Teaching kids who are `twice exceptional'

Educators try to identify and help gifted students with learning disabilities

March 16, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

A year ago, 12-year-old Robert Harle would come home from school and crawl into bed, frustrated and exhausted.

Robert, who is deaf in one ear and has a form of autism, was identified early as a special education pupil by the Anne Arundel County school system. But his gifts in creative writing, science and history were overlooked - until his parents and an advocate stepped in.

"There was a climate in the school to just have him be OK where he is. Just exist, not achieve," said Lynne Tucker, Robert's advocate, who is part of a movement to identify and serve children who excel in some subjects but have learning disabilities and require support.

In schools across the state, thousands of students defy traditional labels. Many are bright enough to compensate for their disabilities, advocates say. But when they cannot, they get average grades or fail tests and classes. Often, they are simply viewed as unremarkable or lazy.

Now, egged on by parents and advocacy groups, educators are beginning to take notice.

Several hundred school teachers and administrators from 15 plan to attend a national conference, Diamonds in the Rough, in Montgomery County this week. Experts will discuss how to identify and serve gifted students who are learning disabled.

"We know there are ... students out there," said Rose Blucher, a special education specialist for Prince George's County schools. "It's just very problematic to get teachers to identify these kids."

So far, Montgomery and Prince George's are among a handful of counties in Maryland with programs to identify these students and tailor instruction that challenges them and provides the extra support they need.

"Some people have the misapprehension that if a child has a gift or a talent, they're going to do fine without any additional help," said Peter D. Rosenstein, director of the Washington-based National Association for Gifted Children. "They don't understand that there are huge numbers of children who ... if they're not nurtured will never come to fruition."

Educators say there is no simple way to identify these children because they may manifest strengths and weaknesses in so many different areas.

Some may have a sophisticated vocabulary but take language very literally and be unable to understand allusions or make inferences. Others may be able to form complex ideas in their minds but have a hard time communicating them with pen and paper.

Another reason these students may go unnoticed is that they are neither the most desperate cases nor at the top of the class, educators say. Federal- and state-mandated support exists for children who are failing, and school systems are eager to nurture high achievers. But students who fit somewhere in the middle receive less attention.

The effect of this neglect is felt in the home, parents and advocates say. Some of these students, unable to meet their potential, become frustrated, learn to hate school and sometimes drop out.

"The best-case scenario," said Montgomery educator Richard Weinfeld, "is the kid is very resilient and they make it through school and they still have their self-esteem intact."

But not all children are so fortunate. "There are lots of cases we've been aware of where mental health issues, such as depression, are caused by this conflict - on the one hand knowing you're bright, and on the other hand not being able to succeed in school," Weinfeld said.

Robert Harle - who now is enrolled in the most advanced seventh-grade classes available at Southern Middle School in Lothian - considers himself lucky. The pressure Tucker and his parents put on school officials has paid off.

"Without her help," Robert said of his advocate, "I wouldn't have the level of classes that I have now. I'd be bored and tired."

Robert has gone through years of coaching by special educators to control behaviors associated with Asperger syndrome, a version of autism. Those with the disorder may be socially awkward, might be unable to form bonds with peers and often develop fixations on complex subjects.

Robert's mother, Christina, said she would have pulled him out of public school years ago but for one thing: Robert's unusual musical ability. He sings and plays six instruments, and he wanted the opportunity to participate in band and chorus.

Now, for the first time, everything in Robert's life seems to be in good balance. All his teachers are aware of his needs - sitting close to the front of the room, having the option of taking notes on a laptop computer, getting assistance in managing his assignments and time - and he is challenged by the work.

"They're making it a win-win situation," Christina Harle said. "He's really into it. He really likes going to school."

No one can say how many students in Maryland share Robert's plight because education officials have not defined this group, and most school systems do not collect such data. "But it's a large enough percentage that they have to be dealt with," Rosenstein said.

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