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The term twice exceptional, often abbreviated as 2e, has only recently entered educators' lexicon and refers to intellectually gifted children who have some form of disability. These children are considered exceptional both because of their intellectual gifts and because of their special needs.
A 2e child usually refers to a child who, alongside being considered intellectually above average, is formally diagnosed with one or more disabilities. The disabilities are varied: dyslexia, visual or auditory processing disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory processing disorder, autism, Asperger syndrome, Tourette Syndrome, or any other disability interfering with the student's ability to learn effectively in a traditional environment. The child might have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or diagnoses of anxiety or depression.
There is no clear-cut profile of twice-exceptional children because the nature and causes of twice exceptionality are so varied. This variation among twice-exceptional children makes it difficult to determine just how many of them there might be. Best estimates of prevalence range from 300,000 to 360,000 in the U.S. (on the order of 0.5% of the total number of children under 18). Linda Silverman, Ph.D., the director of the Gifted Development Center has found that fully 1/6 of the gifted children tested at the GDC have a learning difference of some type.
Brody and Mills  argue that this population of students "could be considered the most misunderstood of all exceptionalities". In each situation, the 2e student’s strengths help to compensate for deficits; the deficits, on the other hand, make the child’s strengths less apparent. The interplay of exceptional strengths and weaknesses in a single individual results in inconsistency in performance. They might present any of the three profiles identified by educator and researcher Susan Baum:
- Bright but not trying hard enough
- Learning disabled but with no exceptional abilities
A 2e student’s grades commonly alternate between high and low, sometimes within the same subject. The child might have advanced vocabulary and ideas but be unable to organize those ideas and express them on paper. He might be a skilled artist or builder but turn in assignments that are messy or illegible. He might complete assignments but lose them or forget to turn them in. To the parents and teachers observing this behavior, it may seem that the child just isn’t trying. In fact, many 2e children work as hard if not harder than others, but with less to show for their efforts. This struggle to accomplish tasks that appear easy for other students can leave 2e children frustrated, anxious, and depressed. It can rob them of their enthusiasm and energy for school and damage their self-esteem.
Identifying twice exceptionality
Children identified as twice exceptional can exhibit a wide range of traits, many of them typical of gifted children. Like those who are gifted, 2e children often show greater asynchrony than average children (that is, a larger gap between their mental age and physical age). They are often intense and highly sensitive to their emotional and physical environments. The following chart summarizes characteristics commonly seen in this population.
Twice exceptionality often shows up in school. In their early years, these children often seem bright, with varied interests and advanced vocabularies; and many times parents are unaware that they have a 2e child. Teachers sometimes spot problems in school; sometimes parents are the first to notice their children's frustrations with school. During the early years it may be social difficulties. The 2e child may find it hard to make friends and fit in. Academic problems often appear later. As work demands increase, teachers may see a drop or inconsistencies in the student’s performance, sometimes accompanied by an increase in problem behaviors. Some 2e students withdraw, showing reluctance to speak out or take other risks in class; while others play the class clown. Some are unable to stay focused, find it hard to sit still and work quietly, and have difficulty controlling anger or frustration.
If these difficulties persist, school personnel or parents may decide that evaluation is needed. Along with a physical examination, children may undergo psycho-educational testing to determine the cause of their struggles. The professionals who take part in the process should be knowledgeable about giftedness. Some characteristics of giftedness can look very much like those of a learning disability or disorder and, as a result, gifted children are sometimes incorrectly diagnosed with disorders. Evaluation results should indicate the child’s areas of strength and weakness and identify whether any disorders or learning disabilities are present. In addition, the results should include information on what the child needs in order to build on the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses that have been identified. Teaching to students' abilities rather than disabilities increases self-concept scores.
Their strengths are the key to success for twice-exceptional children. They thrive on intellectual challenges in their areas of interest and ability. Many 2e children do best when given work that engages multiple senses and offers opportunities for hands-on learning. However, a requirement for success for these students is support, either given informally as needed or formalized in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan.
Support can come in several forms. An essential form is encouragement; others include compensation strategies and accommodations in the child’s areas of weakness. For example, 2e students may benefit from learning time-management skills and organizational techniques; and they may need to have extra time on tests and reduced homework. It should be remembered, however, that the student's strengths should not merely be viewed as means through which they can compensate for their areas of weakness. Proper support for a twice-exceptional student must include accommodations to allow them to develop and challenge their gifts as well. It is essential for these students to feel as though they are being noticed for their gifts more than just their weaknesses, otherwise the student may fall into negative behavioral patterns such as the ones aforementioned. In sum, appropriate interventions should address both the academic and social emotional needs of 2e learners.
Twice-exceptional education is a movement that started in the early 1970s with "gifted-handicapped" education, a term essentially referring to the same population. 2e education is an education approach backed by 35 years of research and best practices tailored to the unique needs of 2e students. It is a marriage between special education and gifted education — a strengths-based, differentiated approach that provides special educational supports. Many argue that talent development is the most critical aspect of their education.
Still, finding schools that can meet the needs of twice exceptional children can be a challenge for many parents. Public and private schools with programs that combine the appropriate levels of challenge and support for these learners are in the minority. For this reason, a number of parents choose alternative educational options for their 2e children, including homeschooling and virtual schools.
Only a handful of schools in United States offer a curriculum specifically tailored to 2e children. Some public schools offer part-time programs for twice exceptional students, where they can progress in subjects like math at their own pace, and meet other students like themselves.
- Bridges Academy
- The Lang School
- The Quad Preparatory School
- Gifted and talented education
- Exceptional education
- Learning disability
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