You know your child is bright, but why is he or she still struggling with certain academic tasks? Maybe your child is a great reader but can’t seem to grasp the main idea of a passage or answer simple comprehension questions. Perhaps your child has incredible ideas but can’t seem to express them in writing. It’s possible your child is twice-exceptional (2e), or gifted with a disability. In this case, your gifted child might also have a specific learning disability (SLD). Gifted students with learning disabilities are extremely complicated to identify. In public schools, there are eight areas (listed in the SLD hyperlink above) in which a student can qualify as learning disabled in the academic areas of reading, writing, and math.
Your child’s school may be using one of two different frameworks, the discrepancy model or the Response to Intervention (RtI) model, to identify children under the SLD category for special education services. They could also be using a combination of the two. Historically, a learning disability has been identified by comparing a child’s academic achievement to his or her intellectual ability, or an IQ score. This is known as the discrepancy model. In the past 10 years, many public schools have slowly shifted toward the implementation of Response to Intervention (RtI) as a replacement to the discrepancy model for identifying students with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, research shows that the implementation of RtI as a method for identifying learning disabilities means twice-exceptional students are often missed.
The RtI framework promotes early identification of struggling students as well as early evidence-based intervention coupled with the collection of progress-monitoring data. This allows educators to make informed decisions regarding educational programing for such students. The problem is that gifted students with learning disabilities often look average in the classroom and are often not flagged as “struggling,” even though their academic performance may not match their exceptional intellectual potential.
With no universally used definition of giftedness across schools and no federal mandates to provide gifted programming, uncovering twice-exceptionality can be a difficult task. To add to the confusion, there’s also no clear-cut definition of how learning disabilities manifest in gifted students. Giftedness could mask a learning disability and vice versa. So what can you do as a parent if you suspect your child might fall in this unique subgroup?
The good news is that there is a lot that can be done in the general education classroom, and talking with your child’s classroom teacher is often a great place to start. Most schools rely on universal screening measures to take the “academic temperature” of their student population. Gifted students will mostly likely be in the group who are performing on grade level or even above, so you should ask your child’s teacher if she or he has access to above grade level screening instruments. These screening instruments, called curriculum probes, are designed to measure present levels and track progress of specific and discrete skills (e.g., simple math calculation versus the collective skills needed to problem-solve a math word problem). The use of such curriculum probes will help your child’s teacher to better notice those students with a specific skill deficit.
Of course, you can always talk with your school psychologist about conducting a comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation. Be sure to communicate your concerns and suspicions regarding twice-exceptionality. With giftedness and SLD on the radar, the school psychologist will most likely take a more investigative approach by closely examining your child’s educational record. Some research indicates that gifted students with learning disabilities tend to show an achievement decline over time due to higher academic demand and the increase in multi-step tasks, thus a more longitudinal examination of your child’s classroom performance would be useful. Additionally, this research shows that gifted students with learning disabilities tend to have strong verbal abilities but are sometimes weaker in nonverbal, spatial, processing speed, and working memory ability areas. These ability areas should be compared against academic achievement measures and classroom performance.
Although there are certainly obstacles for your 2e child, with appropriate curriculum modifications and academic interventions, your child will continue to experience academic success. Try to empathize with your child, and understand that school can be frustrating when he or she has amazing ideas or outstanding problem-solving ability but can’t seem to apply them in order to earn that A. According to the previously mentioned research article, gifted students with SLD are less likely than gifted students without SLD to utilize and apply metacognitive strategies, or the process of thinking about how to think. With some direct and explicit instruction on how to apply problem-solving skills, 2e students can develop the skill set to compensate for their specific learning disability.
Additional Resources and Further Reading
Crepeau-Hobson, F. & Bianco, M. (2011). Identification of gifted students with learning disabilities in a response-to-intervention era. Psychology in the Schools, 48(2), 102-109.
Nicpon, M.F., Allmon, A., Sieck, B., & Stinson, R.D. (2011). Empirical investigation of twice-exceptionality: Where have we been and where are we going? Gifted Child Quarterly, 55(1), 3-17.