The Mythology of Learning, Part 2
In Their Own Stream: Managing Dynamic Asynchrony

By Susan Baum, Ph.D., Marcy Dann, M.A., BCET,
Cynthia Novak, Ph.D.,  Lesli Preuss, Ph.D. 

March, 2009

Steve recently came to class with a book on butterflies. The college extension course he took with his mom prepared him to readily explain the difference between a Monarch and a Blue Morpho – from scientific names and unique coloring to probable locations where they could be found. The science club he started at school draws a wide age range; and on subjects from mollusks to mammals, Steve’s impressive vocabulary sets him apart as an expert. He’s also an artist who takes pride in the detailed animal-kingdom renderings he generates. A few days ago, when Steve was asked to leave the gym because he was being too rough, he threw himself on the school psychologist’s office floor, crying, pounding pillows, and declaring emphatically that the world was unfit for his existence. Steve is 12.

Sarah talks about math all the time. She loves word problems, math concepts, and proofs. She sees math everywhere around her – from the beauty of a chambered nautilus to the ratio and proportions of classical statuary. Sarah demonstrates her high verbal ability in a voracious appetite for all kinds of books and in class debates. She’s also highly anxious. Before her teachers have completed giving instructions, Sarah’s hand is up. When writing is assigned, Sarah freezes or starts to sob. Often, just before her physical education class, Sarah can be found huddled in the gym foyer, hands over her face, refusing to enter class. Sarah is 15.

Educators who work with students like Steve and Sarah are often perplexed. Should they place these students in a grade where their intellectual gifts are challenged – a higher-than-expected grade level? Or should they place them where the students’ social/emotional needs are met, a lower-than-expected grade level? Parents of children like Steve and Sarah are often frustrated, as well, because they don’t know from one moment to the next whether the child in front of them will talk and behave like an adult or like a much younger child. If educators and parents persist in believing the myth that twice-exceptional (2e) children develop the same way neurotypical (“normal”) children develop, they will almost assuredly live with a daily sense of frustration. This article, the second in a series about 2e students in their adolescent years, discusses the importance of understanding that these children follow a different, or asynchronous, developmental pattern from neurotypical children.

Developmental Asynchrony and 2e Children

Gifted children like Steve and Sarah are cognitively advanced, with interests and knowledge more sophisticated than those of their age-mates. At the same time, their behaviors are often immature and not commensurate with their intellectual level. In other words, the emotional and cognitive development of students like Steve and Sarah is asynchronous. Developmental asynchrony, a term used to describe uneven development across cognitive and psychological domains, is a striking characteristic of many gifted students. Although these youngsters may have high cognitive ability, they tend to experience marked unevenness or delays in the development of their social/emotional and motor skills. Socially and emotionally their development is usually more akin to that of younger students, and their bright young minds far outpace their motor abilities. Because the differences between and among these domains (social-emotional and psychomotor) are more extreme in twice-exceptional students, parents and teachers find it hard to effectively anticipate and respond to these “out-of-sync” children.

In 2e students, we can see evidence of asynchronous development in the following: 

  • Social maturity
  • Work production 
  • Anxiety. 

We also see it in frustration tolerance.

It’s natural to expect students to become easily frustrated while working on tasks beyond their developmental readiness. They would experience frustration with their inability to produce on a level that matches their understanding. On the other hand, if instruction is not well matched to the student’s intellectual development, frustration may build due to boredom as well as a feeling on the part of the student that the teacher lacks respect for the student’s level of knowledge. 

Asynchrony and the 2e Middle School Years

The middle school years tend to be challenging for even the most typical of children, so imagine the challenge for a child who has two exceptionalities. Middle school – commonly the time when students make the transition from childhood to adolescence – involves maturing socially, emotionally, physically, and aca- demically. For a child whose maturation is significantly asynchronous, these transitions often lead to poor or inappropriate responses. Take, for example, a child at this stage of development who’s asked to complete a report on meteors. Her teacher knows that she’s passionate about meteors and has a terrific fund of knowledge in this area. Yet, the student refuses to complete the paper, making up excuse after excuse about why the paper remains incomplete. Moreover, the teacher begins to hear the student saying things like, “This is such a stupid assignment.” Most likely, these responses are not due to outright defiance. Rather, we might see them as an indicator that the child has encountered an area of asynchrony. Yes, she has college-level knowledge of the topic; however, she struggles with the writing, planning, and organizing that the assignment requires. Her reaction, then, is to refuse to do the assignment. 

This example draws attention to another area of asynchrony, emotional development. We might expect the student to be able to communicate her difficulties to her teacher. Yet, the child doesn’t have the social readiness or awareness to do this. Instead, she cries when confronted by the teacher and her parents, and stomps off to her room screaming that “no one understands.” In many cases, they don’t. Behavior of this sort is not usually stubbornness or defiance, as it might appear; rather, it’s a sign of the asynchrony in the 2e child.

Middle school often presents significant social challenges for the 2e child. Other students rarely understand why the child who always seems to know the answer in class doesn’t join in playground games and ignores or refuses social invitations. Moreover, when children respond in a “know-it-all way” or don’t seem to know when to quit talking about a topic, despite the listeners’ obvious boredom, they tend to drive other children away. These difficulties can lead to a child being teased or labeled as a “nerd.” Unfortunately, the anxious avoidance of and inappropriate response to social situations is often another reflection of the developmental asynchronies that 2e children face on a daily basis.  

