Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

A Different "Twice-Exceptional" Learner

As many as 1 in 3 may be strong right-hemispheric processors.

I am standing in a small closet off the school's main office. It is a cramped space. No less than six fire proof file cabinets line the wall behind me as I pore over the contents of a folder laid out on a small counter in front of me. There is no space for anyone to step behind me or around me because the distance from my back to the file cabinet bank can't be more than eighteen inches. I would leave the room and take the file with me but this is a child's cumulative folder and doing so would break protocol. This manila file folder represents the complete documentation of his experiences thus far in school. The child whose folder I am examining is in fourth grade now, so it's not very thick. Give it a few more years, it'll will likely double in size.

This child has transferred to our school division from a private school in another state. His parents have asked to have him screened for gifted services in our county, which is the reason I have pulled this child's folder now. I am looking through it to see if there is any data in it that we can use to evaluate his candidacy.

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I sigh. There's not much here. There are a collection of report card summaries, a few scores from his school's third grade "end of course" tests, and a paper clipped pack of papers that reflect his health screening information and proof of residency. All of this is pretty standard stuff but I can't really use any of that for my purposes here. I start to collect all of the folder's materials again, being careful to keep its contents in the same precise original order and, as I do so, an odd phrase on a seemingly random piece of paper grabs my attention. I pull it from the mix. It is a photocopied letter entitled: "Year End Summary" written by his third grade teacher, and it offers her reflections on the child. I suspect this narrative report is one of many that his teacher wrote last year for all the students in her third grade class. Intrigued by such an unusual find in what should otherwise be a pretty dry and sterile folder, I continue to read. A few lines leap out at me. *

"M__ is a talented child... excels at conceptualizing mathematical concepts, enjoys experiments and hands-on investigations... demonstrates a strong ability at seeing patterns,... receives compliments from his art teacher for his ability to spatial-visual skills.... However, at times his behavior is a distraction to himself and others... his attention wanders in class... has difficulty following oral directions... he's a bundle of energy most of the time, preferring to stand at his desk when working..."

I continue to examine the report, which goes on for more than a typed page, and as I do, it dawns on me that I am reading what could easily be the case-study of a similar child I recently heard about in a session at our state's gifted conference. The signs are all there: the distractibility coupled with a strong intuitive nature; the physical impulsivity paired with a highly creative mind; other elements jump out as well. It occurs to me that some might have this child screened for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After all, what I think I am seeing now very often is confused with that issue.

But having recently learned about children who are strong right-hemispheric processors, I wonder if this is what I'm seeing described on the report before me.

***
A few months ago, I wrote a pair of articles about the "Double-Edged Sword of Giftedness." (You can find the first of those HERE.) I was surprised and gratified that they received as much notice as they did, particularly in light of the fact that what I wrote allowed other readers the opportunity to reflect and examine their own experiences in gifted education. A comment that was shared quite often was that some of the affective traits of being gifted reminded readers of the concept of "twice exceptional" giftedness-namely that gifted individuals, with their high potential and abilities, can nevertheless still themselves have certain learning issues that throw up obstacles to the learning process. Often, readers mentioned disorders in the autism or attention deficit spectrums.

In fact, of course, there are many different "learning issues"-vague as that phrase may be-that can present problems for the gifted learner (or any learner, really). However, were it not for the work of Dr. Linda Silverman, my own concept of "twice exceptional" giftedness would have remained unnecessarily limited. Dr. Silverman has pioneered work on the traits of those who are strong right-hemispheric processors.

First, some basics on the two hemispheres of the brain. The old concept that the "left brain is logical" while the "right brain is creative" is, as it turns out, only partially true. Current understandings of the brain have revised this concept to reflect more accurately what happens when one engages in right or left hemispheric processing. Here, in a nut shell, is what scientists are comfortable now stating.

