Many educators understand the special needs of gifted students and differently abled students. However, a surprising percentage of students fall into both categories: those who have special needs not only because they are different but also because they are gifted. Intellectually gifted children who are also facing neurological challenges are “twice exceptional” (or “2e”) students. At least six percent of all differently abled students also possess high academic aptitude. However, twice exceptionalism is difficult because it often goes unnoticed. The challenges of being differently abled can often mask 2e students’ exceptional intellectual abilities. As a result, 2e students present a unique challenge for educators, as they require special identification and targeted individualized support.
These unique students are at risk for not achieving their potential. They are some of the most frequently under-identified populations in schools, and they often only receive services for one exceptionality or the other. When either 2e students’ intellectual gifts or challenges go unaddressed, the students can experience high levels of anxiety, stress, extreme sadness and feelings of underachievement. This can greatly affect their abilities to perform academically. Research shows 2e students with no support to mitigate course failures in high school often leave school altogether when they cannot make up failed coursework in summer courses. Those who remain are still unsupported, which often leaves them unprepared for higher education and career pursuits.
2e students often exhibit a variety of academic strengths, each individual to the child. For example, some students may exhibit rapid learning, strong memories or large vocabularies, while others might exhibit creative and original thought, curiosity and listening comprehension. However, 2e students also tend to struggle with social interactions, exhibit inconsistent performance or have difficulties with organization and initiative. The difficulty in identifying 2e students lies in these characteristics that might appear incompatible with each other. However, identification is imperative to understanding and supporting 2e students.
Educational diagnosticians identify 2e students with comprehensive, individualized evaluations that differentiate their individual strengths and weaknesses (rather than in comparison to the strengths and weaknesses of other children). Scholars suggest a variety of developmental, performance, psychometric, and sociometric measures accompany achievement and ability tests. As diagnosticians work through these different measures, they can develop a clearer picture of each student’s coexisting exceptionalities and create a plan that builds on the child’s academic strengths while supporting their deficits.
Strategies for Support
2e students need support from specialized programs and services that provide for both giftedness and being differently abled. Educational scholars identify five important strategies that are most immediately employable for educators to best support their 2e students:
- Emphasize their strengths first. Development of talent is the most crucial component of 2e education, so identifying 2e students’ strengths and giving them multiple options to employ those strengths can help them develop their natural talents.
- Provide instruction that addresses their special needs second. 2e students still need special support, but research shows that prioritizing those needs can leave them feeling frustrated and cause them to give up.
- Support their social-emotional needs. Since 2e students often suffer from anxiety and feelings of underperformance, educators can support their social-emotional needs with therapeutic interventions and specialized instruction.
- Recognize the difference between 2e students and gifted underachievers. Educators should understand their students’ exceptionalities in order to differentiate between 2e students and gifted underachievers.
- Require ongoing communication and collaboration. The laws and federal mandates concerning 2e students are still underdeveloped, so these students don’t receive the same support available to traditional special needs students. Therefore, educators themselves must develop support networks.
Educators who understand their students’ patterns of strengths and weaknesses can address both of those exceptionalities and maximize each student’s potential. When identification and services account for 2e students’ giftedness and different abilities, these students are more likely to excel both academically and personally.