Twice Exceptional Students: Understanding What Makes Them Unique and What Will Help Them Connect

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

Some storms are expected…

Hurricane Florence has dominated the news for the past few weeks.

Florence was expected to dump up to 40 inches of rain. Wind damage and flooding were projected to be residual with an extreme physical and financial toll for victims.

Hurricane winds were projected to be upwards of 100+ miles per hour, people from all walks of life were told to seek safety and evacuate as best they could, and to do so quickly.

Forecasters and reporters furnished copious amounts of information. It was clear that it was time to leave coastal and inland communities on the eastern seaboard. Those in the path and trajectory of the storm took their leave as best they could.

My dear friend and her husband live in one of the Carolinas. According to the news reports, their town was potentially in an area considered to be in a danger zone. I needed to check in on them.

Happily, my former colleague's hometown was rainy but not flooded. This was wonderful news that set my heart and mind at ease.

Knowing that all was okay, our conversation went in the typical myriad of directions: our kids, our extracurricular events, some reminiscing, and-as is usual for us-toward picking each others' brains about Teaching.

While some storms come without warning …

We have both taken new positions recently. "Natalie" has taken a position working with Talented and Gifted students. This is an area I find fascinating, so we began to discuss the differences of working with student attributes she now sees in her classroom as compared to those attributes typically seen in the general education setting.

Back To School

After a two-decade career in education, my friend's experiences encompass not only Teaching, but she has also been in administrative roles. Pleased to return to the classroom, Natalie's new role requires her to seek an additional credential in Talented and Gifted Education.

Bloom Where You're Planted

In preparing to meet her students, Natalie studied student files and learned about their defined capabilities and skillsets. She needed to know all she could in order to create lessons rooted in the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Through her studies and review of student records, Natalie then encountered a challenge that was nothing new for a seasoned teacher, but one that definitely requires a focused and renewed mindset: understanding how to best work with twice-exceptional children.

Double Dare Denial?

The notion of a child being twice-exceptional is definitely something that special education teachers need to understand, although admittedly, I have never personally encountered it in my own practice…or HAVE I?

Duh. Of course I have. Every other special education and general education teacher in the world has, too. They just may not realize it…and if they do, the challenge of how to work with a student who is both super smart but has an area of significant need can represent not only twice-exceptional but twice-intimidating to the Educators who seek to serve this population with fidelity and integrity.

Paradoxically, a daunting task and a great opportunity.

Blessed Are the Flexible For They Shall Bend, Not Break

While it may or may not be paradoxical in your mind, for me, it feels like one of those career-benders. It's a situation in which we know a student has identifiable learning difficulties-there me be a speech-language processing issue, there may be social interaction issues, and a host of

other uniquenesses-to create a new word-and these are the very things that make being in our beloved profession so interesting. We have to be willing to meet an ever-developing set of neuro-challenges eyeball-to eyeball with a heart and mind ready to teach our students coping strategies and skills to work within, to work around, or to work through whatever may come their way.

Knock, Knock, Knock…It's Opportunity At the Door

When my son David was 7 (as mullets were phasing out and the Grunge movement was entering the scene), it was clear that school was just not the fun place of learning it should be for him. Long discussions with school staff, lots of discipline referrals, many tears, and loads of frustration led us to make a well-thought-out decision to homeschool our then 7-year old son.

During the early days of the modern homeschool movement, there really was not much support to be found. Today's homeschool scene is rife with groups to join, organizations to support, and communities to join. Back in the early ‘90's, it was a very lonely, scary, and potentially criminal place in which to find yourself and your family.

Back then, if there were family groups working together to bring enrichment to their kids' academic day, there wasn't much press being given to them.

The Internet was not yet a resource found in the majority of American homes, so reaching out to other families on websites and through chat boards was unheard of.

Sue Who?

In fact, it wasn't unusual to hear of families being treated poorly, or even being sued, for homeschooling their children.

It was such a challenging climate at the time that organizations were established in support of this movement, which has been around in some form or another since the very beginning of our nation's history.

The climate was so tense, and laws so murky, that it was practical to join one of these groups. By doing so, there was one less thing with which to concern ourselves as we worked toward meeting our goal of better educating our son.

Mother Knows Best

In my gut, I KNEW something was not clicking for him. This bright, happy, toe-headed kid who loved to be outside, who was fearless, who loved his family, was kind to animals, and who was a champion for the kids on our block with special needs, quite simply was NOT having anything to do with formal education in a typical school setting.

As we started off our school year, his second grade year, we opened our shiny new Reading anthology. I'll never forget the day we learned what was actually going on…

All of his life, this kid loved, and still does, animals of all kinds. Our story in the anthology was about chickadees. Both sets of grandparents were backyard birdwatchers and David was mesmerized by this sweet little black-capped songbird. He would often mimic its call of "chick-a-dee-dee-dee!" when watching the birds from the house windows.

