What Can We Learn from a Tale of Two Cities?

By Linda C. Neumann

The following article appeared in Journal 2004, the publication of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. It offers a look at who twice-exceptional children are and what they need to be successful.

This is not about the story by Dickens. This tale was recently reported by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. It is a tale about two school districts in two cities that coped with students’ special needs in two very different ways.

The article described how a high school in a Chicago suburb is expecting a student next year with a life-balloonthreatening allergy to latex. Officials at the school have started addressing the situation a year in advance. Their goal is to make the school a “latex-free zone” by the time the student arrives.

Already, officials have banned all latex products, from medical gloves, to swim caps, to balloons – the standard decoration at school dances and graduation. They have educated the staff and students at the school about the need for the ban, and they have informed parents and other members of the outside community. Local florists, for example, know that the school can no longer accept deliveries of balloon bouquets.

According to disability experts, this school is not the first to ban latex products. What sets it apart from others, however, is the lengths to which the school is going to accommodate the student’s special needs. The steps the school has taken go way beyond the requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act to “make reasonable accommodations.” When asked about the school’s efforts, the principal replied that the school was doing what was “right and doable.”

Then there’s a high school in Florida that also has a student with this serious allergy. This school, however, has refused to make accommodations. Because school officials have not banned latex at this school, the allergic student will be missing out on special events throughout high school where balloons might be used – like homecoming dances, proms, and even graduation. She takes some science classes online at home because she can’t have contact with the latex gloves used in labs.

Two different schools with two different approaches. One school responds to the student as an individual, accepting the child and his/her special needs into their community and making the best of the situation. With this acceptance come opportunities for members of the community to learn and grow from the experience. For instance, when asked about the challenge of decorating for a dance without using balloons, a student was quoted as saying, “Anyone can do balloons. We are pushed to think of what else we can do.”

At the Florida school, this sense of community seems absent, the victim of a very narrow point of view. In focusing exclusively on the student’s special needs and the problems they present, the Florida school officials seem to have lost sight of the student as a person, as a member of the school community, as an individual with something to contribute. She is merely a burden. The newspaper article quoted the Florida student as saying, “The school keeps arguing that [the latex allergy] is a medical thing and I have to deal with it.”

The experiences of the Illinois student are likely to have a positive impact that will help shape the child’s life forever. In contrast, the experiences of the Florida student will probably leave a mark on her that will also remain forever – the result of being made to feel that she is so different that she has no place at all in the community.

It is not unusual to see these extremes in attitude displayed toward other groups of students with special needs as well. One group is the subset of gifted and talented children often referred to as twice-exceptional. These are children who have gifts and talents that co-exist with learning and/or attention difficulties.

Characteristics of Twice-exceptional Students

Some experts estimate that 2 to 5 percent of all students are twice-exceptional. (Delisle, J. & Galbraith, J., 2002, p. 75) These children “exhibit remarkable strengths in some areas and disabling weaknesses in others.” (Weinfeld, R., Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., & Shevitz, B., 2001). Researchers   Neilson, Hammond, and Higgins point out that twice-exceptional students require gifted instruction while at the same time needing “the special instruction, adaptations, and accommodations provided to students with special needs.” (as cited in Weinfeld, et al., 2001). Figure 1 shows characteristics typical of this population (Higgins, L. D. & Nielsen, M. E., 2000, p. 290-291).

Strengths

Weaknesses

Superior vocabulary

Poor social skills

Advanced ideas and opinions

High sensitivity to criticism

High levels of creativity and problem-solving ability

Lack of organizational and study skills

Extremely curious, imaginative, and questioning

Discrepant verbal and performance skills

Wide range of interests not related to school

Poor performance in one or more academic areas

Penetrating insight into complex issues

Difficulty with written expression

Specific talent or consuming interest area

Stubborn, opinionated demeanor

Sophisticated sense of humor

High impulsivity

Figure 1: Typical Characteristics of Twice-Exceptional Children

Meeting the Needs of Twice-exceptional Students

How successful is this group of students at getting what they need? How often are they treated with acceptance and made to feel like valued members of the learning community, and how often are they marginalized because of their weaknesses?

