Twice-exceptional Children, Exceptional Challenges – 
A Brain-based View

By Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

March, 2011

As Calvin Coolidge once said, “The most common commodity in this country is unrealized potential.” Students currently in public high schools in large U.S. cities are more likely to drop out than ever before. When the reasons for dropping out are examined, almost 80 percent of the students report that the main problem is boredom. When asked what bores them most, the usual response is that the material they are taught is either uninteresting or irrelevant to their lives.

 There are an estimated three million children in America who could be classified as gifted but are not recognized as such. Estimates of the percentage of drop-out students who are gifted range from 5 to 20 percent. The gifted students most at risk for falling through the widening cracks are twice-exceptional (2e) children.

The circumstances in today’s classrooms are such that stress is increased for all students and teachers. The consequences for twice-exceptional children include decreased identification, insufficient opportunity to connect with their gifts, and the misinterpretation of their behaviors. This article will describe the cycle of stress reactivity present in all of our brains that is a particularly limiting roadblock to twice-exceptional students.

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

Most children experience stress when they encounter the overloaded, homogenized curriculum that dispenses facts to be memorized without providing experiences of discovery or opportunities to connect to content in the following ways:

  • Through their strengths and interests
  • By following their curiosity
  • By using new learning to achieve personally valued goals.

Stress cuts off students’ access to higher-order thinking, logic, creative problem solving, and analytical judgment. Stress also renders students unable to reflect before reacting to situations or emotions. Instead, they respond with fight/flight/freeze reactions, which are not voluntary choices and often bring punitive consequences.

brain structures diagramWhat takes place in the brain when we experience stress? The brain has evolved to promote our survival. Its first priority is to be alert for potential threats and to avoid them. The most primitive parts of the brain are those that determine what gets our attention and what information gets priority entry into the brain. This primary attention system, called the reticular activating system (RAS), is a series of long nerve pathways located in the brain stem.  

From neuroimaging studies, we see that higher up from the brain stem is another filter that determines where incoming information is sent. This structure, the amygdala, is found on each side of the brain, deep in the network of the emotionally responsive limbic system. The function of the amygdala is to direct incoming information to one of two locations in the brain — either the higher, thinking, reflective brain (prefrontal cortex) or the lower, reactive, automatic brain. The destination of the information depends on the emotional state of the human (or animal) and the expectation of potential threat. 

In the absence of high stress, fear, or perceived threat, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). There the information is further evaluated by the brain’s high-order thinking networks as to meaning and relationships to stored memories of previous experiences. The ability to evaluate one’s emotions before either responding to an emotional trigger or choosing to ignore it is a uniquely human trait. However, this reflective response can only take place if the overall emotional state of the individual is not in a high-stress mode, which blocks the flow of information to the PFC.

Unfortunately, the human amygdala cannot distinguish between real or imagined threats. Whenever the amygdala is highly activated by negative emotions, it sends incoming information to the lower, involuntary, quick-response brain, where the behavioral reactions are limited to the primitive fight/flight/freeze survival mechanisms.

This routing makes sense for survival when real threats exist because the lower brain is most efficient for automatic reactive responses. However, today, with most humans living in a much less precarious environment than we once did, we have far less need for this highly reactive system that evolved to protect us. Nevertheless, our brains still have the emotional response system that automatically reacts to the perception of threat as well as to other forms of emotional stress.

Studying the Brain in Action

Through neuroimaging scans of the brain “in action,” we can see what influences the amygdala to go into the reactive mode that sends input to the low brain. For example, a study of adolescents evaluated how their amygdala responses varied when they looked at photographs of people with frowns or stern expressions versus when they looked at photographs of people with pleasant expressions. After viewing the photographs, both groups were given a series of 10 words and told to try to remember them. They were asked to push a button when one of these 10 words appeared in a series of 50 words that followed.

The subjects who saw photos of people with pleasant expressions had scans showing activation along neuron-to-neuron circuits from the amygdala to the PFC, and the subjects had increased activity in the PFC while they correctly identified a high percentage of the words. The subjects who performed the same word-recognition task after viewing a series of photos of faces with unpleasant expressions had very different brain activity when they tried to recognize the words. There was very high activity in the amygdala, and minimal activity in the PFC. Their word recall was significantly less than that of the control group.