For my kid, the story in this anthology was high-interest material. He would be engaged!

Don't Judge a Book By Its Content

Opening the newly-bound pages of the book, David was excited as he saw the illustration of the gray-bodied bird that had captivated his young mind. As we began to look at the illustrations throughout the story, I guided David through a text-walk, one of numerous pre-reading and during-reading strategies teachers use every day. Intended to engage students in learning, pre-teaching is relevant for acquisition and comprehension of texts across various genres.

Then it happened.

I asked David to read the first line.

He noted a few words, but most were incorrectly read.

Seeing that this text was definitely an end-of-first grade-level text, he should have been able to read it.

But he couldn't.


In my gut, I just knew that the tip of our family's proverbial shoe had landed on the corner of a new path.

Maybe It's Me, Not Him

We spent numerous hours every week engaged in reading activities. We went to the local library at least once a week. Story time, bed-time reading, and day-time quiet times revolved around books.

Wanting our first day to be successful, we decided to opt for the adult-read/student answers comprehension questions route. I want there to be no tears.

As we went through the story over the five day week, I knew something was up. He was clearly trying; he was unable to retrieve.

My heart was heavy. His life had been handed an obstacle. He was so young. It didn't seem fair. I was ticked off (not at him), he was frustrated and was already back on summer vacation in his own head, and the nay-sayers of our extended family had fodder for their dinner table conversations.

...and We're Off!

David was struggling to read anything, even text for students younger than he. Alarm bells were sounding in my brain. My Mom Gut knew what was probably going on: Dyslexia.

Challenge accepted.

In the Fall of 1992, my son and I embarked on very interesting path. With specialists, we worked to figure out how to shore up and strengthen his areas of deficit while continuing to polish his artistic side. It is here where his true passion resides to this day.

After having him assessed in numerous ways, we began intense therapies to provide the support he needed as he, essentially, re-learned letters and other "stuff" that most people take for granted.

Ready for Re-Entry

In his fourth grade year, he decided he wanted to go back to a traditional school setting. Off he went to a local private school. My heart was unable to send him back to the district from which we had come given the fact they were, at the time, unsure of how to best serve students with Dyslexia. After a lot of thoughtful contemplation, the new school seemed like the best fit.

He continued to struggled with the "row and column" nature of a traditional school setting, but as the middle school years approached, he'd found a network of friends. As a parent and given our lives at the time, the decision was made for him to remain in traditional school.

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The Challenge Gets Challengier

In high school, David flailed and floundered through academics. It became easier for me to read him any text passages for his classwork. He could comprehend the material quite well when it was read to him. Text books were not always user -friendly, and so we established a coping strategy that got the job done. I read to him.

He found other ways to engage with his peers as well-by becoming the Class Clown. Frequent visits to the office, phone calls home, and discussions with him about his future made me realize my kid was allowing me to honestly earn the gray hairs the I've spent thousands of dollars and countless hours in the salon to hide.

But in his Junior year of high school, something wonderful happened. He discovered the joys of vocational-technical classes and found his calling in the realm of Auto-CAD.

The teacher of that class understood kids. He understood kids who were Twice Exceptional, either intuitively or knowingly. Mr. Brinkerhoff's passion for education, tempered with my son's ability to have some fun at school, convinced my son, and others like him, that school really just might be a decent place after all.

With Mr. Brinkerhoff's guidance and his own talent, David went on to earn prizes for his drawings and designs. Through his connection with the vo-tech program at his high school, and with the support of an outstanding teacher, David was able to finally uncover his passion: Art.

David was then able to parlay that passion into a career. Hard work, life lessons, determination (dare I say, grit?), and getting just angry enough to funnel frustration into success caused my very own twice-exceptional child to move into his current career. It makes this mama proud to say he is a wonderful provider for his family, a loving and VERY understanding father, and a true champion for the underdogs in life.

"Come on, Baggy. Get With the Beat."

It is good that the world of education is finally embracing this issue, which has for far too long stood like a silo in an abandoned farm field.

Twice-exceptional, or 2-E education is not a new thing, but it is a new as a formal entity that schools and districts must take note of.

Teachers all across the country, not just my friend Natalie and parents like me, are looking for ways to best incorporate and integrate the passions these learners have with skillset development strategies they need.

We must create a learning environment that evokes joy and motivation for those who may struggle in the school setting.

Not "Should Be Created." It MUST be created.

Not "Kids Who MAY Struggle."

They DO struggle.

But What's Best?

If teachers lead, inspire, motivate, and all that jazz, how about setting the teachers in a less traditional scenario for these students?

Instead, districts need to figure out ways to welcome the differences presented by 2-E students by allowing for/providing for a different type of grading system. Does a ninth grader who just developed, patented, and is now marketing a new technology for Alzheimer patient safety really care about an A on his report card?

