Twice Exceptional Learners

"Twice Exceptional" is a relatively new term in education. It refers to children who are simultaneously significantly gifted in one area but significantly challenged in another. For example; an academically gifted child with severe AD/HD. This presents a unique set of challenges to overcome to ensure that the child’s strengths are not being hampered by his weaknesses, but their weaknesses are not ignored either.

Lets use a hypothetical child to illustrate some of the issues: Mary. Mary is intellectually gifted but suffers from dysgraphia. She has a fondness for theatre and plays, and despite being only eight years old has managed to get her hands on 'Shakespeare' at home. Her parents foster this and she grasps the concepts involved much faster than the average child her age. When she tries to write her own short play, however, she struggles immensely. Her dysgraphia and poor ability to write holds back the narrative in her mind. Instead she draws a storyboard, and manages to lay out her play scene by scene. At school she is assessed before being placed into a tiered English class. The assessment is almost entirely in written format. She is placed into a remedial group and the content there is far below her intellectual capability. Socially, she is an average eight year old, so rather than confronting the teacher and explaining the flaws in the assessment process she stays in class - bored - and subsequently misbehaves. She gets into trouble and her parents are informed of her behaviour.

There are two parts that have gone wrong: assessment and teaching strategy. In the above case, a failure in the written assessment has led to the implementation of an inappropriate strategy, but even with good assessment tools it can be difficult to optimize strategies for Twice Exceptional children. Twice Exceptional education is rarely simple. This should be taken as an introduction to some of the things educators and parents ought to think about when it comes to assessing and educating these children. Included at the end of this article are some external resources that go into greater depth.

When assessing Twice Exceptional children, or when assessing almost anything, it behooves us to ask whether we are measuring what we claim to be measuring. Mary’s assessment was meant to measure her current level of English in a broad sense to place her in the most appropriate class. However, because the assessment was in written form, it actually measured her ability to physically write. The medium presented a limiting factor in how high Mary could score. If we asked science students to perform an interpretive dance to display their knowledge of the function of an electron and graded them based on that, we might find similarly that many brilliant kids would have their scientific intelligence limited by their musical intelligence.

Assessments in school should always play to the child's strengths. If we want to measure vocabulary then it should not matter if it is presented through speech or writing. Wherever possible, we should use the medium that would least limit the child. The same problem could occur in reverse if we are assessing writing. If we gave a writing assignment where the prompts dealt exclusively with the video game 'Minecraft', several children would underperform because their limited knowledge of the game would create an artificial ceiling for their potential score.

No assessment is perfect. Designing assessment tools is difficult, and resources are often limited. Educators should, however, keep in mind whether an assessment measures what it claims to measure and that assessments should try to capture the best in the student.

Once a child has been identified as Twice Exceptional, adjustments can be made to teaching strategies to help them reach their potential on both ends. On the gifted end, the student should be enabled to engage with an accelerated curriculum, as is usually done with academically advanced students. Teachers should be mindful that the child’s weaknesses do not inhibit their advanced development and teach through means that ensure this. The weaknesses however should not be ignored, they should receive specific attention as they would in a non-gifted child.

Mary, for example, might find herself in Advanced English classes but still having remedial writing support with an Occupational Therapist. In summation, a good foundation on which to build a teaching strategy for the twice exceptional child would be: ensure that weaknesses are not holding back strengths.

Another fundamental idea that should inform the education of twice gifted children is that teaching strategies should always be individualized. Mary is but one possible flavor of twice exceptional. The child who writes brilliantly but can’t seem to grasp social rules is also twice exceptional. The social superstar whose dyslexic has her struggling to read aloud in class is also twice exceptional. Depending on the nature of a child’s exceptionalities the specifics of a strategy may vary greatly, but the two foundations above are a good mindset from which to begin.

Parents and educators looking for more information on twice exceptional children might find the following resources useful:

Video - A decent overview of what makes a twice exceptional learner.

Article - 'Parenting Twice Exceptional Learners', includes a recommended reading list that may be of interest.

Article - 'Gifted Children’s Challenges With Learning and Attention Issues', includes advice on advocating for your twice exceptional child and a more comprehensive look at the social impact of being twice exceptional.