Gifted Learners

Tukuna kia rere

Twice-multi exceptional learners

Understand the particular strengths and needs of twice/multi exceptional learners.

Dyslexia - my advantage

"I didn’t succeed despite my dyslexia, but because of it. It wasn’t my deficit, but my advantage. Although there are neurological trade-offs that require that I work creatively [and] smarter in reading, writing and speaking, I would never wish to be any other way than my awesome self. I love being me, regardless of the early challenges I had faced."

Scott Sonnon, martial arts world champion and author

In their profiles of the gifted and talented, Betts and Neihart (1988, 2010) describe twice- (2E) or multi-exceptional learners. These are learners whose special abilities are masked by learning, behavioural or physical disabilities. Some may be especially gifted in one aspect of learning but not in others.

2E or multi-exceptional learners are sometimes referred to as double-labelled, or having dual exceptionality. These are gifted learners whose performance is impaired, or their high potential is masked, by one or more specific learning disabilities, physical impairments, disorders or conditions. They may experience extreme difficulty in developing their giftedness into talent.

Gifted learners with disabilities are at risk, as their educational and social/emotional needs often go undetected. Educators often incorrectly believe that 2E learners are not putting in enough effort within the classroom. They are often described as ‘lazy’ and ‘unmotivated’. Hidden disabilities may prevent learners with advanced cognitive abilities from achieving high academic results. 2E learners perform inconsistently across the curriculum. The frustrations related to unidentified strengths and disabilities can result in behavioural and social/emotional issues.

Traditional methods of identification have not picked up gifted learners with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. These learners typically score ‘average’ in standardised achievement tests. However, average scores often mask peaks and troughs in performance (i.e., both special abilities and disabilities). Significant discrepancies across test categories often indicate a learning disability, with scores from oral responses typically being much higher than scores from written responses. In addition, teachers can identify gifted learners who have learning disabilities by examining their behavioural profiles.

A typical profile might include:

  • considerable variability in performance across tasks
  • difficulty with visual/auditory processing
  • short attention span
  • impaired memory
  • low self-concept and self-esteem
  • poor writing and organisational skills
  • highly articulate orally, with sophisticated vocabulary
  • exceptional interests, abilities and knowledge in specific areas, sometimes linked with special abilities in creative and abstract thinking.

Recognising and nurturing the gifts and talents of these learners is likely to require the involvement of specialist teachers and assistive technologies. Such learners often have a negative self-concept and may need support to recognise and value their areas of strength. Learners with learning disabilities who have also been identified as gifted respond positively to a responsive learning environment approach, especially if a Universal Design for Learning framework is used, leading to improvements in motivation, commitment, performance and self-concept.

Some gifted learners may have behavioural difficulties such as ADHD. Other learners may have exceptional gifts and talents and be identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Some gifted learners have physical and sensory disabilities. The ‘disabled gifted’ are among the ‘hidden gifted’ because their special abilities are masked by their more visible physical and sensory disabilities. However, by adulthood, their exceptional talent can be outstanding – consider, for example, musicians who are blind. Early identification of learners with disabilities who have special abilities is important. While teacher observation and the use of rating scales can be used to assist with this, some of the most effective methods of identification are self-, parent and peer nominations. However, caution is needed. While the observations of others are invaluable, the assessment of whether a child has a disability, and what that disability is, should be conducted by a suitably qualified specialist.

Working with learners who are exceptional in more than one way requires cooperation among classroom teachers and specialist teachers, as well as engagement by parents and whānau in developing individual educational plans. It is important that gifted learners’ strengths are recognised as soon as possible and that opportunities are provided for their development alongside remediation for any difficulties.


Be aware that 2E learners often perform as ‘average’ on standardised testing (i.e., between the 40th and 60th percentiles). Their high ability level enables them to find coping strategies to mask their learning disabilities. Their learning disabilities, in turn, limit their ability to achieve at a level that is commensurate with their high abilities.

It is important to look at the strengths of 2E learners separately from their weaknesses, rather than averaging their scores. Low scores or abilities in specific areas should be perceived as real weaknesses, not just ‘relative’ weaknesses.

The self-confidence of 2E learners often becomes a barrier to their participation in the classroom. They often withdraw and do not freely contribute their ideas, thereby reducing the opportunity to notice their high skill levels.

