Avoiding Failure – Building Self Esteem and Resilience in Twice-Exceptional Kids


Recently I articulated a theory – something I’ve thought for a long time – but now formulated into a hypothesis and conclusion of why smart kids, with learning disabilities or differences often exhibit challenging behavior and fail to reach their potential.

The Theory:

  1. Self esteem is imperative for success and reaching potential.
  1. Adults around gifted and 2e kids: parents, teachers, administrators and other professionals, rarely understand twice exceptional kids’ day-to-day inner life experiences.
  1. Lack of understanding and/or misunderstanding is detrimental for kids’ self esteem.

So what happens? Jonny enters kindergarten or maybe preschool and due to his giftedness – wait, let’s stop there. In order to understand the breakdown that occurs we must understand the true meaning of giftedness. Most people assume that ability is the defining factor of giftedness. In truth, that is a small part, albeit the “gift” part, in giftedness. The inner experience of giftedness often includes asynchronous development (skills and talents developing at different times including social and emotional skills), perfectionism – the other side of which can be anxiety – and intensity.

So this kid begins school and right away people notice how bright he is. They note that he can do some things effortlessly. But this is the same kid for whom some rote skills are seemingly impossible. He looks different, sometimes acts differently or responds to stimuli in a grander fashion. He has convictions – yes, convictions at this tender age. He notices more, not just sensory sensitivity but emotional; “Why is that kid looking at me funny.” “That kid switched his seat, he must not like me.” “Why did my friend break his promise to me, that makes me angry.” The teachers tell Jonny what he needs to do: “Sit still, share, stop talking, keep your hands to yourself, eat your snack, you can’t play with that today,” etc.

Jonny is set up to fail. Jonny’s hardwiring makes it difficult for him to easily let go of his rigid sense of right and wrong. His emotional sensitivity makes him vulnerable. His ability to make immediate and broad connections can make school and the world, a scary place. So, if it’s someone else’s turn with a toy he’s been waiting to play with since last week, he may feel this is unfair. In his mind he has been wanting and waiting to play with this toy longer than anyone else. In fact he talked about it every day when others seemed to forget about it. Now Jonny is disappointed. If on top of it all he’s supposed to hand the toy over to someone who isn’t always nice to him, well, now he’s outraged. “How is that fair?”

Now, Jonny enters second grade. He, a deep thinker, is expected to move from topic to topic rapidly. He’s expected to stand in line and keep his hands by his side even when the person in front of him is singing a tune over and over and he’s sure his head is going to explode.

Jonny is supposed to eat his snack in short order and probably while doing busy work. But Jonny doesn’t like to touch a pencil and then his food so he has to choose: not to eat or not to do the work. If he doesn’t eat, he will be extra grumpy because his fast metabolism requires regular caloric intake and possibly his medication keeps him from being hungry part of the day and makes him SUPER hungry at other parts of the day. If he doesn’t do the work, he will get in trouble. This is bubbling inside of him because Jonny sees both consequences clearly and doesn’t know what to do. He certainly doesn’t know how to verbalize all this to his teacher. At the same time another kid grabs the very marker he was about to use (having decided to work instead of eat). That’s it, he’s had it.

Enter 3rd, 4th, 5th grade. “Why do I have to do this repetitive work?” “I understood the teacher’s point before she finished the sentence. I can’t believe my classmate is asking that question, the teacher literally just said the answer.” “Everyone is always annoyed with me, I need to move, I’m sick of being here, what’s going to happen at recess or lunch today that is going to make me feel bad or mad or sad?”

And so it goes. The twice exceptional kid who looks and feels quirky, becomes confused and his learning differences confuse everyone around him. Quixotic. Ironic. Counter intuitive. That is these kids’ realities.

The complicated inner dialogue and perceptions of 2e kids has to be understood and validated for them to succeed. Behavior we see on the outside very often fails to reflect gifted and 2e kids’ inner experiences. An outburst looks like an overreaction but is likely a response based on accumulated negative experiences that no one perceived. Simultaneously Jonny may be wondering such deep thoughts as, “What will I do in my life that will be important?” “How can I solve the world’s problems?” Gifted and 2e kids put a lot of pressure on themselves to accomplish meaningful goals.

Year after year 2e kids feel different, not understood and misunderstood. They develop a shell. They have strong principles but no one else seems to feel the same way or at least not to the same degree. They learn to live in the shadows. If they’re lucky, they find friends who have glimpses and slivers of shared experiences but never quite feel connected or accepted. There is no easy click, a place they fit in neatly and securely. They always need to keep their guard up so they can stop themselves from doing or saying something that is construed in the wrong way. But that’s impossible because of their intensity; strong sense of right versus wrong, principles, clarity on topics and ideas that are years ahead of their time.

Trust is compromised. Rarely do they feel the ease of even breathing in and out without some pressure on their head, on their chest, on their heart. And so one of two things happens. They try to be anything but themselves, an awful attempt at impossibility. Or, they hide, and try to make themselves invisible.   If self-esteem was a garden of roses wrapped around them, each year the blossoms would wither and die, dropping to the floor right in front of these children and they trample the blooms as they hit the ground.

Can these seemingly self-fulfilling prophecies change? Parents and educators need to identify and appreciate these kids’ outstanding characteristics and decipher what is behind their challenging behaviors. At an early age behavior is not “bad.” Behavior is either a) an experiment: “What happens when I do this?” or b) a response: a reaction to hyper awareness or sensory overstimulation. At older ages, behavior is learned – they know how they’re defined so they might as well get it over with and let everyone know they are that “annoying, challenging, difficult” kid.

Ross Greene, child psychologist and originator of collaborative and proactive solutions approach to challenging behavior, has a premise: “Kids would do well if they could.” This frame of mind allows adults to don their detective caps and figure out with the child what is going on. Thankfully this is a great strategy at every age, because at the older ages there is a lot of undoing that needs to happen in response to years of misunderstanding and labeling.

Showing empathy and putting assumptions, judgments and egos aside are imperative toward gaining 2e kids’ trust and working toward solutions. They need an opportunity to explain the intricacies that are going on in their minds. They need to verbalize their concerns. Once this occurs the adults can communicate their concerns and together work toward a mutually satisfactory strategy.

Along with explaining appropriate behavior, it is imperative that adults recognize these kids’ realities and help them understand the effect of their behavior on others. Then adults have to help them regulate their environment and develop skills and alternative strategies to the responses they are demonstrating. Impatience and blame serve to shame and diminish self-esteem. Shame and guilt are the best fuels for challenging behavior. Impatience lights the match.

Rather than doling out endless consequences, adults in the lives of twice exceptional kids need to make an effort to understand their experience without judgment. Once that process begins it has the effect of adults circling their wagons in order to provide these kids with protection. Once they feel understood they feel safe enough to collaborate on solutions. Helping them work through their challenges by simultaneously recognizing and utilizing their strengths builds resilience, self-awareness, self-esteem, and allows for a productive learning environment. In this way we avoid failure and help bring out the best in 2e kids, raise their self-esteem and tap into their endless potential.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.
Author: Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

Picture of Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

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