By Deborah Gennarelli.
Engaging, passionate, and strong minded described my young son before he started kindergarten. As a parent, I observed many things that let me know he was very bright. My son’s verbal skills were exceptional. He was more comfortable speaking with adults rather than same age peers. My son also enjoyed constant stimuli in his environment. Taking one family vacation a year was not enough to quench my boy’s appetite for exploration and learning new things. As the parent of a very smart boy, I realized early that I had to be constantly on my toes to make sure my son was happy. I kept asking myself, “What is going to happen when formal schooling begins? Would teachers think my son is as bright as I do? Will he be given the same attention as he had received at home to satisfy his thirst for learning? Will my son like school and enjoy going every day?” Little did I know that I was in for “the great awakening” when my boy began school.
Almost every twice-exceptional boy and family I have worked with in my gifted education career, and there have been many, describes their early years as happy ones (Twice-exceptional Boys: A Roadmap to Getting it Right). The parents see their son(s) as very bright, happy, and ready to learn as much as possible. Most importantly, the parent AND child assume that when school begins everything will go as smoothly as a well-planned road trip. There will be abundant in-depth and interesting lessons to explore, exciting peer interactions, and daily opportunities to build upon the child’s strengths. The family always has optimism that their child’s teacher will be open minded to ALL the children in the classroom.
However, when boys begin to exhibit gifted characteristics and/or learning difficulties in school that the adults in charge don’t understand, rarely do the stories remain happy for very long. As reported in the 2019 Digest of Education Statistics by the National Center for Education, boys:
Were more likely to receive an out of school suspension.
Were expelled 2 ½ times more than girls.
Were more likely to use illicit drugs.
Were twice as likely to be in a fight at school.
These inequalities also cross racial boundaries and appear to be even more dramatic for minority boys. The same center reported in 2019 that:
Black boys were threatened or injured with a weapon at school more often than white boys.
Twice as many Black boys were expelled from school as compared to white boys.
Twice exceptional boys have a special mixture of needs that are often overlooked in schools today. First, as young boys entering preschool or kindergarten, they find the classroom environments are often antithetical to the way they learn. There is more “sit and listen” compared to learn by doing and allowing for abundant free play. Young boys generally have high energy and poor impulse control. Their natural behavior is to move around and explore. If they cannot conform to the rules of the classroom, they are often punished. The child’s mood changes quickly from cheerful because school is enjoyable to melancholy because he questions if his classroom is where he wants to go every day.
In addition, young boys and girls are affected by brain-based differences (read more about gifted boys here). For example, at ages 4-6, girls are better at fine motor skills and coordination of fine motor tasks, whereas boys are better at solving math problems without talking. If a child is forced to master a skill before he is ready, he is likely to misbehave as an expression of his feelings of frustration. If the classroom teacher does not understand these gender differences, the young boy once again may be penalized for something that is totally out of his control.
It is unfortunate we do not know how many 2e children are in our schools because so many of them are never formally identified. All too often these children are noticed for what they cannot do as compared to noticing a talent they may demonstrate. Many 2e boys are misdiagnosed all together. For example, although some of these students show behaviors that suggest a diagnosis of ADHD, this can often be a wrong diagnosis.
Behaviors typical for the gifted may be mistaken for behavior disorders in more than 25 percent of gifted students (read more about misdiagnosis here). It is no wonder that the National Center for Education Statistics shows data that among six-year-old to 21-year-old males enrolled in school in 2019, a higher percentage of males (18%) than females (10%) received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Though some boys may have ADHD, many of them are simply behaving in reaction to an inappropriate education placement, intolerance of their advanced abilities, or parenting that doesn’t recognize or understand the child’s giftedness.
Adults who recognize a decline in a child’s school performance and a child’s growing frustration should look for the cause. Parents and teachers must understand twice exceptional children can be found in one of the following three categories:
May be formally identified as gifted, but not have an identified disability. That is, the child’s giftedness masks the disability.
May be formally identified as having a disability, but not identified as gifted. In other words, the disability has concealed the giftedness.
The student may not be formally identified as either gifted or disabled because the components hide one another. To teachers and parents, neither giftedness nor the disability is evident.
Once a student has been diagnosed as twice exceptional, appropriate educational planning must begin. Everyone involved in this process (Intervention Assistance Team) from the principal, school counselor, psychologist, gifted and special education interventionists, classroom teachers, and parents must commit to the philosophy of “Do No Harm.” This refers to the pledge doctors take when establishing medical interventions for their patients. In schools, no decision(s) should be made by the Intervention Team until the accommodations and/or modifications are deemed appropriate for the 2e student. (An accommodation changes “how” a student learns material. A modification changes “what” the student learns.)
Too often schools focus on a 2e boy’s challenges and forget about their many strengths. For example, a student exhibits difficulty following multistep routines, completing tasks or projects, and is a poor writer. He also has trouble making friends because he annoys others. However, this bright child is also an advanced reader who can locate information in books quickly and use advanced vocabulary. He is very creative and an original thinker. He loves listening to music and learns easily when music is involved in the learning process. Empowering these children by identifying and working with their talents and strengths through strength/interest-based accommodations builds confidence in the student. Confidence in their own abilities is essential when 2e boys experience problems, whether at school or at home. Changing negative attitudes to positive ones can have a profound impact on 2e students’ achievements throughout their lives.
Twice-exceptionality may be a hurdle, but it does not have to be a barrier to success. I observed first-hand the “great awakening” the parent at the beginning of this article experienced. She wanted the very best for her son, as all parents do. However, the first couple of years of school for her 2e son were filled with frustrating detours and winding roads including the realization her son struggled to read and write in second grade due to a diagnosed language learning disability. The thought of a gifted boy never catching up and perhaps dropping out of school was sometimes too much for this parent to bear.
Fortunately, a very dedicated team of professionals and the student’s family determined the “roadblocks” (problems experienced in school), “roadmap” (possible solutions to the problems), and then “destinations” (accomplishment of educational balance) for the student. Important educational strategies to support this gifted boy’s strengths included curriculum compacting, mentorships, and finally whole grade acceleration. Essential support was provided for the student at home and at school. The barriers were overcome and the 2e boy graduated valedictorian and earned an Eminence Scholarship to an elite university.
This success story is not new to me as a gifted intervention specialist. When teachers identify and plan for these twice-exceptional boys and parents seek to be strong advocates for their sons, the students are more likely to succeed. Planning for the whole child is the key to helping him reach his full potential.
Deborah (Deb) Gennarelli is currently a gifted education consultant. Her new book, Twice-Exceptional Boys: A Road Map to Getting it Right has recently been published by Gifted Unlimited. She has an elementary education degree from East Carolina University and a master’s degree in gifted education from Kent State University. Deb has 40 years of experience as an educator working in public and private settings with diverse student populations in three states. She taught in the regular classroom before becoming a gifted intervention specialist. Deb has served in numerous roles including curriculum writer, mentor to first-year teachers, team leader, chair of academic committees and school improvement teams, and grant writer. Her responsibilities and expertise include supporting K-8 gifted students' academic, social, and emotional needs and consultant to teachers and parents of gifted children. She has also been a professional development speaker on the identification and education of gifted children, twice-exceptional students, and meeting the needs of all students through differentiated studies. Deb has received three different district Teacher of the Year awards, All-County Teaching Team award, and two Ohio GAR Foundation Education Initiative grants for Smart Technology. She is a member of National Association for Gifted Children, Ohio Association for Gifted Children, and Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. Deb lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband Bob. They enjoy traveling and spending time with their daughter, son-in-law, and grandson.