Seeing 2021 Through 2020 Vision to Focus on 2e Learners

With respect to those who suffered in 2020; the parents the teachers and especially the 2e student, we’ve got to change our ways.

Though it’s not a new school year, the beginning of a new calendar year gives us a sense of renewal – it feels like permission to hit the reset button on our lives and in our classrooms. I’m hopeful that we can use 2020 to give us clarity on what we need to change, what to leave behind and what to try in the New Year in our homes and in our classrooms, to bring out the best and raise self-confidence in twice exceptional learners.

I was reading a Gene Weingarten piece in the Washington Post Magazine this weekend called “Who Cares About a Little Unexplained Blood These Days?” His point was that human nature has led us to ignore, compartmentalize, and adjust to the pandemic. We seem not to notice the alarming rate at which numbers are rising and even though we may notice, we just chock it up to (forgive me for this terrible phrase), “the new normal.” This got me thinking about education and 2e learners. We have an opportunity to move into the new year using the “old” year as a 20/20 lens through which we can effectuate change.  Are we just accepting 2e learners’ fate in the classroom? What about teachers? They are suffering too. Rarely are teachers taught how to best approach or respond to the twice exceptional learner. They may come in with best intentions – apply all their tried-and-true strategies that work beautifully with neurotypical students — only to find that these very same strategies have the biggest backfire potential with neurodiverse learners.

Have we fallen into a self-fulfilling prophecy where we expect things to be difficult – for the student and the teacher? Why do we allow old habits, approaches and strategies we know don’t work, to continue? With respect to those who suffered in 2020; the parents the teachers and especially the 2e student, we’ve got to change our ways.

First, some truths to give you context.

Many educators and administrators are not aware that students identified as gifted can also have a learning disability. The gift may mask the challenge, or the challenge may mask the gift. In either case the 2e learner’s needs go unmet. Satisfaction with grade-level performance for a 2e learner may be detrimental to their motivation as a learner. Unsupported challenges may make 2e learners doubt their abilities. In either case, everyone suffers and the well of untapped potential overflows.

Twice Exceptional students in special education classrooms rarely experience strength-based learning. The assumption often is that students needing special education support do not have strong cognitive abilities. The truth is, gifted is a special need. Recognizing a child’s strengths and passions and using them to address deficits is the best way to push through and teach a 2e learner.

Many parents of twice exceptional children accept a diagnosis without understanding the similarity of giftedness traits to characteristics of learning differences. For example, did you know that ADHD and giftedness share many similarities?

Twice Exceptional learners experience forty times the redirects in core curriculum classes as compared to enrichment courses.[1] Think about it. How many times a day do you say your 2e learner’s name in order to redirect him? If you compare all the things you notice that your 2e student does ‘wrong’ compared to what he does ‘right,’ which ones do you notice more?

Anxiety often underlies dysregulated and challenging behavior seen at home and in the classroom. Anxiety is an invisible disability causing all types of dysregulated behavior that oftentimes the 2e student doesn’t even understand why he behaves the way he does.

Social failure may be connected to executive functioning challenges. Think about it. Social success depends on the person knowing when to talk, what to say, who to pay attention to and what thoughts in their head they should share. It’s all about initiating, organizing, and prioritizing, the core executive functioning skills.

Perfectionism in gifted and 2e learners often leads to underachievement. Worrying about letting others down, feeling like you can’t make the end product look exactly how you want it to, concern about always having to perform at a high rate – these cause perfectionists to shut down and avoid taking academic risks.

Focusing on deficits demoralizes the 2e child while strength-based interventions and enrichment allow 2e students to self-actualize and thrive. If writing is a challenge but acting is a passion – start by having your 2e student perform or create a movie to demonstrate their knowledge. This first step of expression allows the student to organize his thoughts because he is using his strengths. Asked to express the same knowledge by writing a graphic organizer or an outline or a paragraph will elicit far less information. Asking a child to help around the house and expecting him to ignore a sensory challenge – like emptying the garbage will likely fail. Asking him to shovel snow, however, or wash your car, may be met with enthusiasm and result in feeling like he is a contributor.