Few school districts in the United States have procedures in place for screening, identifying, and serving twice-exceptional students. (Weinfeld, et al., 200l). According to Dix and Schafer, little of the research and understanding of these students has found its way into our nation’s classrooms (as cited in Weinfeld, et al., 2001). The result is described in an article that appeared in the Washington Post newspaper describing the plight of these children:

Some [twice-exceptional children] are placed in gifted programs where their low grades are chalked up to laziness or bad attitude. Others languish in special education classes where they are literally bored to tears by drill-and-kill math exercises and "See Spot Run"-style reading primers. Then there are those whose gifts and disabilities are so evenly balanced that they are presumed to be average and left to fend for themselves in mainstream classes. Whatever the arrangement, said national expert Susan Baum, the result is often the same: low self-esteem, depression and even suicidal tendencies (Aizenman, 2002, p. A01).

Exceptions to this scenario exist.  At a handful of public and private schools in places like New York, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Colorado, educators are setting the standard for meeting the needs of twice-exceptional students. Programs are in place to identify both the gifts and the deficits within the student population. Teachers with training and experience from both the gifted and special education fields work together to provide the enriched curriculum and support services these students need.

These types of programs ensure twice-exceptional students access to the same level of challenge as other gifted students. At the same time, they provide students with the support they need, including the support of being with others, like themselves, who struggle with what Brody and Mills call “seemingly contradictory strengths and weaknesses.” (as cited in Weinfeld, et al., 2001).

Given the present financial climate, however, few school districts or private schools have the funds or resources available to create programs like these. Does that condemn the majority of twice-exceptional students to having their needs go unmet? Only if our approach to them is the same as that of the high school in Florida, blaming these students because they have differences and because they fail to fit into a structure that is inappropriate for them.

Creating an Accepting Environment for Twice-exceptional Students

We do have another option, one likely to produce far better results. We can respond to the special needs of students like the high school in Illinois has, by accepting their differences – and the differences that all students bring to the learning community – and then looking for ways to accommodate and even celebrate these differences.

Even without the specialized programs and the funding that should ideally be available for educating twice-exceptional students, we can take steps toward building learning communities in which these children feel accepted. It takes examining the elements already available in a learning environment – programming options and special services – and finding ways to reshape them into individualized learning programs (Brody, L. E. & Mills, C. J., 1997). To be successful, these programs need to incorporate understanding, challenge, and support.

The first step toward understanding is for both parents and educators to become knowledgeable about twice-exceptionality. Both must understand, for example, that a child who is not making progress on an assignment may be afraid of failing rather than lazy. Or that a child who seems helpless is likely to be suffering from low self-esteem (Bees, 2000, p. 314).

Equally essential is learning about a child’s particular disability, strengths, and weaknesses. Giving verbal instructions to a child with auditory processing difficulties or with a short-term memory that functions poorly is counterproductive. An ongoing dialog between home and school provides both parents and teachers with insight into why a child is struggling.

Understanding extends to twice-exceptional children themselves. They need to learn about who they are: where they are strong, where they are weak, and how they learn best. They need to know that there are others like them and that, while they do have challenges, they are not “broken” and in need of fixing (Baum, 2004, p. 32).

Next comes challenge. An accepting learning environment for twice-exceptional students is one in which their giftedness is recognized first, not their disability. Despite their difficulties in reading, writing, and attending to the task at hand, these learners must be allowed to engage in a challenging curriculum tailored to their strengths (Baum, 2004, p. 205).

Twice-exceptional students are most likely to accept academic challenge when instruction plays to their strengths. In creating individualized learning programs, teachers will find their twice-exceptional students far more motivated to work when given options based on student interests and talents, as well as on their learning style. For example, as author Lisa Rivero explains: Visual learners prefer to use their eyes to learn and auditory learners their ears. Kinesthetic learners prefer to use their bodies to learn [through movement], while tactile learners prefer to use their sense of touch. Allowing students to use their preferred learning style results in deeper, more meaningful learning. Being prohibited from using it, often leads to frustration, decreased learning, underachievement, and lowered self-concept (Rivero, 2002, p. 145).

