Gifted With Learning Issues

Many of the students with whom I work could be considered gifted by most scales, and definitely score in the gifted range on the ISEE Entrance exams used by our school. Most people praise, admire, or wonder about gifted students, those students who eagerly interject thoughtful and thought-provoking comments during class discussions; those students who not only write the assigned essays with clear syntax and correct grammar, but also engage in insightful analysis; those students who offer to help their peers and often take leadership roles during group work. A gifted student is defined as having “demonstrated potential high-performance capability in intellectual, creative, specific academic and leadership areas or the performing and visual arts” (Friend & Bursuck, 2009, p. 289). In general, gifted students display wonderful curiosity, engaging personalities, strong problem-solving skills, and “an advanced ability to comprehend information using accelerated and flexible thought processes;” thus the challenge in the classroom for the teacher is sometimes to keep up with these students, to develop absorbing learning activities that tap into those intellectual and social qualities.

As odd as it may sound, though, those are not the students I want to discuss. I want to discuss those students who enter the classroom with a backpack spilling out its contents; those students whose hands never rise before their mouths open, and whose mouths open before their brains pause to think; those students who gaze out the window halfway through class or doodle constantly in what appears absolute mindless activity. These students may be known as lazy and/or not working to potential; in fact, some researchers suggest that “this group of students is often rated by teachers as most disruptive at school” (Baum, 1990, p. 1). These students are often “failing miserably in school” and they get “noticed because of what they cannot do, rather than because of the talent they are demonstrating” (Baum, 1990, p. 1). Then, on the other hand, some of these students may not be noticed at all because their “superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability” and they just seem to be an average learner (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

There are essentially three categories of Gifted and Talented/Learning Disabled students:
(1) identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities,
(2) unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and
(3) identified learning disabled students who are also gifted (Baum, 1990, p. 1).
It is important to note that because a student may be working at grade level or are considered gifted, she is “likely to be overlooked for screening procedures necessary to identify a subtle learning disability” (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

Baum (1990) notes that if teachers “view below-grade-level achievement as a prerequisite to a diagnosis of a learning disability…an extremely bright student who is struggling to stay on grade level may slip through the cracks of available services because he or she is not failing” (p. 1). Others note that the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled student often is failing because he does not complete assignments (or loses them before turning them in), has difficulty with writing — with the motor skills required for hand-writing as well as with producing a clear, cohesive development of a topic; yet, at the same time, this student’s comments during class may show insight and understanding and in fact, an ability to think beyond the level of his peers (Lovecky, 2004, p. 150). Either way, whether failing or not failing, noticed or unnoticed, the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled student often faces issues with self-esteem, generalizing “their feelings of academic failure to an overall sense of inadequacy” and misunderstanding that will only increase if not recognized (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

We may be tempted to lower our expectations for students who struggle in our classrooms, but for these students, that would work against them and us; instead, teachers are encouraged to maintain a classroom environment characterized by “interactive participation, flexibility, high standards, student participation in cooperative groups, individualized programming, active listening, and practice in conflict-resolution strategies” (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

It is also sometimes tempting to encourage our brighter students to study more, give more effort. This will prove counter-productive, however, with the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled students because often these students really do not know how to study more, or try harder, or why they can’t seem to do what they should be able to do according to their parents and teachers. These “learning disabled students who are also gifted and talented or ‘twice exceptional’ require opportunities to promote their own individual strengths and talents to achieve the accelerated academic proficiency expected of nondisabled gifted students,” and we need to provide them with “the gifted instruction and the special instruction, adaptations, and accommodations provided to other students with special needs” (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

I could share so much more — the reading I’ve done just to write this much fascinates me! I know there is much more to consider regarding the specific needs in the classroom of these learners. I will sum up by saying excellent pedagogy applies to helping these students — using graphic organizers, providing clearly structured assignments, developing challenging learning activities in the students’ areas of interest, modeling, and using think-aloud strategies — which actually provides sound pedagogy for all students. In addition, Friend and Bursuck advise curriculum compacting, which involves assessing the students’ “achievement of instructional goals” and then allowing those students who have met those goals to engage in alternate activities such as individual research, working with a mentor, or some other more advanced study (p. 292). As I have noticed before, “when a student’s gifts are identified and nurtured, there is an increased willingness on the part of the student to put forth greater effort to complete tasks,” and I would add that I believe that is true for all students regardless of learning styles, disabilities, or preferences (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

References:

Baum, Susan, (1990). Gifted but learning disabled: A puzzling paradox. The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC). Retrieved March 9, 2009 from http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e479.html

Friend, M. & Bursuck, W. (2009). Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teachers (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Lovecky, D. V. (2004). Different minds: Gifted children with ad/hd, asperger syndrome, and other learning deficits. [Electronic version]. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Weinfeld, R., Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., & Shevitz, B. (2002). Academic programs for gifted and talented/learning disabled students. [Electronic version]. Roeper Review, 24(4), 226+.

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