A beautiful child writes and writes with glistening eyes, every word a tragedy of mis-spelling, but every word spell-bindingly well chosen. Is her success as a budding author assured, or will the school of hard knocks teach her that she cannot write simply because she cannot spell?
A little boy painstakingly creates a complex game, every piece hand-drawn in endless, unrecognizable detail. Will someone show him how computer graphics, with their easy editability, can help him express his complex ideas despite his dyspraxia? Or will he be left thinking that he will never have what it takes to bring his plans to fruition?
The new ADHD kid, in short breaks between bouncing off the walls, mixes fact with fantasy in every written task, no matter what the supposed goal or genre. Will anyone realize that her passion for science fiction is actually helping her stay focused enough to write at all?
An autistic child comes home from school with news that he has been in trouble for talking with a friend. Is the mother wrong to phone all her friends and relatives, celebrating, “He has a friend! And he talked to him for long enough to get caught!”
A mother sobs into a tissue at parent teacher interviews. “I don’t know whether he can’t or won’t. I’m so confused with what he knows and what he doesn’t do. Some days I’m convinced he’s just naughty… and that would make it all my fault!” Will this teacher judge, or did she bring the tissues herself, because she knows that good listening to parents under pressure often yields tears?
These five scenarios contain between them interwoven snippets of many lives. One is told with permission, and the rest are composites, but based on the real lives of twice exceptional children I have taught, and a substantial percentage of their mothers.
To be twice exceptional is to have an area of sufficient strength to be gifted, demonstrated by observably high ability in one or more kinds of activity or thinking, or by outstanding scores on one or more subscales of an IQ test, while at the same time having some form of disability, often one that affects other kinds of thinking and learning.
While the gifted all-rounder is beginning to wonder why classmates do not share his or her interests or understandings, the twice exceptional child is wondering why children who seem to know less can clearly do more, or what the special formula is that turns amazing ideas and questions into teacher recognition. Unless adequately supported in discovering and building on strengths, the twice exceptional child is at risk of disengaging from school, miserably reflecting that, “I must have been so dumb to ever think I was smart”.
These, then, are twice exceptional children. What is it that they need from family, teachers and friends?
1. More than anything else, twice exceptional children need to be accepted for who they are. The term “unconditional positive regard” has been around for a very long time now, but it seems that the greater the yawning gulf between a child’s strengths and weaknesses, the more the acceptance of the child depends on someone “magicking” the weaknesses away. Get real folks. Twice exceptional children can learn strategies to deal to their strengths, but they can never be anyone else but their own fascinating selves. They can’t learn self-acceptance unless someone else accepts them first, and once they feel accepted, they will often become more relaxed and a lot easier to be around.
2. Twice exceptional children need adults around them to realise that no matter how great the puzzle in sorting the wheat from the chaff – mapping where their strengths and weaknesses lie so that they can be offered tasks which give them a chance at success – the puzzle is even greater for the child, who lacks adult life experience. These children really do need adult help in selecting and structuring tasks that will showcase their abilities rather than highlighting what they cannot yet do.
3. Twice exceptional children need a generous network of supporters, and so do their families. This means that those around them must resist the urge to play the blame game, finding fault with the child, the parents, or themselves. They must understand that here is a child and a family who will face an ongoing series of challenges; and that support that is warm, flexible and practical is the best kind. Parents need friends and teachers who see both sides of the child, not just the strengths or just the weaknesses, who they can use as informed sounding boards when they make difficult decisions.
Some twice exceptional children exhaust their friends, family and teachers, and a wide network of support means that people who need a break can take it. Kids melting down are not pretty, and can face harsh consequences. Adults melting down sometimes fake more grace, but almost always face harsher penalties.
4. Twice exceptional children need true peers, but in moderation. Let’s imagine you’re in a terrible domestic accident with a rogue electric can opener, and lose the thumb and index finger on your dominant hand. I imagine you’d quite like to meet someone who has also lost both of these important digits, and ask them things like how long it took them to learn to do up buttons again. You may fluke it and also become friends. You may not.