Further studies of environmental influences that cause the amygdala to go into reactive mode reveal that this switching station does not just direct input to the lower brain during states of fear or anger, but also when the subjects experience significant or sustained boredom or frustration.

The Toll of Boredom and Frustration

When the amygdala sends input to the lower brain, there are two prominent consequences:

  • The behavioral output from the lower brain is involuntary, not mediated by judgment. 
  • Information routed to the lower brain fails to reach the prefrontal cortex.

In order for information such as classroom learning to be incorporated into conscious, retrievable, long-term memory and for the information to be processed with higher-order thinking, it must first reach the PFC. Once it does, the brain can use judgment, analysis, risk assessment, and planning to process the information so that learning becomes knowledge. The individual can reflect, evaluate options, and make conscious choices instead of involuntarily reacting to an emotional event or perception. For example, a dog may bark whenever someone knocks at the door, but the human prefrontal cortex, proportionally larger than that of any other animal, allows humans to reflect on the source of the knocking sound, identify the person there, and evaluate the best response.

Boredom and frustration are frequent intruders on brain function in today’s classrooms. Boredom can come from lessons that have little personal relevance, and from instruction and drills that cover information gifted students have already mastered. Frustration can result when students don’t immediately understand a lesson or feel they lack the capability to do so. When boredom and frustration persist or intensify, the amygdala automatically shifts the direction of information flow and learning stops.  

Behavior Misidentified

Twice-exceptional children are often already exerting effort to manage their learning or attention challenges and to keep in check their highly-driven curiosity. When their amygdalas go into the stress-reactive state in response to boredom or frustration, these students are cut off from their greatest assets of intelligence; and their behavior output is limited to involuntary fight/flight/freeze. In this state, 2e students are less likely to make the best choices regarding behavior and attention.

If 2e children already carry a diagnosis of a learning or attention disability, their fight/flight/freeze reactions to boredom may be mistakenly attributed to their underlying conditions. Educators may limit their access to the appropriate interventions for their gifts because the students are presumed incapable of more challenging work. If boredom is prompting the stress reactions, denying these students challenge can exacerbate the problem.

If these students achieve mastery of the information and must participate in the same instruction and drills as their classmates, they grow even more bored and stressed. The cycle worsens as they are denied opportunities to access their gifts and experience the joys of learning. The cracks continue to widen; and dropping out becomes a more and more appealing, and even logical, option.

What happens when twice-exceptional children are properly identified and have access to appropriate levels of instruction? The “behavior problems” attributed to laziness, willfulness, learning disabilities, or attention disorders often diminish because their brains are not in the reactive state in response to the stress of boredom or frustration. Even twice-exceptional children with attention disorders or learning disabilities are more successful when they have learning experiences appropriate to their intelligence and gifts.

When “Behavior Problems” are Not Evidence of “Brain Problems"

High-stakes testing has brought about changes in the classroom environment. I indirectly became aware of these changes ten years ago when there was an alarming increase in the number of children referred to my neurology practice. Teachers were concerned that their students might have neurological disorders causing symptoms that the teachers interpreted as AD/HD, oppositional-defiant disorder, petit-mal “staring and blinking” seizures, or obsessive-compulsive behavior. When I evaluated these children, there was no higher incidence of these actual conditions than there had been previously — most of these children did not have neurological conditions. It was evident that something at school was promoting behaviors that were interpreted as coming from brain dysfunctions, even in children with very healthy brains.

I investigated classrooms and saw many children who did, indeed, demonstrate behaviors usually associated with these conditions. As I learned more about the changes in the learning environment, it was evident to me that these children’s brains were responding to stress by processing input and responding with behavioral output from their lower brains.

I left my neurology practice to get a teaching credential and a master’s degree in education. I became a schoolteacher and applied my neuroscience background to make bridges from neuroscience research to strategies that were most “neuro-logical” with regard to the brain’s processing of emotions and information. I sought ways to lower students’ stress so that sensory input would reach their reflective brain, where students could evaluate intake and respond to experiences with their higher cognitive powers.

