A Puzzling Paradox

Twice-exceptional students hidden in our classrooms

Did you know that some students who are very bright have difficulty learning? In the past, people believed that students with high IQs excelled at pretty much everything. But educators have witnessed bright students struggling in the classroom, and research suggests that up to seven percent of students have high ability and a coexisting learning difficulty. These students are exceptional in more than one way: they are twice-exceptional, or 2e, students.1

Our interest in twice exceptionality stems from personal experience. Lynn first heard of twice exceptionality when her daughter was identified as 2e. As a parent, Lynn has seen various responses to her daughter’s complex mix of needs, as some educators struggled with the idea that students identified as gifted might also need support for learning difficulties. Elizabeth’s experiences with twice-exceptional children began when she was an elementary school teacher, and continued while she worked as a school board psychometrist and then as a professor of special education and educational psychology. She is also aunt to a remarkable twice-exceptional niece. We think of twice exceptionality like this: we all have strengths and weaknesses; 2e students are simply at the extremes. They have great potential, and as educators we can help them experience success by supporting their academic, social, and emotional needs. 

What is twice exceptionality?

2e students have unique and often challenging educational needs due to their individual strengths and weaknesses. Consider Jessica (name changed), who was identified as gifted with learning disabilities. In Grade 6, Jessica’s IQ was measured in the top two percent on the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children, but she had significant difficulties with spelling and arithmetic. Throughout Grades 4 and 5, Jessica’s teacher had stressed the need to practice multiplication facts. Unfortunately, the thought of mental arithmetic brought Jessica to tears. But with a calculator to handle addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, Jessica could solve advanced logic problems! After formal identification, and with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in place, the family, school, and Jessica began to understand why some things were easy for her and other things were difficult. This process of explaining and understanding exceptionalities is called demystification. When we demystify twice-exceptional students’ strengths and weaknesses, we can help them build their self-confidence and develop hidden talents.

There are many ways in which students can be really smart but have difficulty learning. Some learning difficulties, like Jessica’s, are due to Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs). SLDs can affect just one area of learning such as writing (dysgraphia), reading (dyslexia), or math (dyscalculia). Often these specific terms are poorly understood and inconsistently interpreted. Whenever we refer to SLDs, it can be helpful to state what the term means rather than assume the term is understood, for example: “Jessica was identified with dyscalculia, which means she struggles with mental arithmetic.”

Aside from SLDs, high-ability students can have difficulty learning due to other issues such as attention deficits (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), emotional/behavioural disorders (EBD), and physical/sensory issues. Each of these disorders must be clinically diagnosed by a professional. However, it is classroom teachers, parents, and family members who are first to notice when a student is struggling.2

What does twice-exceptionality look like?

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is! 2e students have a wide range of talents and difficulties, and they develop different strategies to manage their learning difficulties. They may have excellent vocabularies and advanced problem-solving skills but lack organizational skills and struggle with spelling, reading or arithmetic. For example, a high-ability student with dysgraphia – an SLD that affects writing – might have a superior vocabulary but be unable to express thoughts in writing. As you can imagine, living with a mix of ability and learning difficulty can lead to frustration in school settings, and a lack of fit between student and school can lead to disengagement and lowered self-esteem.3

Some twice-exceptional students display unexpected academic under-achievement. For example, a 2e student might have high ability in verbal problem solving, but he may have weak processing skills that cause him to respond slowly and appear to think slowly. For other 2e students, grade-level achievement is maintained only by extraordinarily high levels of effort and support, and 2e students may seem unusually tired at the end of the school day – an issue often noticed by parents.

2e students often use their high abilities to find ways to work around, or hide, their difficulties. As a result, their complex needs can go unnoticed or unidentified.

What makes twice exceptionality difficult to spot is that 2e students often use their high abilities to find ways to work around, or hide, their difficulties. As a result, these students’ complex needs can go unnoticed or unidentified until their coping strategies are no longer effective at school. Some students do not fall through the cracks until they are in high school or even university, when they begin to realize that their classmates are leaving them behind. This can result in confusion, anxiety, and increased awareness that they are different from their peers. Unfortunately, when we don’t know the student has special education needs, the student misses out, receiving neither enriched programming for her or his talents, nor accommodations for learning disabilities.

How can we support twice-exceptional students in school?

