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The Affective Side: Emotional Issues of Twice Exceptional Students

By Jean Strop and David Goldman

I remember a day in 2nd grade when the whole class was sitting in a circle taking turns reading a book. I quietly watched as each person took his turn. The number of students between the reader and myself slowly dwindled while my pulse rate quickened. Everyone read so fast! Finally it was my turn. “OK,” I told myself, “slowly sound out each word, and I’ll do fine.” Despite my best efforts, I still got stuck on the five-letter words that everyone else read with ease. The entire class started laughing; what an idiot I was; everyone could read this but me. I finished reading a few sentences in what seemed like three hours, but at least it was over; the torture had ended. But WAIT! The circle was going around again!! David Goldman, 2001

This quote, taken from a recent college essay written by a very successful twice exceptional student, illustrates the key dilemma faced by these students. It is not an easy task to balance the expectations of being gifted while trying to overcome learning challenges. Consequently, twice exceptional students need a strong support group to assist them with several key emotional issues that may impede their academic achievement: anger, fear of failure, a strong need to control, low self esteem, and sometimes, even fear of success.

Anger Students who are twice exceptional often hold themselves to high performance expectations. These high expectations cause twice exceptional students to work harder and longer than their intellectual peers. Because of their learning challenges, they may still not be satisfied with the results of their labors. It feels unfair to be blessed with the very gifts which lead to the expectation of excellent performance, yet have a constant set of roadblocks to overcome. A consistent diet of frustration and resentment without academic success may lead to deep-seated anger aimed at the school and at those who hold these high expectations.

Fear of Failure Twice exceptional students who have not learned ways to compensate in their areas of academic weaknesses may develop an expectation of failure, hence a subsequent fear of failure. This fear of failure may exhibit itself as anger or frustration while completing the task, high levels of stress at any stages of the task, and/or total avoidance of parts of the task or the entire task.

Strong Need to Control Often these aforementioned emotions, expectations, and fears can be perceived as negative and to be avoided. One way to avoid these feelings is to develop a strong need to control situations. For instance, a student who is easily distracted may feign illness on the day of an exam to set up a make-up situation in a much quieter teacher’s office. A student who hates to read aloud will ask for a bathroom pass just before it is his turn to read aloud in class. A student who fears failure will not turn in homework to feel in control and to protect the ego, using the rationale that “I would have done well had I done the work.”

Low Self-Esteem For many twice exceptional students, the negative coping mechanisms they adopt to deal with the anger, frustration, and fears about difficult academic tasks can lead to lower self confidence, lower risk-taking, and less willingness to put in effort on tasks which tap academic weaknesses. These choices can negatively impact the academic self-esteem of these students. The perceived or actual reactions of peers, parents, and teachers in response to these coping mechanisms can cause a further erosion of self-esteem, as well.

Fear of Success It is not unusual for twice exceptional students to experience the typical feelings of elation when achieving desired success on a difficult task. For many of these students, however, this elation is often short-lived and replaced by anxiety at “not being able to replicate the level of success on the next assignment.” The anxiety often increases because the positive feedback that is received from parents, peers, and teachers can be experienced as “upping the ante,” or pressure. This sequence can often result in a deep fear of success.

Strategies to Help The most effective way to inoculate twice exceptional students against the devastating effects of these emotions is early identification and support. That way the student’s strengths and weaknesses are documented, understood, and more likely to be addressed. These students need programming options which allow them to pursue areas of giftedness, while also providing opportunities to concretely learn compensatory skills (rather than having to learn them intuitively through trial and error). The twice exceptional students who are most likely to achieve are those who know and accept their strengths and weaknesses, who utilize accommodations in their areas of weakness, who know and accept that they might have to work harder than other gifted students to achieve the same results, and who have developed a positive sense of personal competence about addressing difficult academic tasks.

Even with a strong program which provides for both exceptionalities, these students will still encounter negative emotions and setbacks. They need an active support system to access during these times, to talk openly about their feelings, and to problem solve about getting beyond the emotions in a given situation. This support can take place in informal discussions with teachers, parents, or peers; or it may demand more formal situations such as individual counseling for mild issues and, perhaps, therapy for deeper or high impact issues.

By arming these twice exceptional students with ways to compensate for their academic weaknesses, as well as the means to overcome typical emotional issues which can daunt them, they can be freed to achieve, to set high standards, and to succeed academically. Then, hopefully, they can develop a strong sense of competence as expressed by the following in a college essay: “I realize my learning disabilities have been a blessing in disguise because despite the difficulties they cause me, I have been able to make myself a better student.” David reminds us that when our twice exceptional students achieve this sense of competence and control in the academic arena, they may once again dare to dream.

Jean Strop is Counseling Coordinator and Gifted/Talented Resource Teacher at Cherry Creek High School, Colorado. She is a consultant and presenter on affective and academic programming for gifted and talented students.

David Goldman, a senior at Cherry Creek High School, is a debater as well as a presenter on Twice Exceptional. He will attend University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business.


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