Asynchrony and the 2e High School Years

How does asynchrony look in high school? Outside of knowing a great deal of information in certain content areas, 2e students are often immature in both familiar and unexpected situations. Most obviously, they tend to avoid tasks they fear will be difficult. They may shut down or withdraw from class activities when frustrated. They may resist starting tasks and procrastinate in completing them so that they miss deadlines. Avoidance may also be a sign of anxiety when a student is fearful that the product is less than perfect or that excellence will lead to heightened expectations on the part of parents or teachers.

Asynchronous behavior might account for 2e students who blame others rather than taking responsibility for their actions or who fail to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and actions. Writing may also be an area where asynchronous behavior appears. 2e students whose motor development lags behind their chronological age may write less than what they know for many different reasons, but it’s likely that they’re overloaded with the simultaneous demands of the writing task. For these students, the process of writing is slow, halting, and effortful because they lack automaticity, the ability to process information and complete a task effortlessly, accurately, and fluently.

2e Students and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that growth occurs when instruction aligns to a student’s zone of proximal development or “ZPD.” The ZPD identifies the difference between what children have already mastered and what they can achieve with adult guidance. It’s absolutely necessary for parents and educators to identify 2e students’ ZPD in all three domains: cognitive, social/emotional, and psychomotor. After all, we cannot expect a 12-year-old 2e student to have the motor skills or the social skills of a neurotypical 12-year-old. Conversely, we need to expect that the 2e 12-year-old will have significantly higher cognitive ability than an age peer. Therefore, to a greater extent than their age peers, 2e students need academic challenge, while receiving scaffolding, or support to help the learners through the ZPD. This support builds on what the learners already know and helps them accomplish what they would otherwise be unable to do.  Scaffolding is best provided by adults who have a keen understanding of asynchronous development.

Conclusion

Understanding the developmental asynchrony of 2e students means discarding two related myths: 

  • 2e students can be educated as though they have the same developmental patterns as neurotypical children. 
  • Using an “appropriate” teaching approach will correct for the asynchrony. 

Abandoning these myths in favor of a deeper understanding of developmental asynchrony of 2e students reframes the discussion between teachers and parents about the education of these children. The pivotal issue no longer revolves around the timeline for “mainstreaming” this population. These children are in their own unique stream which is legitimate and life affirming. The 2e educational model rejects the “deficit paradigm,” in which there is a focus on remediating areas of weakness before gifts and talents are recognized and nurtured. Rather, the team at Bridges Academy provides twice-exceptional learners with realistic social/emotional and psychomotor developmental timelines. At the same time, we recognizie and provide for the often outsized intellectual demands of these students.

Steve and Sarah, introduced at the beginning of the article, are flourishing in the talent-centered environment at Bridges Academy . A team composed of the student, parents, teachers, specialists, and administrators have used the approach described in this article to assess the individual progress of each student and to discover talent development opportunities. Steve, the middle school butterfly expert, has been invited by the high school art teacher to join the Talent Development Art Class that meets after school in the art studio. There, Steve is appropriately challenged in an area of interest with students who are three or four years older. Steve's science teachers encourage a higher level of work on differentiated projects. In response to his social immaturity, Steve meets with peers in small groups to work on interpreting social cues in various situations. When Steve experiences frustration during the school day, his teachers are thoughtful and responsive. If Steve needs further attention, he’s given the opportunity to meet with the school psychologist to learn more about his triggers. Steve's parents, who are integral to the process, report that a year ago, when Steve was in his previous school setting, he was depressed; but now their son is ready for school each morning, often with a new science or art project that he wants to share with his friends. Steve’s parents are so encouraged by his progress that they are considering sending Steve to a summer microbiology camp.

Likewise, Sarah, the anxious math expert, has been placed in an advanced algebra course where she is now appropriately challenged. Her participation in a physical education class was waived due to her extreme anxiety about it. Sarah is now a teaching assistant in a middle school math class and gets her physical activity after school from a private martial arts instructor. Sarah’s reduced anxiety has led to some positive outcomes, like trying out for a part in a recent drama performance. Her drama teacher was understanding and supportive of Sarah's social/emotional needs by allowing her some extra time to develop trust in a new area of interest. On familiar ground, Sarah participates in a drama writer’s workshop where she generates ideas that her peers write down. The willingness of her parents to commit to the after-school martial arts class was integral to improving things for Sarah. Now, at home, they see a marked change in her readiness to try new activities with a greater sense of ease and well-being.

When 2e students like Steve and Sarah are engaged in an academic program that taps into their talents and scaffolds other areas of learning, the results are satisfying, if not amazing. As 2e students feel that their needs are supported, their ability to tolerate frustration grows, and their anxiety levels decrease over time. It’s likely that issues of asynchronous development will follow them to college and the workplace, but we'll leave that topic for a future article on life after Bridges Academy.

All of the authors of this article work at Bridges Academy in the following capacities: Susan Baum is Director of Professional Development, Marcy Dann is an Educational Therapist, Cynthia Novak is the Middle School Director, and Lesli Preuss is the School Psychologist.

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