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September 3, 2015 / 19 Elul, 5775
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Twice Exceptional: Smart Kids With Learning Disabilities

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It was Yehudah’s third birthday party. Instead of calmly interacting with his guests, he either ignored them or bossed them around with his limited vocabulary of ten words. He ran around nonstop and elbowed every person in his path. Then, his mother, Shoshana, decided he needed some time to himself so she asked him to play quietly in the den for a few minutes. Yehudah became immersed in his legos and would not emerge from the den for an hour, building a complex helicopter and helipad.

A year later, just as Shoshana was ready to concede that Yehudah would never speak more than ten words, his vocabulary multiplied exponentially. Not only that, but he learned to read at the same time. While breathing a sigh of relief, Shoshana knew that Yehudah’s problems with school were not over. Sure enough, throughout kindergarten and first grade, his teachers would call her:

“Yehudah does not try hard enough! He simply is not living up to his potential.”

“I cannot get Yehudah to sit still. He is so disruptive.”

“It’s nice that Yehudah is so curious, but he has got to stop asking so many irrelevant questions.”

“I think Yehudah needs to be tested for a learning disability.”

After first grade, Yehudah was diagnosed with ADHD and placed into a special education classroom. However, even with this remediation, Yehudah was still disruptive and he would come home from school complaining that it was too easy and he was bored. It was in second grade that Yehudah came to see me.

After a few sessions, we were able to determine that Yehudah was indeed bored in a special education classroom because along with his ADHD, he was also gifted intellectually. Now, as a fifth grader, even though his reading skills are slightly delayed, he is doing ninth grade math. In addition, with the recognition of his learning disability (LD) and his ADHD, Yehudah was reintegrated into a mainstream classroom. With ADHD and LD, Yehudah is a typical “twice exceptional” child.

Twice Exceptional

The term “twice exceptional” is still new in educational jargon – but it is something that is becoming more prevalent in my practice today. These children have a combination of exceptional intellectual power and uncommonly formidable mental roadblocks. That is, twice exceptional children are gifted intellectually and also can have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Aspergers Syndrome, Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD), or dyslexia.

Many times, these children can become problem students – even though they are head and shoulders above the crowd intellectually. A perfect example is Albert Einstein. Even though Einstein was brilliant when it came to visual and spatial reasoning, as a child he had behavioral problem, was a terrible speller, and had trouble verbally expressing himself. In many subjects, his report card grades were close to failing. Obviously, there was something else going on for the young Albert Einstein – though brilliant, his needs were not always met by the school system.

Specialized Learning

Research has established that children like Yehudah are the most underserved populations in the school system. Most of the time, children who are twice exceptional go through school without recognition of their considerable talents. Instead, they enter adult life without the necessary skills to compensate for their learning disabilities. Therefore, many of these children develop low self-esteem and believe that they are simply stupid and “not good at school.” The shocking news is that The US Department of Education estimates that 2%-5% of all students are both gifted intellectually and suffer from some form of learning disability.

How do we avoid losing out on the Einsteins of our generation? Children who are twice exceptional are often hard to categorize – sometimes their learning disability masks their brilliance, while at others, their brilliance masks their learning disability. How is it possible to identify these children? And, once they are identified, what can parents and schools do in order to make sure that their needs are met?

What teachers can do:

· Look for discrepancies: As gifted children who have learning disabilities are very hard to identify, look for discrepancies between a child’s “potential” and his actual work. If you feel that the child is simply being lazy because he could have done so much better based on his intellect, consider talking to his parents about getting him evaluated. Identification of twice exceptional students is the first step towards success.

· Differentiate instruction: In a class of twenty-five or more students, it is impossible to meet every student’s needs. However, through modification of teaching style or assignments, children with learning disabilities can better comprehend and complete their assigned work.

· Raise awareness: Talk to parents and colleagues about the existence of twice exceptional students. If parents and teachers look out for discrepancies in performance, they will be more likely to identify these students. In the long run, we will be educating a generation of students who will be better equipped as adults.

What parents can do:

· Don’t ignore the giftedness while trying to fix the disabilities: While it’s true that modifications to curricula often need to be made in order to accommodate twice exceptional children, parents must also feed their child’s need for knowledge. Because they are gifted, they will get depressed if they do not learn anything new.

· Don’t ignore the disabilities while trying to feed the giftedness: Your child might have exceptional intellectual capabilities, but if you only focus on that, she can get extremely frustrated. After all, who wouldn’t be frustrated if required to consistently do things she felt she couldn’t do?

· Trust your child: If your child tries to do something several times and then tells you that she cannot do it – trust her. Do not think that she is being lazy, stubborn, or unmotivated. Instead, attack the problem from a different angle. You are the one who knows your child the best – and should be her biggest advocate.

Siblings

Having a child with either disabilities or giftedness is extremely time consuming (and stress producing) – al achat kama v’kama having a twice exceptional sister! Therefore, it is important to take your other children into account. Siblings can often feel neglected or pushed to the side. A sibling might be resentful that you spend five minutes with him on his homework, whereas you spend several hours working with your other child. Thus, whenever possible, get help from other people – parents, friends, educational professionals – to free up your time for yourself and for your other children. And remember, while this can be a long and frustrating road, you never know if Einstein is waiting at the end of the journey.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@gmail.com.


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