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Supporting the academic success of twice-exceptional learners

Rhonda L. Stern CEO, Educational Enrichment Consulting Educational Enrichment Consulting
Supporting the academic success of twice-exceptional learners

One of the most complicated issues in gifted education is the identification of gifted students, who also have a learning disability. These students, known as twice-exceptional (2e), have the ability to mask their learning disability by using compensation strategies. Not surprisingly, the disability also masks their gifted potential, so these students are typically overlooked as gifted by school staff. To most teachers, gifted students with learning disabilities appear very average, so no interventions are developed to foster their giftedness. Likewise, no strategies are devised for compensating for the disability.

As a result, it is up to parents to provide key information when it comes to identifying twice-exceptional children. And parents must carefully monitor their child’s education to ensure that teachers value student strengths and assist them in overcoming academic challenges.


Do pay attention to learning strengths and weaknesses

Stan was a first grade student when his parents became concerned about the disparity between his thinking and reading skills. The more his parents read to him and encouraged him to read, the angrier he became. Stan’s parents were perplexed. How could a child who questioned everything and remembered every detail be so blocked when it came to reading? Even more frustrating was the fact that Stan’s older sister started to read when she was 3 years old. Testing revealed that Stan’s verbal reasoning skills and memory were exceptional. But the testing also corroborated his parents’ biggest fears: When it came to reading, he was stuck. He had very limited sound syllable recognition and could only identify a few letters by sight.

Because Stan’s parents suspected a problem, he was quickly tested by an expert. This testing revealed that he was gifted--and also had a learning disability.

Do request a full battery of tests on your child

The testing should be designed to determine a particular student’s strengths and weaknesses. Examiners should consider any reason for discrepancies between achievement and ability. Obviously, parents should ask for testing as soon as they suspect a problem.

Currently, schools have the option to attempt to remedy the problem with interventions before testing. However, encourage the school to test before designing interventions. Or, as in Stan’s case, turn to an expert for testing. The objective is to compare intellect (IQ or other intelligence test) with achievement (standardized testing). Students with high IQs who underachieve are likely to have a learning disability or related issue, which is impairing their achievement.

Do advocate for equal attention to strengths and weaknesses

In a perfect world, teachers would nurture strengths, as well as remediate deficits. But that does not always happen. In most states, gifted students with learning disabilities receive an IEP that sets forth benchmarks and goals for dealing with the disability. Rarely are student strengths referenced on the IEP. A small number of districts have created a GEP (Gifted Education Plan), which outlines how potential will be developed. If a student receives both, perhaps equal time will be devoted to strengths and weaknesses. More likely than not, however, teachers may pursue a deficit mindset and not focus on the students’ learning strengths. It is imperative that parents watch out for this since twice-exceptional students can become increasingly frustrated and may even check out of school if they are not being challenged.

Do teach your child self-advocacy

It is not easy to balance gifts and disabilities. Parents must be extremely supportive of their children and model persistence and resilience--especially when a particular teacher does not fully understand the 2e student.

When your children understand the challenges of their situation—their gifts and disability--they can take positive steps to obtain academic challenges at school. When teaching advocacy skills, make sure your children listen carefully and remain respectful at all times, even when frustrated by a teacher’s effort to redo work. It is okay, even at a young age, to politely remind the teacher that it is time to work on enrichment, meet with the gifted teacher or collaborate with intellectual peers. Research shows that the most successful 2e individuals are those who are able to appreciate their learning strengths, as well as understand the nature of their disability.


Do not leave everything to the experts

Parents should be fully aware of the testing process and the data obtained. Stan was given the WISC IV, as well as reading and math inventories. The test results revealed that Stan was gifted and also had a learning disability. Stan’s parents were astute to notice this discrepancy and conversant enough to convey the data to his teachers. Often, parents do not suspect a disability until there is a dip in scores on academic achievement tests--typically in late elementary school, but sometimes as late as high school. Many gifted students are able to mask their disability for a number of years. Sadly, years are lost teaching to the students’ strengths and remediating the disability. But it is never too late to act.

Do not shy away from educating your child’s teacher about learning style

At first, a teacher may see a child’s critical thinking or keen sense of humor, but may be distracted by messy work. Instead of realizing she is dealing with a 2e student, she may view your child as lazy. Consequently, it is vital to talk with the teacher about how your child learns. Typically, 2e students grasp broad concepts. They learn better when new ideas are connected with past learning. They thrive on opportunities for creativity, inquiry and leadership. It is best to set long-term and short-term goals. Twice-exceptional students do best in a classroom that is supportive of diversity, with instruction geared to different learning styles. Be sure to model how technology can be used to support your child.

Do not overlook the need to support your student outside of school

Sometimes, the hidden issue that is interfering with a student’s ability to actualize his/her potential does not even rise to the level of a disability. It is often called a learning issue. This means that the student may not get services and may not receive extra time on standardized tests or other accommodations. Parents must manage this situation carefully by supporting the student at home or turning to private tutoring.

Do not expect the learning issue or disability to go away

When it comes to learning issues and learning disabilities, parents should be aware that the learning disability or issue will not fade away over time. Test results will be uneven at times, and students will get better at coping with learning issues and disabilities. They will even master compensation strategies. Challenged readers can turn to books on tape. Students who struggle with math may use a calculator. Most importantly, they will draw satisfaction from mastering challenges in their learning strengths. It is important to encourage your child to focus on his/her potential.

Do not overcompensate for your child

It is extremely difficult to watch your child struggle. Part of understanding how to balance strengths and weaknesses is working through learning challenges. Help your student identify peers and teachers who are supportive. Art, music and P.E. are typically great outlets for twice-exceptional students, especially those who are global thinkers. If your child becomes frustrated at school, it is most likely time to step in with support. However, be careful because stepping in too early will promote learned helplessness.

Keep in mind that life is a bit tougher for 2e children, but with support and experience, they can find success. Once your children master a challenge, they will derive great satisfaction, which is a huge boost to one’s self-esteem.

Jumping cartoon

Twice-exceptional students can pose numerous challenges to teachers. As a result, parents must monitor their child’s education carefully, so that teachers value student strengths. Over time, these students will learn to compensate for their deficits, while enjoying many academic challenges.

More expert advice about Raising Gifted Kids

Photo Credits: © michaeljung -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Rhonda L. SternCEO, Educational Enrichment Consulting

Rhonda Stern is a graduate of Northwestern Law School and a certified mediator. Ms. Stern has been in the field of gifted and talented education for since 2000. She is currently enrolled at DePaul University, seeking a doctorate in Curriculum...

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