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Gifted Kids With Learning Problems

The "twice exceptional" child.

When some parents think of high-achieving or gifted students, what comes to mind is a child who shines in every aspect of life — one who can be expected to get straight As in school, have tons of friends and be a star in sports.

The idea is, if you're smart, you're smart, and you should be able to apply your mind and talents to just about anything and do well. Problem is, this idea just isn't true. Yes, some kids and adults do appear to know it all and have it all, but this is really more the exception than the rule.

And when it comes to academic abilities, most children, even those who are very bright or high-achieving, have a definite set of strengths and weaknesses. We all do.

Think of your own school experiences. Were there classes or subjects that were easier for you — where you felt most comfortable and in your element? How do you learn best? Are you someone who needs to read something to understand it, or do you retain information better when you hear a lecture, or see a picture or a visual presentation? How about your child — does he or she breeze through certain subjects and struggle with others?

Some variation in ability, including those involved in doing well at school, is normal — a fact that is consistent with many current views on human intelligence. That is, intelligence should be thought of as a group of distinct abilities, rather than a global or general factor that filters down to everything we do. One child may be great at art and reading, but not so great at math or athletics. Another child may be truly creative in the way he views the world or in the way he approaches problem-solving, but have a hard time getting his ideas down on paper. In other words, intelligence is not one "thing" that we can point to, and just because you excel in one area doesn't mean you'll do as well in others.

For most of us, these differences are no big deal. We get through school and life by working a little harder at the things that don't come as easily, or we learn to compensate for our weaknesses by using our strengths. If we have a hard time understanding the information that we read, we may use pictures or diagrams to help us learn, or we visualize the material in our minds. If our memories are weak, we might learn to take detailed notes, study more often, or develop other strategies to help us recall information. We learn, often unconsciously, to adapt.

For some children, however, the differences between their abilities are so great that it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed in school just by working harder or through compensating. These children have a true learning disability — a persistent and obvious block when it comes to learning certain types of material. For some children, the problem may involve reading; for others, math. Still others may struggle with written or spoken language. These are otherwise capable children who, even though they have had great teachers, help at home, and plenty of opportunities to learn, still don't seem to "get it."

Children identified as having a learning disability (or a "specific learning disability") are otherwise capable students who are not working up to their potential in some area because of an underlying processing problem. These are children who show strengths in some areas and noticeable weaknesses in others. Many gifted children fit this pattern.

An individual IQ test, the kind commonly used to identify giftedness in school-age children, is made up of several separate subtests measuring different areas like memory, visual-spatial skills, and verbal ability. While a child's full scale, or overall, IQ score may fall in the gifted range, the pattern of scores on these individual subtests can vary widely. For example, some children show unusual strength in subtests that measure visual reasoning ability and a relative weakness in those measuring verbal areas. Other children show quite different patterns. In fact, rather than being universally gifted, most children with high IQs show a definite pattern of strengths and weaknesses, or peaks and valleys, when it comes to their cognitive abilities.

Similarly, gifted children can vary greatly in how well they do in school, depending on the subject area being considered. While they shine in some academic areas, they may struggle in others. Some of these children will be able to compensate, using their underlying strengths to make up for their weaknesses. But sometimes the process deficit — memory, attention, expressive language, or some other problem — is so severe that the child is not able to compensate. Children like these are sometimes called "Twice Exceptional," or "2E" kids.

What to Look For

Some signs that your otherwise bright or gifted child may have a specific learning disability are:

  • He appears to be trying his best but is still struggling in one or more subject areas despite having a skilled teacher and support from you at home.
  • He shows a big difference in performance between subject areas — for instance, consistently doing well in reading and writing, but poorly in math.
  • There are obvious signs of problems with cognitive skills like attention, memory, understanding or using language, or following directions, and these problems appear to be getting in the way of school success.
  • He forgets what he has learned from one day to the next.
  • His teachers are concerned about his lack of progress in comparison to other children of the same age or grade or feel that he is working below his ability.

What to Do

If your child is struggling in school and shows one or more of these signs, it's time to call an individual meeting with the teacher to discuss your concerns. Often, parents and teachers can find solutions together, without having to look any further. A modification of homework assignments, extra tutoring, or a change in ability groups within the classroom are some common solutions.

