Teaching Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities: Lessons from an Independent School Specifically Designed for These Creative, Complex Individuals

Thomas Boyce, MD, describes highly sensitive children who require customized, nurturing conditions to thrive as “orchids” in his new book, The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. He dubs the remaining majority “dandelions” because they can grow peacefully in a wide range of environments.

Young people who are intellectually gifted, highly talented, or both, and who also have some type of learning disability are known to be “twice exceptional,” or 2e. These children fall into the “orchid” category.

[Above: Bridges students practice coding on their laptops.] 

According to the book Twice Exceptional: Supporting and Educating Bright and Creative Students with Learning Difficulties, 2es are “neither exclusively disabled, nor exclusively gifted.” Rather, it is the “dynamic interaction” of both their gifts and their limitations that make these individuals fascinating, unpredictable, and often quite funny.

Susan Baum
Susan Baum

There are more than 300,000 2es in the United States, according to cognitive scientist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD. Susan Baum, PhD, a researcher in the field of twice exceptional education, says the 2e population is rapidly growing for reasons experts can’t exactly pinpoint — it may simply be a matter of increased awareness. She directs the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development at Bridges Academy, an independent school specifically for 2e students located in Studio City, Calif.

2es have many strengths, including some of the following characteristics: 

● Highly creative
● Verbal
● Imaginative
● Curious
● Excellent problem solvers
● Interested in a wide range of topics, all-consumed with a particular area of expertise, or both

These extraordinary individuals also face unique challenges. Some have to do with the “dynamic interaction” between their dual exceptionalities. For instance, they may struggle with the following issues:

● A child’s gift or talent may dominate, hiding their disability and hindering their ability to receive needed services.
● Their disability may dominate, hiding their gifts, causing them to lose out on enrichment opportunities.
● Each gift or disability may mask the other so that both go unaddressed.

Another challenge is “asynchronous development,” according to Leslie Pruess, school psychologist at Bridges. “One of the key pieces to being twice exceptional is having your intellect develop along one trajectory, your emotional skills develop along a different pathway, and then having a totally unique, churning trajectory for your social and behavioral development,” Pruess says in the film 2e: Twice Exceptional.

Baum and other experts use the “5-10-15 principle” to describe twice-exceptional students. On a scale from age five to 15 on maturity and development, they are often at 5 years old socially, 10 in actual age, and 15 intellectually.

Their delayed emotional development can manifest in meltdowns and tantrums, Baum says. In these situations, she advises teachers to treat 2es according to their social age. In other words, do not try to reason with them any more than you would with a pre-school age child.

Other common difficulties include poor executive function and organizational skills, high anxiety, and perfectionism.

Their anxiety often stems from being immersed in environments where they feel misunderstood, Baum says. They may have frequently been asked to complete tasks that were too hard for them. Because they feel deeply and don’t want to disappoint, something as simple as writing a math problem on the board can create extreme stress. Additional stressors include feeling disoriented by the discrepancy between what they can do exceptionally well and what they can’t do and feeling paralyzed by past failures.

Bridges students in a lighting tech class
Bridges students in a lighting tech class

Baum says 2es are often overmedicated. Doctors tend to add more medication and diagnose them with more and more deficits rather than realizing their creativity and intelligence may just mean their teachers need to provide more novelty and rigor in the classroom. 

Finally, 2es who do not receive adequate support are at risk academically, Baum says. Many of them tend to have slower rates of production and processing speed, so they need flexible learning environments that give them time to complete assignments.  

A Child’s Journey
DiversityIS interviewed the parent of a twice-exceptional 13-year-old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The child’s gifts are particularly pronounced in math and science.

His father described some of his traits and interests, including the following:

● Obsession with computer science and math after playing the video game Minecraft
● A single-minded focus on topics that interest him and a general thirst for learning
● Extraordinary work ethic
● “Memory like a steel trap”
● Academically advanced, socially immature
● “Horrible” executive function
● A “visceral frustration” when a teacher is moving slowly through material he already knows

After being tested by the local school system, the boy was identified as gifted in second grade. He started attending public school for gifted children, but “things went south very quickly,” his father says. “He was having temper tantrums and throwing himself against walls.” School officials suggested that he might have ASD. Shortly thereafter, a pediatrician confirmed that he was on the spectrum, diagnosed him with ADHD as well, and prescribed medication.