Two gifted children with autism may well find some interest in meeting one another, and may forge a friendship. If they don’t, they will be completely honest about it, because they have autism. What is more, they will be unlikely to change their minds in any great hurry, also because they have autism. Pressured to maintain the relationship, any veneer of charm they have learnt from patient grandmothers or social stories will eventually collapse, also because… they have autism!
5. Twice exceptional children need time with gifted all rounders, but with sensitivity. The only twice exceptional child in a gifted group is going to be bottom of the class at something, or perhaps at most things, every single day. To make it work, you have to have a classroom where it doesn’t matter. Three rules that help are these:
- It is okay, or even encouraged, to build on the ideas of others.
- The source of those ideas must be acknowledged.
- It’s often OK to work together.
With this “open source” philosophy in the classroom, the child with great ideas and no follow through will be acknowledged by the child who follows through, and will see how that follow through can be done. The child whose drawings were the wrong shape but represented the most creative concept will be acknowledged on the masterpiece of the child whose pencil moves where it is willed to go. The child who couldn’t write his or her brilliant story alone will acknowledge the one who helped to spell or record it, and will get the job done. A classroom culture of valuing contribution and collaboration tends to highlight the strengths of twice exceptional children, even though some of them will need support in developing collaborative skills. A collaborative culture doesn’t mean children must always work in groups. Many like to exchange ideas and then work alone.
6. Twice exceptional students need recognition of great efforts, small gains, and productive strategies. The dyslexic child who has spelt ten percent of his words correctly may regularly put more effort into spelling than any other child in the class, may be up five percent on last week, and may have made the gains by drawing doodles around every word in his spelling notebook – so that they all looked like different vehicles – thus cementing the shape of each word in visual-spatial memory. However, he may not be aware that he has made any gains at all until someone who can be certain what is spelt correctly points out the improvement, and helps the child understand why the strategy succeeded, giving permission and encouragement to draw on spelling notebooks again. Only with understanding that gains have been made, and of how those gains have been achieved, can transferable learning occur. The effort made must also be valued and acknowledged. This acknowledgment must be done with particular sensitivity when the effort is being channeled via an unsuccessful strategy, such as copying out a word incorrectly over and over in a diligent but doomed attempt to learn to spell it.
7. Twice exceptional children need hope. Almost all gifted children think about the future. Almost all twice exceptional children, parents of twice exceptional children, and teachers of twice exceptional children face the future with some misgivings. Will this child get enough ducks in a row to make a life in which the strengths shine through and satisfy? My dyslexic mother says that every dyslexic child needs one person who believes in him or her. It was her father who stood up for her when her school did not want her to sit an exam, predicting a poor result that would reflect badly on their precious reputation. She sat and passed, and is sure to this day that his belief that she could do it made all the difference. Classroom studies of successful twice exceptional people bring a different kind of hope. Biographies of scientists, engineers, writers and other successful people often reveal struggles that our twice exceptional children can identify with, as well as factors that can help to overcome them. The whole class can also have a therapeutic giggle at some of the stories. I will leave you with an excerpt from the writings of French essayist, philosopher and statesman, Michel de Montaigne. One of my more active classes was pretty sure that way back in 1588, he wrote this to make them feel better:
“My walking is quick and firm; and I know not which of the two, my mind or my body, I have most to do to keep in the same state. That preacher is very much my friend who can fix my attention a whole sermon through: in places of ceremony, where every one’s countenance is so starched, where I have seen the ladies keep even their eyes so fixed, I could never order it so, that some part or other of me did not lash out; so that though I was seated, I was never settled; and as to gesticulation, I am never without a switch in my hand, walking or riding.”
This photo, by Flickr member steeljam, has attribution, non-commercial and no derivatives licenses.
In the spirit of acknowledgement and co-operation that I encourage with my classes, I’d like to acknowledge Mona Chicks, whose 1000 hit post, the Top Ten Things I Wish Teachers Understood About Giftedness, gave me some very useful indicators about blogging styles that work. Thanks Mona!