Twice the challenge. Twice Exceptional.

Some students blend disability with giftedness

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Mike Werner was always a bright kid. He talked better with adults than kids his own age. He "thought" mathematically and had an acute interest in dinosaurs.

While his first-grade teacher read the class a Berenstain Bears story where a tree has been cut down and the rings may be counted to show its age, the teacher said she'd have more rings than the tree in the book.

"Guess it's time to chop you down," Mike piped up.

The teacher appreciated the comment as good-humored; it showed he was engaged in the activity. But once in second grade, behavior started creeping in that couldn't be construed as constructive in any way, including once running out of the school when it wasn't time for recess and eluding teachers who tried to catch him on the playground.

Testing showed Mike had Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), so his mother and school officials began the process of writing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the document that allows students with special needs access to care and education beyond the regular classroom.

But testing also showed that Mike's intelligence was in the gifted range. As an early second grader, they stopped his reading test around the fifth-grade level because they thought he was getting tired, Kimberly Werner, Mike's mom, said.

No one said so at the time, but Mike is Twice Exceptional: gifted, but having special challenges to overcome to fully engage his intelligence.

Sometimes hard to spot

Giftedness can act like a disability, educators say. Having a 10-year-old's intellect isn't always a beneficial thing in a first-grade classroom. Gifted children's intellects often far outpace their emotional maturity.

Kimberly Werner said when she and educators were only looking at Mike's ADHD, some things didn't make sense. "That's when the other shoe fell, and I began to understand" that the two were working together, she said.

Mike would refuse to take quizzes he hadn't prepared for. To a teacher, it seemed like he was being obstinate. But in Mike's mind, the mind of a perfectionist, there was no way he was going to start something he knew he'd do poorly at.

It all wreaked havoc on Mike's self-esteem. He thought he was no good at math, and was quick to have a tantrum in social interactions.

But Mike was lucky in that his intelligence and disability were spotted early. In many Twice Exceptional (or 2e, as it's commonly known) students, intelligence can mask the disability, sometimes for years.

Grant Nelson, a freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School, wasn't diagnosed with a decoding issue similar to dyslexia until fifth grade.

While teaching him to read, Barb Nelson, his mother, encountered problems. B-a-t is bat, so c-a-t- is...? "Five."

"But you kept having these high-end results in other areas," Barb Nelson said.

Grant estimates that of the 40 books teachers thought he had read in the early grades, he probably read four. Oh, and he got A's in school, even in English.

Like many 2e kids, Grant compensated for his disability and manipulated the system to get by. With books, he paid sharp attention to discussions in class and picked up details of stories from talking with friends. The disability made him more social.

Some kids' disabilities aren't discovered until high school. Although OPRF doesn't use 2e as an official label, students are found to have abilities and disabilities that could be identified as 2e, special education director Linda Cada said.

"Sometimes identification is difficult," said River Forest Elementary School District 90 Supt. Marlene Kamm. "It really needs a comprehensive look at a child in terms of their strengths and abilities. And sometimes it needs parents' advocating for their children because they see something the school doesn't."

Teachers told Melissa Koenig not to worry about her son, Michael, not being successful in some areas of school. Don't worry, they said, he's smart.

"Yes, but he should be able to do it," Koenig would say.

Identifying 2e in Michael "was a huge struggle. What I got was, 'Well, if he just tries harder,' " Koenig said. Further complicating it for her was that she didn't think the same way Michael did.

Everyone in her family has a learning disorder. Koenig was fortunate in having similar disabilities in reading as her mother, so while teaching her to read her mother also taught her how to get around the disability. "She taught me the way she thinks," Koenig said.

But Michael has an auditory processing disorder, which made sense because Koenig's  father had a similar disability.

Michael learns better by listening than reading, so books on tape or CD are a big hit. As she and he watched the recent Lemony Snicket movie, Michael turned to his mother and said, "It's not like it is in my head," based on the books he'd listened to.

New term, same intervention

Joanne Rand Whitmore taught in public schools in Cupertino, Calif., in the late 1970s and early 1980s while studying giftedness at Stanford University in her summers.

Her classroom of 22 gifted sixth, seventh and eighth graders was composed mostly of boys who were aggressive, disruptive, challenged their parents and teachers and who often didn't get along with their peers.

But each had one area he or she knew a lot about, having started self-directed learning at an early age.

"School experiences had made them into failures," she said years later. Whitmore has since married, taking her husband's name to become Joanne Schwartz.

She dropped repetitive work, promoted more introspection, and tailored the curriculum in her classroom to fit each child's individual needs. Students who hadn't read started, and some were able to catch up to grade level by the end of the year. Those with behavioral problems saw the disruptiveness in others, and students helped each other to behave. She was able to get students to turn their intellects on themselves to think about what they needed and wanted.

"It was powerful," Schwartz said. "It's exciting to unlock that potential."

All but five in the class went on to the school's gifted program, while Schwartz published books and eventually became the dean of the education school at Kent State University before retiring three years ago.

Twice Exceptional has been around longer than since Schwartz and others started writing books about it in the early 1980s. Albert Einstein, whose ability for complex scientific and mathematic reasoning made the most important discoveries of the past century, is thought to have had a learning disability.

But the term is new: new enough that it's not even used by the state or local districts when identifying students with special needs. To handle 2e, local districts take an approach similar to Schwartz': look at each child individually.

Differentiated instruction helps identify the needs not only of 2e students with disabilities, but kids on the more moderate end of the continuum whose disabilities may not be severe enough for an IEP. Sometimes accommodating the way a child learns bestâ€"known in education as multiple intelligences or learning stylesâ€"can make all the difference, River Forest's Kamm said. For example, some students need to kinesthetically learn the alphabet by using motions to spell letters, rather than learn them visually.

At Dist. 90 schools, all teachers are trained in differentiated instruction. District 97 implemented a differentiated instruction program last year, and has plans to expand the program at its middle schools.

A lifelong struggle

Grant Nelson is working on his plan for college. In his first year at OPRF, he hasn't taken to books much more than he did in earlier grades. He knows he'll have to read more in college, and works with a tutor to improve his skills.

Mike Werner outgrew some of his behavioral problems. And as with Schwartz' students, he has used his intellect to control some of his impulses. The result is better self-esteem, he and mom agree.

"That was really going to cripple his ability to succeed," Kimberly Werner said.

And he's passing it on. Mike learned that his ADHD puts him in the class of hunters â€" people who needed to be active, alert and vigilant to be successful thousands of years ago. When another student (who Mike said wasn't the most popular kid) at his school, the Science Academy of Chicago, shared that he had ADD, Mike said he did, too.

"You're a hunter," he told his fellow student, making his day.

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