The Edvocate’s Guide to Working With Twice-Exceptional Students

Twice-exceptional is a term used to explain kids who have exceptional talents in some educational areas and challenges in others. In some instances, a twice-exceptional learner could theoretically qualify for both gifted and special education simultaneously.

The intellectual potential of twice-exceptional youth is great but sometimes difficult to identify and cultivate due to a co-existing condition like ADHD, a learning disability, sensory issues, or other conditions that complicate learning, and teaching.

What Does Twice-Exceptional Mean?

Twice-exceptional is the term used to explain intellectually gifted kids with great potential for educational achievement, which also have a learning disability or neurological challenge, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). Their exceptional intellectual capabilities of 2e learners are often masked or obscured by one or several conditions (or vice versa), making them one of the least identified and supported populations.

Twice exceptionality requires unique methods of identification and targeted educational supports that highlight a kid’s strengths. Parents can help 2e learners by researching common characteristics, understanding how 2e brains excel, and learning how to support their needs in the class uniquely.

Twice Exceptional Learners: Common Characteristics

The intellectual potential of twice-exceptional youth is great. They have an enduring disability that inhibits their learning experience. Common co-existing conditions include:

  • ADHD
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Learning disorders (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc.)
  • Sensory processing disorder (SPD)
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders
  • Physical disorders

Their intellectual capabilities usually mean that 2e kids often exhibit:

  • fast learning
  • good memories
  • large vocabularies
  • advanced comprehension of nuances
  • insatiable curiosity
  • emotional depth
  • divergent thinking

As a result, 2e kids are often highly creative, hold varied and intense interests, exhibit sharp problem-solving skills, and have a sophisticated idea of humor.

But 2e kids also tend to struggle with:

  • social situations
  • inconsistent performance
  • disorganization
  • executive dysfunction
  • transitions/initiative
  • fatigue

In the class, twice-exceptional kids may perform both above and below average on distinct scales. Their intellectual gifts may overshadow their struggles, a dynamic that explains why understanding these kids is challenging. If their intellectual gifts and deficits are not addressed, 2e kids can experience anxiety, stress, depression, and feelings of underachievement.

Twice Exceptional Children: Brain Development

Research reveals that the 2e brain, not accounting for any condition, is meta-physiologically distinct from a neurotypical brain. Twice-exceptional brains generally are:

  • Physically larger
  • Have more connectivity – the white matter in the brain is denser, which allows for more connections and storing of information. The sensory intake capacity is also higher.
  • Are “over-excitable” – emotions are intense because the limbic system, the part of the brain thought to be responsible for emotion and other processes are overloaded by increased sensory input and the development of intense epigenetics, or sensory prints, as the brain builds knowledge based on various environmental stimuli.

The limbic system’s increased demands may explain why many 2e kids have the same struggles and asynchronous development paths – their social-emotional growth is usually delayed, but their intellectual growth is accelerated.

Twice Exceptional: Signs and Identification

The process for understanding a 2e kid often starts at home, even before school starts. Parents who suspect their kids may be twice-exceptional should first:

  • Stop to reflect on the kid’s behaviors. Many parents detect differences early on, like how their kid plays, communicates, behaves, or responds to other kids. Twice exceptionality tends to be characterized by significant skill disparities, like completing complex assignments and struggling with easier, simpler assignments.
  • Observe what happens when the kid struggles and consider the settings where poor learning outcomes happen. Question what factors play the biggest part and whether the kid may be compensating for a deficiency. Understand that some 2e kids learn to camouflage their condition early on, deceiving parents, and even schools. Utilize a journal to document observations – the sooner, the better.
  • Listen to what the kid says about themselves and their struggles. True listening, especially for young kids, may require more interpreting than anything else, as they might lack the vocabulary to explain their challenges accurately. Using a “word wall” – a list of different words to convey emotions – can help kids be more exact.
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