The Twice Exceptional

The world is growing ever-more complex and changing at breakneck speed. Students will require skills that will equip them to make sense of how to adapt to change, learn strategies for how to best work cooperatively in teams, and manage ambiguity in a world filled with uncertainty.

Teachers have a multitude of responsibilities and one in particular resonates with me. It is the need to understand the learning needs of our students. Without this understanding, we cannot hope to prepare our students with the skills they need for life. In particular, the ‘Twice Exceptional’ students are by far the least understood.

While teaching in New South Wales some years ago, I faced a dilemma. I arrived with what I believed was a strong pedagogical background; I was confident in my skill sets as an educator. However, like all schools in NSW, my school at the time was mandated to provide a ‘Gifted Education’ program. The term ‘Gifted Education’ was an unfamiliar concept to me. I studied the research behind it and realised that Gifted Education was largely misunderstood in teacher pedagogy. This concerned me because the research indicated that without intervention, our brightest students may not reach their potential.

Even more concerning, I discovered in my most recent postgraduate studies that educators notably misunderstand the Twice Exceptional student. This lack of understanding has vital consequences for their learning potential.

The locus of discussion in Australia surrounding needs-based education focuses on students with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs). It emanates from the concerns of educators that without intervention, SLD students will not receive the support required to fill the gaps in their learning.

Moreover, they maintain that SLD students will fail to reach their potential. This rhetoric generally fails to include discussion regarding a needs-based approach for Twice Exceptional students. This cohort has both SLDs and learning strengths, yet their SLD is the only learning need generally recognised for intervention by the untrained. This has led to underachievement, and more concerning, lost potential for Twice Exceptional  students.

Gifts and Talents Defined

The Victorian Curriculum accepts the definition of giftedness and talent based on François Gagné’s revised Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (2008) where ‘giftedness’ is understood as outstanding potential and ‘talent’ as outstanding performance. His model highlights the outstanding potential of gifted students across several domains; true intellectual, physical, creative or social abilities. What is clear from his work is that not all gifted and talented students will realise their potential without intervention. Furthermore, he points to the lamentable outcomes when their gifts and talents are not supported; namely; they can become disengaged and as a result, underachieve.

Twice Exceptional Students

Twice Exceptional students are often defined as “the simultaneous possession of an area of giftedness and a disabling condition” (Foley Nicpon, Allmon, Sieck, & Stinson, 2010).

When considering the equity or inequity of meeting gifted and talented students’ learning needs, the case for Twice Exceptional students is concerning. The literature on the identification of these students suggests that many may go underrepresented or fail to reach their potential (Acar, Sen, & Cayirdag, 2016), (Cao, Jung, & Lee, 2017; Hayward, 2015). Furthermore, it is argued that appropriate identification practices require an understanding of the varied intellectual abilities and learning profiles of Twice Exceptional students (Callahan & Hertberg-Davis, 2012), (Castejón, Gilar, Miñano, & González, 2016), (Coleman, 2003), (Hagen, 1980), (Lohman, 2012), (Pfeiffer, 2008). This may impede the identification of Twice Exceptional students into Gifted Programs thereby reducing the opportunity to intervene and address their learning strengths.

There is cause for concern given the prevalence of Twice Exceptional students (an estimated 300,000 in the US and 20,000 in Australia) (Jung & Worrell, 2017). This cohort is often overlooked for their gifts as their disability is usually the focus for intervention (Barnard-Brak, Johnsen, Pond Hannig, & Wei, 2015).

Understanding the learning needs of Twice Exceptional students is important if we are to ensure their strengths are extended and their disabilities are remediated. Without this knowledge, we impede their development and diminish the opportunity for them to realise their potential. By shining the spotlight and raising awareness about the learning needs of Twice Exceptional students, St Catherine’s School has commenced the journey.

Mrs Elka Gaensler

Head of Learning Plus, Senior School

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