Uneasiness in accepting this seeming contradiction in terms stems primarily from faulty and incomplete understandings. This is not surprising, because the "experts" in each of these disciplines have difficulty reaching agreement. Some still believe that giftedness is equated with outstanding achievement across all subject areas. Thus, a student who is an expert on bugs at age eight may automatically be excluded from consideration for a program for gifted students because he cannot read, though he can name and classify a hundred species of insects. Many educators view below-grade-level achievement as a prerequisite to a diagnosis of a learning disability. Thus, an extremely bright student who is struggling to stay on grade level may slip through the cracks of available services because he or she is not failing.
Who Are the Learning Disabled/Gifted?
Recent advances in both fields have alerted professionals to the possibility that both sets of behavior can exist simultaneously (Baum and Owen, 1988; Fox, Brody, and Tobin, 1983; Whitmore and Maker, 1985). Children who are both gifted and learning disabled exhibit remarkable talents or strengths in some areas and disabling weaknesses in others. They can be grouped into three categories: (1) identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities, (2) unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and (3) identified learning disabled students who are also gifted.
Identified Gifted Students Who Have Subtle Learning Disabilities
This group is easily identified as gifted because of high achievement or high IQ scores. As they grow older, discrepancies widen between expected and actual performance. These students may impress teachers with their verbal abilities, while their spelling or handwriting contradicts the image. At times, they may be forgetful, sloppy, and disorganized. In middle school or junior high, where there are more long-term written assignments and a heavier emphasis on comprehensive, independent reading, some bright students find it increasingly difficult to achieve. Concerned adults are convinced that if these students would only try harder, they could succeed.
While increased effort may be required for these students, the real issue is that they simply do not know how! Because they may be on grade level and are considered gifted, they are likely to be overlooked for screening procedures necessary to identify a subtle learning disability. Identification of a subtle disability would help students understand why they are experiencing academic difficulties. More important, professionals could offer learning strategies and compensation techniques to help them deal with their duality of learning behaviors.
A word of caution is necessary at this point. A learning disability is not the only cause of a discrepancy between potential and achievement. There are a number of other reasons why bright children may be underachieving. Perhaps expectations are unrealistic. Excelling in science, for example, is no assurance that high-level performance will be shown in other academic areas. Motivation, interest, and specific aptitudes influence the amount of energy students are willing to apply to a given task. Social or emotional problems can interfere with achievement. Grades and school are simply unimportant to some students. Some youngsters have not learned how to study because, during primary grades, school was easy and success required minimal effort.
The second group of youngsters in which this combination of learning behaviors may be found are those who are not noticed at all. These students are struggling to stay at grade level. Their superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability. In essence, their gift masks the disability and the disability masks the gift. These students are often difficult to find because they do not flag the need for attention by exceptional behavior. Their hidden talents and abilities may emerge in specific content areas or may be stimulated by a classroom teacher who uses a creative approach to learning. The disability is frequently discovered in college or adulthood when the student happens to read about dyslexia or hears peers describe their learning difficulties.
Identified Learning Disabled Students Who Are Also Gifted
These bright children, discovered within the population of students who are identified as learning disabled, are often failing miserably in school. They are first noticed because of what they cannot do, rather than because of the talent they are demonstrating. This group of students is most at risk because of the implicit message that accompanies the LD categorization that there is something wrong with the student that must be fixed before anything else can happen. Parents and teachers alike become totally focused on the problem. Little attention, if any, is paid to the student's strengths and interests, other than to use them to remediate weaknesses.
Interestingly, these children often have high-level interests at home. They may build fantastic structures with plastic bricks or start a local campaign to save the whales. The creative abilities, intellectual strength, and passion they bring to their hobbies are clear indicators of their potential for giftedness (Renzulli, 1978). Because these students are bright and sensitive, they are more acutely aware of their difficulty in learning. Furthermore, they tend to generalize their feelings of academic failure to an overall sense of inadequacy. Over time, these pessimistic feelings overshadow any positive feelings connected with what they accomplish on their own at home. Research has shown that this group of students is often rated by teachers as most disruptive at school. They are frequently found to be off task; they may act out, daydream, or complain of headaches and stomachaches; and they are easily frustrated and use their creative abilities to avoid tasks (Baum and Owen, 1988; Whitmore, 1980). Since school does not offer these bright youngsters much opportunity to polish and use their gifts, such results are not surprising.
