Yesterday I spoke with a client about back-to-school week. She and her husband just received a fresh diagnosis of ADHD for her rising 3rd grader and although testing shows gifted levels of intellectual ability, their school focuses on behavior. Teachers and administrators concentrate on what their child “can’t do” and what he “should do,” rather than what he does well and what should be cultivated. As she described each school year with rigid teachers focusing on behaviors, initiating behavior plans and assessments, issuing red, yellow or green stickers to describe the child – fitting him into a stop light matrix – we realized that along the way her child’s essence was compromised – slowly being chipped away to meet other people’s needs. In order for 2e children to thrive, adults need to adjust their own behavior rather than try to change the child.
The Medical Model
Rather than assess what is right with a twice exceptional student, it seems our systems are designed to find what is “wrong” in order to “fix.” Assessments sometimes neglect all the things the child can do with a focus on all the things he seemingly can’t. A school’s refrain is often, “until he can do this we can’t allow him to do that.” This medical model of diagnose and treat is a disservice to 2e children. The construct results in an inherent tension where parents of twice exceptional children find themselves trying to change schools and schools trying to renovate students. I liken this process to the impossible tasks of making a circle (school) into a square and making a square (the child) into a circle.
Making a Circle into a Square
In order to change a circle into a square you have to add around the edges. In the case of a school this means growing the culture to include finding strengths and developing talent. Replacing the “find what’s wrong with this kid and fix him” attitude requires staff who inherently appreciate and enjoy out-of-the-box-thinking, going deep with a student when his interest morphs into a passion, who is flexible and who is not intimidated by brilliance. A necessary and effective change is to let go of teaching in a linear fashion. Having structured learning objectives and goals are important but it needs to be okay, even expected, that these goals are met through following a path that isn’t fully mapped yet. How your students will meet those goals is inherent to who the students are and their particular interests.
Of course, shoring up a student’s challenges is necessary, but when our circle becomes a square, it gains the capacity to do this effectively. Best practices tell us to teach a 2e child lagging skills by collaborating with the student and using his passions to address those skills. With a true understanding of a 2e student’s nature, the educator is comfortable with – even looking forward to – allowing students to, for example, name a project and use that project to teach skills they are lacking.
Juxtapose sitting in an executive functioning class or lecture to allowing students instead, to choose a project, and carry it through using these skills. In fact, choosing the project in and of itself provides an opportunity to teach group dynamics, listening, sharing, editing, constructive criticism (giving it and taking it) and compromise. Let’s say the students chose building a school store as their project, the executive functioning skills necessary to plan, prioritize, list, and collaborate are all the same skills that are typically taught in a vacuum. Addressing passions, allowing students to engage their minds in subjects and tasks that are interesting to them gives them the breathing room, literally the calm in their head, to dissipate some of their errant energy and frustration.
Making a Square into a Circle
Like transforming a square into a circle, when adults (parents or teachers) try to change a child to fit into a preconceived mold of what he “ought to be” they essentially are taking away part of that child, shaving off the edges. For the child it’s a direct hit on his self-esteem. So often our 2e children are told over and over what they aren’t or what they can’t more than what they are and what they can. Again and again, 2e students are told they need to shed this and that about their true selves. They’re told to stop being so…to stop having to…to stop doing… As we shave off the pieces of that child we take away who they are, their essence, and replace it with anxiety.
Depending on who the adult is in the room, these messages differ or are reinforced. In one instance the student is expected to dampen his sense of humor in another to contain his energy, in yet another to slow his pace of learning, to conform, to fit, to adjust to other people’s needs. Isn’t this counterintuitive? What would happen if we gave 2e students the benefit of the doubt? What if we, on the one hand, recognize their abilities and at the same time, understand and acknowledge the efforts they make every minute of every day dealing with their differences?
Our 2e students are best served when they are seen for their strengths first. Whether you are parenting or teaching a 2e child, this must be the overriding focus. Having this perspective exponentially increases the chances for success and bolsters self-esteem.