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Underachievers, Part 2: One more key reason kids who could do well in school don’t

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I recently published a post titled “What exactly is an ‘underachiever,’ and why are there so many of them in our schools?” that discussed some of the reasons students who could do well in school somehow don’t. It said in part:

Extensive research shows that gifted students get poor grades or even drop out of school for a number of reasons, such as low motivation, boredom, dislike of school, social-emotional difficulties, and unstable family life.

This post takes a more detailed look at this problem from a different angle: that of “2e students,” or students called twice-exceptional because they have been designated as both gifted and having a learning disability. A website with resources about the issue,, says:

A term often used in the past for these childen was GT/LD — gifted and talented/learning disabled. More recently, another term has come into use — one that encompasses a broader range of problems that can affect learning. That term is twice exceptional, or 2e for short. ...
2e children are exceptional both because of their intellectual gifted and talents, and because of special needs such as learning disabilities, attention deficit, autism spectrum disorder, emotional or behavior problems, or other types of learning challenges — any of which can cause problems both academically and in social or family settings. Here are a variety of resources that help to explain what twice-exceptionality is all about.

This post was written by J. Mark Bade, who, with his partner Linda C. Neumann, for 15 years published “2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter,” now published as “2e News” by Bridges 2e Media. They now serve the 2e community with the website.

By J. Mark Bade

On July 5, The Answer Sheet asked, “What exactly is an ‘underachiever’ — and why are there so many of them in our schools?” The answer focused on gifted underachievement due to reasons such as “low motivation, boredom, dislike of school, social-emotional difficulties, and unstable family life.” It did not discuss one significant reason for gifted underachievement: learning disabilities (LDs).

Yes, gifted students can have learning disabilities. One way we can envision these students is like sleek, speeding darts headed through the air toward a target — each dragging an anchor as it goes. A student like this is commonly called twice-exceptional, or “2e” — once exceptional for his or her giftedness, and once for a learning disability or challenge that might include attention deficit, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other conditions.

The term “learning disability” is strictly defined by federal legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When describing learning issues in a broader way than defined by IDEA, many people use the terms “learning challenge” or “learning difference.”

These learning issues might also include conditions that impede learning and lead to underachievement. For example, slow processing speed and underdeveloped executive functioning skills are common in twice-exceptional children, and they can certainly impede learning. So, too, can anxiety and depression, which fall under the label of “social emotional difficulties” mentioned in the July 5th article.

If bright students have difficulty decoding words printed on a page, as with dyslexia, are they going to become high achievers in a learning environment highly dependent on the printed word?

If high-ability students have trouble focusing on tasks at hand, as with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, are they going to achieve in a highly-structured, sit-still-at-your-desk-and-listen classroom?

Can gifted students who might require an hour to agonizingly write out a single paragraph, as with dysgraphia, succeed with written expression?

To achieve, twice-exceptional students need accommodations in the ways they take in, process, and express classroom information: audio books instead of print books, for example; or special furniture that helps them to be comfortable enough to focus; or assistance in getting their words onto paper so that teachers can actually see and interpret what might be very excellent ideas. No accommodations, no achievement.

We have hundreds of thousands of twice-exceptional students in the United States. The most commonly accepted estimate is 360,000, a figure used by the National Association for Gifted Children and other organizations. But twice-exceptional students can be hard to identify.

  • They might be identified as gifted but not as having an LD, possibly receiving enrichment but not remediation. They’re underachieving.
  • They might be in special education but not identified as gifted, getting remediation but not enrichment. They’re underachieving.
  • They might be identified as neither gifted nor learning challenged because their combination of gifts and deficits masks both conditions and makes them seem just “average.” They’re underachieving.

Every reader here almost certainly knows twice-exceptional individuals. Maybe you have a brilliant co-worker who just cannot stay on task, for example. Outside of your work life, look at your child’s friends. How about that sixth-grader with whom you can have a fun, intelligent, adult conversation — but who gets only average grades at best? Or think about the kids you remember from your own schooling, perhaps the ones who hated school and couldn’t get away from it fast enough — but then turned out to have creative, successful careers as adults.

If you don’t know 2e adults in person, you certainly know them as celebrities. Henry “The Fonz” Winkler has dyslexia. He said he felt stupid as a kid. Now he creates books to help dyslexic children understand their challenges — the series “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever.”

There are many more, in all walks of life. You can meet some of them at the site of Understood, which focuses on learning and attention issues.

While we screen and test all the time for high IQ, we rarely screen for the combination of high IQ and deficits. It’s likely there are many, many unidentified twice-exceptional students in the United States, none of whom are receiving both enrichment for their gifts and remediation for their challenges, and all of whom are likely to be underachieving.

There’s an anecdote in the 2e community about a mom trying to get services at her child’s school. She wanted both enrichment and remediation for her 2e child. The story goes that the reply she received to her request from school was: “Your child can be gifted or your child can be learning disabled. It’s against district policy to be both.”

It’s an old anecdote, and things are better now in terms of getting services for underachieving twice-exceptional students. Across the country are schools catering to them, although not enough and usually very expensive.

States such as Colorado have made a point of identifying and serving twice-exceptional students, providing training and resources to their teachers to help them do so.

But there’s a long way to go. And until we can help all those students reach their potential, imagine the ones we’re dooming to permanent underachievement, unproductive careers, incarceration or even suicide, as described by author/researcher Marylou Kelly Streznewski in “Gifted Grownups.” Imagine the potential high-achieving superstars we’ve lost. We need to do better and stop stifling these students and start serving them so that they can achieve their true potential — a worthy goal for all students.

There’s a saying in the 2e community about underachievement: “If they could, they would.” We must enable these students. But to do that, we first must recognize they exist.