K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Jesse’s mother was at her wits’ end. She knew her second-grade son was having difficulties in school — his teacher had suggested that she get Jesse tested in reading because he was at least a grade level behind the class. He struggled over words that his little sister was already reading with ease, and he had trouble copying math problems off of the board and writing columns of numbers when practicing addition. Every teacher since kindergarten had offered to place Jesse in remedial classes, and the message his mother was receiving was that Johnny would spend his school years as a poor student.

But then Jesse’s mom would watch him with his building blocks — his favorite toy — and she could not believe this was the same boy who was failing math and reading. He built complex structures and designed intricate cities, creating stories about them that were incredibly sophisticated. His creativity did not end with the blocks; Jesse was able to make three-dimensional sculptures out of clay that were better than middle-school children could do. How could such a skilled child be having so much trouble in school?

Jesse is an example of a twice-exceptional child — a child with both gifts and a learning disability. Twice-exceptional children face many challenges academically. On one hand, they have difficulties in the classroom, perhaps in one subject, such as math, or across the board. On the other, they have gifts that may make them exceptional readers, artists, or critical thinkers. Depending on whether the disability or the gift is most prevalent, the child may be placed in gifted classes but not make progress or be referred for special services but have his talents ignored.1 Gifts and disabilities come in all combinations; Jesse, for example, has dyslexia but is spatially gifted, while another student may have ADHD but be able to solve complex math problems several grade levels above his age group.

Twice-exceptional children often find school frustrating and suffer from low self-esteem when beginning school. They may have difficulty with social skills and not feels as though they fit in with their peers.2 Three types of twice-exceptional students have been categorized:

  1. Students who are identified as gifted but also have subtle learning disabilities. For example, a student may use a large vocabulary but have very poor spelling. This category of student tends to perform on grade level.
  2. Students whose abilities and disabilities mask each other and are thus unidentified. Their superior intelligence, for example, may hide trouble working with numbers. These students often perform at or slightly below their grade level.
  3. Students identified as both gifted and having learning disabilities. These students stand out in a classroom because they are obviously bright but frustrated with school activities and thus tend to act out.

Twice-exceptional children feel trapped between two worlds: Many have the internal motivation and strong belief in their abilities of gifted children, yet the lack of confidence in certain areas common with children with learning disabilities.3 They tend to have high expectations of themselves that are continually frustrated by their disabilities, and thus may develop an overdeveloped fear of failure. Twice-exceptional students also experience the paradox of feeling bored and confused at the same time, which leads to increased frustration and sometimes depression.4

The self-concept of twice-exceptional children is in particular danger due to their condition. Even if these children are achieving at grade level in school, their sense that they should be able to do better may contribute to a lower self esteem than would be seen in a typical student.5 Depending on where the disabilities and gifts lie, teachers and parents may be sending mixed messages as to the student’s disabilities, and twice-exceptional children can have a hard time sorting out different expectations. Socially, studies have shown twice-exceptional students to feel more isolated than either their gifted peers or those with learning disabilities. While gifted children are often popular, children with learning disabilities are less likely to be leaders and face more rejection than typical children.6 They struggle with feelings of isolation and difference, and need more special attention than other children. However, when they come to terms with both their giftedness and their learning disability, they can easily build self-concept in both academic and social areas.

Identifying the twice-exceptional student

Identifying twice-exceptional children is more of a challenge than identifying students with one exceptionality, especially in the occurrence of children whose abilities and disabilities mask one another. These students may be performing on grade level, so they do not raise a red flag to their teachers. Often the parents of these children are the first to notice their gifts, as when twice-exceptional students are allowed to extend effort into their interests, they learn successfully.

Twice-exceptional students may exhibit some or all of the following characteristics:7

  • discrepancy between verbal and written work
  • creativity
  • excellence on tasks requiring abstract concepts
  • difficulty with tasks requiring memorization
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • acting-out behavior
  • poor organization
  • poor motivation
  • active problem solving
  • analytic thinking
  • strong task commitment when interested
  • withdrawal/shyness

Although standardized tests are the most popular mode of identifying giftedness, they usually will not succeed in identifying the twice-exceptional child. Instead, teachers and specialists should use holistic methods for classifying a child as twice-exceptional. Coleman suggests keeping journal notes and records of how a student performs in class, looking for often “hidden” talents in verbal expression, creativity, and critical thinking.8 Morrison and Rizza recommend looking for discrepancies in study skills and grades, as well as between classroom performance and standardized test scores.9 Additionally, the Response to Intervention (RTI) model is very helpful in identifying a twice-exceptional student. RTI provides teachers with a framework to individually assess students and discuss them in teams so that gifts and abilities are not overlooked.

