* Writing Graphs

I use writing surveys when I want to start a dialog with students about writing; I will also periodically repeat the survey or create one that better matches the student after progress has been made.  Graphs are another effective way to help special needs students share feedback about the writing process.  For my students who are high functioning autistic, graphs are especially helpful when words are inadequate.  Twice exceptional students also find these graphs helpful in sharing strong feelings of inadequacy.

I often create a graph as I am working with a student.  Kids are used to this process with me and typically look forward to showing me EXACTLY how they feel and where things break down in the writing process.  The graph below  uses a scale of 0 to 10.  I let the student decide which represented the hardest level (in this case, 10).  This student also chose the colors to use.  Red indicated extreme difficulty, orange depicted a level below that, yellow was third in difficulty, and green meant things were mostly OK (although on an additional page, the student also used a single green line for “no problem at all.”  The “icons” I drew represent, in order from left to right, time pressure, generating ideas, understanding teacher directions, creating a web or plan, writing in complete sentences with punctuation, staying on topic, spelling, working memory, and rewriting a final copy.

writing graph 2As you can see, this student has significant problems with the pressure to complete a writing assignment on time, use correct spelling, and rewrite his rough draft.  The second page of his graph (not shown) indicated anxiety during writing was high. Once we reviewed the top three issues (with a solution of using a laptop or tablet for the writing process), we examined the areas in yellow and orange.  (By the way, I REALLY dislike the continual rewrites that students are forced to complete.  Much of the time, that step is required so the work looks good in the hallway.  Yuck.)

As we discussed these problems, I could tell that the above graph gave us relative information but did not adequately convey the struggles this kid was having while writing.  Here’s the follow-up graph.  As we talked about the writing process again, it was evident that idea generation and mapping were essentially the same for this student, so I crossed out that second box.  That left us with these areas of concern, from left to right: mapping/idea generation, remembering the directions, staying on track while writing (focus), and working memory.  The student changed the meaning of “staying on topic” to “staying focused” because his attention difficulties increased significantly while trying to generate ideas.  Notice that “understanding the teacher directions” and “staying on task/track” have now switched colors (from green to red in the former area).  This kid is having a really hard time in writing.  (That last icon is supposed to depict a brain and pencil, with drops of sweat- or blood?)

Writing survey 3

The next post will focus on some strategies to help this student with all these red zones.

* Writing surveys

For twice exceptional (2e), high functioning autism kids (ASD), and kids with attention disorders (such as ADHD), writing can be pure trauma.  The key to providing effective support is understanding where the writing process breaks down.  As I’ve mentioned before, careful assessment is vital.  Your student’s feelings and personal assessment should not be overlooked.  Apart from observation and analysis of student work, I use surveys and graphs to elicit feedback from kids.

The surveys always begin with a focus on positives, such as what kids enjoy and which academic subjects are easier.  I create a unique survey for each student, depending upon my assessment to date and their ability to answer questions.  I may already know the answers to some of the questions, but I am interested in the student’s perspective.   Here’s a sample:Survey

As students answer, they refer to the following chart:

survey 2

This chart helps kids keep the answers in mind, although I may probe further if their answers are unclear.  It also gives them something to look at besides trying to decipher what I am scribbling on my clipboard.  When I’m done, I can safely show them the actual survey, since my handwriting is illegible to all but me!

Next post: Writing Graphs

* Twice as nice!

batteryThis is a follow up to a previous post of the effort required by twice exceptional students at school.  The same parents who allowed me to use their email to the teacher have graciously permitted me to attach the following description of Tony’s strengths and weaknesses. His parents felt that they had emphasized the considerable challenges he faces, but had not provided sufficient descriptions of his strengths.  It’s a marvelous document and should help Tony’s teachers understand this complex student.  Tony as a twice exceptional learner

* Brain-based assessment: journal writing and 2e students

In her book, The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools, Mariale Hardiman draws upon research to emphasize the benefits of journal writing as both assessment and a means of improving student learning, especially in eliciting meta-cognition.  Through reflection-based journal writing, students are free to consider what they have learned and its applications and personal connections to their lives.  For typical learners, this is an exemplary means of encouraging students to deepen their awareness of the material while providing teachers insight into students’ understanding.  It can create an important dialog about past instruction and guide future lessons.brain-targeted teaching model

But what about the twice exceptional (2e) student with reading/writing difficulties?  The teacher may be shocked that this kid, who made remarkable applications of the material during group discussions, seems to have a weak grasp of both the journal assignment AND the underlying concepts.  The 2e student has written three brief statements that only summarize content.  There’s no written evidence that this kid has any higher understanding of the material.  It would be fairly easy for the teacher to “forget” the stimulating verbal discussions in the light of this skimpy journal response.  Or the teacher may conclude that the student is not applying himself, for some reason, and could spend time trying to motivate the student “to do your best.”  Over time, the student may even stop participating in those once-engaging discussions.

