Cash in on Learning: What I’ve Learned from Twice-Exceptional Students: Five Keys to Success

by Richard Cash, Ed.D., Free Spirit Publishing author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century

Of the many students I’ve had the pleasure to work with, one young man stands out from the rest. In the mid-1990s, I had a little boy in my first-grade classroom named Tommy (name changed). He was a very gifted first grader who was an early reader, had a large vocabulary, and tested extremely high on both ability and achievement tests. One of the unique characteristics of Tommy was his unlimited interest in explosions. Yes, explosions. He liked to make the sounds of explosions, use his hands to simulate an explosion, and was forever obsessed with anything that would explode.

To some, this may sound like an odd thing to be interested in. With Tommy it was an obsession and, at times, a compulsion. At times, he was so fixated on his explosions that he paid little attention to instruction or to the other students in the classroom. He grew more and more socially isolated and often spent recess time wandering around the playground playing out military scenarios in his head. He could be overheard by his classmates “talking to himself.”

I spoke to Tommy’s parents repeatedly about my concern with their son’s behaviors and related how the other kids didn’t want to be his partner or play with him on the playground. His parents encountered the same behaviors at home and figured it was merely Tommy’s way of being “different.”

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But when Tommy’s obsession started to affect his achievement and the social atmosphere of the classroom, I realized I needed help from my colleagues. I conferred with my grade-level teammates as well as the school administration. We decided that having a representative from special education observe Tommy would give us another set of eyes through which to view his behaviors.

A special education teacher spent about forty minutes in my classroom observing Tommy’s social interactions, attention span, and general behaviors. After the observation, the special education teacher stated that many of Tommy’s behaviors were indicative of a condition she had read about called Asperger’s syndrome. Remember, this was the mid-1990s and little was known about autism, let alone Asperger’s syndrome. She explained to me that on the autism spectrum, some students with high intellectual abilities may exhibit antisocial behaviors and have repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

While this explanation helped explain why Tommy was so “quirky,” it gave me very little direction for how to work with and support him in the classroom. So I did my own research and discovered an interesting—and relatively new—area of gifted education focused on “twice-exceptional learners,” or “2e” kids. These kids exhibit traits of both giftedness and one or more learning challenges, such as Asperger’s. I spent many years trying to figure out 2e kids and what to do with and for them in the classroom. From my experience and study, I learned five key points:

1) Seek the assistance of your special education department.
Special education practitioners are experts in working with students who have unique needs. However, special education can focus too much on the “deficit” model. In the case of 2e students, focusing only on what they can’t do may be overwhelming for them and for you. Instead, focus on what they can do and build from there. Learn all the strategies and techniques you can from special education experts. Use your knowledge about the child and his or her strengths along with strategies involving sensory integration, social awareness, and attention effort.

To help Tommy with his social skills and perseverance, I developed “passion projects.” I had him put together a mini-lesson for the class on why he loved explosions and what benefits explosions have for us. He prepared for a few weeks and came to school with a simple yet effective presentation. He stood in front of the class and shared what explosions were, where they occur, and how they can be both destructive and constructive. For example, he taught me about explosions on the sun and how those explosions create energy. Tommy found success with this project and the class had a new appreciation for what Tommy could do. For more on passion projects, see pages 53–55 in my book, Advancing Differentiation.

2) If it works today, it may not work tomorrow . . . but don’t give up.
I can’t tell you how many times I thought I had the “right” intervention that worked for my 2e students, only to find over the next few days the strategy didn’t seem to work. Remember, they are kids and will need time to adjust to strategies. They will need time to practice and keep the strategy conscious until it becomes automatic. Even with non-2e kids, a strategy may work in one situation and then not work again the next time. Don’t give up, keep working with the strategy. Twice-exceptional students need consistency, order, and structure (see #3).

3) Develop and maintain a consistent schedule, rules, and order inside and outside the classroom.
A surefire way to send my 2e kids into a tailspin was to be disorganized myself or to make adjustments to my schedule without clear warning to my students. While many students can handle quick changes and different schedules, many 2e kids Class Schedulehave a hard time adjusting to the unknown or uncharted day. I always made sure to ask the main office to inform me about fire drills, tornado drills, or lockdown practices (even the ones we were not to know about), so that I could prepare my 2e students for the abrupt situation, especially when it came to the noise of the school bell or fire alarm.

Some 2e students have extreme sensory sensitivities that can overcome them. Sudden loud noises were the worst. In these cases, I put padding or batting around the bell in my room, turned the overhead speaker down or put a damper on it, let the children cover their ears thirty seconds before the alarm went off, or used visual cues to help them anticipate the sounds—to name just a few ideas.

Also, it was imperative that I keep a consistent schedule throughout the day. If there were going to be adjustments to the schedule, I let my 2e students know early in the day, before the adjustment happened. During the adjustment, I let them know what was going to happen next.

4) Work with the parents, because they need to sustain the support at home.
In most cases, the parents of my 2e students were struggling with the same issues at home that I was aware of in school. In some cases, the parents had resigned themselves to “that’s just how my child is.” Or they were so frustrated with their quirky child that they would seek blame in themselves or in the school system for their child’s behavior. I made it a point to share all kinds of readings and resources with the parents. I offered them connections to the local parent group for gifted kids or to national organizations such as the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) or Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted (SENG).

I also kept them informed of the tools and strategies I was using in the classroom and requested that they use the same strategies at home so the child had consistent structures. The more a 2e child can anticipate what is going to happen, the more likely she or he is to stay centered.

5) Don’t stop learning about 2e kids; they have a lot to offer.
The study of twice-exceptional kids is still relatively new within the field of gifted education. They often go unidentified or under-identified, due to their gifts and strengths masking their disability, or vice versa. I suggest building a repertoire of strategies, techniques, and ideas to use with 2e students. Each year, knowledge grows about the needs of these kids. Below are some outstanding online resources that are readily available to teachers:

publiuc domain clip art explosionAs for Tommy, I ran into him recently. He graduated with honors from college with a double major in chemistry and physics. He was accepted into graduate school in nuclear physics. He put himself through college on academic scholarships and working part-time for . . . wait for it . . . a pyrotechnics company. His love of explosions continues!

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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