The Twice-Exceptional Learner

Teaching and, ultimately, reaching the twice-exceptional learner might just be the most difficult task a teacher can tackle. Why? The twice-exceptional child is a living paradox. Also, the twice-exceptional child is rarely just 2e (most have multiple exceptionalities). Brilliant, yet disabled, the twice-exceptional learner often appears average to the untrained eye, due to their inability to express that brilliance. You may see flashes of it, but will be confused by their disabilities. It is as if the child is embodying multiple persons. Imagine being extremely intelligent but not having the ability to concentrate, or, be hindered by low social skills. Imagine being smart, but having intense sensory processing issues that overwhelm and distract any attempt at learning. This is, in essence, the twice-exceptional experience; one that repeats itself continually in schools across the nation and beyond. It takes a special teacher to identify, empathize, and ultimately, effectively teach the twice-exceptional learner. As both a parent of three twice-exceptional children and educator of many more, I have learned a few strategies that might help to keep them in school.


Identification is difficult as, for the most part, twice-exceptional students are capable camouflagers. They tend to thrive in a safe and nurturing environment (often the home) where they can pursue passions and interests that they excel at. Upon entry into more regulated environments, such as the classroom, they experience dissonance and vulnerability eventually reverting to more basic instincts: fighting or fleeing. Given the lack of Limbic Development (see blog on the 2e brain), they lack the social/emotional skills of self-regulation and will either withdraw (often in the case of girls or ASD students) or, become behavioral problems (seen more in boys, kids with ADD, ADHD, ODD, etc.). In essence, the twice-exceptional student presents herself as a conundrum, not bright, not disabled, just an average mixed-up learner. So, what is a teacher to do?

  1. Look for patterns or flashes of brilliance. A dyslexic child may easily relate all kinds of creative or fantastic stories but resist the urge to read or spell. This may indicate Dyslexia. The ASD child may often be found engaging in parallel play and shun small group activities. They often show intense interest in a few things and seem very knowledgeable in those areas (if you can get them to communicate) while totally disinterested in other material. Most twice-exceptional children have sensory processing issues, therefore, take note of their reactions to extreme stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, crowds, etc. Twice-exceptional kids with ADD or ADHD can be boisterous, loud, and even aggressive, but have issues with listening or sitting. In summary, look for the extra-ordinary within what appears to be ordinary, and remember that behavior issues are often the key to diagnosis. Finally, build comprehensive dialogue with the family. The twice-exceptional child at home and the one at school may present two very different personsonalities.
  2. Look for discrepancies in oral and reading expression, mathematical reasoning and calculation, reading skills and reading comprehension.
  3. Look for struggles with organization, written output, language decoding, physical tasks.
  4. Know that, due to extra-ordinary compensation skills, the twice-exceptional learner may not qualify for either Special Ed. services nor Gifted Ed. Services.
  5. Other issues include:
    1. Cannot sustain attention
    2. Cannot complete work
    3. Avoids tasks that require sustained effort
    4. Easily distracted
    5. Struggles with Organization
    6. Fidgety/squirmy
    7. Difficulty with peer relationships
    8. Impulsive
    9. Interrupting

Teaching Strategies:

Be an Advocate!!

The journey of the twice-exceptional child can be a lonely one. Many parents may not understand their own 2e child and default to addressing perceived issues as behavioral rather than mental compensation. This only serves to exacerbate the problem. In addition, twice-exceptional children struggle socially and are often loners; too different than the typical student and too ‘out there’ for other gifted students who might make logical peers. The 2e student needs your support.


Emphasis the strengths before you remediate the weaknesses.

  1. Once identified, you must begin a process of remediation based the child’s disability. However, general special education models emphasizes a deficit approach to remediation rather than one that endorses the child’s strengths. This does not work for the twice-exceptional child. Remediation must be guided by complexity, depth, and breadth while making elaborate use of the students interests to ensure continued engagement and growth.

Nurture strengths and interests.

  1. Taking an interest in the child’s strength’s or interests allows the teacher to build a trust relationship with the twice-exceptional learner. This bond, in turn, will motivate the student to produce in your classroom.
  2. Taking an extra 5 minutes to ask about their day or to share something with them is a wonderful way to build this bridge.

Allow alternative methods for assessment/assignments

  1. Alternative methods of testing is key to student success. A large majority of 2e children struggle with Working Memory (attention, concentration, mental control, sequential recall) and Processing Speed (short-term visual memory, attention, the ability to quickly scan, sequence, or discriminate simple visual information, grapho-motor processing), and therefore need extra time to be able to finish an assessment. It is not that the knowledge is not there. It is the ability to recall that knowledge in a timely manner (think of the messy filing cabinet) that is the challenge.
  2. Use an assortment of assessments. Asking the Dysgraphic child to write, or the ASD/ADD student to complete an organized long response essay without assistance, is akin to asking a fish to climb a tree. Be flexible.
  3. Provide notes ahead of time,use technology (if available), tier instruction and expectations to make them achievable.
  4. Use continual formative assessment to inform your instruction and guide you as to where to go next. Formalized assessment is one of the biggest contributors to anxiety, frustration, and behavioral problems in twice-exceptional children.

Build coping capacity.

  1. Twice-exceptional students need time and patience to build the capacity to survive the school day. Tier their learning goals and tie them to both academics and social/emotional growth.

Maintain Structure.

  1. Twice-exceptional children are easily distracted and need daily structure and routine to keep them on task. Structure also assists them with organization of subjects, notes, classrooms, etc.
  2. Twice-exceptional students can easily get ‘lost in the shuffle’ of daily school life, or are easily overwhelmed by external stimuli. This is why the structure of the day is so very important.