Twice-exceptional children are capable of high-level abstract thinking, demonstrate creativity, and are able to take a problem-solving approach to tasks. (Trail, 2000, p. 263). Offering learning opportunities that draw on these abilities is likely to engage these students and give them opportunities for success.

However, caution is essential when setting the level of challenge for twice-exceptional students. It needs to be appropriate – high enough so that they must stretch to meet the challenge, but not so high that they will fail. Here is where support comes into play.

Twice-exceptional students need plenty of support in the form of accommodations and compensation strategies that help minimize the effect of their disabilities and move them toward independence. Figure 2 shows some of the ways that Beverly Trail, an advocate for twice-exceptional students, recommends supporting these children.

  • Encourage effort. Develop a “Yes, I can do it” attitude.
  • Emphasize that mistakes are part of learning
  • Encourage the use of tools and techniques to help twice-exceptional students, as well as other students, be successful (i.e., electronic keyboards, graphic organizers).
  • Teach problem-solving skills and coping strategies.
  • Help students learn how to plan and how to set realistic goals.
  • Give them the structure they need to be successful, but make it a “flexible structure.”
  • Help them accept responsibility and seek support.

Figure  2: Ways to Provide Support to Twice-Exceptional Students

The items on this list comprise what many educators consider to be “good teaching.” All students, not just those who are twice-exceptional, can benefit from this type of support.

Conclusion

What can we learn from this tale of two cities? Perhaps one of the main lessons concerns the power of a change in perspective. How we look at twice-exceptional students determines what their experience in school will be and, quite possibly, what their future will be. If we subject them to thirteen years in an environment in which the main focus is on their deficits, what is the result? In everyone’s eyes, even the student’s, he/she is diminished.

But what if, instead, we focus on the child’s promise, appreciating the gifts and talents and accepting the child’s differences as part of the unique package that makes up the individual? The child is enriched, the learning community of which he/she is a part benefits by the child’s full participation, and the society to which the child belongs gains by having him/her grow into successful and contributing member.

References

Aizenman, N. C. (2002, June 23). Students’ complicated gifts, schools struggle with exceptional learning-disabled. Washington Post, p. A01.

Baum, S.M. & Owen, S.V. (2004). To be gifted & learning disabled: Strategies for helping bright students with LD, ADHD, and More. Connecticut: Creative Learning Press.

Bees, C. (2000). Finding GOLD: The GOLD Program for Gifted Learning Disabled Adolescents. In K. Kay, (Ed.), Uniquely gifted: Identifying and meeting the needs of the twice-exceptional student (pp. 304-316). Gilsum, NH: Avocus Publishing.

Brody, L. E. & Mills, C. J. (1997). Gifted children with learning disabilities: A review of the issues. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 30 (3), pages 282-286.

Cohen, J. S. (2003, November 8). High school now a balloon-free zone. Chicago Tribune, pp. 1, 19.

Delisle, J. & Galbraith, J. (2002). When gifted kids don’t have all the answers. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Higgins, L. D. & Nielsen, M. E. (2000). Responding to the needs of twice-exceptional learners: a school District and University’s Collaborative Approach. In K. Kay, (Ed.), Uniquely gifted: Identifying and meeting the needs of the twice-exceptional student (pp. 287-303). Gilsum, NH: Avocus Publishing.

Rivero, L. (2002). Creative Homeschooling for gifted children: A resource guide. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Trail, B. (2000). A collaborative approach to meeting the needs of twice-exceptional students. In K. Kay, (Ed.), Uniquely gifted: Identifying and meeting the needs of the twice-exceptional student (pp. 262-272. Gilsum, NH: Avocus Publishing.

Trail, B. (2003, November). Parenting twice-exceptional children through frustration to success. Session delivered at National Association for Gifted Children Conference, Indianapolis, IN.

Weinfeld, R, Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., Shevitz, B. (2001). Academic programs for gifted and talented/learning disabled students. Roeper Review, 24 (4), 226 – 233.

Linda C. Neumann is the editor of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter, a bi-monthly publication aimed at parents, educators, advocates, and others who help twice-exceptional children reach their potential. She is also the author of the Spotlight on 2e, a series of booklets that explore the combination of giftedness and learning deficits in children.

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