Motivating and Engaging 2e Learners (best practices for ALL learners)

On a regular day it can be difficult to capture a twice exceptional student’s attention and focus. Their brains are wired to notice all sorts of things going on around them. I prefer to think of this as a superpower rather than a deficit. The ability to notice multiple things simultaneously, to be so motivated toward some activities that others fall away – these are incredible skills. In fact, it’s very hard to teach these skills when someone isn’t inherently wired this way. Yet, if the 2e child isn’t paying attention to or remembering what’s important to the adults around him, it becomes incredibly frustrating for teachers and parents and the 2e child suffers the consequences.

We may find ourselves repeatedly asking the same thing. “Remember to…” or “Slow down and read the directions first!” “Don’t you remember I asked you to … before you did …?”

Sound familiar? 2e kids learn that their inherent super power is everyone else’s Achilles heel. They are coached and tutored and pleaded to narrow their focus. This squelching of a 2e student’s essence actually kills motivation and engagement and rarely leads to the desired outcome of “listening and facing forward.” If teachers lean into their 2e student’s natural abilities and passions, they encourage interest, engagement and loyalty. Loyalty breeds responsibility and a desire to please. 2e kids are VERY loyal to those who understand them. Since they often feel misunderstood, they place high value on those who do understand them.

As many students are currently learning virtually, or if they are in person masks or just knowing about the pandemic cause great distraction, grabbing our 2e kids’ attention seems even more like ‘pinning down a cloud.’ Here are some tried and true tips for motivating and engaging your 2e students and children that will result in engagement, motivation and loyalty:

  1. Know their strengths and interests. Spend some time getting to know your 2e student. Ask what they love AND what they hate. Flesh out their interests by asking lots of questions. Lean into the dreaded video games and ask them to describe them to you and what they like about them and why. Broaden and narrow your questions so you grasp a wide swath of your 2e students’ interests and passions. 
  2. Use your knowledge of students’ interest to make lessons meaningful and relatable. If you can incorporate passions and interests into your lessons, you’ll automatically grab your student’s interest. Design assignments in a way that mirrors the video game sequence they described to you or include names and images of characters in different scenarios and problem sets. Incorporate topics your students shared that they’re interested in and include biographies of experts in those fields into your teaching. 
  3. Make use of your 2e students’ energy. 2e students are often enthusiastic and effusive about their areas of interest. Sometimes we think of 2e students as “class clowns.” Some 2e kids are destined for the stage or stand-up comedy circuit! Rather than trying to curb their enthusiasm, if you give them a chance to lead – brainstorm ideas for topics or even introduce themes, units or assignments, you’ll get their attention and buy in. An oldie but goodie is to ask the student who forgets to turn in his homework, to collect everyone’s homework. This is a great way to avoid ‘nagging’ and help the student self-actualize without judgment. 
  4. Give choices. You’ve heard this a million times before but consider creating a survey and have your students vote on types of assignments and topics. Engage in a brainstorming session to ask how they would like to show what they know and offer 3 or 4 ways from which they can choose. 
  5. Be aware of your learning objective and stick to it. So often 2e kids lose points or receive poor grades because of a mechanical issue. They comprehend the reading but have spelling and/or grammar mistakes. If your learning objective is understanding nuance and comprehension, avoid taking off points for mechanics. If you can, bifurcate assignments between these two skills. This doesn’t mean to ignore grammar and spelling, it just means focus on those skills specifically in assignments that are not about understanding. I once had a client whose dysgraphic son circled the answer within a question and used an arrow to point toward the appropriate answer space. His answer was marked wrong simply because he didn’t write the answer in the blank. The logical question for that teacher was – “Are you testing his ability to write an answer in the blank or are you wanting to know that he understands the question?” Ignoring a student’s knowledge for mechanical errors is demoralizing. 
  6. Focus on effort. Rather than focusing on the grade, find and comment on instances of sustained effort. “You were careful to complete each step of the directions.” “I noticed you used your scrap paper to work out the problem before writing your final answer.” “Wow, you read a lot and learned a lot about this topic.” Paying attention and praising the process of learning encourages sustained effort and risk taking. 
  7. Form groups intentionally. Remember number one above; “Know their strengths and interests.” Use this information to create groupings of students who share similar interests. For 2e kids, connection is their life-blood but they tend are often compromised to severely compromised in social success. Help them by making intentional groupings based on their interests and passions. 
  8. Teach chunking. Use a calendar and literally start from the due date and work backwards with your students. Discuss a long-term assignment and ask your students to brainstorm the necessary steps. Then work together with a calendar and a list of dates and match steps to dates. This is a skill that will serve them throughout their lives – teaching them the executive functioning skills of planning and prioritizing. A fun game to play to help tease out steps is to name an activity like making a sandwich. Then have one person tell another person the steps and have the person doing the activity do exactly what the other person says. If the first step is “put the jam on the bread,” the person doing the activity would take the jar of jam and simply put it on the loaf of bread. The person giving directions will quickly learn that they have to be specific in teasing out steps.
  9. Ask a lot of questions. Adults often fall into the habit of telling kids exactly what to do. They point out the mistakes they made. They advise students on how to fix mistakes. If you can ask more questions, the student learns from doing rather than from being told. Ask questions like, “How do you feel about that sentence?” “What did you want the reader to learn from that paragraph?” “What steps do you need to do to solve that math problem?” When it’s time to edit writing ask the student to read their work aloud. This is the best way to find mechanical errors. Ask them where they naturally paused and whether there was a comma there. Allowing students to find their own “errors” ensures that their learning is ‘sticky.’
  10. Notice and honor when your student needs a break. Everyone is under increasing stress. Even if a student doesn’t have personal stress as a 2e child with finely tuned antennae, he picks up on and may even absorb other people’s stress. Respect your student’s need for a break. Use compassion if he can’t turn in or do an assignment right now. Giving that leeway will ensure higher engagement later. 

These are tough times. Anxiety and stress severely impact the ability to focus and engage. Now more than ever we have to strengthen connections and lace our interactions with empathy – for our students and for ourselves. Which leads me to one final and equally as important tip: 

11. Take care of yourself. Whatever that means to you – be kind to yourself. Do whatever fills you up. Be sure to find joy every day whether that means taking a walk, watching your favorite show with a bowl of popcorn, dancing to loud music, creating art, meditating, eating an ice cream sundae – you’ve earned it. Some external motivation for the hard work you do each and every day is well deserved!

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Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick

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-esteem in their students and clients.

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