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Gifted But Learning Disabled: A Puzzling Paradox
Author: Susan Baum
How can a child learn and not learn at the same time? Why do some students apply little or no effort to school tasks while they commit considerable time and effort to demanding, creative activities outside of school? These behaviors are typical of some students who are simultaneously gifted and learning disabled. For many people, however, the terms learning disabilities and giftedness are at opposite ends of a learning continuum. In some states, because of funding regulations, a student may be identified and assisted with either learning disabilities or giftedness, but not both.
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 8 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
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.
Identified Learning Disabled Students Who Are Also Gifted
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.
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 C's 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 A's 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. & Tobin, D. (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
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
Armstrong, T. (1987). In their own way: Discovering and encouraging your child's personal learning style. Los Angeles, CA: J.P. Tarcher. Distributed by St. Martin's Press. A former teacher and learning disabilities specialist describes learning differences and provides suggestions.
Cannon, T., & Cordell, A. (1985, November). Gifted kids can't always spell. Academic Therapy, 21, 143-152. Briefly discusses characteristics of the gifted learning disabled child, possible patterns on tests, and strategies for instruction.
Daniels, P. (1983). Teaching the gifted/learning disabled child. Rockville, MD: Aspen. Designed for educators and often technical.
Fox, L., Brody, L., & Tobin, D. (Eds.). (1983). Learning disabled gifted children: Identification and programming. Austin, TX: ProEd. The most comprehensive study available, containing a variety of experts' opinions.
Getting learning disabled students ready for college (n.d.). Washington, DC: American Council on Education, HEATH Resources Center. A useful fact sheet and checklist.
How to choose a college: Guide for the student with a disability (n.d.). Washington, DC: American Council on Education, HEATH Resources Center.
Prihoda, J., Bieber, T., Kay, C., Kerkstra, P., & Ratclif, J. (Eds.). (1989). Community colleges and students with disabilities. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, HEATH Resources Center. Lists services and programs for disabled students at more than 650 U.S. community, technical, and junior colleges.
Rosner, S. (1985, May/June). Special twice: Guidelines for developing programs for gifted children with specific learning disabilities. G/C/T, 38, 55-58. A very basic overview.
Scheiber, B., & Talpers, J. (1987). Unlocking potential. Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler. Offers advice on everything from diagnosis and vocational assessments to specific college programs designed to accommodate students with learning disabilities and provide them with study skills.
Silve, L. (1984). The misunderstood child: A guide for parents of learning disabled children. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. An easy-to-read basic and informative book with a focus on children with learning disabilities, yet relevant to children who are gifted and learning disabled.
Vail, P. (1987). Smart kids with school problems. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton. Emphasizes the traits of gifted students and the learning styles that set students who are gifted and learning disabled apart.
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