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Many people feel that gifted children don’t need any help because they’re so talented. But many gifted kids are so bored in school they become disruptive and do poorly, so they’re not identified and their need for a challenge isn’t met. Other gifted children have disabilities, such as learning disabilities, that are not identified because they are masked by their gifts. Experts discuss how to meet the needs of these children educationally and emotionally.

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  • Dr. James Webb, clinical psychologist, President, Great Potential Press and founder, Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted
  • Megan Foley Nicpon, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology, University of Iowa and Associate Director for Research and Clinic, Belin-Blank Center
  • Jen Merrill, mother of two twice exceptional children and author, If This Is A Gift, Can I Send It Back?

Links for more information:

Twice Exceptional Children

Reed Pence: Most people think that gifted kids have it made – they’re smart they excel in school and their careers are all but guaranteed to be successful – but in reality experts say that nothing could be further from the truth. Gifted kids are often misfits.

Dr. Webb: There are a lot of gifted children who are educationally misplaced – what I mean by that is, they’re in a classroom where about half to a fourth of the regular classroom time, they’re spent waiting for others to catch up.

Reed: That’s Dr. James Webb; clinical psychologist, president of Great Potential Press and Founder of SENG – Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted.

Dr. Webb: One of the things we know about gifted children is they tend to be intense and sensitive, so they’re intense – their mind is going and they’re waiting for others to catch up, their minds wander. They sometimes try to get very creative with the teachers lesson plan or they bother the people next to them or they’re tapping their foot, or they’re day-dreaming – all these behaviors that the teacher is likely to see as off-task. Well, it is; it’s off the teachers task because it’s about as boring as a mud fence to the student.

Reed: Not only are gifted, bored, students disruptive they may also do extremely badly on tests. They may know so much that they can’t chose one way to answer a question – so they don’t write much of anything. Teachers think these brilliant kids are actually slow and few pediatricians receive any training about gifted kids. So, too often they’re misdiagnosed with ADHD.

Dr. Webb: So the pediatrician who has on average about 15-17 minutes to spend with a child notices this very intense, very active child who has a lot of questions and after 10 or 15 minutes the pediatrician say, “well I’m not sure. Let’s do a ratings scale” – which is behaviors, where the parent and teacher rate behaviors and then the physician says, “let’s try the child on medication and we’ll see, and if the medication works then we’ll know whether or not he’s gifted.” There are two problems here; first is, 15 minutes is absolute insufficient to come up with a diagnosis of ADHD but secondly the research indicates that for most children a low to moderate dosage of a stimulant will help them concentrate.

Reed: What’s increasingly apparent is that some gifted kids also have a bona fied disability that’s overshadowed by their talent. They may be a special needs child, but they may never be diagnosed.

Dr. Webb: Well, gifted children – they’re so bright they can make it around on their own. They have no special needs so what could be a problem for a gifted child. There is so little understanding in the educational and medical and psychological communities about the characteristics of these children whom we call gifted and talented.

Reed: Webb describes why he founded SENG back in the early 1980s, he says it all started with one particular gifted student.

Dr. Webb: He was a computer whiz kid at age 15 or 16, he entered into Michigan State University – was there only a few weeks when he disappeared; no one could find him, they knew that he was fascinated with Dungeons and Dragons, which was all the rage back then – they thought perhaps he disappeared in the tunnels under Michigan State University but as I said, no one could find him. His parents finally hired a private detective who did find this young man, Dallas Egbert was his name – he was in Louisiana working in the oil fields as a gopher, just as a roust-about type of person – brought him back, he was clearly not a happy camper, they hooked him up with a psychiatrist but unfortunately it was too little too late and this young man committed suicide.

Reed: Webb says the distraught parents asked him if there was an organization that supported the social and emotional needs of gifted children.

Dr. Webb: And I didn’t know. I was a clinical psychologist – I knew a lot of places that focused on educational needs – but not on social and emotional needs. So to make a long story short – we founded a little program at Wright State University that we called SENG: Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted. Which frankly we thought would be a very small program but has grown until now; it’s a national non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that provides a lot of services to parents and families of gifted and talented children.

Reed: Webb says many schools fail to identify gifted students, especially when a student also has a disability. What experts call “Twice-exceptional.”

Dr. Webb: If the child has a learning disability, mild to moderate disability sitting in class – I’m sitting in your class, I’m missing about half of what you’re teaching me. Say what you’re writing on the board, or what I’m reading, but I’m bright enough to be able to intuit and figure out most of what’s going on and fill in the gaps. And so, as the teacher you see me as simply average or maybe slightly above average student who occasionally does really good things – it’s puzzling. What’s happening here is that the brightness is camouflaging the learning disability and the learning disability is also camouflaging the brightness. Wow, now that’s a challenge.

Reed: One very famous example of a “twice-exceptional” child, or perhaps in this case “thrice exceptional,” is Helen Keller. Her parents assumed their daughter had little intelligence, but it took a gifted teacher like Annie Sullivan to see beyond Kellers disability.

