My six-year-old daughter is what teachers and parents refer to as 2E, or “twice exceptional,” because she is intellectually gifted but also struggles with a developmental disability. Although as many as one in 20 gifted children is twice exceptional, the struggles of 2E kids go largely undiagnosed, unrecognized, and untreated. Society as a whole views disability and intelligence as something binary. People largely believe that a child is either “smart” or “special-needs,” but can’t possibly be both. As parents, we struggle to meet the needs of twice-exceptional kids. While there’s no one formula that can help every 2E child, here are some important tips for parents to meet the needs of twice exceptional kids.
1. Pay attention to your child’s emotional needs and self-esteem. The Davidson Institute notes that even for children whose disabilities are not primarily psychological, emotional problems are one of the biggest obstacles that twice exceptional kids face. Everything they face in school is either “too easy” or “too hard,” and when they encounter a problem that they can’t solve effortlessly, they tend to give up quickly or react very emotionally. Make sure you keep an open dialogue with your twice exceptional child about issues like self esteem and mental health.
2. Be careful with labels and compliments. I absolutely refuse to tell my daughter that she is smart. For one thing, I don’t think it’s healthy to compliment children for things that they don’t choose, like being cute or intelligent. Twice exceptional kids can also become very anxious about labels like “smart” and “gifted” because they may feel like they are expected to live up to a very high standard, and when their disabilities get in the way, they feel like failures. Praise the right things: effort, compassion, creativity, and caring. It will be better for your child in the long run than blanket praises like “smart” or potentially misleading labels like “disabled.”
3. Be your child’s main advocate. Schools are only rarely well-equipped to handle twice exceptional kids. They face the daily struggle of being severely over-challenged in some areas but severely under-challenged in others. This hits home for me almost every time I see my daughter at school, bored with re-learning a curriculum she mastered in toddlerhood, but still struggling to use stairs and to communicate with her peers. That’s why your child needs you to stay focused and on-track with your child’s school. Know the curriculum. Know the gifted education and special-needs education teachers. Talk to your child’s main teacher frequently. Your twice-exceptional child deserves a vocal and caring advocate.
4. Build an outstanding IEP. A twice-exceptional child needs an excellent IEP (individualized education plan) and an excellent team of educators to make sure that he’s adequately challenged while also getting the help he needs. Make sure that you make and attend IEP meetings any time you think it would benefit your 2E child. Stay in contact with the team and let them know of anything that you think could use adjustment, whether that’s more help, more challenge, or both. Make sure that the IEP covers important and often-overlooked bases, like mental health and social skills.
5. Supplement education at home. Parents should be their kids’ primary educators, especially for a child with special needs. While you might not have the expertise it takes to teach individual skills the way an occupational therapist or gifted-education teacher might, you do know your child better than anyone else. Make life itself a learning experience. Ask questions. Read books. Challenge your 2E child with fun “homework” that matches his interests and experiences. Supplemental education at home can make sure that he’s getting the “extra” education he needs to thrive.
A twice-exceptional child can be twice the challenge (and twice the joy). That’s why every parent of 2E children needs to know how to meet their kids’ needs on a variety of levels. If you’re willing and ready to put in a lot of effort to make sure that your kid is getting the education he needs and deserves, you and your child with both be rewarded in the end.