—JW

Demands of Standardized Testing Fail Twice-exceptional Students

The demands of high-stakes standardized testing affect most of what even the most dedicated teachers can and cannot do. For example, teachers today are:

  • Less able to spend time observing the learning strengths and weaknesses of students, which could lead to the identification of twice-exceptional students
  • Less able to plan and individualize the kinds of learning opportunities that would allow 2e students to connect with content through their strengths and remain engaged through appropriate levels of challenge
  • Less likely to receive professional development that would allow them to better identify and serve twice-exceptional learners.

Uniformity of test modes and fact practice reward students who conform and do the drills without complaint, question, or curiosity. Twice-exceptional students, stressed by the oppressive uniformity of instruction geared toward memorization, are unable to work using their highest brains and unlikely to behave with conformity.

Reducing the variety of instructional experiences in order to increase “time on task” translates to more time spent on drills, class work, and memorizing facts for homework. Profoundly reduced are opportunities for physical activities, drama, art, collaborative group work, project- and inquiry-based learning, and opportunities to demonstrate exceptional creativity or higher-order thinking skills. Many computers in elementary schools that once were in continuous use are now rarely powered up because discovery and inquiry learning are not amenable to the time-on-task calculations.

This narrowing of the curriculum offers less opportunity for twice-exceptional and other gifted children to reveal their gifts and to be identified. The loss of time for science, social studies, foreign language, and the arts in elementary and particularly in middle school reduces the opportunity for 2e children to connect their curiosity, insight, and creativity with classroom experiences.

Intervention

Teachers know the value of differentiation and individualization. However, they are not given the specialized professional development or graduate school instruction in the neuroscience of learning and the brain. Having access to this type of information and training would enable them, while working within the rigid instruction-time mandates, to help twice-exceptional children reach into their prefrontal cortex and connect with their highest potentials. The windows into the brain we now have through neuroimaging, electrical deep brain recording, and cognitive psychology provide valuable information for parents and teachers. This information can serve as a lifeline for twice-exceptional and gifted children to hold on to until the flaws and cracks in the system are repaired.  

Resources from Dr. Judy Willis

I spend time writing and speaking about how the brain responds to experience and emotion. I hope these activities will increase the ranks of well-informed adults needed not only to keep twice-exceptional children from falling through the cracks, but also to illuminate and guide these children to use the pathways leading to their brains’ highest functioning regions.

For the knowledge that is power, I urge parents and teachers as well to learn more about how the brain processes information and emotions. This knowledge, that I was fortunate to acquire during my neurology training and experience, can help teachers and parents use “neuro-logical” strategies to support exceptional children.

To learn more, check out the following.

  • Website: www.radteach.com
  • Books
    • Inspiring Middle School Minds, Great Potential Press: 2009 (2010 USA Book News Magazine 2010 Best Book Awards Finalist)
    • Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Change Student Attitudes and Get Results, ASCD: 2010
    • How Your Child Learns Best: Brain-Based Ways to Ignite Learning and Increase School Success, Sourcebooks: 2008
    • Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension, ASCD: August, 2008
    • Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom, ASCD: 2007
    • Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist/Classroom Teacher, ASCD: 2006 (Finalist for Distinguished Achievement Award for Educational Writing by the Association for Educational Publishers)
  • Articles
  • Chapter: “Current Impact of Neuroscience in Teaching and Learning,” a chapter in Mind, Brain, and Education, Ed. D. Sousa. Solution Tree Press: 2010
Judy Willis

Dr. Judy Willis has had careers as a neurologist; as an educator at the elementary, middle school, and university levels; and as an author of books and articles. In addition, she presents at educational conferences and conducts professional development workshops nationally and internationally about classroom strategies correlated with neuroscience research. As a research consultant, she develops curriculum for teachers to use to implement mindful educational programs in their classrooms. The focus of her talks and writings is how to apply the results of neuroscience research to classroom learning. To learn more about her, visit her website:www.RADTeach.com.

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