In a special post, guest blogger Amy Simko, co-leader of Gifted in Michigan, writes about Twice-Exceptional Learners
Twice exceptional refers to a person who is both gifted and learning disabled in one or more ways. Twice exceptional children are not often correctly identified in our schools and those who are discovered rarely have a place in school that provides what they need. Here’s an experiment for you…ask the next 10 people you meet what twice exceptional means. Chances are you’ll receive a few guesses and a lot of strange looks. Now that’s not so hard to believe, but now try asking 10 teachers what twice exceptional means. The result will not be so very different from the random sample. In fact, I’ve met medical professionals who had not heard the term before.
Funding cuts at our public schools have led to reduced resources, lower training budgets and fewer special programs. Teachers today are overwhelmed trying to meet the very different needs of children in their classrooms while working under limited allowances and goals of “teach to the test”. Few teachers, principals or administrators receive training to help them identify gifted children. When asked to identify gifted kids, many will select high achievers and those with good grades for consideration in gifted programs (if a gifted program exists).
Are the school employees at fault? Most are simply not trained and instead apply the common stereotypical view of what they think gifted refers to. Many people believe that gifted children are well-dressed, bright eyed kids with their hands held high to answer the teacher’s questions. The kids who get the best grades must be gifted, right? Maybe some gifted children fit that description, but most do not. Gifted children are often bored in school and may choose to either become the class clown or become depressed by the lack of stimulation. They are often looked at as trouble makers or the kid who forgot to turn his homework in again. Identification of gifted children isn’t easy for trained professionals, let alone those without training.
An even tougher challenge is identifying twice exceptional children. We start with a teacher who isn’t trained to recognize the traits of a gifted child. The teacher stands in front of 25- 30 students and observes them as he/she gives a lesson. Looking at the children, the teacher sees little Kalie in the front row who keeps raising her hand and answering questions. She knows Kalie has all A’s and is liked by her peers. Kalie dresses well and always looks clean and neat. Her papers are always legible and organized. Then the teacher glances to the back of the room where little Billy is tapping his feet repeatedly and fidgeting in his seat. Billy is wearing a pair of old loose fitting cotton pants with a cotton t-shirt that has a rip on one arm. Billy stands up and starts walking around the room for the third time that morning. The teacher is tired of being interrupted and tired of reminding Billy to stay seated. She has no idea that Billy thinks best when moving. She has no idea that Billy already mastered the topic she is discussing and has found several errors in her lecture. She has no idea that Billy has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and is still trying to calm down from the last school bell that sent his body into fight or flight mode. She has no idea that Billy is dressed in the loose fitting ripped clothing because there are only a few things that he can wear that don’t make him feel like sandpaper is rubbing on his skin. She has no idea that Billy didn’t turn in his homework because he felt it was too easy and not worth his time. She has no idea that the last assignment he turned in was illegible because Billy struggles with fine motor control as a result of his SPD. The teacher sends Billy to the principal’s office again for not staying seated. Billy is humiliated in front of his peers, he is frustrated that he is being forced to sit still when his body says move, and he is disappointed that he is made to sit in a lesson that provides him no stimulation.
That night the teacher sits down to fill out comments on report cards. Kalie receives outstanding comments that are all very positive and make her parents so proud. Billy receives negative comments that lead his parents to wonder what is “wrong” with their child. These comments and his parent’s obvious disappointment don’t help Billy with what he needs.
We come to a divergent path. Billy’s parents may become angry and try harder to force Billy to conform to what they and the teacher believes is a “good student”. They may punish Billy when he doesn’t do as he is asked. This will without doubt amplify the already horrible situation Billy is dealing with at school. He may become alone with no ally in the world and sink into depression. Now let’s look at the other path that we hope is taken.
Let’s suppose instead that Billy’s parents decide to speak with a medical professional to try to get answers for what is going on with their son. Pediatricians receive relatively little training on identifying children with uniquenesses and they spend a short amount of time with the child in the office. This makes it difficult for a pediatrician to accurately diagnose the problem in one visit. Some doctors will prescribe medication for ADD or ADHD and ‘see how it goes’. However, lucky parents will be referred for a full evaluation and really lucky parents may get insurance to cover it. The costs are high if insurance does not cover the evaluation and treatment. Even if insurance coverage is obtained, deductibles and co-pays may not be affordable. Sensory Processing Disorder is not recognized by most insurance as a covered diagnosis.
