The Twice Exceptional Child

Twice exceptional (2E) students represent a unique and often misunderstood segment of the educational landscape. While 2E may be a new descriptor to some, it has been used since the mid-70s to describe children who are highly intelligent and have a learning difference, which can cause some struggles both at home and in school. This phrase gained real traction in the 1980s and ‘90s when more research was being conducted about a variety of learning differences in students. This specific blog will focus on the interplay of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and high intelligence, often seen in those who qualify for G/T (gifted and talented) programs in the school system.

Intelligence seems to involve several brain regions while ADHD is indicative of an under-functioning prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain behind the forehead.) In the 2E child, high intelligence can often cover many of the struggles typically seen in those who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Likewise, the G/T kid may be overlooked due to the executive functioning struggles of disorganization, impulsivity, and forgetfulness. Standardized assessments may fail to capture a student’s abilities, leaving parent and teacher observation, interviews, and performance-based assessments as essential tools for recognizing their talents and challenges.

To better understand the 2E student who is G/T and has ADHD, it’s important to define each one. Individuals with ADHD may struggle to sustain attention on tasks, often becoming easily distracted and forgetful. They may also exhibit impulsivity,  such as acting without considering consequences or blurting out thoughts. Hyperactivity may manifest as restlessness, fidgeting, or excessive talking. The ADHD brain does not lack attention, as the diagnosis implies. Instead, the ADHD brain has difficulty attending to things that are important, especially if those things are deemed uninteresting. The ADHD brain can have very focused attention when a task is interesting, novel, and engaging. This is referred to as hyperfocus and can lead a person to lose track of time.

Gifted and talented students exhibit exceptional abilities or potential in specific areas or general intelligence. They often demonstrate high levels of cognitive aptitude, creativity, and motivation compared to their peers. These students may possess advanced problem-solving skills, heightened critical thinking abilities, and a propensity for deep, independent learning. Giftedness can manifest in various ways, including advanced comprehension, rapid learning, original thinking, and extraordinary talent in specific domains.

While there are some common and overlapping characteristics in 2E children, each student is going to show unique strengths and struggles. As such, parenting and schooling strategies will need to consider both to maximize the strengths of the child and use those strengths to support the struggles. Identifying which executive functioning skills need the most support can be useful both at school and at home. 

    The 2E kid doesn’t “fail” very often, leading the child to begin to tie their self-worth with their success. While it’s easy to praise the successes, it’s equally important to praise the process of learning something new. When you see your child struggling with something, encourage their tenacity and perseverance. Let them know that you are available to support them if they need it. Don’t jump in to solve the problem or dismiss it as unimportant. They will absolutely grow through the struggle.

These kids are excellent problem-solvers, and with the track record of winning often, they may be tempted to cheat at card/board games. Do not let them get away with this and do not let them win. If you notice your child cheating in a game, gently point out their behavior and ask them to reflect how they would feel if you (as the adult) didn’t follow the agreed-upon rules for the game. They will likely be frustrated at losing, but that’s okay! Model being a good sport. Validate their frustration and disappointment. Encourage them to try again. Games of chance are so good at teaching frustration tolerance as no one has control over the outcome.

A 2E kid can sometimes dominate family or classroom discussions with their hyper-fixation of the moment. Encourage your kiddo to allow everyone at the table (or in the car or classroom) to have a turn to talk. At the dinner table, you may want to allow your least-talkative kid to talk about their day first. Encourage your 2E kid to listen quietly, without interruption. Because impulsivity and working memory are often challenges with the ADHD brain, have a visual or physical reminder for your 2E kid to listen quietly. This could be one finger up, indicating to the child that they are to wait one minute. It could be a gentle hand on the child’s shoulder or leg. (This is obviously not helpful if your child doesn’t like to be touched!)

The ADHD brain loves novelty but needs routine. For some kids, breaks from school are a wonderful reprieve from the monotony of the school schedule. For other kids, school breaks add to the chaos they already feel inside and can be emotionally taxing. In these kids, you’ll see more irritability, moodiness, crying, and/or panic. Help them name their distress by saying something like, “I know it’s hard to experience a change in the routine. It takes our bodies a bit to adjust. Do you want space by yourself right now or do you want a hug?” This type of statement allows them to check in with their bodies gives them confidence to know what to do next. This allows them to use their creative problem-solving skills to take care of their big emotions.

These kids can be the most fun and most frustrating kids to have in the classroom and at home. Their brains are always “on.” They are frequently needing people and activities to keep themselves busy and engaged. They can be forgetful with items and remember facts with ease. These are the kids can ace tests when they haven’t done homework. They are frequently sensitive to the criticism of others. They need independence and require support while they learn to be more flexible with others. They need routine and crave novelty. They have big ideas and big emotions. Our challenge, as adults, is to accept both, without judgement.