Accommodating the Social and Emotional Needs of Secondary Gifted/Learning Disabled Students

By Richard Olenchak.


Full Title: Talent Development: Accommodating the Social and Emotional Needs of Secondary Gifted/Learning Disabled Students


Abstract The population of students in secondary schools who are concomitantly gifted and learning disabled is especially at risk for poor academic performance. Often, their sense of self has been damaged by schools’ overemphasis on their disabilities at the expense of efforts aimed at enhancing their strengths. Using student cases and a review of literature as a foundation, this exploration advocates the development of individual student talent as a philosophical theme for schools to accommodate the social and emotional needs among gifted/learning disabled youth. Descriptions of several educational innovations and reform components, likely to enhance talent development, are included as additional means for examining the critical relationship between self esteem and academic success.


If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear Your favours nor your hate.

William Shakespeare Macbeth, I(3)


Gifted students with accompanying learning disabilities (gifted/LD) represent a certain “untidiness” that gifted education has heretofore largely tried to avoid. Each exceptionality, giftedness and learning disabilities, is predicated on constructs that continue to be questioned in the literature. Gardner (1993) examined the limitations of definitions that continue to be utilized in gifted and talented education, while Mercer, King-Sears, and Mercer (1990) marveled at the numerous geographically-based distinctions dictating ways in which students can qualify for learning disabilities programs. The seeming contradictions in terminology, “gifted” versus “learning disabilities,” has created philosophical difficulties for many educators. The notion that giftedness can be hidden from recognition, masked by problems experienced in traditional learning venues, has only recently received much attention. With this growing awareness, teachers and parents must grapple with a decade of initiatives gauged at improving academic achievement for all students. Despite the fact that the identification of giftedness continues to be, for the most part, “tidily” assessed via a priori psychometric measures, with program inclusion continuing to hinge on whether students have satisfied statistical criteria for admission (Abeel, Callahan & Hunsaker, in press), few would argue that many students beyond the limits of the criteria can benefit from the stimulation of much of gifted programs’ activities. Moreover, there is reason to believe that inclusion in such activities promotes academic achievement among a number of students who typically do not perform effectively in school (Baum, Owen & Dixon, 1991; Olenchak, 1990, 1993).


In addition to influencing identification of students for access to gifted programs, this “tidy” approach has been extended to the assessment of school practices. While a paradigm shift continues to redefine the nature of giftedness by broadening perspectives about the range of human potential (Coleman, 1992; Gardner, 1993), schools persist in using quantitative means for assessing their successes and failures. This approach reduces the scrutiny of school practices to numbers on achievement tests and other quantitative results, thus reinforcing the use of numerous, perhaps inappropriate, practices. These practices continue so long as they appear to be “working” for a majority of students. In this case, quality is confused with quantity, and the individual needs of each students are not of strong consideration (Wagner, 1993). As a result, many students, who are gifted and who experience an array of learning disabilities, become trapped by this quantitative vacuum and are disenfranchised by inappropriate education al practices. These students are unable to be included in specialized gifted programs due to their failure to “measure up” on psychometric assessments and are unable to achieve academically because classroom practices are aimed at the success of the majority of students and not at satisfying individual needs. Whenever students feel disenfranchised, feelings of negative self-esteem may result, and these emotions may lead to a wide variety of negative behaviors that ultimately produce educational dysfunction and, more critically, social and emotional difficulties.


THE THREE FACES OF GIFTED/LD The predicament for gifted/LD students is not a simple as it may seem, however. Superficially, it would appear that gifted/LD students would become entrapped in the philosophical and definitional dilemma surrounding the terms, “gifted” and “learning disabled.” In actuality, however, the quandary encompasses three scenarios that are related to the school practices for specialized program inclusion, gifted, LD, or otherwise. Particularly as identificational systems for special educational services continue to rely on psychometric assessments, students’ actual needs are likely to be overlooked by teachers and parents in one of three ways, each student being able to:

· satisfy neither the criteria established for gifted programming nor those utilized for LD identification;

· satisfy criteria for inclusion in gifted programs but not for LD assistance; or

· satisfy criteria for LD identification but not for gifted programs.

Each of these scenarios, while quite different, can have similarly devastating effects that contribute to feelings of disenfranchisement for the students involved.


Neither Abilities Nor Disabilities Are Identified Students who employ their abilities to develop their own compensatory strategies for making their disabilities are also endangered in traditional schools. These young people manage to work at grade level by working diligently to create mechanisms for “handling” their learning difficulties. Unfortunately, as so much of their energies are allocated to compensation techniques and to their difficulties, little verve remains for working with their talents and gifts. “In essence, their intellectual ability hides the disability, and the disability disguises the gift” (Baum et al., p. 16, 1991).


Although such students can develop frustration like their previously-noted counterparts, this face of gifted/LD is less likely to result in overt problems. While there is a tendency to want to “oil the squeaky wheel,” concern for these students should not be erased simply because their needs are less demonstrable. Students whose needs have not been identified, whether those needs are associated with giftedness or learning disabilities, represent perhaps the worst educational predicament: failure of schools to individualize. Such oversights result in the underservice of both potentialities and disabilities, eventually leading to the underdevelopment of the student involved. Even if schools had collectively grown callous to the point of ignoring each pupil’s individual needs in favor of concentrating on a majority of students, there is a problem. At a time when society cries out for skilled people who are relatively self-assured, the possibility that any student’s educational needs may be overlooked places the future of the whole of society in jeopardy (Southern Growth Policies Board, 1986). While there may be a tendency to concentrate on what is good for the ma