Teaching twice-exceptional students

Addressing the needs of twice-exceptional students involves working with both the gifts and the disabilities. This can pose a challenge for teachers, because often twice-exceptional students spend the majority of their time in general, or even gifted, classrooms, where teachers are not used to assisting students with disabilities. However, there are many strategies that teachers can use to approach the twice-exceptional student.

  • Allow students to explore their interests. Experts agree that twice-exceptional students need the opportunity to learn by exploring what they are interested in.10 They need choices for finding the means by which they learn and also how they will exhibit skills. If a child is particularly interested in dinosaurs, he will be more willing to work on his reading disability if he is given a book on fossils.
  • Vary your teaching style to involve more visual and kinesthetic formats. Twice-exceptional students may have disabilities that are better suited to learning through doing.11 So rather than giving a lecture on the periodic table, teachers may offer twice-exceptional children chemistry building block sets that let them construct different elements.
  • Provide opportunities for students to shine. Students whose gifts are hidden by disabilities need the chance to show their capabilities to feel confident.12 If a twice-exceptional student has a strong background in environmental science, activate her prior knowledge by asking her to give a presentation in class.
  • Teach concepts before teaching content. Twice-exceptional students may show difficulty memorizing details but are exceptional at grasping the big picture.13 Before having a twice-exceptional child read a novel, showing him a video about the plot may help him absorb the content better.
  • Approach teaching skills in multiple ways. Teachers may find it difficult to define the needs of twice-exceptional students because they learn in many different ways. Often, there is more than one strategy for solving math problems or approaching skill sets; teach several different ways to the solution.14
  • Immerse all the senses in the learning activity. Children with reading and memorizing disabilities may learn better through music, rhymes, or other mnemonics.15 A child with ADHD may do better with a lesson that asks her to move around rather than sitting still in her seat.
  • Use compacting to accommodate the student’s gifts. Compacting is the process of allowing students to demonstrate their mastery of curriculum before the unit begins.16 Rather than sticking to the pacing guide for students who have shown obvious ability, let them take the assessment ahead of time and only address the gaps in their understanding.
  • Implement complexity in lessons while also scaffolding your teaching. Twice-exceptional students’ giftedness must be addressed through increased complexity of concepts, but that does not mean overwhelming or overworking students.17 Ask students to explore complicated concepts by providing them a road map to get there.
  • Provide students with organizational skills. While a child who is gifted in picking up concepts may feel that she does not need to take meticulous notes, her ADHD may prevent her from paying careful attention on her own.18 Give her the tools she needs by providing her a calendar, organizational note-taking materials, and a quiet place to work.

Resiliency and social skills

Twice-exceptional children need support maintaining social relationships. While these children can display the appropriate social skills and are more sensitive to nonverbal cues than other children with learning disabilities, they still may have trouble exhibiting the appropriate social skills when with their peers.19 They tend to interact better with adults than children their own age, and thus teachers can encourage them to use the same skills with their classmates. Experts also recommend that teachers place twice-exceptional students in leadership positions in classes where they excel. For example, a teacher may ask a student who has trouble with reading but is exceptional in math to tutor another student in algebra.

Resiliency is a very important quality for twice-exceptional children to have — they must learn how to bounce back from negative experiences and frustrations in learning. Emotionally, twice-exceptional children need to work both at home and at school to build resiliency through developing coping strategies.20 Teachers can building coping skills through encouraging children to become self-advocates when they feel confused or frustrated. Also, they can teach realistic goal-setting by having twice-exceptional students set short-term goals and map out steps to complete them. When students become comfortable with short-term goals, they can move on to longer-term goals and begin to integrate academic pursuits with their own interests.21

Teachers can encourage parents to nurture their twice-exceptional children at home. Twice-exceptional children need extra support, which parents can provide through simple acts of just telling their child that he is special, showing an interest in what their child is interested in, and fostering what Trail calls a “Yes, I can” attitude.22 Twice-exceptional children tend to succeed when they learn to equate success with effort, rather than luck or ability. Parents can help their children make that connection by engaging them in positive self-talk, having them understand a decision-making process as part of learning, and being a positive role model when it comes to not being hard on oneself when making mistakes.23

Above all, it is necessary to create an “atmosphere of care” for twice-exceptional students.24 A caring atmosphere lets these special children know that their teachers and family members understand both their frustrations and the areas in which they excel. Children in an atmosphere of care know that the adults around them realize that although they are avid readers, they have a math phobia; or that they are confident in their research techniques even if they have anxieties about writing. Most important, twice-exceptional students in this atmosphere of care develop self-advocacy skills because their teachers and parents advocate for them, striving to get them the resources they need.