What is happening here?  The 2e student is being asked to share his complex ideas, the type of analytical thinking he most enjoys, in a form which creates frustration and reinforces feelings of stupidity. The reason for his growing disinterest in those stimulating discussions?  He is readying himself, with increasing levels of anxiety, for the time he must translate complex ideas and “long” words into written text.  Eventually, he may reason, it would be better not to share those ideas for which he is now accountable to produce in writing.  Even seasoned teachers can be perplexed at the disparity which characterizes twice exceptional kids, those gifted students who also have a learning disability.

The good news?  In this digital era, there are alternate ways of capturing a student’s voice and supporting meta-cognition without paper and pencil.  Using a webcam or an application that allows students to record their thoughts and add images (such as VoiceThread, see note below), the 2e student can successfully share his or her superior reasoning and creative thoughts.  Digital portfolios have been used for many years now, with the advantage of being easily stored, portable, and readily shared with families.  As with any form of communication, students need assistance in using digital recording effectively.  I have found that they are initially distracted by their onscreen image, but once allowed time to produce every silly expression and wacky voice imaginable, they will use digital recordings seriously and effectively.  Depending upon available computer resources, digital journals could be an option for all students in a class.

Note:  I will share my experiences with VoiceThread in a later post.

* 2e: gifted and dyslexic

What shared characteristics have I observed among 2e kids who are both gifted and dyslexic?

1.  These 2e students tend to become acutely aware of their disability at an early age.  I’ve known a few who recognized it before their teachers.  Even those with some degree of attention problems are astute at noticing patterns of learning and behavior in their classroom.  They see that most kids are reading and writing without too much difficulty.  They expect to do the same or even perform better than average (as they do in other subjects), but that doesn’t happen.  Which leads us to the next point.

2.  These kids usually suffer what I call “body blows” to their self-esteem.  They typically conclude that they must be stupid for not reading with ease.  After all, they are often curious and eager learners, perhaps excellent in math, and yet they are stymied in reading.  They are likely to be a puzzle to their teachers (and parents), who may think they aren’t trying hard enough.  Some of these kids will continue their struggle to master reading, while others will head off into the land of “I’d rather look silly/ mean/ cool than stupid.”  When I was talking to a middle school student who was disrupting his classes, he was straightforward: no one was going to see that he couldn’t read well, so he effectively stopped all work in the room!  (It is very sad that he is still struggling….)  The child who continues to work hard at reading is often absorbing an ongoing sense of defeat.  They lose sight of their strengths in the midst of this unexpected failure.

3.  These students have strengths and weaknesses that mask one another.  For instance, many dyslexic kids memorize a LOT of words.  Unless they are taught phonics systematically (along with phonological skills), they rely heavily upon beginning letter sound and visual similarity to other words.  Because they are bright (often in verbal reasoning), they can make good sense of a text even if they misread a high number of words.  Teachers and parents may assume these kids are doing fine.  Teachers will reassure parents of kindergarten and first graders that it is common for kids to memorize books they read, which is true.  But the 2e kid is memorizing to the exclusion of other skills, especially if they are not being taught other skills.  Eventually this student’s brain cannot accommodate the number of visually similar words, usually by third grade, depending upon the type of reading instruction provided.  This masking of underlying phonological difficulties leaves the brighter students with average but not failing grades in reading.  Again, the discrepancy between these kids’ abilities and performance is unexpected for both students and parents.  Granted, a student may be gifted in one area and not another, but when you carefully assess the dyslexic’s reading skills, you see the typical delays with sound manipulation.

4.  These kids will eventually struggle with writing, which is the flip-side of the reading coin.  In fact, their writing problems may be more evident than the reading ones.  If a student cannot decode effectively, they will struggle with encoding, which is the translation of those letter-sound relationships, as well as sound order, into a written form.  At least in reading, these kids can make it through a book.  In writing, unless they can copy something, they may end up with words which they are unable to reread themselves.  It is one type of skill to recognize a word when you have context; it is altogether different to create that word without effective phonological and phonics skills.  When given prompts to “stretch” out a word, these are the kids who will add numerous additional vowels and consonants as they spell.  They are much better served by prompts to “tap” or segment sounds as they write.  Despite the best prompts, these 2e kids do not come close to approximating their verbal fluency.  In fact, they may spend a considerable amount of time trying to think of easily spelled synonyms for words or phrases.  Now that takes some effort- and brains!

