According to Brody and Mills (1997) there are three categories of children whose disabilities and/or giftedness are likely to remain unrecognized or misunderstood. Children in each of these categories (see the sidebar) possess a mix of giftedness and learning disabilities. Children in all three categories present a particular challenge to the school system because they can straddle both ends of the bell curve simultaneously. Addressing 2e children’s deficits may mean neglecting their strengths and vice versa. Moreover, these children present an exceptional set of risks, difficulties, and opportunities to schools and parents alike.
Based on my experience in my practice, I believe there’s a fourth category of children whose gifts and deficits go unrecognized and unaccom-modated in schools. In this category are kids with the sorts of behavioral problems that make a difficult situation far worse and that result in the children getting labeled as “bad kids.” In this article I’ll give special attention to these children, issues surrounding their teenage years, and possible strategies for addressing these issues.
When dealing with gifted children, it’s easy to forget that the area of the brain responsible for planning, judgment, delayed gratification, and impulse control is the last to mature. This process typically takes place between the ages of 16 and 20. Even more than their peers, 2e teens face significant challenges and frustrations, and they often make poor decisions in how they respond.
The literature is pretty clear that children with attention deficit disorders and/or learning disabilities are at greater risk for substance abuse, particularly if they aren’t identified and treated. The child who loses homework, misreads the assignment, leaves his book at school, gets another D+, cuts class to avoid reading aloud, and doesn’t work up to his potential, becomes the teenager who finds it a relief to hang out under the bleachers with the other kids who cut second period. Unless these teenagers have guidance and support, they may drift into settings where the expectations are low and peers expect nothing of them other than a willingness to tolerate bad behavior.
Behavior like this should not be regarded as a normal part of adolescence. Rather, it’s a billboard-size warning. These are children who are disproportionately struggling with neurological injuries, attentional and learning impairments, or emotional and personality problems. They have typically overwhelmed their teachers and parents, and are running out of chances to be turned around.
Parents often avoid confronting the problem, hoping that it’s simply immaturity. Schools refuse to deal with the issue. A teenager identified as a drug user is unlikely to be identified as either gifted or 2e because any weak academic performance is attributed to drug use. In addition, with a school’s zero-tolerance policy on drugs, it means that a child’s history of drug use can’t be mentioned to school personnel without risking the child’s expulsion. That makes it hard to provide support for teens who are seeking honest, thoughtful conversation about the difficult topics of adolescence. In cases where bad decisions have been made, not smart doesn’t mean not gifted. Gifted children are often remarkably talented at putting all of their formidable will towards counterproductive ends.
Parenting style matters most when children are struggling academically. Studies have shown that underachieving children improved when their mothers reacted to the child’s struggles in an encouraging way and helped the child think through ways to solve the problem. But underachieving children took a turn for the worse when their mothers reacted by taking over the task themselves or punishing children for not performing well. Drs. Eva Pomerantz and Martin Seligman, who did much of this research, suspect that underachieving teens hear so much about their failures at school that they need parents to help them build confidence in their abilities. Parents can also help them internalize the skills they’ll need to tolerate adversity and challenge.
Confidence is built on the experience of genuine accomplishment and success, often in the face of self-doubt, boredom, difficulty, frustration, and moments of pleasure. All the awards, ribbons, plaques and pats on the back mean little if they don’t feel earned. For teenagers, a core area of accomplishment is learning basic life skills. Teenagers are often receptive to chores if they are aware of their relevance to adult life. Parents can teach their teens to balance a checkbook, do laundry without dying everything pink, and cook three meals worthy of serving to a date. Teenagers also need help in learning that reciprocity and mutual care is part of being an adult. They need to practice life skills now, while there is a parental safety net. Your job as a parent is to make yourself obsolete.
Here are some simple ways for parents to help:
In my practice, I’ve found that children come for testing in waves, usually driven by peaks in parental anxiety. Underachieving during ninth grade is often written off as transitional jitters. Tenth grade matters to college admissions committees and, therefore, to parents. As one of my mentors puts it, “No one wants their place in Heaven determined by their deportment as a mid-adolescent”; but it does seem to determine one’s place in college.
Some things to keep in mind about the 10th grade are:
The good news is this: college is a much more inviting place for 2e students than high school. For many, college is the refuge they’ve been seeking their whole lives – a place
where their creativity, drive, and talents are given freedom to fly, unencumbered by the bureaucracy and hoop-jumping of secondary schooling.
Colleges are unfazed by 2e children. In fact, it may be the first time that these kids are seen as normal. Parents and students may find it heartening to look at some of the websites for Ivy League colleges. Harvard, for example, offers the following to their 2e students: diagnostic testing services, note-taking services, oral tests, readers, tutors, books on tape, reading machines, tape recorders, videotaped classes, untimed tests, a learning center, a resource center/clearinghouse, and modification of the requirements
Much of adolescent misbehavior is caused by boredom. Accelerating students to a sufficient level of challenge often improves their behavior dramatically. Children often rise to the challenge, particularly if they have parents in their corner who can coach them through.
Brody, L.E., & Mills, C.J. (1997). Gifted children with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30 (2), 282-297.
This article is reprinted with permission from the 2e Newsletter and the author.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent
Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To
learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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