Developing Life Skills for Twice Exceptional Students
Many readers of our Davidson Gifted Blog are familiar with the challenges twice exceptional (2e) students face. We know, too, that 2e students are capable of greatness, whether their learning challenges are sensory, ASD, ADHD, or otherwise. We often promote ways to help these learners receive support in the school environment – but what about general support outside of learning?
Life skills and other soft skills are important to the success and wellbeing of all individuals. The term “life skills” may be used to refer to a wide range of abilities, but commonly, they are thought of as the ability to problem-solve, regulate emotions and impulses, communicate effectively with others, and self-reflect. You use these skills when you are trying to find a restaurant in a new city, when you have to make small talk at a friend’s wedding, and in any number of ordinary situations. However, a student who is 2e may have a learning difference that makes one or more of these life skills more difficult to navigate than their neurotypical peers.
The Role of Executive Function for 2e Children
It may not come as a surprise to most, but life skills are closely linked to “Executive Functioning.” Many children who are 2e, regardless of their diagnosis, struggle with executive functioning. Executive functioning is controlled by the prefrontal cortex that helps us execute tasks. Some of the skills under this umbrella include planning into the future, prioritizing, time management, organization, focus, task initiation, motivation, follow-through, self-regulation, introspection, and working memory. Overall, this means that children who are identified as 2e may find it difficult to carry out daily tasks on their own. While 2e children may face certain executive functioning challenges, there are ways to help support their growth in these areas.
A Note on the Importance of Self-Esteem
Many children who are 2e get direct or indirect messages that they are “lazy,” “don’t try hard,” and “are bad” in and outside of the classroom, when in fact, they might be struggling with executive functioning skills. In part, this is because our world is largely shaped by and for neurotypical learners. Over time, these messages may contribute to behaviors like avoidance, resistance, or apathy towards common actives, like attending a classmate’s birthday party. To help these children change the narrative that “something is wrong with them,” it is important that parents provide support at home and scaffolding for essential life skills.
Scaffolding Life Skills with 2e Children
Parents with 2e children often work with educators on developing skills within the context of the classroom or academics but having multiple exceptionalities doesn’t stop once an individual graduates. It is important to note that the area of the brain associated with executive functioning continues to develop through a person’s 20s, sometimes completing at 25 or 30 years old. Just like an athlete’s training is often steady and ongoing, 2e children need chances to exercise these skills to help grow their ability to perform life skills that may not come as easily for them.
Parents may try the following framework to help their child gain scaffolding in key areas:
We’ve all heard it before, but it begins at home. Modeling life skills for your children will help them observe and learn how to interact with the world as they grow. Some parents may feel that modeling the right example for their children means they must be perfect all the time when it is actually quite the opposite! For example, if your 2e child struggles with impulse control, be vocal and share in your own life when you must exercise this skill; you might say to you child, “Wow. That was a really boring lecture. I wanted to get up and leave so bad! But I knew I needed to wait until at least the intermission because the people who put this event on worked very hard and I did not want to disrespect their efforts.”
Of course, modeling doesn’t always lead exactly to “monkey see, monkey do,” and as parents, we may not always be aware of what other behaviors are being modeled for our children. This is why the next step is to engage in a discussion with your child to help promote self-reflection. You might start by helping your child identify what roadblocks come up when they engage in specific tasks? Are there any patterns or strong emotions that come up? For example, if your 2e child is always late to events, you might ask them about how they get ready to go somewhere. Perhaps their biggest hang up is picking out an outfit, so you make a plan to pick out clothes together the night before they are supposed to meet their friend for a movie.
2e students may need a longer runway before “take off.” That is, you may need to help them practice, practice, and practice life skills some more before they are ready. Previewing is a great tool for all learners and can be used to help children with life skills as well. For example, if your 2e child has sensory processing issues that make them especially sensitive to chewing noises, you might preview how to handle a group activity that involves eating. Together, you can brainstorm strategies like using earplugs, stepping outside for quiet time, or breathing exercises that your child will them have in their back pocket when they eventually are around someone who triggers their hearing sensitivity.
At some point, your child will need to put their life skills to the test outside of the home. Parents can help provide safe risk-taking opportunities in the real world to help their children activate their life skills. For example, if your 2e child struggles with decision making, give them a low-stakes chance to practice by having them choose the next restaurant your family dines out to. You can share any allergies other family members have and help them with the trial and error of planning. For example, maybe the restaurant they picked has a 45min wait – that is okay! This is a great learning moment for problem-solving, and you can discuss waiting versus finding a Plan B option. You can also utilize volunteer programs and summer camps as places where your child can practice life skills.
As children are practicing these life skills, parents should be sensitive to the child’s self-esteem and wellbeing. As we discussed above, many tasks that may seem simple are accompanied by negative messages and strong emotions. (An excellent discussion of this can be found in Jessica McCabe’s video “The Wall of Awful.”) Seth Perler shares the idea of the 3:1 Rule – for every constructive criticism, point out three things they did well. It will take effort to produce sincere comments, but this positive feedback gives their brain a little reward, much like a videogame would award points for tasks, which will help them build motivation to tackle other activities outside of their comfort zone.
It is fine to repeat the steps above as many times as needed! It can also be helpful to break things down into smaller chunks, so you are only tackling developing one life skill at a time, rather than overwhelming your child by working on too many things at once. Setting realistic expectations can be difficult for both parents and children, but small incremental progress over time is the name of the game.
We hope this framework is a helpful, informal tool your family can utilize. If you’re looking for additional resources and ideas on how to support your 2e child, check out the following articles below!