The left hemisphere is more frequently used for auditory and sequential processing. The left hemisphere does the verbal "stuff" and likes working with sequences. It is the seat of critical thinking in that it likes structure. Scientists know that as a person first learns how to play an instrument (or speak a foreign language), it is mainly the left hemisphere that is utilized. The player must first comprehend, for example, that this piano key matches up with that note on the paper; that this note lasts for that many beats. In the beginning, the process of learning that first piano composition is mostly about getting the notes of the music correct and in the right order. Similarly, the left hemisphere is used when the beginning language student attempts to form sentences. He tries to get the individual words right in the correct order so that basic meaning can be expressed. Or, alternatively, he tries to translate each spoken word so that he can understand what the speaker is saying. The left hemisphere sees the trees, not the forest.

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is used for visual and pattern recognition. It cares less for the sequence and structure but is more adept at seeing the big picture. Where the left hemisphere focuses on the pieces, the right sees the larger whole. So, for example, as that player becomes more adept at mastering the piano, the skill of matching up keys to notes on the page becomes less cumbersome. At this point, the player can begin to interpret the music, to add feeling here and there. The adept player can visualize what story the composition as a whole is trying to tell. All of this is right-hemispheric in nature, not left. In this sense, we may argue that right hemisphere is the proper seat of creativity. The experienced foreign language student spends less time analyzing and decoding each word. He hears and understands almost simultaneously and can intuit new levels of meaning by also seeing what pieces of information the speaker's tone of voice and body language may carry. The right hemisphere reacts more fluidly and spontaneously. The right hemisphere sees the forest and different paths through that forest of trees.


Understanding the unique strengths of each hemisphere becomes especially important when we look at the behavioral characteristics associated with learners who are strongly prefer right -hemispheric processing--and, according to Dr. Silverman's work, as many as 1 in 3 of us may be precisely that kind of learner.

What follows next then, adapted from her book Upside-Down Brilliance, are some of the behavioral traits typically associated with students who are dominant right-hemispheric processors:

- Appear to daydream
- Talk in phrases or leave words out
- Use fingers to count
- Draw pictures on corners of papers
- Have difficulty following directions
- Make faces/use non-verbal communication
- Display fine motor problems when asked to conform, even though they may not have such issues when doing self-selected tasks of interest
- Able to recall places and events, but not names, letters, and numbers
- May have difficulty in phonics or decoding
- Are on the move most of the time
- Like to work part-way out of the seat or standing up
- May exaggerate when retelling an event
- Often have messy desks
- Have difficulty completing work on time
- Like to take things apart and/or put together
- Try to change the world to meet own needs
- Like to touch, trip, and poke when relating to peers
- Get lost coming to the classroom
- Display impulsive behaviors
- May forget what they left to do
- May be good in athletics but poor in English
- May give right answers but are unable to explain where the answer came from
- May give responses unrelated to discussion

Of course the impact of these traits when one considers what a "typical" classroom looks like can be tremendous. Such unique individuals are over-looked or misunderstood quite often. Many times their behaviors lead others to misdiagnose or misinterpret the real root of the issues. While the left-hemispheric processor finds the school environment to be fairly friendly and accommodating, the right-hemispheric processor is frustrated by its very structure. The left hemispheric student likes school; the right? Well, he hangs around school... and may secretly hope that one day he eventually catches on.

***
Clearly, it's a dicey task to define or judge anyone by his behaviors alone, and as I put away this fourth grade student's folder, I am reminded of this fact. Dr. Silverman's work in this realm of what could certainly qualify as another instance of the "twice exceptional" learner drives this fact home.

I replace the folder in the file cabinet and walk from the small room. It's time to meet this child.

Reference: Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner by Linda Silverman, Deleon Publishing, 2002.

*Author's Note: It should be noted that the above example regarding the student's cumulative folder is merely illustrative. For the sake of preserving confidentiality, no real, actual-life contents of any student's cumulative folder were revealed in this article.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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