Transitions are hard for almost all 2e learners. Whether it’s because they feel a lack of control, they have an ability to become immersed in an activity and find it hard to pivot, or they are going somewhere they’ve failed before, 2e learners are known for their transitions struggles.

2e learners are often in ‘fight or flight’ mode based on triggers invisible to everyone else. Considering the heightened sensitivity described above, we can start to notice potential causes for unwanted and unexpected behavior.

Punishment and discipline are often reactions to 2e learners’ performance and behavior. Adults may receive recommended strategies to get 2e learners to conform, but the truth is, 2e learners experience such negative feedback, that it’s almost expected. This leaves them in ‘fight or flight’ mode and makes it impossible to access the rational self. The first step with 2e learners is to sooth, allowing them to know you understand, or want to understand, before discussing behavior.

Punishment and discipline result in more challenging behavior from twice exceptional learners, rather than less challenging behavior. We live in a “diagnose and fix” society. Our knee-jerk reaction is to notice behavior is wrong and to fix it. More effective is a pause, make an effort to understand and reassure the 2e child you know he doesn’t want to be doing/saying/feeling what he is in that difficult moment.

Educators seldomly receive training on the twice exceptional population’s needs. How can we expect educators to optimally address and differentiate for twice exceptional learners when seldomly do they even understand or know how to recognize the profile?There are few programs that address gifted learners, let alone twice exceptional learners. The complexity of the profile renders it necessary for specific training. This is why I produce educator-specific virtual conferences[2] that include understanding the twice exceptional profile, classroom strategies, cultural diversity and clinical considerations.

If these are the truths we know, we can use them to change our approach in 2021. First, if you have a 2e child or you’re the teacher of a struggling student you know is smart, learn more about the twice exceptional profile. You might choose a podcast to listen to or decide to read blogs, a recommended book or find specific resources for the 2e community. In any event, learning all you can about the profile is your first step. Going into 2021 we must refocus efforts based on 2e learner’s strengths. At the foundation, it is important to understand how twice exceptional people enter into the world with a heightened antenna. They pick up on more – more feelings (their own and others’), more meaning (rote and boring tasks are a waste of time and demoralizing), more stimuli (lights, sounds, smells, textures), more justice (fairness is paramount), more connection (there is a deep-seated need for meaningful interactions and learning).

Because 2e learners often experience exactly the opposite of what they need, we can begin to understand their behavior. Based on the list above of twice exceptional learners’ sensitivities, ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing exacerbating their natural disposition?” “Is my reaction heightening their state?” I think of twice exceptional learners as having a “bucket of resilience.” They may show up at home, in the classroom or anywhere with more or less in their bucket depending on what has recently affected them. We have to assess how much resilience is left in their bucket and adjust – adjust our expectations, adjust our reactions – or perhaps press the pause button and talk about challenges at another time. Creating a safe atmosphere where our 2e learners can show up with whatever amount of resilience they have in their bucket, is the first step toward filling that very bucket.

Understanding that we may just not know all that underlies our child’s or student’s behavior, recognizing that triggers are often invisible to us, is the first and most important step to change behaviors. 2e learners want more than anything to be understood, accepted and part of something important. Ironically, they experience the opposite of those ever-present desires. If there is just one thing you change this year – give your 2e child, or student, the benefit of the doubt. Doing so allows you to reframe your approach. You’ll gain patience and find yourself strengthening connection, and that will have the longest lasting effect on their behavior – and most importantly, their happiness.


[1] Conversation with Susan Baum, PhD., Bridges Graduate School for Cognitive Diversity, Dec. 31, 2020.

[2] We also produce parent-specific conferences, See, https://www.withunderstandingcomescalm.com/2020-lets-talk-2e-conference-parents/

Julie Skolnick
Author: 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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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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