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Exceptional Two Ways - Gifted Students with Disabilities Often Miss Out On Support

There are students in most classrooms that slip through the cracks because they have what would seem like conflicting qualities. They are both gifted and disabled, and too often that confusing combination leaves them unable to get the support from educational programs for either issue.

They have become known as 2E, for twice exceptional. They are often the unobtrusive, puzzling student who excels sometimes and fails dramatically the next; shows glimmers of brilliance and signs of a learning disability.

Mark Griffin, one of the founders of Understood, a consortium of education groups that works to broaden understanding of learning and attention issues, says often their unique abilities are underestimated because they have gaps in learning – or their disabilities are undiagnosed because at times they excel. And sometimes the two block each other out.

"While it would be great if there was one single biggest problem with this group, there are several factors that affect the accurate identification and support of gifted students with learning issues," he says. “There are far too many twice exceptional children who are not being identified accurately, leading to schools not having the opportunity to effectively engage the child’s giftedness and provide supports necessary for the child’s learning issues.”

He notes that often they can cope in elementary school and even into middle school and the issue is not spotted, but as they get older and the work becomes more complex, they may be labeled as ‘underachievers’ or ‘lazy’ because teachers know they can be capable of advanced – or sometimes very advanced — work but can’t sustain it.

Phyllis Fagell, a counselor who writes on this and related topics, says these students are typically very familiar to teachers as the ones who excel in math but can’t sit still or find their homework, or are great writers or scientists but have no social skills.

When they are identified, they may be placed in special education classes, where they become bored and possibly act out because they aren’t being challenged enough – even identified, wrongly, as having emotional problems, she says.

Understood lists these signs of a student potentially falling into the 2E category:

  • Extraordinary talent in a particular area, such as math, drawing, verbal communication or music.
  • A significant gap between a child’s performance in school and his performance on aptitude tests.
  • Signs of a processing disorder, such as having trouble following spoken directions or stories that are read aloud.

As Understood has reported, twice exceptional students are easily overlooked or sometimes it is difficult to find the appropriate setting for them. It has listed seven myths that are common in supporting them, including the fallacy that they are not eligible for individual education plans or 504 plans.

"When a student is mostly doing well, the school can sometimes be hesitant to evaluate him for special education services,” says Amanda Morin, an expert at Understood and the author of three books on childhood learning issues. "But academics aren’t the only thing to consider. There are other challenges that can point to learning and attention issues, too. These can include things like trouble making friends or managing emotions."

Identifying them, according to Understood, takes teachers counselors and other staff who are aware that there may be students who function at a high level and need support or a formal 504 plan or IEP. In addition, they must be willing to recognize that there may be students in special education courses – even some with fairly significant learning or social skill issues – who have a particular talent.

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) recommends strategies that identify giftedness and learning issues a variety of ways to reduce the chance of bias or inadvertently causing a specific talent or disability to be overlooked.

NAGC offers these tips on assessment for gifted students:

  • the process should include multiple assessments that are combined in a reasoned way that is not biased against any particular subgroup of students.
  • the types of assessments used have sufficient psychometric evidence supportive of decisions about students’ readiness for gifted programming and be kept up to date.
  • all individuals involved in the assessment process have sufficient training in the administration and use of the assessments and best practices in testing and identification of gifted students.

Morin also notes that once indentified, both giftedness and challenges can be addressed together and that 2E students should not be kept from more challenging work or even AP classes where they might thrive. Other experts say that these students can thrive in after-school activities or those offered by programs outside of school.

Griffin says he is optimistic about efforts now to identify and support 2E students. “There are more effective tools for assessment than ever before and the issue is gaining attention. Attention to the issue and use of those types of assessments can lead to an accurate identification of students who are twice exceptional.”

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (