Our Day School program focuses on the learning needs of twice-exceptional elementary school students. Twice exceptional students are students who have demonstrated intellectual giftedness alongside a learning challenge such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Mild Autism Spectrum Disorders, etc. Overall, these children fall underneath the umbrella term of “gifted,” a word that is often maligned, confused, or debated within our community as well as society at large.
Because of a prevalent misunderstanding about what giftedness is some people do not see the need for increased attention or support of these children. Recently, Dr. Joanna Haase and Sharon Duncan, two experts in the field, gave an excellent presentation at our school that helped define the term as well as unravel its many mysteries. Below, I offer a recap of the information gleaned from their talk in hopes to help others understand the term so that we can continue to provide these children the support they need to become fully functioning and self-realized people.
Duncan and Haase mentioned that giftedness is not the same as “eminent, achieving or successful.” There are gifted students who fall in what they call the “sweet spot” gifted range who are every teacher’s delight with their enthusiasm, motivation and desire to learn but this is not the majority. Giftedness is not what one does or achieves. In fact, giftedness involves a neuropsychological makeup that often causes children to experience the world in an entirely different way than their classmates.
Duncan and Haase pointed out that if you look at the “normal” scale of human development, you can see that gifted children fall just as far away from the “norm” as a child with an intellectual disability. Their physical, emotional, social and intellectual experiences with the world are very different and can create intense difficulties that are misdiagnosed, overlooked, misunderstood or hidden. This is a population that needs to be approached with the same thought, care and sensitivity as their peers on the opposite side of the bell curve.
Some examples of what it can feel like to be gifted are as follows:
- Imagine your most anxious moment and magnify that by 10. Now feel that way most of the time and focus on your school day expectations.
- Imagine you are called “smart” because you have shown you know a lot of information. Now imagine being unable to communicate what you know fast enough in writing or verbally to keep pace with teachers and classmates. Now imagine being called lazy or defiant because of it.
- Imagine if all of the lights and sounds around you were highly increased in volume and you needed to focus on a single person lecturing four hours a day.
- Imagine someone playfully swatting you at recess and having it feel as though they punched you full force. Imagine reacting to the pain and being called a baby or a troublemaker.
- Imagine if you had to move in order to learn. Now imagine sitting still for five hours a day to comply with the rules.
- Imagine having the intellectual capacity of a 25-year-old with the maturity of an 8 year old. Now go find a friend to play with at recess.
- Imagine having so many people call you “smart” that you think that is all there is to you. Now imagine not knowing the answer to a question or how to do something. Now you are nothing. Our children live in fear of failure.
- Imagine if you had any of these things going on and you were labeled instantly as autistic, lazy, oppositional defiant, ADHD, emotionally disturbed, behavior problem – and you were in trouble all of the time. Sometimes these labels do apply – but very often, they do not.
Frequently we see a gifted child who is either intense, has another underlying challenge, or both. Regardless of the label and the information that these children are able to hold in their minds, they are special needs children who need their intellectual, physical, social and emotional needs met in different ways and they absolutely need to be in learning environments where they are not misunderstood or worse yet punished for behaviors that are beyond their control, that are related to their neuropsychological makeup and that they themselves don’t yet understand.
Many people do not realize that the likelihood of the existence of learning and social/emotional challenges increases with higher intellectual capacity (IQ). In fact, there are a tremendous amount of very gifted children with vast potential who experience difficulties that get in the way of their ability to effectively progress due to intensities associated with their neuropsychological makeup.
A special focus on this group of students is important because during these crucial developmental years when they are expected to become more independent and take greater responsibility for managing multiple facets of their daily academic and personal life, they will often experience excessive disproportionate stress and exhibit resulting declines in their motivation, self-perception, self-esteem, self-directness and intrinsic desire to engage in learning. Further, the ability of twice exceptional students to often “mask” their learning disabilities through compensation can cause them to fall farther behind each year in their reading and writing skill sets. This results in underachievement and, often, unhealthy coping strategies that lead to a negative life trajectory for these youth who hold vast positive potential.
That is meaningful for each student’s personal potential and because this population of students has a tremendous amount to offer if they are understood, supported and provided the opportunity to shape a better future. The complex needs of these students require the involvement of educators and other professionals who have the expertise needed to identify needs and tailor the instruction and social/emotional support necessary to meet them. Presently, all educational support resources are designed to meet the needs of students who require either full remediation, or are high achieving. There are no resources provided for students who have advanced intellectual ability alongside a special need. We are the only program in Orange County that provides this type of support, and one of only a few that exist in the country.
The conversation about the needs of gifted and twice exceptional children needs to change.