It often feels like “pulling teeth” to get twice exceptional kids to do certain things. Whether they struggle with initiating, they seem ‘not to care,’ or it feels as though the knee-jerk reaction is always ‘no!’ there’s usually something unseen going on. 2e kids are often labeled as ‘lazy’ or ‘argumentative.’ If Ross Greene’s mantra, “kids would do well if they could,” is true, then there must be more underlying their oppositional behavior besides defiance and manipulation. In order to get to the bottom of what’s going on for 2e children, and to successfully encourage them to do what needs to get done, I recommend asking questions as your go-to strategy. Instead of telling kids what to do and how to do it, (or worse, assuming you know what’s going on for a 2e child), lead them toward a conclusion or action and not only will you achieve buy-in, but you’ll teach self-efficacy as well.
As we all know, once you’ve seen one 2e kid, you’ve seen only one 2e kid, so the answer isn’t always the same for each child. However, there are some patterns when 2e kids push back. Frequently we see this behavior during transitions, and we may see this behavior even when we are asking our kids to do something they like! Remember, 2e kids experience a lot of negative feedback. They often feel set up to fail. It’s uncanny how twice exceptional kids know, just know, if an adult perceives them negatively. In some cases, it’s almost easier to fail faster – realize the self-fulfilling prophecy of being the ‘bad kid,’ rather than try hard and fail after they try hard.
Parents and educators are used to ‘scaffolding’ for their 2e kids. They might dress their older child, brush their teeth, put books in their book bag, make them breakfast, email the teacher, or a whole host of other things. It becomes second nature to become the frontal lobe. In some cases, this is important, perhaps in the beginning or to help with impulsivity in dangerous situations or when teaching a lagging skill. One of the hardest parenting and teacher moments is to know when to fade; when to risk allowing our 2e kid to fail in order to truly learn. The trick is to make sure expectations are clear, concise and consistent and then to ask questions in order to lead the child to their own conclusions of what should happen next or what they need to do to accomplish a goal.
Parents and educators see clearly what they want their child or student to do. At home this might include directives like:
- ‘Get ready’ in the morning
- ‘Get ready’ in the evening
- Clean your room
- Clean the kitchen
- Make a snack
- Do your homework
- Do your chores
In school teachers may ask students to:
- Get your materials ready
- Put your materials away
- Get ready for lunch/recess/your next class
- Get started on your work
- Turn in homework
These seem like reasonable requests and goals to get things done. However, for the gifted child with learning differences or disabilities that often include executive functioning challenges, working memory issues and deeper processing speeds, these instructions may seem to fall on deaf ears. While you may have a vivid picture of what ‘clean your room’ or ‘get started on your homework’ means, to the twice exceptional child, these directives may not provide enough direction. Or, even if the child does know what to do to initiate these tasks, there may be a sense of injustice; they may feel it’s not worth it, it’s not fair or it’s a waste of time.
For parents, it’s important (and super hard) to remember that homework is between your child and his teacher. You might ask, “what’s on the homework schedule for today?” Then you may follow up with “what’s your plan for getting that done?” If your child pushes back and says, “I’m not doing it” rather than entering into a power struggle, try asking something like, “Huh, what are you planning to tell your teacher?” Inherent in that question is that your child is not meeting the teacher’s expectation and that it’s the child’s responsibility to handle the situation. Likely he hasn’t thought about closing the loop. Then, you might talk to the teacher and let her know what’s going on so she can discuss the reasoning why your child refuses to do the homework and to explain to the child why the homework was assigned. Sometimes work assigned is busy work and that is not appropriate if the child has already mastered the skills being taught.
Parents frequently ask me, “but don’t our kids have to learn to listen to adults just to learn how to respect authority?” That’s a great question. Here’s my answer. Twice exceptional kids, more than most, have an incredibly fine-tuned BS meter. It’s an affront to them and feels disrespectful when they are asked to do something for seemingly no-good reason. In this case, we have to back up. We have to make sure that there is a strong personal connection between the adult and the child. This connection must be steeped in mutual interest and respect. The best way to achieve this is to learn about the child and his passions and talents and to share your own. The more you can indicate you understand a child, the more buy in you get. Once the personal connection is made, we then have to ensure that what we are asking them to do has a clearly delineated reason. Doing this work on the front end will make it easier later to explain that sometimes we do things to make others happy, to comply or to keep the peace. If a 2e child feels heard more than not, he will hear better in the future.
Ok, so we have a personal connection, we have meaning attached to a task and the next thing is to make sure that the task is clearly described. “Clean your room” needs to change to, ‘please pick up all the clothing on your floor and put it in the hamper. Please throw out anything that is garbage from your floor, dresser, desk and under your bed.” Even better would be to have a conversation with your child starting out with “geez, I didn’t even hear the tornado as it ripped through your room! What do you think needs to happen to get things organized? Pick a surface; floor, bed, dresser, desk; which will you start with and what do you need to do?” Notice how I inserted questions and help to chunk with choices. In essence, this type of discussion is reinforcing and helping to identify executive functioning skills.
In the classroom case of “get started on your work,” first, be sure that the directions are crystal clear, ideally were delivered orally and visually (perhaps with a checklist) and with the student you know has troubles initiating, have a quiet one-on-one to reiterate they understand the task and ask what they think is the best first step. Avoid telling them what to do. If you can lead them to tell you by using questions, he will likely remember next time how to initiate.
In the case of an emotional refusal (when there is some emotional reason, rather than an executive functioning or intellectual learning disability) – like leaving the house or to settle down in class, remember the importance of a personal connection. If the child doesn’t want to leave the house or transition to another class because he is asked to go somewhere where he doesn’t feel emotionally safe or has had a bad experience, trust in the adult is imperative. The personal connection will make it easier to find out the unseen underlying stressor. Likely if you have that strong personal connection, you will have an idea of what’s standing in the child’s way. Then make sure they understand why what you’re asking is important, and ask them what they need. Alternatively you can “pre-conference” the night before or early in the morning and ask how they will handle the difficult task, ask one of my favorite questions, “What’s your plan?” If they emotionally respond with a meltdown or other unwanted behaviors, note the reaction, “this doesn’t seem like the best time to talk about this,” and let them know you are ready whenever they are to discuss and get things done. In a classroom setting, offer for them to take a break, get a drink of water, see the counselor or hang out in a cool down corner.
Parents and educators often find themselves feeling frustrated when their children and students refuse to comply. They enter into power struggles and usually end up exactly where they began, without the request being fulfilled. By asking questions and leading the twice exceptional child to figure out what to do and how to do it, we not only avoid meltdowns, but we help the 2e child to self actualize. Frame your comments as questions and see how behavior changes.
 Note, I said ‘deeper’ processing speed. Typically we hear of slow processing speed. However, twice exceptional students often notice more and are affected by myriads of things going on around them. They are literally crunching more data. Hence, I say ‘deeper,’ rather than ‘slower.’
 A cool down corner is a designated area in the classroom or home that has sensory-friendly options like noise cancelling headphones, fidgets, weighted lap pad, drink, snack, journaling, zen sand, etc. that is explained to the students and made available when needed. These can (and should) also be set up in the home and can be used in similar situations during distance learning or during home conflict. I like to call these, ‘zen dens.’
i love this piece — thanks, julie, for framing things that we’re all struggling with and have been working with on some level in such a clear and accessible way. i’m sharing this with teachers & family right now 🙂
Thanks for the feedback Bari, I’m so glad this blog resonated! When the direct route doesn’t work, we’ve got to get creative and find a better ‘indirect’ route!