Updated: Jun 22
By Heidi Borst
Families can help twice exceptional students by focusing on their strengths.
Is your child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) a phenomenal writer? Does your autistic child possess superior problem-solving abilities? If so, your child might be twice-exceptional. Learners who are twice exceptional are gifted while at the same time being eligible for one or more disabilities as defined in the federal law IDEA, including speech and language disorders, emotional behavior disorders, ADHD, autism, physical disabilities, or other developmental challenges. All too often, these kids’ strengths override their weaknesses or vice versa; a phenomenon called masking. As a result, school performance may not be an indicator of their true abilities, and accelerated learning options may not be available. These are kids who slip through the cracks, receiving neither the necessary supports for their challenges nor the stimulation required to nurture their gifts. If you suspect this gifted but challenged dichotomy applies to your child, being an advocate is vital. Providing twice exceptional students with the appropriate accommodations for their unique balance of needs may be tricky, but can absolutely be achieved within an inclusive classroom environment.
Twice Exceptional Students Can Fall Under the Radar
Giftedness can be easily overshadowed by learning disabilities, so parents and educators must be diligent to ensure kids who are twice exceptional don’t fall under the radar. Pay attention to your child’s strengths and look out for areas of struggle. “It doesn’t matter how [gifted] you are if you don’t turn your work in, or you don’t get along with others, or you’re not listening to your parents,” says Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Connecticut-based Integrative and Pediatric Mental Health Expert and Director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health.
Whether a student is considered gifted or not, many of the same strategies for coping with self-regulation and emotional difficulty can be used. During challenging moments, understanding, extra support, and TLC are crucial. “Maybe a child is totally engaged, excited and motivated in one subject, but then they’re resistant, frustrated and avoidant in another subject. That’s a true indicator something is going on. It’s not just a preference for something, it is evidence of, I feel good and confident and skilled in this area, and I don’t feel like I can do it over here in this area. We need to pay attention to that, making sure we’re giving support when there’s a weakness,” says Raleigh, NC Child Psychologist Dr. Emily W. King.
Concrete Data is Helpful When Advocating for Support
Because standardized testing and classroom performance don’t provide an accurate picture of kids’ abilities, a psychoeducational evaluation can be an extremely helpful tool to pinpoint a child’s unique areas of strengths and weaknesses. “In my experience of over a decade, it makes a world of difference for kids when they get what they need in school. I mean, night and day different; it’s really impactful. When I do a psychological evaluation, there’s a confidential report the family can choose to share with their child’s school and have an academic team meeting to see what the school can do, whether it’s an IEP, a 504 plan, or if other accommodations can be made,” says Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, Florida-based Psychologist and ADHD Specialist.
Parents who don’t have the resources for a private evaluation, which is typically not covered by insurance and costs thousands of dollars, can seek out lower cost evaluations from teaching hospitals and universities, Hammond says. If your child’s school refuses to do an evaluation, or they have conducted an evaluation, but you disagree with the results, an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) is an option.
Still, evaluations don’t always guarantee a child will get the in-class supports they need to excel.
“We can fully understand the student’s profile, but if they don’t have an academic need as defined by poor grades, they don’t always qualify for support within the public-school. We may know they [are gifted] and they have a learning disability, but because they’re not failing in school, they don’t qualify for support; that’s just how our law is written,” says King.
When intervention isn’t necessarily warranted by your child’s performance, but you know they need support, fight to level the playing field. “I remind parents if their child is gifted, but they also have a learning disability (maybe it takes them three hours to do something that someone else can do in 30 minutes) it’s not really fair to them, and that’s why they need [accommodations] in their curriculum. Most schools do understand when it’s framed that way,” says Hammond.
If kids don’t qualify for accommodations or special education services, there are organizations and community resources that offer free assistance and suggestions for managing the impact of the disability. Libraries and schools often offer free tutoring programs, Hammond says. Learning Disabilities of America (LDA) helps connect individuals with disabilities and their families with services in their state.
Reading Emotions and Social Cues
Emotional regulation, a key component to success, can be extra challenging for gifted students, but it’s easily overlooked, says Capanna-Hodge. “True giftedness is the ability to connect the dots. These kids are so, so clever and they absorb so much information from the world, beyond what they’re supposed to absorb, but because their [emotional intelligence is still being learned and developed], it’s very uncomfortable for them. They struggle in emotional areas because they’re getting information at a much deeper level, and they don’t know what to do with it. We need to teach these kids how to get along with others, complete their work and also self-regulate, whether it’s emotional, behavioral, social or just coping with stress,” Capanna-Hodge says.
She recommends helping kids connect with the feelings and the sensations in their bodies, giving them tools to manage the feelings that come up. “They think and then feel. When [big] feelings come up, they don’t like the way it feels in their body. We want them to ground and connect to their body, connect to their emotions and thoughts so they feel very in charge and control. We want to teach them to be uncomfortable and to know what those alert signals are, to connect to their emotions much more explicitly and talk about feelings so that when they don’t get what they want or they want to speak up, it’s in a really appropriate way,” says Capanna-Hodge.
It’s helpful to practice role-playing with kids so they can learn to identify emotions and pick up on social cues in very specific situations, Hammond says. “It’s really imperative to work on emotional wellness and what emotions are, and talk about how to manage emotions, like when you get really, really upset, what do you do in that situation? A lot of kids just don’t get it exactly. They need concrete [examples of] if this situation happens, here’s what you should do. These are the types of conversations that parents should be having at home,” says Hammond. To provide twice exceptional students with the enrichment and support they need to excel, individualized instruction is a must. Parents and educators must work together to create a positive, inclusive learning environment that not only plays to twice exceptional kids’ strengths and talents, but is committed to meeting their diverse emotional and learning needs without creating a separate learning environment. By supporting our kids and allowing them to shine alongside their neurotypical peers, we propel them toward achieving their true potential, becoming the brilliant leaders and trail-blazing innovators they were born to be.
Heidi Lynn Borst is an active mom and journalist with a strong affinity for nature, sarcasm, and extra sleep.