Gifted Education Communicator
California Association for the Gifted
Vol. 43, No. 4
This article examines three situations common to twice-exceptional children and their parents. From them, guidelines to help parents determine just how much support to give their struggling twice-exceptional children are provided.
A twice-exceptional, or 2e, child is exceptional both for having high intellectual abilities and for having a learning disability or other learning challenge. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, visual or auditory processing disorder, Asperger Syndrome, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder are among the many examples of the second “e” that a 2e child may have. One thing that makes our twiceexcepttional kids a puzzle to others—and even to us, their parents—is their inconsistency. Sometimes they seem to have it all together. At times they can follow instructions, meet a deadline, take responsibility, show restraint, and use good judgment. Other times they can’t. Sometimes they welcome our help; sometimes they don’t; and sometimes they become dependent it. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges parents of twice-exceptional children face is giving our kids just enough support—finding that balance point between helping them to keep moving ahead and experiencing regular successes, and holding them back by doing too much and making them dependent on us. But how do we determine the level of support that’s not too little, not too much, but “just right”? How do we know when it’s time to pull back our support and let our kids take greater responsibility for themselves?
The Need for Support
There’s no single profile of a twice-exceptional child because both the child’s gifts and limitations can take many forms. We can, however, give a general description of these children. They display a combination of traits common to kids who are gifted and kids with learning disabilities or other learning deficits. The table on page 18 lists common traits in both categories.
A blending of characteristics such as these – for example, precocious use of language on the one hand and trouble organizing thoughts, writing legibly, and spelling on the other – is likely to set a child apart from others, even from other gifted children. As a result, navigating through life becomes more stressful and challenging for the 2e child, whose differences can make it hard to be accepted in school, to make friends, and to be understood by teachers. Feeling out of synch with peers and teachers can take an emotional toll, apparent in the anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem that many 2e children display. As parents see their once happy kids becoming increasingly stressed and discouraged, they feel the need to “run interference” for their 2e kids, to help them cope with situations and feelings the children don’t yet understand and aren’t yet able to handle on their own. Many of these parents feel obligated to explain their 2e children’s differences to others. The parents might also feel the need to protect their children from the opinions and judgments of those unable to see what’s hidden, whether it’s a child’s gifts or deficits. Furthermore, 2e children’s deficits tend to hamper their ability to perform tasks that classroom learning requires. Often, they need classroom accommodations (such as reduced homework or untimed tests) and modifications to the way in which content is presented (such as grade or content acceleration) to be successful. Because getting these in place and monitoring them for effectiveness is not always easy, their parents are likely to have a regular presence in the school lives of their 2e children.
As parents take on these support roles, nagging doubts can surface, especially when the parents hear “helpful” comments like, “Kids just have to learn that if they don’t do the work, they suffer the consequences.” Or “Maybe he should just tough it out. He’ll have a different teacher next year.” Or “You’ve got to let her fight her own battles.” Parents may wonder, is this advice right? Let’s look at some typical situations that parents of 2e kids face and see if the support the parents provide is too little, too much, or just right.
Jacob, a very bright 12-year-old with Asperger Syndrome, has interests that are limited, but intense. He’s an expert on the major battles of the Civil War. He loves to read and talk about them, but his public school classmates aren’t interested. It’s hard for Jacob to take part in the conversations that go on around him in school, or even outside of school for that matter. He’s uncomfortable making eye contact and doesn’t know how to make small talk. He’s not very good at reading people’s expressions and gestures, and doesn’t understand their jokes.
Jacob’s mother knows how stressful it is for her son to be in social situations. Because she wants to help him avoid the discomfort and anxiety that his social shortcomings produce, she often serves as Jacob’s spokesperson. If someone asks Jacob a question, he looks to his mother, who either answers or prompts him to answer.
Ava is a gifted fifth-grade girl diagnosed with inattentive AD/HD. Weakness in executive functions makes it hard for her to plan, organize, and follow through with tasks, especially her schoolwork. Ava also has slow processing speed. She reads slowly and works slowly; and it can take her longer than other students to formulate an answer in response to a question.
Ava’s parents regularly get reports from school that Ava doesn’t follow directions, misses deadlines, and forgets to turn in assignments. The parents spend much of their time reminding Ava, helping her with schoolwork, driving forgotten things to school, interceding on her behalf, and asking the teacher to extend deadlines. Evenings at home are taken over by homework wars. Ava’s overwhelmed, often breaking into tears trying to get her work done. She has trouble sleeping and doesn’t want to go to school. Compounding the issue, the teacher doubts both Ava’s giftedness and her diagnosis. She sees the child as being lazy and choosing not to do her work; and she believes the parents are enabling Ava.
Diagnosed with AD/HD, Alex has always found it hard to keep still. He was recognized in his old school as a math and science whiz, and he loves doing hands-on projects.
