Beyond Diversity Nurturing and Engaging our Twice-Exceptional Learners

Aiden’s Mum paused at the door to his bedroom. It was 11pm- far too late for a 12 year old to still be awake. But this was the norm. As long as they stuck to the routine, she could get him into bed without a meltdown. She smiled at his request for the next Dan Brown book after he animatedly analysed the stories’ code that he’d cracked long before the main characters had worked out what was even going on. She’d tucked him in, a beanie on his head (he never slept without it, summer or winter) and a stuffed toy resting on each shoulder. She’d sung him the same song she’d sung him since he was born, gave him the same kiss on each cheek and high-fived him 12 times, in a very-specific rhythm pattern that never changed. She’d turned on his clock radio broadcasting the classical repertoire he so loved, and left the room. She sighed at the reflection, wondering what the next school day would bring about.

Sarah loved music. She was always listening to music, would often hum to herself and she jumped on any instrument she could lay her hands on. Sarah’s family had an old drum kit sitting in the garage. Sarah had researched how to put it together, watched a few YouTube clips and was now playing the kit with a strong beat and complicated rhythm patterns. At the suggestion of a friend, Sarah’s parents signed her up to Rock School. Sarah wasn’t really interested in sharing her love of the drum kit with other children, but she went along anyhow. During the first lesson, Sarah couldn’t understand why she had to keep waiting for the other children to have their turn. The band co-ordinator found that Sarah wouldn’t look at her during rehearsals and struggled to hold her focus. As the term continued, Sarah made no attempt to socialise with the members of her new band and they become frustrated when she just played her own thing- even though she was exceptionally good! The band co- ordinator suggested to Sarah’s parents that perhaps Rock School wasn’t the best place for her musical development.

Aiden and Sarah have been identified and diagnosed as twice-exceptional. When we talk about twice-exceptional children, we are referring to children that are gifted with something else going on- a second exceptionality. This definition brings out the importance of acknowledging that the child has at least 2 exceptionalities when compared with their peer group. Children who are 2E can also be referred to as Gifted with a Learning Disability (GLD) or Dual Exceptional. Trail (2011) highlights: ‘2E learners have the characteristics of gifted students with potential for high performance, along with the characteristics of students with disabilities who struggle with many aspects of learning’.

The co-occurrence of giftedness with a learning disability is not a new concept. In fact, Hollingworth (1923) deliberated on the needs of this group almost 100 years ago. It is highly plausible that all educators will teach children who are twice-exceptional within their teaching career. Rogers (2010) found that a total of 14% of gifted children in her research presented with some form of twice-exceptionality. This is a significant figure clearly indicating the need for a valued place in education.

Often the greatest challenge for teachers of 2E children lays in engaging their minds at an intellectual level, whilst accommodating and catering for their learning disabilities. Abramo (2015) reflects:“Twice-exceptional children are a misidentified, misunderstood, and underserved population. Often their needs are not met because 2E students differ from students with disabilities, students with average intelligence and gifted-alone peers”.

How do we embrace the diversity of twice-exceptional learners, incorporating effective teaching and ensuring these individuals are supported and nurtured in our schooling system?

Equip, Collaborate, Action

Equip

1. As educators, it is essential that we develop the knowledge and understanding required to extensively meet the unique needs of our 2E students. Seek ongoing support from professional bodies and associations.

2. In order to equip ourselves with such knowledge, teachers may look at undertaking quality teacher training and/or professional development in the area of twice-exceptionality. Indeed, there is substantiated research showing that the teacher is one of the most important elements in an effective education for all students. We need to support our teachers with the resources for professional development within this field. Throughout multiple levels of our society- at a national level, through our national curriculum and teaching standards, bodies of schools, individual schools, heads of schools and parents and teachers, we need to be advocating- providing support for- professional development. We have the research behind the effectiveness of a teacher. We need to support them with the tools that they need.

3. Ensure that your school, or educational sector is equipped with procedures for identifying potential 2E Children.

Collaborate

1. The value of working with, and talking to, students’ parents cannot be underestimated. Parents can provide a great deal of insight into the character and innate needs of their children. Ongoing liaison with parents can assist in establishing what is working, and what isn’t, throughout their child’s educational journey.

2. A recent study by Willard-Holt et.al (2013) highlighted the need to work with the student to understand their thinking, opinion and perspective. The implications for teachers from this study included ‘allowing twice-exceptional learners more ownership over their learning and more choice and flexibility in topic, method of learning, assessment, pace...’.

3. Liaise with colleagues, especially school counsellors and the welfare team. who can co-ordinate support of twice-exceptional students. Together, you can research and resource appropriate programs/strategies and materials to meet the unique needs of the student. Liaise also with external agencies for information and on-going support. You don’t have to know everything- and you don’t have to be alone.

Action

1. Effective teachers will feed the gift whilst accommodating the learning disability. This is arguably THE most important point for consideration with twice-exceptional children. Once equipped with an understanding of the student’s unique profile, having developed an understanding of the specific learning challenges and collaborated with willing parents and student, it is time to take action in lessons. Adjustments specific to the spectrum of learning disability and student response can make a resounding difference to engaging, or losing, a twice-exceptional student.

2. Engage an active IP/IL/IEP that all staff are across- and is essentially overseen by a case manager/school counsellor or perhaps the schools’ gifted education coordinator, if there is one. Continue to document the needs and responses of the staff and student, ensuring that the IEP is reviewed regularly (every 6 months). “Selecting and monitoring the effectiveness of accommodations should be an ongoing process, and changes (with the involvement of students, parents and educators) should be made as often as needed. The key is to be sure that chosen accommodations address students’ specific areas of need and facilitate the demonstration of skill and knowledge.” (NCLD, 2014)

3. Activate and support professionally-recommended disability provisions, ensuring that procedures and documentation are in place to support the student.

4. Continue to advocate for the needs of the student to executive, other staff and the community.

In 2004, Reis and Renzulli wrote that “gifted students with learning disabilities often were misunderstood because their giftedness could mask their disabilities and their disabilities could camouflage their talents”. 13 years later- has this changed? What do we, as a national community, understand about these diverse learners? Do we have the policies, training, procedures and extensive knowledge that are essential for nurturing and engaging our twice- exceptional learners?

About the author

Melinda Gindy is a music teacher (B.Arts (mus), Grad. Dip. Ed (mus), Grad. Cert. Gifted Ed., M.M.T.A.) with past experience teaching across both primary and secondary classroom settings. She has directed and taught in a private music school since 2001 and is the piano and flute teacher at an independent school in Sydney, Australia. Melinda is the co-founder of Gifted Families Support Group Inc. (GFSG Inc.) which is the NSW state gifted association represented on the Australian Association for Education of the Gifted and Talented (AAEGT). She represents NSW on the AAEGT, as well as serving as the national associations’ Vice-President. Melinda is also National Facilitator of Gifted Awareness Week Australia, held in March each year. Melinda also served on the organising committee for the AAEGT 2016 National Gifted Conference, the 2017 Gifted Awareness Forum for Educators (GAFE), and is on the Local Organising Committee for the WCGTC 2017 World Gifted Conference. In 2016, Melinda published 2E Music Studio, an evidence-based resource for music teachers focussed on meeting the needs of twice-exceptional children during private music lessons. Melinda has 3 children, all who have been identified as highly to exceptionally gifted, two of which also have learning disabilities.

Posted as part of the 2017 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour #NZGAW, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

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