Written by Cindy Perras, M.Ed., OCT
Educational Consultant, LDAO
Overview and Definition
Students who are gifted, and who have learning disabilities, may be “exceptionally” difficult to identify: their learning disabilities may “hide” their giftedness and their giftedness may “hide” their learning disabilities. This means that their needs in both areas may not be addressed appropriately.
In the literature, several definitions provide some insight into what is a paradoxical combination of strengths and needs:
Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities are the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected segment of the student population and the community. Teachers, school counselors, and others often overlook the signs of intellectual giftedness and focus attention on such deficits as poor spelling, reading, and writing (Whitmore & Maker, 1985).
A child who is Gifted/LD is "simply one who exhibits great talent or strength in certain areas and disabling weaknesses in others" (Baum, 1989, as cited in Bees, 2009).
“Gifted/LD students are students of superior intellectual ability who exhibit a significant discrepancy between this potential and their level of performance in a particular academic area such as reading, mathematics, spelling, or written expression. Their academic performance is substantially below what would be expected based on their general intellectual ability. As with other children exhibiting learning disabilities, this discrepancy is not due to the lack of educational opportunity in that academic area or other health impairment". (Brody & Mills 1997, as cited in Bees, 2009)
In Ontario, and elsewhere, students who are identified as Exceptional Intellectual – Gifted and Exceptional Communication – Learning Disability, may sometimes be referred to as “twice exceptional”. The Ministry of Education (2001) defines giftedness as “An unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated”.
Through Policy/Program Memorandum No. 8 (PPM 8), issued August, 2014, the Ministry of Education defines learning disability as one of a number of neurodevelopmental disorders that persistently and significantly has an impact on the ability to learn and use academic and other skills (Click here to access the full PPM 8 definition). The definition states that a student’s intellectual abilities must be at least in the average range to be identified under Learning Disability, and that a student must show academic underachievement inconsistent with their intellectual abilities, or academic achievement that can be maintained by the student only with extremely high levels of effort and/or with additional support. This definition leaves room for identification under Gifted and under Learning Disability, but the Ministry of Education does not provide a definition of Gifted/LD. However, a student may be identified with more than one exceptionality.
Identification and Characteristics of Gifted Students with LDs
According to Bees (2009), it is very important to know where to look for students who may be both gifted and LD; early identification may prevent some of the emotional distress associated with the student’s early school experiences. In Bees’ experience, a negative emotional response in students who are Gifted/LD is almost certain once school starts, and may result in depression, anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, or disruptive behaviour.
However, the very combination of superior and weak abilities tends to create challenges with the identification of Gifted/LD students. It may be that students’ strengths keep them from receiving appropriate remedial programming for their weaknesses or, more commonly, weaknesses are focussed on to the exclusion of programming for superior abilities.
The College of William & Mary, School of Education (Williamsburg, Virginia) has developed a number of print resources (in PDF) which provide an overview of current topics and best practices for supporting students with mild/moderate disabilities. These print resources, referred to as “considerations packets” or “information packets” include an excellent resource entitled, “Twice Exceptional: Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities”. The Twice Exceptional packet focuses on providing educators with basic information for recognizing and understanding gifted students with learning disabilities (LDs). The following three tables, Cognitive Strengths, Cognitive Challenges and Markers of the Combination of Giftedness and LD, from the Twice Exceptional packet, identify some of the possible characteristics of this student population (note: the lists are not exhaustive and not every student will exhibit all characteristics).
Cognitive Strengths of Gifted Students with LDs
- Superior vocabulary
- Uninhibited expression of opinions
- Uncanny sense of humor (e.g., sophisticated use of metaphor)
- Highly imaginative
- Extreme creativity
- Extreme sensitivity and intensity
- Penetrating insights
- High levels of problem solving and reasoning
- Interest in the “big” picture
- Specific talent in a consuming interest area for which students have exceptional memory and knowledge
- Wide range of interests that are not related to school learning
Figure 1. List of possible cognitive strengths of gifted students with LDs, from the Twice Exceptional information packet (2014).
Cognitive Challenges of Gifted Students with LDs
- Deficient or extremely uneven academic skills
- Discrepant verbal and non-verbal performance abilities
- Auditory, perceptual, or visual perception problems
- Problems with long- and/or short-term memory
- Perceptual-motor difficulties evidenced by clumsiness, poor handwriting, or problems completing fine-motor tasks
- Slow responses; students may appear to work slowly and think slowly
- Lack of organizational and study skills; often messy
- Difficulty following directions; nonlinear thinking
- Easily frustrated: students give up quickly on tasks; will not risk being wrong or making mistakes
- Lack of academic initiative; appear academically unmotivated; avoid school tasks; frequently fail to complete assignments
- Difficulty expressing ideas and getting to the point; difficulty expressing feelings
- Blaming others for their problems
- Distractibility; difficulty maintaining attention for long periods of time
- Difficulty controlling impulses
- Poor social skills: students may demonstrate antisocial behaviors
- Over-sensitivity to criticism
Figure 2. List of possible cognitive challenges of gifted students with LDs, from the Twice Exceptional information packet (2014).
Markers of the Combination of Giftedness and LD
- Poor memory for isolated facts, but excellent comprehension
- Preference for complex and challenging materials; easily distracted
- Lacking self-regulation and goal-setting strategies
- Boredom with rote or memorization tasks, but often disorganized
- Difficulty reading, writing or spelling, but excellent oral language skills
- Skill in manipulating people and situations, but poor interpersonal skills
- Poor performance on simple facts such as addition and subtraction, but capable of complex, conceptual manipulations such as algebraic concepts
- Strong sense of humor, but inability to judge appropriate times to display it
- Penetrating insights, but inability to determine cause and effect related to own actions
- Ability to concentrate for unusually long periods of time when the topic is of interest, but inability to control his or her actions and attention when the topic is not of interest
Figure 3. List of possible markers of the combination of giftedness and LD, from the Twice Exceptional information packet (2014)
How Can Teachers Help?