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." Ernest Hemingway

Teachers need to be trusted. It's the simple. Allow teachers the chance to create a curriculum that has the best interest of students in mind and you'll find a successful, student-driven program.

Districts must also trust that our 2-E kids have a clear and concise idea of what their exceptionalities are.

I've never met someone who has a little extra padding on their body be in shocked denial when their doctor says, "You could stand to lose a few pounds." Holy smokes, Doc! Had no clue I was fat! Gee, thanks for THAT information!

2-E kids are well aware of who they are. They are well aware of what they need.

My guess is that they've just never been asked.

Who's Knocking On the Door?

So what does the average 2-E child look like?

Who knows?

But here's an example of one who resided in the home of a friend: Robert was seven years old when we met.

He had an intense interest in the mechanisms that caused doors to open and close. Hinges, hydraulics, pneumatics and more made this kid light up like a beaming star.

Robert could talk about door closers, door locks, door hinges, door supports, door jambs, and doors themselves until the cows came home. He could tell you who stocked the various components-just in case you were in the market. Truth be told, Robert could even tell you a few really good websites to visit if you were in the market for any variety of door parts.

Robert was also well aware that he was different from his peers. Robert had been diagnosed with Autism at age three.

He was well aware that he was different from others and as he got older, he knew that he was working on various social skills. His parents and teachers worked together with him both at home and at school.

Robert knew that he needed to look at you when he was speaking with you because he would inform you.

He always made me smile when he would say, "I'm looking at you. That's what I'm supposed to do when I talk to you." For Robert, the struggle is real. He doesn't take it lightly.

But his greatest source of fun was when he had done a good job for a pre-determined amount of time. Enthusiastically anticipating his reward, Robert knew he would get to choose to play with a door or do online investigation about doors.

Just imagine how much more engaged this guru of doors would be if he could do all matter of investigation about what he loves and have it be fully sanctioned by his school?

How much opportunity would there be for him to engage with so many others to converse about his passion?

Robert could have conversations with manufacturers, he could see how hardware is made, he could eventually be the Mechanical Engineer who creates even better hardware or he could be the Architect who chooses the best door for the building.

But schools don't always think about the Roberts in their district…because, you know…the test is in April and none of that is on the test.

So Who DOES Know Best?

Schools across America need to realize that kids arrive at school already fully loaded with their own interests and curiosities.

Tended to by progressive teachers and districts, students who are 2-E will find school a happier place to be. Stress and anxiety for kids would diminish-or at the very least, be reduced because students will arrive at school enthusiastically ready to participate in learning designed to suit their specific, unique needs.

And the crowd goes silent knowing the author is right…

But, You Know…Those Tests Matter!

Okay, so yeah…we still live in a society wrapped around the proverbial pinky of Measures of Academic Progress. No denying it.

If kids are given the opportunities to take Advanced Placement classes and assessments to meet their academic needs, in many cases and at the very least, counseling should be provided. Supporting students who are, in a lot of cases, people who respond more emotionally to stressors like tests, why wouldn't it be wise to coach them ahead of time by providing tools for stress management? In my mind, these tools would be super-useful in their academic career, their professional careers, and in life.

Tools For Life

So maybe you're thinking you have a child who is 2-E. Maybe your wheels are spinning...

Never underestimate the power of a quick search on the ‘web.

A initial search will reveal resources I wish had been available 25 years ago.

If you're thinking, "We need to rethink what a traditional school should be for 2-e kids," we have something in common.

Rethinking What's Already Been Thought

Education researchers continue to churn out information in support of student-centered learning/instruction, yet schools are more typically focused on keeping students calm and quiet.

Rare is the administrator who is wise enough to see that when students are more actively engaged, discipline issues are generally be reduced.

What Science Has To Say

Students who are 2-e often have brains with greater brain volumes with greater connectivity between the regions. A 2-E brain operate more efficiently. It definitely operates differently.

A non parent who is NOT 2-E may need a minute to figure out how to align their approach to parenting a kid like Sheldon Cooper.

A student with a disability of some sort can be perplexing for even the most gifted teacher. It is easy to see why teachers of Talented and Gifted and 2-E students are finding this new niche to be, for some, kind of scary. But again, I posit, a good teacher recognizes this isn't really a new realm at all. It's just education's dirty little secret.

It All Shakes Out

My son is now an adult and father to four children. He has been blessed with two sons who are both 2-e learners. As I watch my son engage as a father to his two "tween-aged" sons, he is in a position to better understand how they need to learn. He has been very proactive in building their learning program within their school settings and fortunately, he lives in a state where education is more progressive than in others.

Children need their parents to advocate for them. Teachers need to advocate for the children as well.

Most especially, schools and districts need to advocate on behalf of all stakeholders. Maybe they could use the talents of their 2-e students to take on the task of building awareness.

I know. It's a radical thought.

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