K-12 Planning for the Twice-exceptional (2e) Child
Twice-exceptional children have both gifts and disabilities. The child who can discuss and debate advanced concepts, but was slow to read and struggles with written output may have a learning disability. The student who is mathematically talented but cannot manage the social expectations of school may have a mild autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The child who is an eager learner, but cannot focus consistently or organize work may have ADHD. For most 2e children, their unusual struggle, the persistence of their challenges, and the parental support required just to keep them at grade level are not evident at school. Because symptoms of giftedness and disability coincide/present simultaneously, each exceptionality may mask the other or the combination of both may make the child appear average to teachers. How are such students identified?
Under previous special education law, twice-exceptional students were located by comprehensive assessment by school psychologists and other specialists. Testing included comprehensive intelligence and achievement tests, as well as evaluation of all areas of suspected disability. Such testing provided documentation of each student’s complex patterns of strengths and weaknesses, allowing early interventions to be put in place. Even students managing to perform at grade level could be identified and provided services based on the severity of their symptoms when compared with their giftedness. However, changes in The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) were largely interpreted as allowing states to reduce access to comprehensive assessment at school and limit service eligibility to only the lowest performing students (e.g., below the 12th or 5th percentile). A 2013 clarification, Letter to Delisle, by Melody Musgrove, U.S. Department of Education, OSERS, Office of Special Education Programs, states that a child may not be found ineligible for special education services based solely on a single cut score. Yet, the notion that a child with a disability must perform below grade level remains pervasive. As a result, many twice-exceptional students have become invisible in their schools.
Currently, three programs address disabilities within the public schools:
1. Response to Intervention (RTI)—teachers offer leveled interventions to correct problems of below-grade-level students. Non-responsive students are referred for special education.
2. Special Education (IDEA)—a comprehensive Individual Educational Plan (IEP) provides interventions/accommodations for the child typically performing below grade level.
3. Rehabilitation Act of 1973—a Section 504 Plan mandates classroom/testing accommodations.
Many twice-exceptional students will not qualify for either RTI or an IEP if they perform at grade level. If they do, services are discontinued as soon as they reach a designated grade-level performance criterion, instead of continuing services to ensure skills more commensurate with their ability. Only 504 plans are widely accessible for twice-exceptional needs at this time, provided the student’s family can provide sufficient evidence of need.
In order to obtain early, effective intervention for disabilities, comprehensive assessment with specialists is needed. For many families, private assessment is the only option. Specialists with the appropriate background are invaluable for complex diagnoses in gifted children. Since 1979, the Gifted Development Center has served gifted children with learning disabilities and other disorders. We can provide assessment, referral to other specialists as needed, and help parents advocate for 2e children.
By providing a careful interpretation and clear explanation of both the level of a child’s giftedness and the co-existing weaknesses, we can assist parents in planning. What are the child’s special strengths? What are the particular weaknesses and how can they be addressed? What therapeutic interventions are needed (e.g., reading therapy, social skills training, help with organizational skills)? Can interventions be obtained through schools or must they be addressed privately? Are classroom/testing accommodations needed (e.g., extra time, use of a keyboard, preferential seating)? What are the steps to take when approaching the school about twice exceptionality? We can provide parents with an optimal plan of action.
Educators especially benefit from clarification of a child’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as recommendations by professionals. For example, the teacher may not realize that the gifted/dyslexic child may be an excellent candidate for the advanced reading group, as long as accommodations are made to assist with reading. Such a child needs access to advanced literature and literature study that emphasizes higher level thinking, but may need audio books, a text reader, or extra time to manage reading demands. The mathematically talented child with ASD needs to develop his or her mathematical strength, but may need help with social skills and access to the counselor when stressed. The gifted child with ADHD will engage most consistently with challenging work and options to pace more quickly. Help with organizational skills may also be needed.
Through such recommendations, we help educators emphasize strengths to build the child’s self-esteem, while gently addressing weaknesses through interventions and accommodations. When teachers address both exceptionalities, most twice-exceptional children progress quickly. Their strong reasoning ability helps them learn successful compensatory strategies. Twice-exceptional students can be successful K-12, and earn college and graduate degrees with the appropriate services. Their giftedness becomes more apparent as their weaknesses are better managed.