Parenting the Twice Exceptional Student: Advocacy Tips for Your Gifted Child with a Learning Disability

This mom’s frustration with her local school district just bowled me over completely. This is my client population: parents who are tired of being dismissed by their children’s educators as crazy, money-hungry, or power tripping. Parents of kids who burst into tears because a 30-minute homework assignment takes three hours. Parents who are ready to throttle the next teacher who tells them that their child is just so smart, so why isn’t he doing the work?

Ms. Thompson’s plight resonates with me in particular, because so called “twice exceptional” (2e) children are uniquely disadvantaged if the school’s IEP team members lack experience with this particular disability profile. You can read her story in the Atlantic, but I’ll offer an example of my own from one of the most common scenarios I encounter:

Suzy has always been a star student, but in the third grade she suddenly seems to be unraveling. School went from fun to stressful, suddenly. It’s mom who notices that Suzy can’t really read words in isolation — yet she continues to achieve passing scores on tests at school, and her teacher hasn’t noticed any academic problems, just behavioral ones.

Mom asks Suzy’s teacher if anything can be done to improve her reading, and the teacher suggests some accommodations typically provided to students with ADHD. So Suzy is seated close to the teacher’s desk so the teacher can keep an eye on her, purportedly to see if she’s lost in the classroom discussion, but also due to Suzy’s tendency to speak out of turn. The teacher also mentions that if it’s a problem for Suzy to do all the reading required of her, she might be able to just grade Suzy on shorter reading and writing assignments. While that might help, to Suzy’s mom, it just feels … wrong. Suzy is bright and creative, and she loves telling stories and seems to soak up new information like a sponge. She just has trouble getting her thoughts on paper sometimes. When she does write, she has fantastic ideas, but lots of spelling errors. Sometimes it seems like she can’t find the right words to say what happens next in a story or essay.

When Mom pushes for more reading-specific testing by the school’s IEP team, they reluctantly refer Suzy for testing, but tell Mom that the assessments need to start with a more general academic battery. The school psychologist will also test Suzy’s cognitive abilities, and give Suzy’s parents and classroom teacher forms to fill out called behavioral rating scales. They’re going to look at her overall intelligence, how well she’s doing academically, and try to figure out why Suzy is impulsive in the classroom and hates school. Ok, great.


The test results are ready a couple months later. Wow, Suzy is off the charts with her intelligence! High average scores, so no problems there. She probably has mild ADHD, so the same accommodations she got earlier in the year will just stay in place. As for the reading disability Suzy’s parents were so worried about … well, she’s an all around average student on both the language arts and math assessments, so that’s the end of that discussion. It just doesn’t make sense to Suzy’s mom though. Suzy is doing well by the school’s own standards, it seems. The teachers don’t see her slow and labored reading as a problem, and offer vocabulary lists, graphic organizers, and a homework folder to keep Suzy organized at home.

If Suzy’s parents have the resources (another topic for another time), they might find themselves consulting with an independent psychologist in their community who specializes in evaluating children with learning disabilities. And a very likely scenario here is that Dr. Psychologist will conduct more detailed testing that uncovers Suzy’s underlying Dyslexia as the reason she struggles in reading. And get this: while Suzy’s teacher scratches her head over how Suzy can get nearly perfect reading comprehension scores, it’s the independent testing that reveals Suzy’s reading challenges as pertaining to her decoding skills. Take an unfamiliar, multi-syllable word she encounters in a reading comprehension passage out of its context, in isolation or in a random sentence – and she can’t read it! Suzy’s reading disability severely impairs her ability to connect sounds with letters and letter combinations. But she’s super intelligent, and relies on that relative superpower to get the gist of the meaning of a short reading passage. She may not be reading every single word in that passage, especially the longer words — but her brain is just great at making the leaps in reasoning and deductions she needs to answer those reading comprehension questions correctly.

This is just one of countless examples I could offer here, and I’m sure there are parents nodding along in fervent agreement with Ms. Thompson’s own story who could add their own tales of woe. I’m just a lawyer who represents these folks, but based on what I’ve seen, here’s a few tips I can muster that I hope you find helpful if you are parenting a 2e child:

1. Read up on what an IEE is, and be ready to request it.

An Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) is available whenever you disagree with the school district’s own evaluation. It means that the school needs to pay for an assessment by an independent evaluator as a form of second opinion. While the school can ultimately disagree with the new evaluation, the IEP team is still required to hold a meeting for the purpose of reviewing and considering it. You don’t actually need to articulate a precise or detailed reason why you disagree with the school’s evaluation, although it’s a good idea to try. If you know something is wrong with the evaluation report but have trouble saying why, try this:  “This doesn’t look like my child.”

2. Understand the school’s programming options for both learning disabled and gifted students.

A common problem we run into with our clients is that their child may be eligible for higher level or advanced placement classes in one area, but require special education in order to be successful in other areas. This is not at all a contradiction. In fact, as the Atlantic article puts it, this is actually the ideal pedagogical approach our public school systems would take for all students under perfect (i.e., adequately funded and staffed) conditions. Doesn’t it make sense that some students will excel in one area while needing extra help in others? As obvious as that concept may seem, it’s a difficult one for our educators to carry out, for reasons that aren’t necessarily their fault. If your learning disabled child needs to spend time in the resource room for specialized instruction, but is scheduled in a way that prevents her from enrolling in an honors class or elective where she has the potential to shine, ask politely but firmly for a scheduling change that allows her to participate in both.

3.  Monitor your child for social, behavioral and emotional challenges too.

I can only speak anecdotally on this subject, but there’s lots of research out there by professionals with all kinds of letters after their names indicating that 2e children are susceptible to anxiety and peer conflict due to being both intellectually gifted and impacted negatively by their disabilities. This is generally applicable to all parents dealing with the IEP or 504 Plan development process, and yet another area of special ed that may be the law, but is still overlooked by even the most well-intentioned educators. It’s often just easier for the team to focus on the overarching academic needs of a student with a learning disability, while forgetting that his struggle to learn also has a detrimental impact on his confidence in front of his peers. The learning disabled child can become the class clown, tantrummer, or bully as a way to hide his shame and distract his classmates from focusing on his academic weaknesses. The child who has trouble processing verbally presented information may need to raise her hand for clarification, but may feel too embarrassed to do so, choosing instead to just pretend she understands the lesson or instructions.

Parents are the singular best educational advocates for their own children. Sometimes they just need a bit of guidance or instruction from an expert or two in the field. Here’s a few links I was able to gather that parents of 2e kids may find particularly helpful:

Cathy Risberg’s 2e Page on Hoagie’s Gifted with more useful links including the 2enewsletter

Wrightslaw – a trusted special ed. resource for parents, also has a 2e section 

I’m not a member myself, but Facebook has a Twice Exceptional Children group has some fabulous resources for parents, including this comprehensive 2e page

Do you have additional tips or resources to share about 2e students, or a story about your own advocacy efforts on behalf of your twice exceptional child? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

image via WikiMedia Commons

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