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Gifted and Underachieving…The Twice Exceptional Learner

By Melissa Sornik, LCSW.

This article is reprinted with permission of Long Island Parent magazine.

Jason, age 19, breezed through school with little effort until his last two years of high school. Disorganized with poor handwriting and a divergent learning style, he failed to hand in completed work in Honors and AP classes and so compromised his grades. Jason was accepted to college and despite having higher SAT scores than most of his freshman classmates, he was placed on probation. Then, he was sent home after his first semester because he was unable to keep track of, complete, and submit assignments.

Nine-year-old Sophie is a fourth grader who loves math and science. Her bedroom is filled with a dozen science projects at various stages of completion. Her mom tells Sophie’s teacher about her love of science and asks if Sophie may attend the school’s gifted program. The teacher says that Sophie’s overall performance in class is average. Sophie is often impulsive and distracted in class, is argumentative, and doesn’t get along with her peers. The teacher also says that Sophie could do better if she just tried harder. She is not a candidate for the school’s gifted program.

Trevor is 14-years-old. He has difficulty with most academic subjects and hates school where he spends an hour each day in the resource room for help with math and writing. Trevor is a passionate musician. Playing the violin since the age of seven, he performs with an all-county orchestra and has chosen music as a career. His principal has told his mother that Trevor will not perform in the spring concert unless his math grades improve. His mother worries because Trevor is becoming angry and depressed.

Jason, Sophie and Trevor share two traits: They are all gifted, and they are all experiencing difficulties in school. Each one can be described as “twice exceptional” or “2e.”

What is Twice Exceptionality?

Twice exceptionality is not a diagnosis; it is a conceptual way of identifying, understanding, and supporting the social, emotional and academic needs of a uniquely gifted learner. Twice-exceptional students demonstrate high/superior ability in one or more areas (specific academics, intellectual ability, creativity, leadership, visual or performing arts) and one or more social, emotional or academic challenge(s) caused by a neurobiological disorder (such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism), executive functioning, and/or an emotional, sensory or learning disability.

Twice exceptionality can be difficult to understand and identify because most twice exceptional individuals use their strengths to compensate for what they can’t do. When that happens, their abilities and disabilities mask each other, resulting in average performance or underachievement. Some are identified as gifted and at some point may exhibit challenging behaviors or inconsistent performance when they can no longer compensate for an underlying and unidentified disability. Some are identified as learning disabled because they are not meeting expected academic or social/emotional expectations. Subsequently, they do not receive opportunities to demonstrate their strengths and abilities. Behavioral challenges may also occur due to underlying stress, boredom, frustration and lack of motivation. When 2e learners don’t get the supports and interventions they need, and more often than not are identified by their deficits rather than their strengths, the result may be oppositional behavior, learned helplessness and low self-esteem.

Other Gifted/2e Characteristics

Typical gifted/2e characteristics also include sensory sensitivity, asynchronous (uneven) development, and perfectionism. Many gifted/2e individuals hate labels in their clothes and seams in their socks, are sensitive to loud noises, and are picky eaters due to sensitivity to smells, tastes, and textures of particular foods. Asynchronous development among skills including intellect, emotional maturity and physical development often underlie surface problems of inconsistency in social skills and academic performance. Understanding the impact of asynchrony between intellectual and social/emotional development is critical because precocious intellectual development may actually hinder the development of social/emotional development. An example of this would be argumentative or rigid thinking based upon intellectual knowledge/fact gathering without consideration of the perspectives of others. Therefore, it is important to simultaneously promote and support and develop both intellectual and emotional intelligence. Perfectionism, a common trait among gifted and 2e individuals may lead to unrealistic expectations and the unwillingness to try something new for fear of failure.

What Types of Accommodations Should be Provided for 2e Learners?

Each of the students described in this article would benefit from a 2e approach to intervention in which they would be provided with enrichment opportunities to challenge their areas of strength, and support and skill-building for areas of difficulty. One of the key concepts of 2e is to promote success by focusing on what these learners can do, including a variety of ways in which they can demonstrate subject mastery, rather than simply focusing on what they can’t do. Changing the focus from disability to ability makes sense for high-potential learners and promotes success that in turn, fosters good self-esteem and self-efficacy. Areas of difficulty should be supported, but they should not be the main focus.

Parents Are Our Children’s Best Advocates

Parents of 2e individuals will likely recognize many of the characteristics and situations described in this article and may be experiencing feelings of confusion, frustration and doubt about their children’s abilities. Yet, parents are usually the most accurate at identifying their gifted/2e children, especially when it comes to knowing their strengths. Negative issues such as inappropriate behavior or underachievement may cause parents to question their own judgment and second-guess themselves, particularly when dealing with educators and mental health professionals regarding issues of identification, diagnosis and appropriate interventions.

There is no doubt that parenting a 2e child is a challenging experience, but with insight, understanding, and the intuition 2e parents usually possess it is also incredibly rewarding.

Tips for 2e Parents

· Don’t deny your child’s gifts. Not every gifted child is twice exceptional, but every 2e child is gifted.

· Don’t be deterred by a low IQ score. Areas of weakness, including processing speed, organization and working memory may depress an overall IQ score. Subtest scores in the high/superior range are key to identifying areas of giftedness in 2e kids.

· Join a parent support group. Parents of 2e individuals often feel isolated: Like their children, they don’t fit in. Some “parents of gifted” groups can’t relate to learning disabilities, and parents of learning disabled (LD) groups can’t relate to giftedness.

· Maintain a positive “team oriented” relationship with your child’s school.

· Create opportunities for non-academic gifts. Reach out to other parents to start a cooking club, Lego club, or other area of interest and talent. This also creates opportunities for friendship and social cognition skill building.

· Foster independence, responsibility, and self-advocacy. Include your child’s input in behavior plans, contracts, and school meetings.

· Help your child to develop organizational and other executive functioning skills that work for them. Involve them in tasks and chores. Do things with them, not for them.

· Interview professional care providers. Ask them about their experience with and knowledge of gifted and gifted/LD individuals.

· Last, but perhaps most important, find some time each day to take care of yourself. Even as little as a half-hour will make a difference. Raising a twice-exceptional child can often be twice as exhausting as raising a typical child!


Melissa Sornik, LCSW is the co-founder and president of Twice Exceptional Children’s Advocacy (TECA) and maintains a private practice, Melissa Sornik, LCSW PLLC, specializing in services for gifted and twice exceptional individuals and their families. She would like to thank Wendy J. Eisner, Ph.D. with whom she co-founded TECA for her editorial feedback. This article was first published in the Long Island Parent Magazine, October/November 2011.

In 1981, SENG established guidelines for SENG Model Parent Support Groups (SMPGs). SMPGs bring together groups of interested parents of gifted and talented children to discuss such topics as motivation, discipline, stress management, and peer relationships. This column offers information and advice based on the experience of trained SMPG facilitators, both to apply in their own parent groups and for other parents to use and learn from. Learn more about the SMPG program at

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