In addition to understanding the unique profile and needs of students who are gifted and who have LDs, teachers need strategies to engage students in the learning environment and models for special programming. Here are some suggestions from the Twice Exceptional (2014) packet:
- Use active inquiry involving discussion and experimentation
- Provide open-ended challenges requiring divergent thinking, especially in small-group settings
- Consider students’ preferred learning styles, interest, and strengths
- Based on student interests, incorporate opportunities for students to investigate real-world problems for real audiences
- Provide sufficient time for students to work without interruption
- Use POW or a similar strategy for writing -- students Pick their own ideas, Organize their notes, and Write and then say more by writing again (Margolis & McCabe, 2006)
- Use acceleration and curriculum compacting in strength areas<
- Teach whole concepts and then parts rather than part-to-whole
- Teach creative thinking and dramatics (Starko, 2004)
- Provide students with the rationale for tasks and lessons
- Provide students with detailed rubrics, checklists, or performance lists to reduce frustration
Social/Emotional Support Strategies
- Tap into students’ strengths by using bibliotherapy (the use of books to change behaviour and/or reduce stress), cinematherapy (a form of therapy or self-help that uses movies, particularly videos, as therapeutic tools), biographies and autobiographies, inspirational quotes, and self-help and how-to books (Halsted, 2002)
- Offer peer or group counseling sessions to address issues of self-concept, self-esteem, fear of failure, negative interactions with teachers, and poor peer relations
- Encourage individual counseling to address chronic behavioral or familial difficulties
- Encourage the use of reflective journals employing various modalities to address issues of self-esteem or self-efficacy
Conduct short- and long-term goal setting sessions
- Encourage students to assume responsibility by creating opportunities and letting them carry out responsibilities without interference or enabling
- Enhance motivation by planning for less desirable tasks to precede a preferred one (e.g., editing a paper before completing a creative group project)
- Assess present levels of student performance to provide appropriately challenging assignments (Margolis & McCabe, 2006)
- Limit choices; too many choices may interfere with students’ decision making
- Use a variety of environmental settings as cues for desired behavior. When changing activities and expectations, change the setting.
Provide private space for independent work
Strategies to Compensate for Areas of Need
- Pair students whose strengths are complementary
- Use picture books, tapes, and oral instruction for non-readers; word processors or dictation for non-writers
- Reduce reading by copying and enlarging paragraphs or pages
- Provide shortened class assignments to support short-term goal-setting strategies
- Encourage students to choose tasks that rely on students’ strengths rather than amplifying weaknesses (e.g., oral report with costume or props in lieu of a written report for students who do not have strong written language skills)
- Encourage knowledge and understanding of individual areas of strengths and need
- Be sensitive to students’ frustrations while supplying strategies for dropping out of activities with integrity (e.g., provide an escape route such as a quiet corner or allowing students hall passes to cope with feelings of frustration by taking a brief walk)
- Understand students’ need for emotional support to create a connectedness that is very powerful in motivating students to make decisions to work hard (Coleman, 2005)
- Teach learning strategies that provide students with a logical sequence of steps that make attacking difficult tasks more manageable (Margolis & McCabe, 2006) (e.g., the Strategic Instruction Model, University of Kansas, Center for Research on Learning, 2008, which employs specific strategies for reading, remembering, writing, performing math operations, and demonstrating competence. These explicit approaches are useful to enhance success and confidence in students who are identified as gifted/LD.)
- Teach self-regulation strategies such as chunking and setting short- and long-term goals (Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 1996)
Allow students to use technology such as calculators and speech-recognition software
In summary, programming for students who are gifted and who have learning disabilities should focus on developing their gifted potential while offering educational interventions and accommodations in areas of academic weakness. With these dual goals in mind, educators can contribute to both the educational and emotional development of these talented students so that they can achieve the success they deserve.
Numerous organizations, through print and online means, provide instructional strategies and suggestions for teaching students who are twice exceptional. This section of the summary highlights some Canadian and US resources.
In British Columbia, Corinne Bees authored under the auspices of, and published by, the Advocacy Group for Gifted/LD, a resource entitled, Gifted and Learning Disabled: A Handbook. The foreword of the handbook states “This handbook is for people who are interested in understanding and supporting those who are gifted and also have learning disabilities (Gifted/LD) be they children, youth, or adults. Parents, in particular, will benefit from an increased understanding of their children and how to navigate their child's voyage through the school system.”
This handbook is divided into four main sections, including:
- What is Gifted/LD – definition, characteristics, diagnostic criteria
- Curricular Needs and Strategies – IEPs, adaptations, enrichment, strategies, professional development
- Comments from parents, GOLD alumni comments and Gold alumni achievements
- Services for Students Who are Gifted/LD – located in Vancouver, BC
The National Resource Center on Gifted & Talented (University of Connecticut) offers research-based and online resources:
Bees, Corinne. (2009). Gifted and Learning Disabled: A Handbook. The Advocacy Group for Gifted/LD. Vancouver, BC.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2001). Special Education: A Guide for Educators. p. A20.
Whitmore, J.R., & Maker, C.J. (1985). Intellectual giftedness in disabled persons. Rockville, MD: Aspen.
William & Mary School of Education. (2014). Twice Exceptional. Retrieved from http://education.wm.edu/centers/ttac/resources/considerations/packets/index.php