Over the summer, Alex moved and started sixth grade in a new school. His old friends were used to him. They had all known that Alex was “hyper”—that he easily got carried away. If his friends were being rowdy, Alex was even rowdier. If they were being noisy, he was even noisier. At the new school, however, his classmates seemed put off by this behavior. In no time Alex found that his actions earned him a reputation as a troublemaker with the teachers and made him some enemies at school. Boys on the bus and playground began taunting him. A few times they knocked Alex’s books out of his hands and tussled with him. At first, Alex didn’t want to tell his parents because he knew they believed that kids should settle their own differences. Finally, as they saw Alex’s grades slipping and noticed that he seemed increasingly angry and sad, his parents asked the cause and he told them.
Alex’s mother and father called a meeting at the school, where the attitude seemed to be that this was just “boys being boys” and that Alex, after all, did bring it on himself with his “annoying” behavior. The advice from school was to encourage Alex to tone down his behavior and try harder to fit in with his new classmates. His parents thought that maybe the teachers were right, that this was a kids’ matter for Alex to work out.
Finding the Balance Point
In each case, with Jacob, Ava, and Alex, the parents were doing what they thought, or at least hoped, was best for their 2e children. How successful were they in providing a level of support that was just right—that balance point between helping children progress and experience success, and holding them back by doing too much and making them dependent?
It would seem that Jacob’s mother has crossed the line in terms of providing her son with an appropriate level of support. In wanting to spare Jacob distress, she’s unnecessarily shouldered the responsibility for his behavior in social settings. By doing this, parents can achieve the opposite of what they intend, hindering rather than helping their children. As Pamela Wright (2008) explains, “Overprotective parents unwittingly create chronic dependency and ‘learned helplessness’ in their children – a mindset that will often persist throughout that individual’s life….These children grow up to be adults who believe that they ‘can’t’ do things.”
What other options might there be? Perhaps Jacob’s mother could look for other sources of support that would allow her to pull back and eventually let her son assume responsibility for his behavior. For example, it’s likely that Jacob has an Individual Education Program (IEP) at school. His mother could request that social skills training be added to the IEP. That way, instead of serving as Jacob’s spokesperson, she might just offer him opportunities to practice his new communication skills at home, encouraging him to make small talk with her.
Another possibility might be to brainstorm with teachers about ways to help Jacob connect with other students. By filling teachers in on Jacob’s strengths and interests, she can help teachers come up with ways to help her son make friends— perhaps through a history club or special history projects with others who share that interest.
Ava’s parents face a number of issues that demand their attention and action. The book Late, Lost, and Unprepared offers parents advice for how to help in situations like Ava’s: “Figuring out how to help begins with clearly and specifically defining the problems and deciding where to start (p. 75).” The problems in Ava’s situation are:
- The effects of her executive funtion deficits and slow processing speed
- Ava’s heavy dependence on her parents to help her function at school
- Her emotional and physical distress
- A teacher with a negative attitude toward Ava and her parents due to the teacher’s lack of knowledge.
Where to begin? Author Barbara Probst provides a framework. “On the one side are things you do to make your child feel safe and cared for; on the other side are things you do to help him [or her] stretch, struggle, and grow (p. 168).” To make Ava feel safe and cared for, her parents need to find ways to reduce her stress. In the short-term they might consider following this advice:
Parents need to concentrate on the job which is solely theirs. Namely: encouraging the growth of the whole child, not just his or her academic skills. Putting away the books in favor of a conversation, a night of baking, or a trip to the ball field can be more effective at teaching the whole child than [doing] repetitive math problems. (ReadingtonParents.org, 2006)
In other words, addressing Ava’s well being and preserving her relationship with her parents must come at the top of the list. Many will agree that twice-exceptional children, even more than others, need a safe haven; and that’s what parents and home can provide. It’s important for Ava’s parents to inform the school of the toll that schoolwork is taking. Plus, they need to convey their expectation that they and the school will work in partnership for Ava’s benefit.
What might this home/school partnership involve? In Probst’s words, it will involve coming up with ways to help Ava “stretch, struggle, and grow.” Ideally, much of this support will come from sources other than Ava’s mother and father.
If Ava’s parents haven’t done so already, they should expect to become well versed in both the issues she faces and how to advocate for her. They may also need to educate themselves on school policy and education laws as well as on Ava’s giftedness and learning challenges. If Ava herself is not knowledgeable, her parents must help her to understand both her strengths and limitations. This way, both parents and child can be active participants in brainstorming ways to help Ava become an independent learner. In addition, they will be in a position to share their knowledge with teachers who may lack training in giftedness or twice exceptionality.
As a team, the family, educators, and perhaps other professionals must determine what Ava can do for herself and what they and others must do for her until she learns how to compensate for her current weaknesses. Support might take the form of:
- Reduced homework and extended time to complete assignments
- Using assistive technology
- Receiving instruction in specific skills and strategies to improve her ability to plan, organize, and manage her time and allow her parents to pull back on their support in these areas
- Having someone at school to function as a “homework coach” to help her stay on track.
As in Jacob’s case, if an IEP or 504 plan exists, any changes recommended and agreed upon for Ava should be documented there. Absent one of those plans, parents can summarize meeting results in a letter sent to the school, which can serve to document agreements reached and milestones set. Ava’s parents can then monitor progress.