Once again a crossroad emerges. Some may be able to afford the costs. We’ll talk about that later. Those who cannot afford the evaluation or treatment may attempt to leverage the school system to help their child. The school (if funding exists) will assess the child and provide some services to assist with the child’s special needs. OT and PT may be provided and special education classes will be offered. Sadly, most of our schools in the US don’t receive additional funding to help our gifted children. A child like Billy will be placed in special needs classes and given only part of the help he really requires to succeed.
Now, let’s assume for a moment that Billy’s parents can afford an independent evaluation and that Billy undergoes a three day evaluation including an IQ test. Billy’s parents are told their child is highly gifted and has Sensory Processing Disorder. After reading a few books and trying to wrap their minds around all of the new information they are digesting, they feel somewhat relieved that they are finding answers and can help their son! Billy’s parents approach his teacher with the results. The teacher is open to listening, but is as overwhelmed by the information as Billy’s parents are. Having observed Billy in her class, it’s easier for her to accept that he has special needs and much harder for her to accept his giftedness. His behavior doesn’t demonstrate what she thinks ‘gifted’ is all about. She also wonders if Sensory Processing Disorder is real and doesn’t understand it well enough to relate it to Billy’s behaviors. She feels impatient listening to Billy’s parents and her mind is on the assignments she needs to grade from last week and the things she needs to get done before tomorrow’s class. She doesn’t know how she can possibly help Billy with no training and no special funding for gifted children. She suggests a special education program for Billy partly as a measure to move Billy out of her class and partly because she sees no other way to help him.
Will special education help Billy? As already mentioned above, this will not provide a complete package for what Billy needs.
Now, let’s pretend Billy’s parents have read enough books and joined enough support groups to know a little about advocating for their child. They try repeatedly to work with the teacher on ways to help their son. They suggest allowing Billy to sit on a large ball during class so he can receive the movement he craves; they suggest providing Billy with more challenging work; they suggest allowing Billy a number of other special accommodations to aide him with both of his uniquenesses. The teacher who is already feeling stressed over the upcoming standardized test and the need to ensure she prepares her students for it, is reluctant to further accommodate Billy. She knows she must concentrate on the students who perform well regularly if the test scores are to be impressive. The school Billy attends does not have funding for a gifted program and they are not trained in affordable accommodations for gifted children.
Billy’s parents then call a meeting with the principle or school board or ask for an IEP meeting. The result is that the school will allow for some deviations, but are not equipped to fully support Billy’s special needs and giftedness. Without enrichment at school, Billy may become depressed and lose his passion for learning. Children may feel jealous or intimidated by Billy’s intellect and reject him as a friend. With accommodations such as a special chair, Billy may face bullying and relentless teasing for his differences. Billy may refuse special accommodations he needs in fear of social embarrassment or he may ‘dumb-down’ his intelligence to avoid ridicule. Over time he will sink deeper into his depression and lose himself in misery. If left in this situation, Billy will appear to future teachers to have even less potential with each passing year and his brilliant intellect will continue to be overlooked.
What does Billy really need? He needs what every other child needs. He needs to feel comfortable. He needs to feel supported by the adults in his life. He needs to feel accepted by his peers. He needs his unique traits to be recognized, but not used to define him in a way that will exclude him. He needs intellectual peers who he can relate to and who accept him. He needs an environment at his school where he can learn and grow outside of a one-size-fits-all model. He needs a classroom without flickering florescent lights. He needs space between him and the other children so they don’t bump his desk. He needs a room where all kids sit on a special chair thus eliminating the ‘special’ aspect. He needs the freedom to work at his own pace. He needs the opportunity to work with other children who share his interests. He needs to feel like he belongs. He needs to feel “normal”.
Come join us at Rochester SAGE. Together we can make a difference for gifted children!