two statements is that they come from the same parent speaking about the same child! Can a gifted child also have learning issues? The answer is an overwhelming “yes.” Learning-disabled students who are also gifted and talented are identified as “twice exceptional.”
Over the last decade, the question of how to address the educational needs of twice-exceptional students has perplexed educators, many of whom balk at introducing special education modifications and related services into their gifted and honors programs. This short-sightedness is a blow to the twice-exceptional student who cannot access the advanced program and experiences frustration, low self-esteem and academic failure.
When Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) on November 17, 2004, it made many significant changes to the law. It is not clear that Congress had the twice-exceptional student in mind nor is it clear that most school districts are ready to abandon the “one label per student” model that is often employed when developing educational programs. Most schools identify children by their gifts or their deficits, but rarely by both. Despite over thirty plus years of documentation that gifted children can be learning disabled or otherwise neurologically compromised, once schools label a child, the quest for answers ends. The child who is gifted traditionally receives little support and the learning disabled student receives remedial services, rarely being challenged or offered acceleration.
Given the growing number of children who are both gifted and learning disabled, gaining an understanding of how to provide them with a free and appropriate education (FAPE), as mandated by federal law, is imperative. A proper diagnosis and appropriate intervention, including special education, is a start to meeting the mission of IDEA, that all children with disabilities receive services to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.
There is no universally agreed upon testing instrument for determining whether a student is twice exceptional. Experts agree that the category is reserved for those students who meet the criteria for both “gifted” and “learning disabled.” Students are identified as “gifted” because of their high intellectual abilities or potential, rather than their actual accomplishments on standard course work. These students usually have advanced reasoning, problem solving, and comprehension skills. An IQ test provides information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses, while an achievement test provides information about a student’s exceptional ability in a certain subject area.
“Learning disabled” is commonly defined by a discrepancy between potential and performance on academic tasks. Students with learning disabilities usually have problems with cognitive (auditory or visual) processing, rather than problems with overall aptitude or intellectual ability. Many school districts rely upon the Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children (WISC-R) to determine whether a child has a learning disability. Evaluators use this test to see if there is a difference between performance and potential.
Many twice-exceptional students also have behavioral and personality problems such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Challenges caused by learning disabilities and behavioral disorders can obscure incredible gifts. For some students, behavioral challenges and learning disabilities can be so significant that their talents are overlooked by parents and educators who rely only on standardized testing to identify “giftedness.” This is a mistake. Parents and educators should search for other evidence of a student’s special talent – often the ability to perform at a high level in oral language, memory skills, and problem solving.
Twice-exceptional students often have difficulties in school because they assume that learning will come easy. However, when they encounter an issue or activity in their area of disability, they can become frustrated, careless, and even aggressive towards peers and adults. This leads to the purposeful avoidance of school and school-related tasks and activities. These students cannot understand how they can solve complex problems and engage in advanced reasoning and logic exercises, yet not be able to organize their thoughts and turn in homework assignments. They are often labeled as “smart yet extremely challenged.” For many teachers and administrators, they are an absolute nightmare to have in a classroom. To address the unique needs of twice-exceptional students, parents and educators must embrace both sides of the coin. Because the typical gifted program doesn’t provide structure and curriculum to address these students’ duality, special education services need to be imported into the classroom to support the twice-exceptional children. Parents and educators should support an eligibility determination of “learning disabled” or other health impairment (such as AD/HD) diagnosed by a physician.
Some districts are reluctant to recognize students with AD/HD as eligible for special education. However, when a student is impulsive, highly distractible and disorganized, this interferes with his performance in the classroom, and eligibility for special education is warranted. Parents should not shy away from this determination out of fear that it will prohibit the student from being placed in a gifted or honors program. Students who are gifted can receive the support of educators trained in behavior and learning disabilities in a general education classroom for exceptional students. Others may thrive in smaller, more restricted environments such as private schools skilled in working with this population.
Twice-exceptional students need a program that is challenging, yet provides structure and strategies to accommodate weaknesses. Some students benefit from one-on-one therapies, social skills training, and other behavioral interventions. When a student's talents are identified and nurtured, there is an increased willingness on the part of the student to put forth more effort to complete tasks. Students should be encouraged to take pride in their accomplishments and strengths. They especially need enriching and stimulating cognitive experiences where they can use problem-solving abilities and independent research skills.
In setting up a curriculum, engaging learners in activities and projects that reflect their personal interests is key. Learning tasks need to be individualized, developing students' gifts while also providing them with compensation methods to work around their disability. Likewise, the curriculum should provide remediation in weak areas.
Gifted students with learning disabilities present school districts with a unique opportunity to provide exceptional programs for exceptional students. Identifying these students, promoting their strengths while working to minimize disruptive behaviors, can have a profound impact on such students’ achievement in school and their lives.
Areva D. Martin, Esq. is a Harvard-trained attorney,CEO, and managing partner of Martin & Martin, LLP, in Los Angeles. A syndicated columnist, professional speaker, and author, Areva is a passionate advocate for children and families. She represents families in education, special education, and discrimination actions. Areva is a national authority on educating special needs children.