Megan Foley Nicpon: I see that over and over and over again, I feel we start with what’s wrong with people instead of what’s right with people. And I really believe that all of us who work in the helping professions and education and in these fields would really benefit from flipping that around. So for example, we know in behavioral psychology that punishment models aren’t nearly as effective as positive reinforcement models. But we do the same thing when we only talk about kids’ weaknesses.

Reed: That’s Megan Foley Nicpon, Associate Professor in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Iowa and Associate Director for Research and Clinic at the Belin-Blank Center.

Nicpon: There’s typically an emphasis on remediating weaknesses or uncovering psychological or psychiatric diagnoses or learning problems. But it really depends on the training program like some training programs such as mine takes a strengths-based perspective and we really try and focus first on what’s right with kids or what’s right with adults and then figure out if there’s anything that’s going on that could be negatively impacting their performance.

Reed: Nicpon described an alternative approach to teaching a gifted child who also has learning disabilities.

Nicpon: I would have recommended a curriculum or a program where he’s able to thrive in his talent domain – exposed to environments where he’s able to feel good about himself rather than always trying to fix what could be a deficit. I’m a firm believer that everyone walking this planet has things that they struggle with and sometimes they’re more easily identified than others. But what do we really want to emphasize what’s wrong rather than what’s right.

Jen Merril: gifted is just wiring, it’s how you are, it’s like how I’m very tall; I have blue eyes, I mean you can’t change the gifted in a person that’s just who they are and if they don’t test well and if they don’t perform well in school they don’t get the accommodations and then they start to fall by the way side because they’re not getting their needs met. That’s where the problems tend to start.

Reed: That’s Jen Merril, mom of two twice-exceptional children and author of the book, “If this is a Gift, Can I Sent It back?” Eleven years ago she had her eldest child who’s now 15 evaluated at the Gifted Development Center in Colorado.

Merril: They said, “OK. This is what we think is going on. He is gifted but there’s something else going that’s preventing us from getting a true read on his abilities. So we recommend getting him some therapies and getting him some help and come back in a few years.” So he did vision therapy and he did occupational therapy and did “therapy” therapy – just all sorts of things ‘cause his eyes weren’t working right together – which is common with gifted kids. Also things like slow processing speed, where a kid just can’t retrieve the information fast enough and this can be a difficulty in school because they do these math minutes where you have to whip out your math facts as fast as you can in a minute, and the kids like – they can’t retrieve it fast enough but they can do higher level algebra and trigonometry – things along those lines. So twice-exceptional can be a real… it is hard. It is hard ‘cause you got this kid who is just so bright but can’t necessarily show it.

Reed: So how can a parent unlock hidden potential? If you have a child that’s been diagnosed with ADHD or some other learning or physical disability but you think there’s more going on, Nicpon has this advice.

Nicpon: My #1 recommendation to parents is – go with your gut. Parent’s know their children more than anybody else, so if you feel like something’s amiss; “I’m sure his teacher is missing some things that I’m seeing,” listen to that inner voice and go with it and ask for testing or ask for a second look at the childs abilities.

Reed: Webbs organization, SENG, has reached out to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Webb: They have responded favorably saying, “You know, we haven’t thought about it before. But this sounds interesting – let’s begin to have some articles appear in the literature and perhaps we can develop some continuing medical education courses for pediatricians and family practitioners.” So I’m optimistic, long term, and we’re trying to write some books and articles that will appear both in professional literature and also book for parents.

Reed: Webb says guidelines on how to select a mental health professional for your twice-exceptional child are also available on the SENG website.
Dr. Webb: I often tell parents, “please think of physicians and psychologists as hired help, they’re your hired help and you should interview them to see if you think you can work with them.”

Merril: If a parent thinks their child is gifted or twice-exceptional chances are they’ve at least once sat underneath their desk and cried. That’s a pretty good sign for a parent to maybe go find some help.

Nicpon: Ask around, it’s hard for parents to ask for help, because when they start talking about their kids they’re perceived as bragging – “Oh my kid can do this and oh my kid can do this” – generally a parent is not going to brag about this, especially if their kid is twice-exceptional they’re not bragging, they’re talking about their kids just like other parents talk about their kids at the playground, they’re talking about their kids, but they are perceived as bragging because their kid is doing something way more advanced than other children and that is very isolating for parents. They’re not bragging – they need help, they want to find other parents like them, they want to find peers like their child so their child can have peers and a lot of kids don’t.

Reed: The National Association of Gifted Children estimates that 1 out of every 10 kids in the United States is gifted and that’s a lot of kids. Unfortunately, children that are twice-exceptional still fall through the cracks far too often, but things are changing. Ten years ago parents wouldn’t find much help online but today there are support groups and numerous websites about gifted and twice-exceptional children. You can find many of them listed on our website at Our writer producer this week is Polly Hansen. I’m Reed Pence.

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