Helpful measures for assessment of 2E learners, or learners whom you suspect may be 2E:

  • Try using oral questioning instead of formal written testing, to avoid the difficulties that can arise when learners experience processing difficulties. If the learner is using a great deal of their cognitive energy attempting to read the question, the cognitive energy left for formulating the answer can be significantly reduced. The written answer often does not reflect the actual knowledge of the learner; rather, it reflects their reading, fine motor or writing difficulties.
  • Some learners may need both a reader AND a writer.
  • Use a writer to record answers, to avoid the reduced output and simplistic language that often occurs in written testing if writing or spelling is difficult for these learners. The quality and complexity of the answers usually increases dramatically if the learner has the opportunity to demonstrate * their actual knowledge without the challenge of having to write it down.
  • If possible, extend the time available for the learner to demonstrate their knowledge. If other learners question why extra time is given, offer it to them as well – not many learners are willing to spend more time on a test unless they really need it.
  • If possible, administer the non-verbal-reasoning test, which can identify gifted visual-spatial learners and is considered more culturally fair than many other screening tools, as no reading is involved. It is available for purchase through the NZCER.
  • Where possible, use short-answer tests (e.g., ICAS competitions).

Learning disorders

For more-detailed information go to Inclusive Education (NZ).

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)


  • excessive hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity
  • poor ability to sustain attention, even when interested
  • diminished persistence on tasks that do not have immediate positive consequences
  • often shift from one uncompleted activity to another
  • impaired social judgements
  • more active, restless than many other children
  • often talk excessively
  • often interrupt or physically intrude on others (e.g., butt into games)
  • difficulty in adhering to rules and regulations
  • often lose things necessary for tasks or activities at home or at school
  • may appear inattentive to instructions and details
  • highly sensitive to criticism
  • problem behaviours exist across all education settings, but may be inconsistent
  • variability in task performance and time used to accomplish tasks

Bright children are often referred to psychologists (or paediatricians), as they exhibit behaviours commonly associated with ADHD (e.g., restlessness, impulsivity or daydreaming). However, almost all of these behaviours can be present in gifted learners, particularly 2E learners. Little attention has been given to the similarities and differences between these two groups, which increases the potential for misidentification in both areas –giftedness and ADHD. While it is possible to be ADHD and gifted, it is also possible to present as ADHD but actually just be gifted and bored … or misunderstood.

APD (Auditory Processing Disorder)

APD is a hearing disorder in which the ears process sound normally but the brain cannot always understand or ‘hear’.


  • exhibit signs of hearing loss, especially when there are competing sounds in background
  • pass standard hearing tests conducted in quiet settings
  • may need instructions repeated, or may not respond appropriately to directions
  • find multiple verbal instructions challenging to remember and follow
  • may have difficulty following directions in the classroom

ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)

According to Autism New Zealand "autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects cognitive, sensory, and social processing, changing the way people see the world and interact with others."

Autistic people have rejected many of the terms used to describe autism in the past and prefer that an individual's specific support needs are described. Autistic gifted learners may need support to varying degrees with some of the characteristics listed below:

  • poor social and communication skills
  • difficulties in using and understanding language and non-verbal communication
  • difficulties in social interactions
  • inflexible thinking
  • difficulty in making sense of the world

Dyscalculia (maths-related disabilities)


  • learning disability involving maths skills
  • lifelong condition
  • normal or advanced language and other skills, often good visual memory
  • poor mental maths ability (e.g., money)
  • difficulty with maths processes
  • poor sense of direction, easily disoriented
  • difficulty with abstract concepts of time
  • makes common mistakes in working with numbers
  • may have difficulty learning musical concepts, keeping track of scores and players during games such as cards and board games
  • do better with big-screen calculators to check answers
  • do better if mathematical symbols (i.e., + - x ÷) are highlighted in colour (always the same colour) to help with recognition of the mathematical action required

Dysgraphia (written-work-related disabilities)

If you suspect a child has characteristics of dysgraphia, an assessment with a paediatric occupational therapist may be useful to gain individualised strategies.


  • messy handwriting
  • wrong or alternative spellings
  • misplacing words
  • fatigue when writing (often has a tight pencil grip and white knuckles)
  • stress
  • difficulty with grammar and organising sentences

Dyslexia (reading and spelling disabilities)


  • poor reading skills but high intelligence
  • poor spelling/writing skills but often creative
  • difficulty finishing assignments and exams within time limits
  • sometimes struggles to remember the right names for things (e.g., science terms)
  • finds memorising phone numbers and lists challenging
  • directions, reading maps are a mystery
  • thinks in pictures, often able to see the ‘big’ picture



  • known as ‘clumsy child’ syndrome
  • neurologically based
  • difficulty with motor planning and functioning (i.e., has an idea/knows how to do an action, but execution of idea falls short)
  • finds planning sequences challenging
  • often has writing difficulties
  • often has coordination difficulties (e.g., learning to tie a shoelace when young, writing at high school level)