5.  These twice exceptional kids are often anxious.  They did not likely start out that way, but the world of learning has been turned on its head.  School used to be easy or should be easy but something has gone wrong.  Unless they are identified early, these kids will continue to bang their heads against a wall in reading.  Early identification increases their chance of reading success and may decrease anxiety as they begin to understand how they learn best.  For some kids, anxiety is not reduced despite early intervention.  The gifted side of these kids may still rail internally against their own learning “failures.”  They remember each agonizing reading session where they had to read out loud, stumbling through words.  They relive each miserable writing session, where the empty paper conjured up despair at not being able to communicate their creative ideas.  If they have not already wandered into that land (see point #2 above) of “I’d rather be..,” they will most likely take out their frustration in some other venue.  They may develop school anxieties or even phobias or become depressed, aggressive at recess or lunch, or disrespectful to teachers.

The worst case scenario:  Teachers and/or parents do not recognize the “dyslexic side” of the twice exceptional student.  That leads everyone to ask: Why isn’t this kid doing what is expected?  The wrong answers include: attention problems, laziness, behavior problems, and emotional disorders.

The best case scenario:  Teachers and parents recognize the duality of this kid’s functioning.  This leads everyone to ask:  Are we teaching reading effectively for this child?  How can we help this student feel better about himself or herself?  How can we provide opportunities for this child to shine?  How can we provide engaging and creative learning opportunities?  What modifications and accommodations can we put in place to support this child?



* Some solutions for 2e kids

Before I describe any more case studies, I want to focus on ways to handle the challenges for twice exceptional or 2e kids.  (These comments apply primarily to parents but I’m sure teachers will see applications to their roles, as well.)

1.  Perspective is everything:  It’s possible to view 2e as a curse, a terminal illness, a bottomless pit.  But I think it best serves everyone if you focus on the child’s unique patterns of learning as positively as possible.  Is this a pie-in-the-sky kind of mentality?  I think not.  Heartache can lead to greater empathy and perseverance in life.   Hopefully, parents (and teachers) can now or will be able to empathize with others who struggle.  You have probably met folks whose life seemed to be a breeze.  Would you turn to them for support?  Or would you seek out someone who has fought through hard challenges?   How many suffering parents have started foundations to support kids with terrible battles in life, kids who may not have survived, in order to make it easier for those who come after them?  Consider the Exceptional Delaware blog.  The father who authors that blog has seen his son suffer horribly; he now works like crazy to provide a voice for special needs kids and their families.  Would we want his son to suffer for the sake of helping others?  No!  But has good come out of suffering?  I would say it has.

Use your 2e kid’s struggles as an opportunity to teach them empathy for others and perseverance, as well.  Is this easy?  Again, no!  But there are abundant examples of overcoming adversity in the lives of many well-known figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., whose parents had to tell him that he was “as good as anyone.”  Find a character with whom your child can identify.  Many well-known celebrities are candid about their struggles with dyslexia or ADHD.  An online search of books dealing with disabilities could be a starting point.

2.  Parents must be the child’s staunchest advocates.  Here are some tips:

  • Trust your instincts.  No one knows your child better than you do.
  • Get advice from trusted folks.  There are parent organizations, online resources, etc.  Better yet, talk to parents whose child struggles with similar issues.
  • Learn as much as you can about your rights.  Again, there are wonderful resources available to help you navigate the special education maze.
  • If you have the financial resources, get a professional evaluation from a reputable and experienced psychologist.  You could ask other parents or teachers for referrals.  A good child psychologist will explain the evaluation and be available for follow up questions.  Many will come to the school for official meetings.  Remember that a school psychologist does not provide diagnoses; a clinical psychologist can offer explanations and insight into conditions that do not fit neatly into those 14 categories of educational disabilities.
  • Find an advocate at school, someone who will go above and beyond.  It may be the classroom teacher, an assistant, a guidance counselor, a resource teacher, a gifted specialist, or the school psychologist.  A relationship like this may help you avoid an “us” versus “them” situation; even if it doesn’t, it’s great to know that people care.
  • If you are a teacher, recognize that parents must be their child’s staunchest advocates.  Encourage them.  Listen.  Provide resources.  Be willing to go the extra mile.

