“Differentness twice over” – what do we know about multi-exceptional learners in our schools?

Dr Louise Tapper

This week is Gifted Awareness Week – a time when those who support our gifted and talented children and young people look to put the spotlight on the educational and affective needs of this group of learners in our schools and centres. Most education professionals have become more aware that gifted and talented learners are a diverse and heterogeneous population (see this recent Position Statement for clarification). However, I wonder how much educators know about those students who we would call multi-exceptional learners? Teachers may have heard other terms used for these students, such as twice-exceptional learners, dual-exceptional, 2E or sometimes GLD (gifted and learning disabled).

Who are multi-exceptional learners?

Multi-exceptional learners are the students in our schools and centres who are both highly able in a particular area or areas but may still have learning, behavioural or physical difficulties or impairments. So, for example, a young person who is extremely intelligent academically may yet have a specific learning disability (SLD) such as dyslexia, or a student may be exceptionally able in the performing or visual arts but have a sensory processing disorder or be diagnosed with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (see here and here). Because of the various labels that such students might be saddled with (for example, G&T/ADHD/SLD), they have been called “the alphabet children”!

For multi-exceptional learners, this complex combination of high abilities and difficulties can understandably lead to challenges both in the learning process and in the development of a social identity. They are children and young people who are experiencing “differentness twice over”. Without adequate support, they are at risk of developing feelings of ineptitude, self-doubt and failure; they are also at risk of social isolation because of feeling intensely different from their peers.

We are often asked to estimate how many of the learners in our schools might be multi-exceptional. It is very hard to put a figure on it, but estimates can range from 7% to 14% – although these are from American studies (e.g. here and here). The important point is that beyond an increased awareness in the gifted education field around the concept, understandings about multi-exceptionality are still somewhat limited, and this lack of knowledge could affect estimations of the prevalence of multi-exceptional learners in schools and centres. This under-identification in turn impacts on the support that these children will receive from educators. A better understanding among teachers of the needs of these learners is required so that multi-exceptional learners, just like other learners, might feel fully included in the social milieu of school – that they might be engaged, learning and achieving to their abilities, and be able to feel like they belong.

What about the research?

In our search of the literature on multi-exceptional learners we have found several gaps.

  • Most studies on multi-exceptional learners have been done within the gifted education field but few within the inclusion or disabilities field. Foley-Nipcon et al (2010) support a more cross-disciplinary approach to research in the area and suggest that multi-exceptionality needs to be included in “the larger discussion of disability in general” (p. 13).
  • Most studies have reported on strategies or interventions recommended by teachers, guidance counsellors and parents and have relied on these adults’ perspectives on ‘what worked’. Few studies have included the views of the students themselves.
  • There is limited research on the social characteristics of multi-exceptional students.
  • There is very little relevant empirical research about multi-exceptional learners that is based in Aotearoa New Zealand school settings.

Where does this leave understandings for the classroom teacher?

Multi-exceptionality is complex, unique to each person and multi-faceted. So, of course, that makes identifying multi-exceptional learners problematic for teachers. To complicate matters further, many multi-exceptional learners are adept at masking behaviours, a kind of camouflaging. They enable their areas of high ability to mask any area of weakness so that their overall performance can often be at an average level. Teachers might be unaware that there are any issues for the student.

Ng et al’s 2017 study of New Zealand teachers’ understandings about the concept found that over half of the teachers they surveyed had little or no confidence around knowing which students they might identify as twice-exceptional … yet they also found that 100% of respondents thought that teacher observations were the most important source of information when it came to making referrals for these students! Similarly, the survey respondents also felt that they, as classroom teachers, should be primarily responsible for providing support for these learners – but the majority of teachers also reported that they would have difficulty catering for issues around peer socialisation and the socio-emotional and academic needs of multi-exceptional learners. Although this was a small sample of New Zealand teachers, Ng et al’s study points to somewhat of a conundrum for teachers, who are tasked with supporting these learners in classrooms yet hold limited understandings around their specific needs. It is possible that some reasons for the small number of respondents to the survey – 54 teachers responded from an original invite sent to 320 schools – could be a lack of knowledge from teachers or a lack of interest in this area.

One helpful way forward: Inter-professional teams

Many multi-exceptional students are being identified by their parents, who are upskilling themselves in this area. A productive strategy may be for schools and teachers to work on developing effective parent/teacher partnerships to support these learners. Inter-professional practice teams (including, for example, school counsellors, SENCOs, RTLBs, gifted and talented co-ordinators and certainly the student and parent(s) or whānau members) all working together can provide support for the multi-exceptional student’s emotional, social, physical and cognitive development.

If appropriate modifications are not put in place, multi-exceptional learners can face daily frustrations in school due to a discrepancy between their intellectual potential and academic performance. However, supportive teaching practices which focus on extending a learner’s strengths as well as working to remediate weaknesses can help to minimise frustrations. A constant focus on weakness rather than on strengths just serves to increase a low sense of self-worth, so inter-professional teams should develop provisions that allow for strategies that support the strengths of multi-exceptional learners. For example, supporting strategies could include the use of assistive technology, multi-sensory strategies, task checklists and planners, or allowing more time on tasks if needed. Allowing multi-exceptional learners to use strategies such as these in their learning can support their inclusion in a classroom by providing opportunities to shine in their areas of strength. This can also assist with peer socialisation.

Finally, teachers need more professional learning and development, at both pre- and post-service level, around gifted and talented education and multi-exceptional learners and how to support these children and young people in our schools and centres (see here, here and here). Asking the multi-exceptional learners themselves about what they need to help them to achieve, and to belong, is as good a starting point as any. I have personally attended recent seminars organised by the national gifted associations in which young people who have experienced school as multi-exceptional learners have contributed in round table or panel discussions. Their stories were enlightening for the educators who were present. More research exploring what it is like to be a multi-exceptional learner in our schools is needed. It would be great if these young people didn’t have to experience ‘differentness twice over’ in schools and centres in Aotearoa New Zealand.

More information on multi-exceptionality can be found on the TKI Gifted and Talented Education Tukuna Kia Rere website.

giftEDnz: The Professional Association for Gifted Education has a SIG around Multi-Exceptionality. A list of articles and a useful resource booklet are available on this page

Profile, Louise Tapper, College of Education, 6.5.14

Louise Tapper has been an advocate and an educator in the field of gifted and talented education for almost two decades. She has been a teacher, a teacher educator and a parent educator. She was a founder, and is the immediate past Chair, of giftEDnz, The Professional Association for Gifted Education. Louise completed her doctorate in education in 2014, looking at the experiences of school for gifted and talented adolescents in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is currently an independent education researcher and a contracted researcher for The Collaborative for Research and Training in Youth Health and Development, working in community-based youth related projects in Canterbury.

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