In spite of all the time and energy educators spend trying to match the right special needs label to the right child, a child who is twice exceptional probably will be identified only for her disability and rarely for her strengths. Come with me as I revisit two of these children I have taught over the years. See if you can decide how they should be handled by the system.
Meet Elias. He's in fourth grade, and his deficits are apparent. His writing is illegible, he still hasn't mastered his number facts, and his skills in math and language arts leave much to be desired. His articulation problems make him sound like a much younger child. But he is a maven when it comes to maps, United States geography, national parks and monuments. When his family takes a trip, it has been routed and planned by Eli who can tell you the daily itinerary from every one of those trips for the past four years. He kinesthetically understands all the basic map terms and simply lights up when talking about his favorite national parks and monuments. The class is about to begin a unit on map terms and skins and Eli reminds me that he already knows "that stuff." I make the end-of-the-unit test available to him and to anyone else who wants to try it. Eli easily scores in the "A" range on the test, and therefore is excused from having to do the work that is planned for those who are still learning about maps and geography.
Now I experience a dilemma. How should he spend his social studies time during the next few weeks? Shall I allow him to work on an extension activity, or would it be better if I used that time to have him work on those areas in which he is so woefully inadequate? The deciding question is this: Is Eli truly exceptional in his ability in this particular content? Clearly, he is. Therefore, is Eli as eligible for differentiation in this area as someone who was gifted across the board? Clearly, he is.
So I followed the same guidelines with Eli I would use with any other student eligible for differentiation. From a menu of extension activities I have prepared during my planning for this unit, Eli chooses a task that matches his learning style strengths: kinesthetic and visual. He will create an imaginary country, using instant paper-mache'. On the model he will locate examples of at least 10 terms and concepts the class will be learning. He will be expected to follow certain working conditions in order to be eligible to continue working on his project day by day. He will keep a daily record of his project on a log I have provided.
Four weeks later, Eli presents his project to a spell-bound class. Naturally, other students think it would be a fine idea to "create a country" too. So for the next 3 days, they work in small groups to do the job, and during that time Eli serves as the "create a country consultant." That episode had profound, long-lasting effects on Eli and his classmates. Even during times when his "deficits" were visible, everyone could remember how Eli was able to demonstrate dramatic strength and talent and all the students could learn how to better appreciate the strengths and weaknesses in every person.
Meet Donna. Striking features, loudly aggressive and under incredible stress from a home environment that provided more ups and downs than a roller coaster ride. She was in a small elementary school where a closely knit group of caring teachers provided stability, support and dependable routines through all of Donna's elementary years. Donna participated competently in the gifted program there, in a resource room program for gifted students that met one day each week. Although she often got into playground altercations, she usually responded positively to the staffs efforts to keep her on a steady course and got through most school days without serious temper flare-ups or physical outbursts. On "bad days," she would spend some time in the "responsibility training room," where she learned more appropriate ways of interacting with her peers and teachers.
In junior high school, things were different. A no-nonsense discipline code was strictly enforced. More often than not, Donna was in the school office; sitting through yet another forced exit from her classroom for not following the rules. The most absurd outcome of this discipline plan was that Donna had accrued so many "strikes" by the middle of March, the only thing that was left for her to lose was her eligibility to attend the end-of-the-year school picnic on May 27! Needless to say, Donna did not qualify for any of the accelerated sections that were available.
Children with learning disabilities, behavior disorders, or other types of school problems who are also gifted in one or more areas must be allowed to be gifted in their areas of strength while they receive assistance in their areas of need. The discrepancy between their superior abilities and their dramatic weaknesses results in feelings of inadequacy, frustration and hopelessness. Many of these students are at high risk of becoming school dropouts. To bring sanctions against any child which prevent them from experiencing differentiation whenever or wherever it's needed is simply not effective or fair.
Happily, solutions for these dilemmas are surfacing. Within the gifted education community, the-issue of appropriate interventions for students who are "twice exceptional" is a hot topic. Groups are forming in several states to aid educators and parents in dealing with this special challenge.
Recommended ReadingBaum, S; Owen S; and Dixon, J. (I 99 1). To be gifted and learning disabled. Creative Learning Press.
Bireley, M. (1989). Crossover children: A sourcebook for helping the learning disabled/gifted child. New American Library.
Freed, Jeffrey (1997). Right brained children in a left brained world. Simon and Schuster.
Vail, P. (1989). Smart kids with school problems. New American Library.
Susan Winebrenner, author of Teaching Gifted Kids In The Regular Classroom and Teaching Kids With Learning Difficulties In The Regular Classroom, presents workshops in staff development across the United States. She was a gifted program coordinator, teacher of gifted students, and classroom teacher for 20 years before she became a full-time consultant in staff development.
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