Double Trouble

Students who are both gifted and learning disabled pose a unique educational challenge

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From an early age, Dayle Upham remembers feeling like two people. The person on the inside was quick, competent, and would always know the right answers in school. The person on the outside kept getting in the way. It wasn’t until Upham reached her 40s that she discovered why she may have felt that way. Upham is “twice exceptional”: She is both gifted and learning disabled.

That students like Upham exist at all may come as a surprise to some teachers. “If you ask a lot of educators, they will say that’s kind of like an oxymoron,” Upham says. “You can’t be gifted and learning disabled at the same time.”

But three researchers at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut say Upham is far from alone. In fact, many brilliant individuals—Albert Einstein, Auguste Rodin, and Charles Darwin, among them—also have had to contend with a learning disability. In fact, one estimate suggests that as many as 180,000 gifted students with disabilities may currently be in the nation’s classrooms. And the chances are good that these twice-exceptional students are not faring well there.

Researchers Sally Reis, Terry Neu, and Joan McGuire studied the lives of 12 University of Connecticut students who were both gifted and learning disabled. They found that these students suffered in school because they were considered too bright for special education and not bright enough for gifted programs. Because they excelled in some areas and not others, teachers sometimes considered them lazy. Because they were bright, they found ways to compensate for—and mask—their disabilities.

“It was not just the presence of a learning disability that affected school academic success,” the University of Connecticut researchers write in a report released in April. “It was the combination of giftedness and the learning disability that created many negative school experiences for this population.”

Says Reis, who led the study, “They struggle and struggle, so they appear to be achieving at average or slightly-below-average levels when actually it’s taking enormous amounts of work.” With the right kind of help, Reis adds, these students “could be soaring.”

Investigators at the center for the gifted and talented decided to look at this population for two reasons: First, the federal grants they received under the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Act required them to look at special populations. Second, the center was getting calls from frantic parents who did not understand why their children seemed to be exceptionally talented in one area and yet could not read or write. Other calls came from teachers who did not know what to do with such students.

The researchers concentrated on “best case examples” of these students, hoping to find in their stories lessons for the less successful students. To find those examples, they reviewed records going as far back as elementary school for students enrolled in the University of Connecticut’s Program for Students with Learning Disabilities, a student-support program. They chose those who had either been singled out in school as gifted or who would have been identified as gifted because of high IQ scores or because of outstanding performance in a particular academic area.

All of the students had a language-based disability of some kind, ranging from spelling problems to severe dyslexia. Their strengths tended to lie in spatial or creative areas. One student, for example, won top honors in engineering from the university. The researchers interviewed the students and at least one of their parents. They checked the information those interviews generated against the students’ school records and against questionnaires the participants completed.

Although this kind of qualitative research methodology has its critics, Reis says the process allowed them to take an unusually close look at their subjects. “You are able to really know these young people,” she says. “And, given that these 12 people came from four different states and attended different schools in different school districts, they had very common experiences in school.”

For the most part, those experiences were overwhelmingly bad. “It was the most horrible experience of my life,” says Upham, who was one of the 12 subjects. “I’ve always been extremely good at athletics, and that was the only reason I stayed.”

Half the students were held back at least once. Most were not identified as learning disabled until middle school, high school, or even college. Yet, many had been tested for a disability at some earlier point in their schooling. “My mother had me taken to a psychologist,” another subject told the researchers, “and then she met with the people in the school, and they said they couldn’t put me in the learning-disability program because I was too smart.”

Upham knew something was wrong in the 1st grade, but she wasn’t diagnosed as dyslexic until the 7th grade. Still, she was able to get along by memorizing entire stories that her mother read to her, using the pictures on each page as cues. “I also learned very quickly to become much more observant than other kids, picking up body-language signals and changes in tones of voice,” she says.

Another student, whom researchers gave the pseudonym “Peggy,” recalls elementary school teachers who yelled at her to “shape up” and who kept her after school when she failed to memorize her multiplication tables. And “Joe,” yet another subject, told the researchers how students threw rocks at him and called him a “retard” during recess.

“It would’ve been sad for any group of youngsters,” Reis says, “but, because these young people were so bright, they caught every nuance. They recognized whenever someone was making fun of them.”

Over the years, half the students sought help for the social and emotional scars that resulted. Joe, for example, said he had blocked out the years he spent in a self-contained special education classroom with students who were mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. Another subject attempted suicide.

The quality of the special education services students received once their disabilities were identified varied widely from year to year. Even students who were not lumped into special classes with more seriously disabled students complained about the remedial nature of the services they received. “I kind of wondered why I was there because everything they had me do was so simple,” one subject recalls. “I kind of felt like I was doing it for them. I would go into this room, and the teacher would have me read this story that I had read 10 times already in 2nd grade and fill in questions about it, and it seemed so obvious.”

Not all the students had completely negative experiences. Three said that working with a learning specialist had been a major positive influence in their lives.

More useful, however, were the services they received once they arrived at the university. There, the focus was on helping students find ways to compensate for their disabilities and to advocate for themselves. They might, for example, learn study strategies or ask professors for more time on tests.

Many of the factors that helped these students persevere and ultimately succeed are similar to those other researchers have identified in children who were able to overcome other kinds of adversity in their lives. [See “Against All Odds,” May/June.] They all had at least one parent, usually a mother, who provided strong support and unconditional love. They had positive out-of-school experiences, usually through athletics or hobbies. And they exhibited such personal characteristics as determination, stubbornness, and a belief in hard work.

The lesson for precollegiate educators, Reis, Neu, and McGuire say, is to find ways to focus on the strengths of these students rather than on their weaknesses. Only one student in the study, for example, had been formally identified as gifted. Neu is currently working with Susan Baum, another researcher, to develop an intervention program for 6th and 7th graders who are both gifted and learning disabled.

It saddens Reis and her colleagues when they think about all the twice-exceptional students who aren’t able to persevere and succeed. “The kids in the learning-disabled study had a tremendous amount going for them,” she says. “But for every kid who makes it, there are probably a dozen who don’t.”

Vol. 07, Issue 01, Pages 20-22

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