Although each of these subgroups has unique problems, they all require an environment that will nurture their gifts, attend to the learning disability, and provide the emotional support to deal with their inconsistent abilities. Four general guidelines can assist professionals in developing programs that will meet the needs of these students.
Over the last six years, the state of Connecticut has funded a variety of special programs for gifted students who have learning disabilities. All the programs have emphasized the development of gifts and talents of these students. The results of the projects showed dramatic improvement in student self-esteem, motivation, and productive learning behaviors. Improved achievement in basic skills for many students has been an unexpected bonus (Baum, 1988). In fact, according to Whitmore and Maker (1985), more gains are seen when intervention focuses on the gift rather than the disability.
A nurturing environment – one that shows concern for developing student potential – values and respects individual differences. Students are rewarded for what they do well. Options are offered for both acquiring information and communicating what is learned. The philosophy fosters and supports interdependence; students work in cooperative groups to achieve goals. Multiple intelligences are acknowledged; a well-produced video production about life in the Amazon is as valued as the well-written essay on the same topic. In such an environment no child will feel like a second-class citizen, and the gifted students with learning disabilities can excel.
In the final analysis, students who are both gifted and learning disabled must learn how to be their own advocates. They must ultimately choose careers that will accentuate their strengths. In doing so they will meet others who think, feel, and create as they do.
One such student, after years of feeling different and struggling to succeed, was finally able to make appropriate decisions about what he truly needed in his life. He was an outstanding amateur photographer who loved music. He had also started several "businesses" during his teenage years. In his junior year at college he became depressed and realized that he was totally dissatisfied with his coursework, peers, and instructors. He wondered whether he should quit school. After all, he was barely earning Cs in his courses. His advisor suggested that he might like to create his own major, perhaps in the business of art. That was the turning point in this young man's life. For the first time since primary grades, he began to earn As in his courses. He related that he finally felt worthwhile. "You know," he said, "finally I'm with people who think like me and have my interests and values. I am found!"
Baum, S. (1984). "Meeting the needs of learning disabled gifted children." Roeper Review, 7, 16-19.
Baum, S. (1988). "An enrichment program for gifted learning disabled students." Gifted Child Quarterly, 32, 226- 230.
Baum, S. & Owen, S. (1988). "High Ability/Learning Disabled Students: How are they different? " Gifted Child Quarterly, 32, 321-326.
Fox, L. H., Brody, L. and D. Tobin (Eds.) (1983). Learning disabled gifted children: Identification and programming. Baltimore, MD: Allyn & Bacon.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.
Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrum.
Renzulli, J. (1978). "What makes giftedness: Reexamining a definition." Phi Delta Kappan, 60, 180-184.
Whitmore, J. (1980). Giftedness, conflict, and underachievement. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Whitmore, J. & Maker, J. (1985). Intellectual giftedness among disabled persons. Rockville, MD: Aspen Press.
Webbing and Mind-Mapping
Heimlich, J. E. and S.D. Pittleman. (1986). Semantic mapping: Classroom applications. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Large, C. (1987). The clustering approach to better essay writing. Monroe, NY: Trillium Press.
Rico, G. L. (1983). Writing the natural way. Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher.
Visualization Techniques to Improve Memory
Write to Trillium Press, PO Box 209, Monroe, NY 10950 for information on the following materials.
Bagley, M. T. Using Imagery to Develop Memory.
Bagley, M. T. Using Imagery in Creative Problem Solving.
Bagley, M. T. ,and K.K. Hess. Two Hundred Ways of Using Imagery in the Classroom.
Hess, K. K. Enhancing Writing Through Imagery.
Provided in partnership with The Council for Exceptional Children.
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