Understand Difficulty with Transitions.

  1. Twice-exceptional children tend to struggle with any type of transition. They need more time than usual to adjust to new environments/settings. For ASD students, the use of visual aids will help to guide them through those transitions, especially in a busy school schedule.
  2. Once engaged in an area of interest, the child will be reluctant to move on to a different subject. Ease this transition with verbal cues and other prompts that signal a transition well ahead of the actual event.

Limit Homework.

  1. Studies show that the majority of homework assignments are neither helpful or relevant to student learning. Twice-exceptional children in particular struggle to complete homework assignments, especially when it is required ‘busy work’ versus actual intellectual pursuits. I have worked with families of twice-exceptional learners who spend up to five hours per evening struggling to cope with homework loads that might take an average learner two. Slow processing and recall may contribute to this issue.
  2. Attempt to assign work related to interest areas to keep the student engaged.

Advocate and/or Allow for Differing Learning Styles

  1. Twice-exceptional students are not typical learners and prefer visual approaches to learning. Try to use real world examples that relate the learner to personal experiences.
  2. Many twice-exceptional students are kinesthetic learners and need space to think and move. Many years ago, I taught one particular student who could only process information through movement, so we provided a circular carpeted area for him in the classroom. He would pace the carpet on his knees until he finished developing a new thought or theory.  He would then yell ‘Eureka’ (we developed a silent way for him to express his adulation) and rush back to his seat to finish his work.

Allow for Flexibility/Choice in assignments/classroom work

  1. I consistently encourage teachers to prepare the classroom for the twice-exceptional child and let them know ahead of time that there are occasions that the ‘rules’ may not apply to that child given their difficulty with ____________.
  2. Growth and success for the twice-exceptional child is paralleled by the level of flexibility a teacher allows for the student within the areas of classroom work, assignments, projects, etc. If proper accommodation is consistent, and grace given in trying situations, the child will succeed. Remember, they have a disability even if they are able to achieve at an average level. Their innate potential should push their achievement levels well beyond the norm. They will show you the extraordinary, if you allow it.

Use all the Sense Whenever Possible

  1. Twice-exceptional children have intense sensory development and, if properly managed, can be used to bring new ideas, insights, and thoughts into the classroom. Of course, one must be careful not to over-indulge as these same sensory gifts can overwhelm the child.

Teach Big Ideas/Concepts First before Details and Focus on Singular Learnings

  1. For the twice-exceptional student, it is important to focus on big ideas or conceptual learning before teaching the details. Remember that Processing Speed and Working Memory can be impaired thus inhibiting their ability to learn multiple things at the same time. This does not mean that you cannot tackle complex problems or probe issue deeply. That is a must, while remaining focused on the one concept.
  2. Follow up the big ideas by providing details and supporting evidence to support the pursuit of that idea.

Provide Mentoring Opportunities and Friendships

  1. Friendships do not come easily for twice-exceptional students. Finding and introducing them to caring and understanding friends can be the golden parachute for both you and the child. My own daughter (ASD, Sensory Processing Issues, Visual issues, and ADD) found a friend who could support and interpret for her. When that friend moved away, my daughter crashed and eventually was unable to attend school.
  2. Mentoring opportunities are also important. Given the twice-exceptional students’ intense interest areas, finding a mentor who can discuss those interests at a high level is a wonderful motivator. Years ago, I had a group of four highly intelligent twice-exceptional fifth graders who were fascinated with all things science. I was able to arrange for them to be part of a AP Biology classroom once a week at the high school where they studied ‘Emerging Infectious Diseases’ (they were even able to correspond with doctors at John Hopkins). The boys were so excited that the entire year they put out an amazing amount of effort (even in their areas of disability). One even took the AP exam for fun and scored a 3.

Proper Student Placement/Environment

  1. Finding the right classroom/teacher/environment is key to a twice-exceptional child’s success.
  2. Providing a safe zone somewhere in the classroom or elsewhere in the school is highly recommended. When the child has a negative Limbic reaction, there must to be a safe place that they can ‘escape’ to in order to reset themselves. Remember Limbic ‘moments’ are not behavioral in nature and cannot be controlled. They should not be punished, but, over time, metacognitive strategies can be taught on how to better understand themselves and regulate emotional response.
  3. If possible, teach social/emotional skills as part of the curriculum. I have used Art Costa’s Habits of Mind successfully in the past.

Encourage some Risk-Taking (extra-curricular involvement).

  1. Twice-exceptional students are generally reluctant to take risks because (in many cases) they have been blamed for behaviors that they cannot control, and been put down by fellow students or even staff. However, risk taking (in a supportive environment) has its rewards. The child should have the chance to participate in such activities. Doing so can build self-confidence.
  2. Extra-curricular Activities can be a boon for the twice-exceptional student. They thrive when they can ‘show their stuff’ in their area of expertise, be it designing robots, programming computers, building rockets, engaging in fantasy games such as D & D, and even certain sports (usually single participant sports such as running, swimming, fencing, etc.).

Celebrate the Successes!

  1. Progress can seem agonizingly slow in areas of weakness but it is worth the time and effort. Celebrate the small gains and achievements of goals.

Parental Communication

Parental Communication is vital to the success of the child. As a teacher, you may not see or understand how difficult it is to parent a twice-exceptional child. I have worked with many families whom are at a point of desperation due to the lack of school communication and support. In many cases the teaching staff does not see the meltdowns/explosions that occur after school, once the child returns home and vents (in a safer environment). Many tend to ‘hold it together’ until after school and then let it all out, with the parent(s) bearing the brunt of the frustrations/anger. Ask questions and listen!