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Gifted children with special needs

Programming options for gifted kids who are twice exceptional

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Gifted children qualify as special needs students in most parts of Canada. But it’s common for them to have other special needs as well. These children are often referred to as “twice exceptional” students, since they have two special needs.

These children are a unique challenge for parents and educators. If your child is twice exceptional, you’ll need to find a school or program where both their giftedness and their other special need can be supported. You’ll also need to monitor the situation closely, since both the strengths and weaknesses of dually exceptional children can evolve over time.

Click here to view a list of gifted schools 

Learning disabilities

A common dual exceptionality is when a child is both gifted and has a learning disability (LD). Examples of learning disabilities are Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dysgraphiadyscalculia, dysphasia, and dyslexia (which is now sometimes called a “reading disorder”).

Some gifted students with LDs can do well in a dedicated gifted program, as long as the teacher has the relevant expertise. Teachers can sometimes differentiate instruction to accommodate the learning strengths and weaknesses of gifted students with LDs. It also helps if the school or program has certain kinds of resources, such as special education classes, alternative instruction modes, tutors, and counselling services.

An important factor here is how severe the LD is and whether it’s likely to interfere with the ability to stay focused in class. Gifted students with a very severe case of ADHD or dyslexia, for instance, may not be good fits for full-time gifted programs, especially those with large classes (where there are more distractions). They may be better suited to a regular classroom, ideally a small one, that makes adjustments to address both their learning strengths and weaknesses. They may also do well in an alternative setting, such as a Montessori school with a low teacher-to-student ratio.

Developmental disabilities

Some gifted children also have a developmental disability, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome, or intellectual disability. Depending on the particular disorder and child, these students can have difficulty reading body language and social cues, communicating and understanding certain kinds of messages, and being able to cope with certain environmental stimuli.

These students generally don’t do well in large classes, where it can be hard for them to focus. So regardless of the type of gifted program—whether self-contained, dedicated gifted programs or one with in-class adaptations—these students need their learning environment to be quiet and structured. Other important factors for these students include having a skilled teacher and access to out-of-class resources such as counselling and tutoring. Clearly, though, the right option for these students will largely depend on the severity of the social issue and the unique traits of the student.

Behavioural problems

Gifted kids can also have pronounced behaviour problems, such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) or troubled teen behaviour. These problems might include a lack of flexibility, trouble controlling emotions, and difficulty following rules. These kids also can disrupt their class, something that can harm relations with teachers and peers. Many gifted kids develop these problems at least in part because of not feeling challenged in school. Some of these children also have LDs such as ADHD, or developmental disorders such as Asperger’s.

If the child’s behaviour problems are severe, they often might not do well in a full-time, dedicated gifted school or program, especially if it has a large class. Because these kids can be disruptive and often have trouble maintaining their focus, they need a more intensive, one-on-one approach. Usually, then, they’re better suited to classrooms that make in-class adaptations.

If a child’s behavior problems are severe, they might not do well in a full-time, dedicated gifted school or program, especially if it has a large class.

If the child’s behaviour problems aren’t too severe, however, and they have access to out-of-class resources such as counselling and tutoring, they have a better chance of succeeding in a self-contained program. Remember that often a student’s behaviour problems will recede or disappear once they are appropriately challenged and stimulated in school.

In the end, though, the prospects for success in any of these learning environments will largely depend on the expertise and abilities of the teacher.

Physical disabilities

Finally, gifted students can also have a physical disability such as dyspraxia, sight impairment, hearing impairment, Cerebral Palsy (CP), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or Cystic Fibrosis (CF). There are not many schools in Canada, private or public, that are well-equipped to deal with these dual-exceptionality students. The main problem is one of accessibility: few schools are fully accessible to a student population with a wide range of physical disabilities.

If you’re looking at private schools, the main task is to find one that is both physically accessible and has a gifted program. For instance, you can look at gifted schools and programs in TorontoOttawaRichmond HillOakvilleMississaugaMarkhamBrampton, and Burlington-HamiltonOntario, to see if they fit this criterion. You can also find gifted schools in MontrealQuebecVancouverBCCalgary and EdmontonAlberta, and across Canada.

Click here to view a list of gifted schools 
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