3.  Focus on your child’s giftedness.  Learn all you can about education for gifted students.  Again, there are abundant resources online, in libraries, and through school districts.  Be an advocate for this important aspect of your child’s education.  How will the school engage your child with stimulating activities?  You can help by providing information about your child’s interests and strengths.  Both an educational and private evaluation can pinpoint areas of strength.

4.  Help your child survive these early school years.  None of this is easy.  Kids can take serious body blows as they stumble through school and their disabilities may impact their understanding of what’s happening.  Spend fun, quality time with them.   Give them mental health days from school.  I have found that by spring of a school year, kids on the autism spectrum are starting to burn out.  Whether it’s informally agreed or on the IEP (preferably the latter), make sure you can modify how much homework they have to complete.  Forget homework if your child is melting down or at risk for melting down.  Listen to books on CD instead of reading.  You know your child best, so decide if they need quiet time, physical activity, play with friends, or all of the above.   Be cautious when discussing your child’s school issues with another adult.  Kids don’t need to carry your worries along with their own.

5.  Help your child become resilient.  At one time, no one really knew much about resilience and figured it was simply hard-wired into some lucky kids.  Perhaps some kids are naturally more resilient, but you can help yours join the ranks.  Role-play is a powerful tool for improving social skills and problem solving.  Don’t avoid tough situations; instead, practice ways to respond to them.   Pick the most crucial skill/s and work from there.  You can use movies, cartoons, and books as a springboard for teaching resilience.  Ask “How did that kid handle his fears?” or “How would you deal with that problem?”  Follow your child’s lead.  Coordinate social skills instruction between home and school so that it will become more effective, with everyone using the same language.

6.  Take care of yourself.  I think parents suffer more than their twice exceptional children.  Feelings of helplessness can lead to depression.  You may be suffering from “battle fatigue,” depending upon the circumstances in your school.  Give yourself permission to leave the kid/s with a babysitter.  Get enough sleep.  Eat well and exercise.  These healthy routines are all things that can get washed away in the coping-with-disabilities flood.  Read funny books or watch comedies if that’s the only way you can get yourself laughing.  And don’t blame yourself!  (Well, you can take credit for the giftedness, for sure.)

Do you have any tips for parents and teachers of twice exceptional kids?  Please share them here!

* 2e case study #1: a wild ride

I met Kimmie when she joined my self-contained class as a kindergartner.  She came with quite a dossier.  Most of her young life had been spent in the foster care system; she was kicked out of a long list of day care centers because of her severe behavior problems; and her IQ was assessed in the 40’s.  She had a twin brother out there somewhere in the world of group homes.

My first impression of Kimmie: she seemed to be a feral child.  A cute feral child.  A feral child equipped with an engine set in 6th gear.  She didn’t talk much but made up for that in mileage around the room.  She exploded into my class with no apparent socialization or understanding of group life at all.  Had I not reviewed her history, I would have thought she’d been raised by tigers.  Other kids?  She viewed them as the enemy, for the most part.  They were in her way, everyone in the space she wanted to occupy for a moment or holding the materials she demanded.  She would bite if grabbing didn’t work.

My class was organized around predictable routines, consistent rewards and consequences with frequent praise; clear and high expectations; and FUN.  I figured that we should enjoy our time together,  so relationships were at the top of my list. I approached Kimmie with all of the above, but firm consistency and silliness were my best allies in her socialization process.  I found ways to slow her engine into 3rd gear, often with playfulness.

Patience, gentleness, and humor made the first chinks in her armor.  Kimmie smiled during her first week and then she laughed.  That laugh!  It rang through the classroom!  It echoed in the hallway.  I’m surprised the entire school didn’t hear it.  I knew we were going to be fine.  Kimmie and I played our way through through social skills, reading, and math.  Every activity was kept short and sweet, leaving her with a desire for more.  In that dismal dossier of hers, someone had described her as having “street smarts,” but as I watched her lightning quick responses, I could see more than a (remarkable) ability to survive.  In fact, I could see a really sharp mind at work.

With glee and that raucous laugh, Kimmie quickly learned the “system” in my class.  She was handsomely rewarded for her efforts.  She discovered that it was much more fun to play school than to run like a wild child.  She learned to read very quickly.  I had to keep reminding myself that she was only 5.  Kimmie became the proverbial sponge, albeit a sharp-tongued sponge, soaking up every nuance, displaying a facility for learning that was miles beyond her IQ scores.  Kimmie wanted me ALL to herself, so social skills remained more challenging.  But what a gutsy learner she was.  She had her hands in every science experiment, never gave up on areas of interest, loved all our field trips, and laughed her way through it all.