The school assigned him a teacher’s aide among other services, but after a few months, he didn’t need most of the accommodations.   

Over the years, his father has watched his son transform due to the flexibility and strengths-based approach of his educators and doctors. In particular, the teachers who allowed his son to engage in his areas of interest, as long as he was producing something, enabled the boy to remain engaged in his classes. Moreover, the fact that his teachers were specifically trained in gifted education helped him thrive, as they were able to adjust class content to match his intellectual ability.  

By the time he was in seventh grade at an area charter school, he was taking all high school classes. Now, he is dually enrolled in computer science and math classes at a local university and community college. He still takes medication, but his dosage is minimal.

“[He] will always struggle in certain environments, such as loud, chaotic, unpredictable ones,” his father says. “We have to do what we can to adapt for him.”

An Understanding Environment
Bridges Academy epitomizes the “orchid” theory. The culture of this college prep school for grades 5-12 is focused on bringing out the strengths of 2e youth. The school serves children and adolescents from across the U.S. with all types of gifts and disabilities, from Tourette syndrome to learning impairments caused by childhood viral meningitis, and much more.

Baum believes that all teachers in all settings have the capacity to nurture 2e youth if they receive adequate professional development. For example, they need to be extremely familiar with their content in order to earn the respect of this population. Twice-exceptional children are also sensitive to condescension and often have collegial relationships with their teachers, she says.

Many of the teachers at Bridges are experts in their fields, having led distinguished careers prior to becoming educators. Science teacher Aidyl Gonzalez, PhD, “was doing great science, studying spinal cord injury,” but says she “was doing the same thing every day” and “needed something to inspire [her].” She has attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, so she identifies with her students. 

Teachers at Bridges also tend to have an affinity for 2e individuals, whether because “they’re a little 2e themselves” or they have loved ones who possess similar traits. With these ingrained characteristics, Baum says 2e pedagogy comes naturally to them.

In terms of motivating 2es, Baum says it’s important to create a learning environment that soothes anxiety and lowers the stakes so perfectionism doesn’t kick into overdrive. An example of this was when art teacher Caroline Maxwell taught her students painting techniques by taking her class outside on a sunny day and having them practice painting with water on asphalt. This way, they could easily redo their work.

Importance of a Strengths-Based Approach
The most important thing to keep in mind when teaching 2es, Baum says, is to focus on their strengths. Bridges high school science teacher Greg Baeza says, “Everything we do is secondary to giving students an environment where they can really be themselves and not have to worry about being different.”

This approach isn’t just about improving kids’ self-esteem. It enables teachers to more effectively help students develop those skills that need improvement. For instance, English teachers at Bridges have allowed individual students to read Shakespeare for the purpose of designing a set, or The Great Gatsby in order to produce a detailed map of the book’s fictional Long Island town, Baum says.

Author and developmental psychologist Howard Gardner refers to these focused approaches as “entry points” to learning. This method “makes teaching exciting and brings in so many kids,” Baum explains.

At Bridges, every school year begins with a series of activities called “starting with strength.” In addition to the standard practice of having students self-assess their strengths and interests, faculty facilitate hands-on activities such as building towers together out of paper. Then, teachers meet and reflect on each individual student’s areas of talent.

Through the year, students spend half of their time at school engaged in enrichment and development, Baum says. These opportunities include managing a chicken coop, fixing old cars, participating in a debate team, and building robots, among other activities. “Electives are not electives at Bridges,” Baum says.

Baum, who began her career as a special education teacher, argues that education in the U.S. operates on a deficit model. According to Christine Nobbe, a longtime gifted specialist, the fields of special education and gifted education developed as “silos,” each independent of the other. Twice-exceptional students effectively challenge the status quo of that system. Simply focusing on 2e’s strengths is the best way educators can respond, Baum says. “Treatment is not only finding what is broken. It is nurturing what is right.”ν

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.