The Role of Parents in Helping Gifted Children with Learning Problems
VanTassel-Baska, J.
2e Newsletter
National Association of Gifted Children
March/April 2012

In this article, Joyce VanTassel-Baska provides information on principals parents of twice-exceptional learners can apply in working with their own children who may have learning problems.

As a gifted child who tested at 155 on a full-scale IQ battery at age 10, Heather has always done well in elementary school although she experienced some difficulty with math. In middle school she encountered stronger problems in math, but was tutored and received extra coursework in a university-based program in that subject. In high school, she handled coursework until precalculus, which she failed. Yet Heather is also a child who excelled in verbal areas, taking prizes for her writing, finishing in the top three in the regional spelling bee, and learning two languages at advanced levels by high school graduation. A diagnosis in high school found her to be both ADD and learning disabled, a situation overlooked earlier because her abilities masked her disabilities.

There are many gifted children like Heather — unable to perform at levels approaching their ability in specific areas, unable to finish projects they have been assigned, and immobilized by anger and frustration over their inability to produce on demand. These children often are doomed to be unsuccessful in school and in careers unless they have strong parent advocacy at critical stages of the educational process.

Many of these children have characteristics like Heather’s. They experience uneven capacities for academic work in all subjects, suffering from dyslexia, dysgraphia, or discalculia. They carry diagnoses that range from learning disabled to attention deficit disorder to depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder. They may be decidedly less advanced in social and emotional skills, often experiencing difficulties in peer relationships or social adjustments in school-related settings. They are plagued by feelings of low self-esteem and emotional outbursts that vent their feelings about the frustration of being both gifted and disabled.

Eight Principles

Research on twice-exceptional learners has revealed several principles that parents may apply in working with their own children who may have learning problems. I will comment on the eight that I believe are crucial to understand and use with these learners throughout their  educational journey.

  1. Twice-exceptional learners need to have a personalized and tailored approach provided for their education to be successful and meaningful. This will clearly involve the use of tutors in both strength and weakness areas to provide the up-close attention to the progressive development of skills that is required for progress in learning to occur at optimal levels. Tutoring in a strength may pave the way for accelerated learning and advanced opportunities at subsequent levels of schooling. Counseling may be essential to help these students frame their problems and articulate issues with a neutral third party. Mentorships can energize these children to believe in their capabilities to do well as adults.

  2. These learners also need to experience kindness, reinforcement, and encouragement from those in their environment. Because these students often are bullied by peers and scapegoated by teachers as lazy and nonachieving, they require sensitivity in the individuals closest to them to keep going in a positive direction. Several studies have documented the role of a caring teacher in igniting the spark of interest and ability in such learners. The same studies also highlight the central role of parents in this process as well, nurturing bursts of talent and problem-solving outbursts of difficult situations.

  3. Successful twice-exceptional students have commented on their need for accommodations at critical stages of their academic journey. For many, it is being allowed to take extra time on tests and projects. For others, it is being provided flexibility in assignments and procedures to be followed in creative production. Many of these children also require preferential classroom seating that reduces distractions and enhances attention and cuing by the teacher of time constraints or movements to a new activity.

  4. Talent development of twice-exceptional students will take concerted effort on the part of parents, even engaging in some emphases that may seem counterintuitive because they press on a greater focus in learning. Examples include providing acceleration in strength areas, extra opportunities for Saturday and summer programs that address areas of interest and strength, and individual pursuits that satisfy curiosity and provide an outlet for pleasure in learning.

  5. For these children, early identification of their giftedness can serve as a buffer for their emerging learning problems. The sooner the child and parent know the level of ability and the areas of special ability, the easier it will be to direct the educational focus over time, including early attention to areas of weakness. Placement in a gifted program early can have ameliorative effects on selfesteem and self-confidence if the teacher is aware of the needs of the child for adapted instruction.

  6. Because these children are vulnerable to an underachievement pattern at each stage of their development, it is incumbent upon parents to work with them on some common problems twice-exceptional students encounter: organization of time, materials, and resources; homework; and completion of projects. Setting up routines in the home to ensure that tasks are completed on time is a critical part of the assistive process. Parents also need to monitor homework assignments in collaboration with teachers on a daily basis to ensure that important work does not fall through the cracks, resulting in inadvertent low grades.

  7. Social and emotional problems may overwhelm these students at times, requiring their parents to be vigilant about depression and suicidal ideation, sensitivity to criticism, and vulnerability to the slights of peers. Having informal discussions during relaxed family time can sometimes allow problems to surface and be recognized. Helping your children develop positive coping mechanisms for problems is key to improving their capacity to handle stress over time.

  8. Finally, help develop and celebrate the intrapersonal qualities of intrinsic motivation and persistence in your child, the most critical ingredients for her success in a performance-oriented world. Nurture the expressions of creativity shown by your child through a given arts area, applaud the desire to make a photograph album of recent family snapshots, marvel at the interest in studying bugs under a microscope. Whatever informal learning acts during leisure time demonstrate the internal world of joy in learning should be noted and built on to sustain and serve as an antidote to less pleasant learning experiences in formal settings likely to be encountered.

Parenting a twice-exceptional learner is a big job, one that many professionals may try to dissuade you from taking on in the ways outlined here. Teachers, administrators, and even counselors may send you the message of nonintervention, allowing your child to fail, letting her figure out the problems on her own rather than providing support. Cases of successful twiceexceptional learners offer an alternative view. Parents are these students’ best, and many times, only, advocates in school systems geared to address normal development and expected behaviors that are age and grade appropriate. In the absence of strong advocacy, these students can and will be lost in such systems. We raise children in the hope of elevating the level of human accomplishment to new heights through the next generation. Twice-exceptional learners deserve to take their place in the success stories of our collective future. The chance for that to happen rests with the capacity of parents in collaboration with other agencies and individuals to will that future.


Copyright 2012 NAGC. Reprinted with permission of the National Association for Gifted Children. No further reprints are permitted without the consent of NAGC.

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.

The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.

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