By Dr. Michael Postma
The seventh grade classroom hummed as the students worked in small groups to complete the assigned project for Ms. Lindy. Some groups worked quietly while others tested the threshold of Ms. Lindy’s patience with their chatter and occasional laughter. The old chalkboard perched at the front of the class seemed to sag under the burden of the many instructions scratched across its breadth. The hum of florescent bulbs floated down from the ceiling each time the veteran teacher glanced crossly at the noisy perpetrators. Jillian sat quietly with the two members of her group offering only the sporadic suggestion when prompted by her fellow classmates. They didn’t expect much more from her. In fact, behind her back, many of the kids nicknamed Jillian ‘little miss wallflower’ in reference to her inability to carry on a full conversation or even, look them in the eye whenever they tried to talk to her. Sure, she was certainly nice enough. She seemed to have a few close friends whom she clung to whenever possible. They also knew that Jillian was actually quite smart. Just last week one of the more rambunctious boys in the class, Tommy, had grabbed her backpack right off her shoulder and dumped it all over the floor revealing what most would agree was a good report card: mostly A’s and B’s. While Tommy paid the consequences for his inappropriate actions, Jillian kept her composure and, as usual, didn’t react with much emotion. It was a typical day for her at Cherry Grove Middle School.
A few weeks after the Tommy incident, Jillian did not come to school. She missed a couple of days; then a week and eventually two weeks went by with no sign of Jillian. She had fallen into a deep state of depression. Her parents and the school officials were baffled. What could have happened? Had they understood the intricate world that is the education of kids with multiple exceptionalities, they might have recognized and addressed the ominous signs of her downward spiral years in the making.
In the modern era the above scenario is not uncommon. Unfortunately, Jillian is one of thousands of twice-exceptional children across the country, bright and disabled, attempting to navigate the intricate maze of mainstream educational systems that are impaired in their ability to understand or even, meet the academic/social needs of students with dual exceptionalities. Jillian’s story is factual. As a thirteen-year-old girl with undetected Aspergers Syndrome, she struggled to cope with the stresses of both the academic load of seventh grade in addition to her inability to communicate on an acceptable social level with her teachers and peers. Highly intelligent and extremely artistic, Jillian is the poster child representing the conundrum that is the twice exceptional child: She performs at an acceptable level academically but struggles to meet her true potential without proper identification and support from school officials. Her dilemma; one shared by her fellow 2e children, is a general lack of recognition and support sustained by a misinformation (pervasive myths), ill funding, misguided teacher intentions, and perhaps most importantly, a dearth of knowledge within the educational community. While all of these topics deserve recognition, this article will focus on the misunderstandings or myths regarding the twice-exceptional child with the promise to address the other issues at a later date.
Perhaps it is the complex nature of twice-exceptional students that contributes to the general deficiency of knowledge as it relates to their education. Perhaps, it is due to the relative novelty of their existence within the school populace. It may even be, given the financial resources needed to support such kids, a lack of interest. Whatever the reason, there remain a few prevailing myths dogging the acceptance and support of twice-exceptional students nationwide.
It is often said that knowledge is power. I would suggest that the lack thereof might breed ignorance. In this case, it is an ignorance that continues to plague the cause of the twice-exceptional child. Believe it or not, within my twenty year educational career as both a teacher and administrator I have encountered many an educational professional that continues to believe in the idea that it is impossible for one child to have co-existing exceptionalities. This assumption leads to the discussion of myth #1.
Myth #1 CHILDREN CANNOT BE BOTH GIFTED AND DISABLED
The average parent may be shocked to know that the vast majority of pre-service teachers (those beginning their teaching career) have received little, or no training at all, in the field of gifted and talented education. Some may get a snippet. Most receive none. As a pre-service teacher myself some time ago I recall receiving a single one-hour class on gifted education within a full course devoted to special education services. It should not be surprising then that the vast majority of teachers (and administrators) have no knowledge of the twice-exceptional child. Time and again, over the course of my educational career and as a parent of two children with Aspergers, both teachers and administrators have confronted me over this issue. How can that even be possible, they would say. Co-existing exceptionalities? Really?
Needless to say, I am thankful for having been in the position to be able to refute this myth with factual evidence, knowledge, and clinical proof. Unfortunately, many parents of twice-exceptional children have neither the knowledge nor the support, leaving their own children vulnerable to the misdiagnosis by school officials.
The reality is that this is a myth; one that must be refuted on a continual basis by parents, professionals, and knowledgeable school officials using the ever growing quantity of evidence that can be found in professional studies, student case studies, informed professional development for classroom teachers, and perhaps most importantly, the newest brain research on twice-exceptional children which outlines their differentiated brain development process from that of the normal child. This truth can be made self-evident if, in fact, we are willing to advocate ceaselessly for our children.