If you've already tried accommodations suggested by your child's teacher without success, go to the next step and ask for a "student study team" (SST) meeting (sometimes called a student intervention team (SIT) meeting, a grade-level intervention team (GLIT) meeting, a brainstorming meeting, or some similar term). Schools typically hold these meetings when interventions at the classroom level are not working and there is a need to get other opinions about how to best support a child.

The student study team is often made up of the child's general education teacher, other experienced teachers at the school, the principal, and sometimes a special education teacher or school psychologist. The team will listen to your concerns, discuss your child's strengths and weaknesses, and come up with recommendations that can be put into action by the general education teacher. These recommendations might include additional services during or after school, the use of supplementary learning materials, a change in the way your child is grouped for instruction or suggestions about how you might provide extra support at home.

The kinds of remedial programs available to general education students vary from district to district, and often from school to school. Some schools have a general education learning specialist or special programs and materials available for students who need extra support. Some allow general education students to receive informal or "school-based" support from special education teachers on campus. In these programs, students who need extra help are grouped with formally identified special education students for instruction in the areas where support is needed. The instruction may take place in the general education classroom, or children may be pulled out once or more a week for instruction in a special "resource" room.

If your child is still not succeeding despite the best efforts of the teacher and the school team, and you or your child's teacher still believes that a learning disability may be present, then consider requesting testing for formal special education services. By law, schools have a certain number of days after receiving a parent's written request for testing to respond and develop an "assessment plan," outlining what types of tests will be used.

The type of tests chosen will likely be determined by a review of your child's records, observation, teacher comments, and the information you provide. If your child is being tested, be sure to let the school psychologist know what you think the underlying problem might be. For example, if your child is showing signs of a memory problem or a short attention span, speak up now. The psychologist may only test in areas where a deficit is suspected, and your insight will help identify where that problem may lie.

Once the assessment plan is signed and received by the school district, the assessment team (which usually includes a school psychologist, a special education teacher, and sometimes other specialists depending on the child's needs) has a limited amount of time — typically about two months — to complete the testing and hold a meeting with the parent to go over the results and determine whether the child qualifies for special education services.

Things to Know

Keep in mind that when seeking help or services for your twice-exceptional child, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the basics of special education law and procedures.

Special education law is often complex, and there is some variation in the way states and individual districts run their programs. Special education terminology and acronyms can also vary from district to district.

As a parent, your most basic right is that you have input into any decision that is made regarding your child's education. You are considered an important member of the school team, not just an observer. The school team needs your input in order to do a thorough evaluation and be a better advocate for your child.

For a more complete review of special education law and services in your state, go to your State Department of Education web site and follow the links to the area dealing with special education — or do a web search using the search terms "special education law" and the name of your state. To be better informed, you might also consider reading a parent-friendly book on navigating special education issues. Two such books I recommend are The Complete IEP Guide, published by NOLO, and Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, published by Harbor House Law Press (Both available for around 20 dollars on Amazon or through other online booksellers.)

Quick Points

While you're getting up to speed on special education law and procedures in your state, here are some quick points to keep in mind if you think you may have a twice-exceptional child:

