First Person

How Teachers Can Support and Challenge Twice-Exceptional Students

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When I first started my student teaching, I understood that all of my students would have specific learning needs that must be addressed throughout the school year. As a teacher with dual certifications in elementary education and special education, I knew I would need to support students with a wide range of talents and abilities. Yes, it was tough learning how to identify and implement supports that ensure academic growth for students, but with proper training and time in the classroom it became second nature.

However, I wasn't as prepared to work with students with disabilities who also showed advanced proficiency in some areas. To the untrained eye, a student who shows high potential in one area “doesn’t need” accommodations or supports, right? I learned quickly that this assumption was wrong.

These students are defined as being twice exceptional, or “2e.” Susan Baum, the director of the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development, writes that 2e students are learners who “demonstrate the potential for high achievement or creative productivity in one or more domains such as math, science, technology, the social arts, the visual, spatial, or performing arts or other areas of human productivity AND who manifest one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria.”

When I think about the specific needs 2e students have, and the success they can see when those needs are met, one former student comes to mind. This student was a 4th grader on the autism spectrum. We implemented accommodations for him in the areas of behavior management and mathematics, yet he always seemed bored or uninterested in writing. But when he did finally turn in work, his classroom teacher constantly emphasized, it was exemplary. It was clear he was a truly gifted writer.

When the annual meeting for his individualized education plan occurred, the team knew that the student needed accommodations to motivate him to write. The end result included differentiated instruction in writing, a learning contract between the student and general educator, and the ability to incorporate technology into the student’s daily writing activities. From then on, the student showed positive growth.

Even so, it had taken almost six months in 4th grade for this student to receive the supports he needed to demonstrate his talents. Twice-exceptional students are probably the most difficult cases to identify without deep investigation. Like this 4th grader’s general education teacher, teachers of twice-exceptional students might notice they are disengaged from lessons, appearing distracted, disorganized, or even unmotivated to complete work. But teachers can feel unsure how to help these students who need modifications or accommodations because they are exceeding grade-level expectations in certain tasks or subject areas.

Goal-Setting and Choice

Once students have been designated twice exceptional, teachers need to set talent-development goals for them—goals that, as the National Association for Gifted Children writes, should “nurture their talents and strengths in order to build self-confidence, create positive identities, and find like-minded friends.” For example, teachers can offer alternative challenging activities for a 2e student when the class is working on topics that the student may already have mastered.

In my experience, giving 2e students some control over their own work environment can also be helpful. Some of my students have benefitted from having music playing and using noise-cancelling headphones while working on tasks during the school day. These accommodations helped students succeed and remain engaged. Opportunities for creativity and choice can also support 2e students—teachers can give the class the option to pursue their interests and explore independent study projects.

When creating goals for 2e students, teachers should be mindful of their social-emotional needs as well as their academic needs. Twice-exceptional students can sometimes feel as though their high ability makes them outcasts and different from their peers. Accommodations should not draw attention to their differences from others in the classroom, but should give them the confidence to let their talents shine.

You, the teacher, are a superhero to all of your students. You are their voice when they are struggling and need help. Spot their grit and their needs early on in hopes of success throughout the entire school year. Help them by implementing goals to keep distractions minimal and their motivation high. Work with your students to help them to complete activities that cause them to struggle, as well as activities in which they excel. Every student has deficits as well as strengths, and effective teachers can and should ensure that all students can learn.

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