When we see a student is struggling, we often try to help by focusing on weaknesses. But twice-exceptional students have a lot of potential in their areas of strength. For example, 2e students may be frustrated by school but often have expertise in specific topics. One way to engage 2e students is to offer a selection of tasks. For example, during a unit on Canadian government, one 2e student might demonstrate her complex thinking by compiling a list of questions she would ask if she spent a day with the prime minister; another 2e student might create a graphic chart showing polling stations and voter turnout in the last election. Positive practices for supporting twice-exceptional students include targeting areas of strength, and teaching skills and strategies in areas of weakness where needed. In today’s educational settings there are many opportunities for multi-modal assignments that engage twice-exceptional learners. Older students might meet curriculum expectations by making videos, dramatic plays, or graphic storyboards. Younger students can engage in verbal or visual tasks that are less dependent on neat handwriting or accurate spelling skills.

Although experts suggest that 2e students benefit most when the emphasis is on strengths, some 2e learners benefit from learning strategies that compensate for academic problem areas. For example, a 2e student who lacks organization skills may need extra assistance through the necessary steps to plan, organize, and execute independent research projects.

Twice-exceptional learners respond well to choices and flexibility in learning, assessments, and pace of instruction.4 While these supports work well for all students, 2e students in particular benefit from flexible pacing through acceleration. Given the chance to pursue academic topics of interest at an individualized pace, a formerly frustrated 2e student can surprise us with an otherwise unseen depth of curiosity and commitment to learning. In one recent study, researchers found that 50 percent of twice-exceptional students could benefit from moving ahead in one or more areas.5

Twice-exceptional students also need social and emotional support to succeed in school. Some 2e students hide their frustrations and low self-esteem behind behaviour such as acting the clown, expressing anger, withdrawing socially, or denying problems. For these students, direct instruction in anger management, self-regulation and social thinking may be beneficial, and especially so for those with nonverbal learning disabilities or Asperger’s syndrome. Developing communication skills is helpful for all students, and those who are 2e may benefit from extra guidance, understanding, and encouragement to develop these skills. Because many 2e students are not identified, educators and parents must pay special attention to learners who show a lack of achievement and frustrations that seem out of sync with their abilities,6 keeping in mind that negative behaviour can stem from unmet educational needs or unaddressed social or emotional issues.

Although identifying and diagnosing twice-exceptional students remains challenging, educators are getting better at recognizing coexisting exceptionalities. As we continue to learn more about twice exceptionality, educators in regular classrooms can be on the lookout for these unique students with hidden special talents and needs. Ultimately, classroom teachers are ideally situated to find and support these delightfully complex students. Next time you see a highly creative student with an unrelenting sense of curiosity who seems easily distracted or frustrated, stop and ask yourself, “2e or not 2e?”


En Bref – Certains élèves très doués éprouvent aussi des difficultés d’apprentissage. Ces élèves doublement exceptionnels ne sont pas toujours identifiés dans nos classes parce que leurs habiletés peuvent dissimuler leurs difficultés et vice-versa. Malgré leurs problèmes, ces élèves ont beaucoup de potentiel. En tant qu’éducateurs, nous pouvons les aider à connaître le succès en soutenant leurs besoins scolaires, sociaux et émotionnels. Dans cet article, les auteures décrivent la double exceptionnalité et proposent des façons d’aider les élèves doublement exceptionnels à réussir.


Original illustration: iStock

Photo: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, September 2015


1 Sometimes also termed dual-exceptional. 

2 Lynn Dare and Elizabeth Nowicki, “Twice-Exceptionality: Parents’ perspectives on 2e identification,” Roeper Review (in press).

3 Megan Foley-Nicpon, H. Rickels, S. Assouline, and A. Richards, “Self-esteem and Self-concept Examination among Gifted Students with ADHD,” Journal for the Education of the Gifted35, no. 3 (2012): 220-240.

4 Colleen Willard-Holt, J. Weber, K. Morrison, and J. Horgan, “Twice-exceptional Learners’ Perspectives on Effective Learning Strategies,” Gifted Child Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2013): 246-262. 

5 Susan Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, and Joyce Vantassel-Baska, eds., A Nation Empowered: Evidence trumps the excuses holding back America’s brightest students, Volume 1 (Iowa City, IA: The Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, 2015). 

6 Dare and Nowicki, “Twice-Exceptionality: Parents’ perspectives.”

Meet the Expert(s)

Elizabeth Nowicki

Elizabeth Nowicki is an Associate Professor at Western University’s Faculty of Education, and is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. She has a doctorate in psychology and a master’s degree in educational studies.

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Lynn Dare

Lynn Dare, MEd, CE, is a doctoral candidate in applied educational psychology at Western University. Her research interests include twice-exceptionality and curriculum pacing for high-ability students.

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