  • Some differences in learning ability are normal. Most children have a definite set of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to how well they do in school.
  • While some children can overcome their weaknesses by working harder or through compensating, others are not able to do so. These children may have a true learning disability — a persistent and obvious block when it comes to learning certain types of material.
  • In many cases, there is no clear or observable cause for such problems. However, many experts believe that learning disabilities are caused by an underlying difference in the way the brain processes information.
  • If your child is showing signs of a learning problem, meet with his or her teacher or with the school's intervention team to come up with possible solutions. Many schools have general education interventions in place that may help your child succeed.
  • If general education interventions are not working, consider requesting that your child be assessed for special education services. Special education services are federally mandated programs to help children who need special support or instruction because of an underlying disability. The largest single category of students who receive these services is that which is identified as learning disabled. Most of these students score in at least the average range on an IQ test, and many score in the above-average, or even the gifted range.
  • States and districts differ in how they identify students who qualify for special education services under a learning disability condition. One common method that often incorporates IQ testing is called the "significant discrepancy model." Here, a child's IQ score is compared to the child's scores on academic achievement tests. If the child's academic scores in one or more areas are much lower, then a significant discrepancy between the scores is found to exist. A school psychologist then administers other tests to determine whether a "psychological process deficit" is present. Some common psychological process deficits involve memory, attention, visual processing, auditory processing, and language deficits. If the assessment team finds that the child's discrepancy is caused by a process deficit, then it may be determined that the child has a learning disability and qualifies for special education services. The three basic types of special education services are:
    • Resource Specialist Program (RSP). Children receiving services through an RSP program are still enrolled as full-time members of a general education classroom and receive part-time support from a resource teacher. These children may be pulled out of their general education class one or more times a week for instruction in the resource room, or the RSP teacher may go into the general education class to work with groups of students who need extra support. Most 2E kids receive services through this model.
    • Special Day Class (SDC). Children in a special day class are not enrolled in a general education classroom. They need a more intense level of support, and so they spend most of their day with a special education teacher, although they may be "mainstreamed" back into a general education class for nonacademic subjects or for subjects where they need less support.
    • Related Services. Related services providers are specialists who work with students in specific areas of need that can't be fully met in an RSP or SDC setting. Types of related services support include speech and language therapy, adaptive physical education, nursing services, counseling, transportation, physical therapy, vision services, and audiological services.
  • Children who receive special education services must be served in the "least restrictive environment," or "LRE." This is often interpreted as meaning that special education students must spend as much time in the general education program as possible while still getting their needs met. For this reason, most children who are initially tested and found to have a learning disability will be offered services through a resource specialist program and perhaps through a related services provider, rather than being placed in a special day class. A special day class placement is usually made only when the child cannot make adequate progress even with RSP and related services support.
  • Children who score in the gifted range on an IQ test can also be identified as learning disabled — particularly when the significant discrepancy model is used. Some of these children get their needs met through flexible and creative programming in the general education setting, while others may receive formal support from a special education teacher.

Are Learning Disabilities Permanent?

Many twice-exceptional kids will continue to struggle with certain aspects of learning throughout the lifespan.

A child with poor short-term memory or with problems in attention may have the same traits as a college student, or as a working adult. These children may continue to struggle with learning new concepts, solving complex mental problems, or using language fluently throughout their lives.

However, others will appear to "outgrow" their learning problems. Something seems to change, and what once was a struggle starts to come more easily. I've seen this myself on many occasions. Children who are several years below grade level in reading, for example, may start to catch up and begin reading fluently by the time they reach adolescence. Children with a severe language disorder begin to speak and understand as well as their age peers. Sometimes the changes are dramatic — like a light was suddenly turned on — and sometimes more gradual and subtle.
The reasons for such improvements may differ from one child to the next. However, some possible explanations include:

  • The child may have learned to better compensate for his disability — to use his strengths to make up for his weaknesses. Those with receptive language deficits or short-term auditory memory problems, for example, may have learned to use visualization strategies, or become skilled at note-taking and other studying techniques that help them bypass their auditory weakness. Sometimes these compensation strategies are explicitly taught to the child by a knowledgeable teacher; other times, the child learns to compensate on his own, through a natural process of trial and error.
  • The child's brain has matured or developed in such a way that whatever "circuits" weren't previously connected quite right have now come together and begin to work. Some children's development seems to progress at a continuous and predictable rate, while others develop in sudden starts and stops — like a car with a manual transmission being driven by a beginning driver's ed student. It is also true that some children's neural systems develop less uniformly than others, with different areas of the brain blossoming at different times. These children may be very different from one year to the next, depending on how their brains have physically matured.
  • The child has benefited from some special technique or curriculum that was not available earlier. For instance, some children learn better in classrooms where techniques like multi-sensory instruction or cooperative learning are emphasized. Similarly, some children will learn more efficiently with a phonics-based reading program, and others with a whole-language approach.
  • The child never had a true learning disability in the first place. There is often a lot of subjectivity in determining who meets the criteria for a learning disability, and even though the evaluation team is supposed to rule out other reasons for a child's learning problem, this is often difficult — if not impossible — to do. Sometimes the "learning disability" is instead more the result of factors like poor school attendance or a lack of good instruction. Once the child is enrolled in a strong academic program and begins attending school regularly, his academic problems are quickly resolved. Children with learning problems may also show great improvement if what was thought to be a learning disability was actually an undiagnosed hearing or vision problem that is eventually corrected, or an underlying emotional problem caused by a situational stressor, such as a divorce, that is later resolved.
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