An Expert’s Guide To Understanding Twice-Exceptional Children

As research in psychology and education has progressed, we’ve come to understand that a lot of gifted kids are better described as “GT/LD” — that is, gifted and talented/learning disabled, or “2e” for “twice-exceptional.”

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The word “gifted” is arguably one of the most misunderstood terms in education.

Most people think that gifted kids are straight-A students, and many believe that these children’s abilities are primarily the result of pushy or privileged parents. Even teachers sometimes hold these misconceptions because, in the past (and, unfortunately, in some school districts today), gifted programs were often made up primarily of “teacher-pleasers” — bright, conscientious kids who follow instructions, do their homework, and bring home high grades.

Defining Twice-Exceptional

Certainly, some gifted children fit this description. But many don’t. As research in psychology and education has progressed, we’ve come to understand that a lot of gifted kids are better described as “GT/LD” — that is, gifted and talented/learning disabled, or “2e” for “twice-exceptional.” This terminology conveys the fact that these young people are both gifted and have some type of learning disability or disorder that inhibits typical growth in an academic setting.

A 2e designation can cover a very broad range of learning profiles, including recognized learning disabilities or differences like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and various auditory processing disorders, as well as mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. These are all possible secondary exceptionalities for 2e children, alongside their primary exceptionality of giftedness.

Understanding the 2E Profile

The good news for parents is that, under the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school districts are required to provide educational services for children with learning disorders. In its 2007 Dear Colleague letter, the U.S. Department of Education made it clear that such support includes access to gifted and advanced classes. As a result, districts may no longer legally say that a child has to choose between special education services and gifted or honors classes.

The bad news is that many districts don’t realize this, and since IDEA states that all children are entitled to a “free and appropriate education,” your district may claim that, if your child is passing her classes and not exhibiting major behavioral problems, the education being provided is “appropriate.” The National Association for Gifted Children has found evidence of this kind of “excellence gap” in every state. If your child is 2e, you may have to educate yourself and advocate strongly in order to ensure that her strengths are served alongside her challenges. That said, in states that recognize giftedness as grounds for an IEP or as part of special education, putting together a plan that addresses both exceptionalities — the giftedness and the disability — may be somewhat easier.

Moreover, since most people don’t spend a lot of time reading articles on educational psychology, you are likely to run into many individuals — including doctors, teachers, and other parents — who don’t understand how a child can have such divergent learning capabilities. If your child is verbally gifted and looks “normal,” others are likely to see her gifted side first and view symptoms of a disability as “laziness,” “underachievement,” or “bad behavior.”

If your child’s giftedness doesn’t express itself through verbal precocity (particularly if she is nonverbal) or if her disability is visible, adults may speak down to her — a practice that is annoying to many disabled children but that can be especially infuriating for those who are gifted. Many parents decide to smooth the path by gathering free resources that introduce the concept of twice-exceptional profiles to health care providers, teachers, tutors, and other professionals who work with 2e children.

Addressing Divergent Learning Needs

Whatever your child’s diagnosis or diagnoses, it’s important that both aspects of her needs be addressed educationally. It’s common to assume that gifted children, with or without learning disorders, will do fine without any particular special attention — after all, they’re smart, aren’t they?

In fact, though, gifted students need to have their strengths fostered. It can be exceedingly frustrating for those gifted children who also have a learning disorder and regularly experience the gap between their intelligence and their ability to demonstrate their skills in school. Perpetual frustration isn’t helpful for anybody, and few things are as difficult for the quick mind of a gifted child as being forced to do work that is tedious, redundant, or boring. Often, these children act out or shut down, leading teachers and others to label them as “behavior problems” or “underachievers.”

Gifted students who manage to navigate school more easily may be able to get good grades without ever really encountering difficult work or learning to study, a pattern that can lead them to chronically avoid challenges or set them up for a breakdown when they hit a problem they can’t sidestep. And, as research has shown, children who are told frequently that they are “smart” — as most gifted kids are — often develop anxiety around living up to this label. As many parents, educators, and experts will attest, anxiety is a common disorder among gifted children, and may account for their apparent underperformance as they try to avoid work that may threaten their self-image as “the smart kids.”

How Can Parents and Teachers Help?

What, then, are parents and schools to do? How do you honor and encourage a kid’s gifts without overpraising her and setting unrealistic expectations? How do you address deficits and problems without frustrating and discouraging her? The difficulty of this balancing act can be a special challenge with 2e kids because the gap between their strengths and deficits can be so frustrating and confusing.

The first and most important step is to get a clear sense of where, exactly, your child excels and struggles, and how wide the gap between these poles is. The best way to do this is to consult an experienced professional to obtain a thorough assessment of your child’s cognitive, intellectual, and psychological needs. This can be done through private providers — in some cases, your health insurance may cover part of the cost — or, if your child is beginning to show difficulties in class, through a school psychologist.

In either case, it is important to conduct a full assessment as soon as problems start to emerge so that you can begin putting together a team of specialists to help address learning disabilities or differences. For the 2e child, you may find that her school is more responsive to her disabilities — once they are recognized — than it is to her giftedness. As former teacher and gifted advocate Celi Trépanier points out, there are constructive ways to advocate for your gifted child to ensure that her giftedness is appropriately challenged.

Still, it can be a frustrating process (one that may help you better understand the frustrations of your 2e child!), but patience and respectful collaboration can enable you to build a strong team with your child’s teachers, learning specialists, and school leaders.

Tedra has spent her entire life in and around educational institutions, first as the daughter to two public school teachers, then as a undergraduate, grad student, English professor, public school volunteer and PTO board member, homeschooling mom to a 2e kid, educational advocate, and SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator. She is currently a freelance writer and editor and the mama of a 2e high school student at one of the very few institutions in the country devoted to 2e education.