Alex’s parents appear to take a much more “hands off ” approach to supporting their son than do Jacob’s and Ava’s parents. When it comes to bullying, however, “hands off ” is not the recommended approach. The stakes are high. According to psychologist Patricia Schuler, “The price of being teased or bullied can be devastating. For a gifted child, it may lead to intense anger, withdrawal, and/or depression.” (Franklin- Rohr, 2012) Two-thirds of gifted students encounter bullying by the eighth grade; and children with behavioral disorders, such as AD/HD, are almost 10 times more likely as others to be regularly bullied. (Council for Exceptional Children, n.d.) In determining what level of parental support is “just right” for Alex, the same considerations apply here as with Ava. The starting point, again, must be the child’s well being. According to the article “What to Do if Your Child Is Being Bullied” (http://www.education.com/reference/article/Ref_What_Do_if_Your/), Alex would benefit greatly from his parents’ support in the form of empathy, reassurance that they will take the problem seriously, and acknowledgement of his courage in revealing the situation to them. He would also benefit from his parents learning more about bullying. Researchers have found that it’s not just a matter of “kids being kids.” Bullying stems from an imbalance of power between bully and victim, and it may not stop without adult intervention. Alex’s well being also depends on the school providing a safe learning environment. His parents need to communicate their expectations that the bullying will stop and offer to work with the school to see that it does. They can play an important role by educating school personnel about twice exceptionality and the need to avoid placing the blame on the victim. Monitoring the school’s progress in dealing with this issue will also be important.
Next comes the support needed for Alex to “stretch, struggle, and grow.” Alex would benefit from learning to become more resilient to bullying. Some ways his parents can help him might be:
- Finding activities outside of school that build on Alex’s strengths and talents, helping him to feel confident and strong and, perhaps, to make new friends.
- Learning about strategies for handling bullying, talking to Alex about them, and even role-playing with him.
- Finding a counselor to work with Alex on learning what it takes to handle bullying and to make and keep friends.
- Making the same requests of the school that Jacob’s parents did to provide instruction in social skills and find ways to help Alex connect with other students through shared strengths and interests – for example, his love of math, science, and hands- on projects.
We’ve looked at three situations common to twice-exceptional children and their parents. From them, we can construct some guidelines to help parents determine just how much support to give their struggling twice-exceptional children:
- Focus on understanding the problem before looking for a solution.
- Educate yourself about the problem and the resources available for dealing with it.
- Develop your strategy, both short-term (making your child feel safe and cared for) and long- term (coming up with ways to help your child “stretch, struggle, and grow”).
- Reassess the support you give your child on a regular basis, pulling back as your child’s ability to handle the situation increases.
Two additions might be:
- Have patience. Recognize that it takes time for your child to learn new skills and develop new abilities. Psychologist Jean Peterson (2012) counsels adults not to despair because of what’s happening during one phase of a child’s life. It will take many years to see how it turns out.
- Take advantage of the experience of others. Seek help from professionals as well as from other parents who find themselves in a similar situation. Look to parent organizations or online discussion groups for parents of twice-exceptional kids.
Finding the right level of support doesn’t mean that your child won’t ever struggle or fail. Nor does it mean that your child will always be happy. Instead, it means supporting them just enough so that sometimes they succeed and other times they have what Madeline Levine (2012) describes as “successful failures,” failures that they can live with and that help them to grow.
Linda C. Neumann is the editor and co-publisher of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter (http://www.2eNewsletter.com), a bi-monthly electronic publication that focuses on twice-exceptional children – those who are gifted and have learning or attention difficulties. She is also the editor/author of the Spotlight on 2e Series, a series of publications that provide information on how to recognize and address the combination of giftedness and learning challenges in children.
Bullying of children with exceptionalities: Tackling it in your school and your classroom. Council for exceptional Children. Retrieved from www.cec.sped.org/AM/Template. cfm?Section= Home&TEMPlATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&CoNTENTID=12979.
Caring for the Mental Health of the Twice-exceptional Child. (2011). Winfield, Il: Glen EllynMedia.
Cooper-Kahn, J. & Dietzel, l. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.
Franklin-Rohr, C. (2012, Spring). Bullying and the twice-exceptional student. Understanding Our Gifted. 24(3), 19-20.
Levine, M. (2012, August 5) Raising Successful Children. New York Times, p. 8. Making sense of underachievement. (2012, March). 2e: Twice-exceptional Newsletter, 22-23.
Probst, B. (2008). When the labels don’t fit: A new approach to raising a challenging child. NY: Three Rivers Press.
ReadingtonParents.org. (2006) Homework and tears. Retrieved from http://rationalamerican.com/rp.org/archives/homework.html.
Wright, P. (2008). From emotions to advocacy: The parents’ journey. wrightslaw. Retrieved August 20, 2012, from www.wrightslaw.com/advoc/articles/ Emotions.html.
Permission to reprint this article has been granted to The Davidson Institute by the California Association for the Gifted (CAG).