I discovered that she did NOT have literal street smarts as we ventured into the community on walking field trips to restaurants.  She approached each street corner as a challenge: how quickly could she dash across a road?  So we held hands and she developed restraint.  I will never forget a trip to a posh seafood restaurant.  The owner gave free rein to my squad (bless his heart!) and Kimmie was soon sampling every sort of sea creature.  She never met a food she wouldn’t try, never met a button or knob she wouldn’t push, never met a rule she wouldn’t stretch to its limits.  In short, she was a delightful dynamo.  I loved her.

To speed ahead, I paired her with a buddy from a regular classroom, she started spending time in that class (still laughing but anxious about this process), and in fourth grade, was out of my room and in the mainstream of education.  Her IQ was retested, she scored in the superior range, and was placed in a program for gifted kids.  She did well for the rest of her school career, with a few glitches here  and there.

To this day, I love my unconventional, laughing, and adorable Kimmie.  She’s a mom with her own girl who runs wildly through stores and drives HER teachers a little crazy.  Kimmie is a twice exceptional person, a survivor of abuse and poverty, a brilliant woman with a laugh that will make your day.

* Twice Exceptional Kids

This post is the first of a series describing the challenges and solutions for children who are labeled “twice exceptional” or “2e.”

What does “twice exceptional” mean?  These students are gifted but also have a disability, such as dyslexia, high functioning autism, or attention deficit disorder.  There is no single special education “label” for 2e kids.  They may be labeled by a disability, such as Learning Disabled or Autism Spectrum Disorders.  They may identified as gifted.  And they may not be labeled and/or identified at all.  Twice exceptional children are both under-identified and under-served.

What challenges do 2e kids face?  The 2e child often struggles with feelings of anxiety, discouragement, “stupidity,” and frustration.  Both the regular classroom environment and special education setting can be a poor fit for twice exceptional students who need both remediation and stimulating instruction.  These 2e kids may act out in a classroom as a result of the discrepancy between their giftedness and learning challenges, or they may try to blend into the background, hoping not to be noticed.  Such a student may be able to solve complex abstract problems but be unable to write a complete sentence.  They may develop anxiety about going to school, especially over subjects related to their processing weaknesses.  Many of these kids are working twice as hard as their peers at school, holding it together during the school day only to fall apart when they get home.   And then they still have homework to complete!   Young twice exceptional students cannot make sense of their struggles any better than their teachers (and sometimes, parents).

What challenges do parents and teachers of 2e kids face?

Parents first:  Think about parenting a child with average abilities who is also hyperactive, learning disabled, or on the autism spectrum.  Now add superior intelligence to the mixture.  What do you get?  A handful!  Toss this into a school environment and you usually get misery.  Parents may be as confused as teachers about why their child is struggling.   They may react with the same distress as their child.   Now let’s suppose that you have somehow navigated the world of 2e and finally have some sense of your child’s needs.  How do you convince the teacher that your non-reading child is gifted?  How do you explain that this disruptive child is cooperative and pleasant with their neighborhood friends?  How do you pay for private evaluations so that the school will recognize your child’s giftedness?  Do you also pay for private tutoring  so that your child will learn?  Or do you let your child “fail” so that they can be identified as disabled?  Do you become “pests” to the classroom teacher for continually trying to help the school understand your child’s unique challenges?  How do you help your child with their nightly tears and morning struggles?  You may often feel alone, a voice crying aloud in the wilderness.

What challenges do teachers of 2e kids face?  “What are 2e kids?”  “What are you talking about?”  Despite educational research of twice exceptional students that predates the 1970’s, many teachers have little understanding of this dual exceptionality.  This is true for special educators as well.  Twice exceptional kids present serious challenges for educators.  It can take time to assess and determine the special gifts and weaknesses of 2e kids.  There is a reason that so many of them “fall between the cracks”: their strengths and weaknesses may mask one another.  This is especially true of gifted kids with learning disabilities.  They may even appear average and receive average grades at school.  As mentioned above, teaching 2e kids requires a fine balance between remediation and appropriately challenging instruction.  This can be extremely difficult in a large group setting.

The following video from the Your2eTV on YouTube proves a short overview of the twice exceptional student and their needs.

In the next post, we’ll look at examples of 2e kids from my own teaching experience.

If you have experiences and opinions related to this topic, please share them.  If you request, I can delete any identifying information before approving your comments.