Myth #2 TWICE-EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN ARE ALL THE SAME
If you have ever attended a support group for parents of twice-exceptional students you will quickly learn to understand that these children are as unique as the prints on their fingers. In my years working within in the field of gifted education, I have yet to encounter a twice-exceptional student who did not possess a unique character. Neither have I encountered a situation in which I could use a similar strategy for addressing the needs of a 2e child. They come in all shapes and sizes. They present themselves in different ways. They have unique gifts and inimitable ways of dealing with their deficits. They struggle to contain their over-excitabilities and use different coping mechanisms to get by. They have varying degrees of both giftedness and exceptionality. They have distinguishable disabilities from Aspergers to Attention Deficit Disorders to Dyslexia (and more). They are distinctively special.
Given all these variances it is essential for both the parents and the school system to develop a singular understanding of each child accompanied by a unique plan of success that addresses both the social and academic components of the school day. Indeed, the collision between the parameters of daily school requirements and the nature of over-excitabilities in twice-exceptional students may set the child on a downward spiral toward emotional impoverishment or, given the proper understanding and accommodation, on the fast track to personal, academic, and social triumph. That is their reality. We must make it ours as well.
Myth #3 TWICE-EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN ARE TOO BRIGHT TO NEED HELP
In the cash strapped world of public education this myth is a popular one. Schools are already struggling to meet the daily demands of the school day and having to address the specialized needs of the twice-exceptional child adds to that growing burden. Furthermore, those supposedly qualified to work with our children, the special education department, have little knowledge or understanding of the twice-exceptional student. Many gifted children with disabilities that actually qualify for special services are subjected to the ‘deficiency model’ of support wherein staff works diligently to erase the deficit rather than support the gifts. This model does not work and only leads to increased frustration for the twice-exceptional child, which in turn may lead to behavioral issue. The fact is that the very opposite is true: teachers must use the child’s intelligence to support the weakness.
All too often, our children are left to cope without any additional support due to their ability to camouflage; to perform; to attain decent grades, all the while suffering in silence, unable to grasp their limitless potential.
This cannot go on. Too many of our children are falling through the cracks of apathy and ignorance. It is time to get involved. Know your child. Know your right to free and appropriate education for all (FAPE). It is the law; one that your school cannot continue to ignore. If needed, your local office of civil rights is always ready and willing to assist. The secret is out: the proper understanding, support, and action from parents, teachers, counselors, and school administration is paramount to the success of the twice-exceptional child as a student and also as a functional person.
Myth #4 TWICE-EXCEPTIONAL STUDENTS ARE JUST LAZY OR HAVE BEHAVIORAL ISSUES
This may just be one of the more damaging myths related to the twice-exceptional student. It is also a myth that could not be further from the truth. As they grow and mature, our children are progressively subjected to the complex reality that they are not quite like those around them. This can unleash conflicting emotions and confusion as they attempt to adapt to a world that does not understand who they are or how they function. In turn, these emotions may lead to an increase in frustration as well as behavioral issues. Within the school system these coping mechanisms are treated using the same set of rules and regulations as the general populace and when the twice-exceptional child reacts outside the norm of acceptable behaviors the labels pour in. When the child refuses to do busy work they are called ‘lazy’. When that same child is frustrated by assignments that do not meet their academic potential, they may act out in the class or in some cases completely withdraw. These children are given the ‘bad apple’ label and are subjugated to corrective measures that neither addresses the behavior nor the underlying issue of misidentification.
The reality is that twice exceptional kids need help. They need school officials that understand and address their needs in a nurturing fashion. If that proper understanding and help is provided, the twice-exceptional child will experience success and even soar beyond all expectations.
Living and working with twice-exceptional students can be exhausting. In a literal sense, it does take a village of informed parents, family, teachers, counselors, and school administrators in collaboration to tend to the challenges of raising and educating our unique children. Myths like those addressed above can cause irreparable damage to that cause and must be refuted at every turn. As previously stated, we now have the knowledge and resources needed to combat this misinformation. It is time to band together and spread the truth about twice-exceptionality so that our children are afforded every chance to succeed; and yes, even astound.
Dr. Michael Postma is a consultant, speaker, and author dedicated to the holistic development of twice-exceptional children and other non-typical learners through his company Agility Educational Solutions. Dr. Postma worked as both a teacher and administrator in the public school system and was the architect of the Minnetonka Navigator Program, a magnet school for highly and profoundly gifted students. He currently lives in Fort Mill, SC and is the father of four children, two of whom have Aspergers.