Special Education

How to Support Twice-Exceptional Students

Common pedagogical practices that benefit all students may be crucial for those who are cognitively gifted and have a form of neurodivergence.

November 9, 2023
JakeOlimb / iStock

Twice-exceptional (2e) students are students who are cognitively gifted and have some type of neurodivergence, such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia. We don’t know exactly how many twice-exceptional students are out there—they’re believed to be considerably under-identified—but there’s a good chance that many of us have worked, or will work, with students who have this unique learning profile. 

Yet, many schools don’t understand 2e students—their particular strengths and challenges, how to best stretch and support them. In my own experience as an educator who taught for over 14 years, I hadn’t even heard the term “twice-exceptional” until our son was identified as such.

A Challenge for Both Parents and Teachers

To parents of twice-exceptional kids, our son’s story is familiar. From a very young age he was incredibly bright and creative, but it didn’t take long for problems to emerge at school: in his case, emotional dysregulation—a common issue with 2e kids. Thankfully, we were able to have our son tested via neuropsychological evaluation, which confirmed his giftedness and also diagnosed his ADHD. His ADHD was surprising to us. But as we soon learned, with 2e students, giftedness and neurodivergence often mask each other, which is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to identify 2e students.

Thanks to the neuropsych evaluation, we also learned that the behavioral issues that had been cropping up at home and at school were rooted in anxiety. As Dr. Michael Postma writes in ADDitude magazine, for 2e students, “emotions are more intense because the limbic system, the part of the brain thought to be responsible for emotion and other processes, is overloaded by increased sensory input.” For many 2e students, this overload of sensory input results in anxiety, and anxiety often manifests as emotional dysregulation.

The challenges didn’t stop there. We quickly realized that our son’s classroom teachers, specialists, and administrators weren’t able to provide the support he needed. Like me, most of them hadn’t even heard the term “twice-exceptional” before, much less learned strategies for accommodating students like him. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was this, our family decided to move. Now our son attends a school that is able to create a nurturing environment for all students, neurotypical and neurodivergent. We consider ourselves very lucky.

But families of 2e students shouldn’t have to move or change schools in order to find learning communities that embrace their children. Every school should strive to create classroom environments that fit the needs of 2e students. After all, 2e students are everywhere, and the strategies that they need to fully participate in school benefit most other students as well. 

It’s also important to note that 2e students bring great strengths to any classroom of which they are a part. As Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, notes in her book Raising Twice-Exceptional Children: A Handbook for Parents of Neurodivergent Gifted Kids, 2e students are gifted with a quick learning pace, strong verbal abilities, strong logic and reasoning skills, divergent thinking skills, and big-picture thinking. As our son’s neuropsychologist told us—and our son—twice-exceptional kids often become adults who change the world. 

If teachers and school administrators were to become aware of 2e and engage in conversations with parents or caregivers of students who may be cognitively gifted and/or neurodivergent, they could consider recommending neuropsychological evaluation. Taking these steps would be a move in the right direction.

But until the world of K–12 education better understands and supports 2e students, I’ve learned that I’m going to have to fiercely advocate for my son and others like him. Accordingly, I’d like to share some pedagogical approaches that are crucial for 2e students but also support other students in the classroom.

What educators can do

Prioritize student choice: 2e students often have a much more difficult time focusing on topics and tasks that don’t interest them. When they’re provided with opportunities to study topics about which they are naturally curious—or to show their knowledge in ways that they find engaging—these students are much more likely to fully engage. 

Strive for a 4:1 ratio of praise to redirection: Because of their area(s) of disability, 2e students are often quite accustomed to criticism from adults. Not only that, but these students are usually well aware of their deficiencies and extremely frustrated with themselves for not being able to measure up. A 4:1 ratio of genuine praise to direction can help build much-needed confidence in 2e students while also showing them that you see them as worthy of praise.

Build movement breaks into the school day: In many schools, students don’t have enough opportunities to move around, and 2e students require movement breaks in order to recenter themselves, relieve stress, and improve focus. Depending on grade level, movement breaks will look different in terms of type and frequency, but the important part is making sure they are built into each school day.

Differentiate as often as possible: 2e students have both exceptional strengths and exceptional challenges (a combination often described as “asynchronous development”). There’s a pronounced discrepancy between their strengths and their weaknesses, as well as between their abilities and what they achieve. So when educators truly differentiate their instruction, they help 2e students build on strengths and develop areas of weakness so that the gap between their abilities and achievement becomes smaller. 

Explicitly teach SEL skills: Social and emotional learning is a high priority for 2e students because it’s an area that’s often quite challenging for them. The more that educators explicitly teach 2e students a vocabulary for their emotions and practical ways to self-regulate, the better able 2e students are to understand, and eventually control, their intense emotions. And when 2e students are better able to control their emotions, they are able to more fully participate at school. 

Build perseverance: Because of their giftedness, 2e students aren’t usually pushed to the edge of their understanding. So when they do find themselves at the edge, they become anxious. Explicitly teaching a growth mindset helps 2e students understand that new skills can be developed over time. Praising even the smallest of successes during the learning process can make a big impact for these students over time. 

Each of these pedagogical approaches is usually considered a hallmark of good teaching. But the important distinction here is that for 2e students, they’re not just helpful—they’re essential. When we create school communities that accommodate 2e students, we help them become the best versions of themselves. And that’s truly a gift that will keep on giving.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Engagement

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