Gifted and challenged: When enlightening has to strike twice
*By SARAH LEMAGIE,* Star Tribune

November 23, 2008

Tyler Lehmann could read "Harry Potter" books before he started first grade, yet an anxiety disorder left him unable to speak to his teacher and all but one of his classmates in Woodbury. Simon Fink attends a school for gifted students in St. Paul, but Asperger's syndrome can make it hard for him to interact with peers and focus on lessons.

School can be tough for kids with challenges ranging from emotional disorders to ADHD or dyslexia. For gifted students, too, it's not always a cakewalk, between boredom and the sense of isolation that can result from being a "brainiac."

Then there are students such as Tyler and Simon, who fall into both categories.

Raising children with learning barriers is a task in itself, "but when they're bright and gifted and have a high IQ, it's even more frustrating, because the teachers just don't understand how to work with these kids," said Bloomington parent Chelle Woolley, whose 17-year-old son, Matt, was in fifth grade when he tested out for both giftedness and attention deficit disorder.

A growing awareness of so-called "twice-exceptional" or "2X" students, many of whom qualify for both gifted and special education services, is prompting some researchers to take a closer look at their needs. This fall, educators at the University of St. Thomas and four metro-area school districts are using a $490,000 federal grant to launch a five-year project aimed at developing better ways to teach 2X children, helping schools identify them and training teachers to work with them.

The project came out of talk this spring between educators at several schools for gifted students, including Dimensions Academy in Bloomington, Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul, the Atheneum program in Inver Grove Heights and the Gateway program in Woodbury.

Some of them said they'd been noticing more gifted students with disabilities.

"We were kind of bemoaning that we had all this great curriculum and these wonderful teachers and we had this headful of knowledge about education, but we weren't meeting the needs of these twice-exceptional kids," said Dimensions director Richard Cash.

Though they're often happier in gifted classes, 2X kids often struggle in school despite their intelligence. Processing lessons can be hard, or homework can disappear.

"We had documentation, data that proved that these kids are really bright, really smart, but then we had performance that was the exact opposite," Cash said.

For Simon, a seventh-grader at Capitol Hill, an organized teacher can make a big difference in his schoolwork and cut down on the frustrations that come with having Asperger's, a type of autism. "He needs a schedule," said his mother, Pemly Fink. "He needs to know what's expected of him."

Educators also worry because they don't know how many kids they're missing.

In 2004, about 7 percent of U.S. public school students were identified as gifted and talented, while about 14 percent received services under federal disability law, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

At Dimensions Academy, 6 percent of 130 gifted students have been identified as 2X, Cash said. But numbers vary by school, and pinning down how many gifted students have an impairment is tricky. Some gifted kids go unidentified for years because of a problem that keeps them from showing the full extent of their intelligence. In other cases, giftedness can mask a

That's not to say there are scads of apparently average kids who belong in gifted programs but are held back by a hidden condition. "If you look at the general curriculum you offer in schools, it really does satisfy the needs of the majority of our children," said project director Karen Rogers, a St. Thomas professor of gifted studies.

But experts say it's crucial to find the 2X students. Gifted students with a hidden disability can give the impression that they're merely slacking or muddle along until a crisis hits. And if teachers don't find and challenge gifted kids, they can check out mentally and become rebellious or depressed.

"It's really easy ... to think that gifted kids sort of have it made," said Erin Boltik, able learner coordinator for the Inver Grove Heights schools. But if they don't get the attention they need, she said, "They won't grow."

As for 2X kids, "When we've gotten them into our program, they've done a lot better, but it's still not a perfect fit."

The grant will allow the group to develop an identification method and adapted reading and math lessons for 2X children, as well as a certificate program at St. Thomas to train teachers.

'These kids feel so different'

Some 2X students do better in classes with other gifted kids not only because they're challenged more, but because they feel less isolated. Take Ben Starfeldt, a sixth-grader at Dimensions who has a disorder that makes it hard for him to keep his feelings in check. Ben's family knew early that he was gifted -- he scored 146 on an IQ test when he was 8 -- but his
elementary years in mainstream classes were marked by blow-ups that could make his teachers hesitant even to let him go to the library alone.

"He was an easy kid to pick on: the smart kid," said his father, Ross. "That just made the emotional disorder worse."

"I think in a regular classroom, these kids feel so different," said Tyler's mom, Lisa Rau Lehmann. "He used to refer to himself in kindergarten as a freak, because he could read chapter books."

Tyler, now a sixth-grader in the South Washington County School District's Gateway program for gifted students, was a talkative, funny toddler who was good with his brothers at home. But in public, he fell silent and couldn't do group activities or tell people his name.

Tyler is selectively mute, a disorder that can render him unable to talk. He still has rough spots in school, like the time he froze up during a science lab last year and his teacher nearly gave him a failing grade. But years of work with experts have helped Tyler, who now speaks very well, his mother said.

Not all 2X students are doing as well. Cash said some have struggled so much academically that they've had to leave Dimensions, even though the school tried "thing after thing after thing" to help. Older students at the school must maintain a B- average. Not all the students who have fallen short are 2X, Cash said, but those "were the ones that were the most disheartening, because we ran out of strategies."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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