Learning Challenges

Twice-Exceptional and Thriving — At Last

Dr. Robin Finn writes about her journey to find the right school for her twice exceptional son, who is gifted and has ADHD. From IEPs to 504 plans, this is how they developed the best learning environment for him.

adhd college student teen reading
an adhd teen girl reading in bed dorm room

Several weeks after he started middle school, I received a phone call from my son’s teacher. Apparently, my sixth-grade son had bounced up and down so vigorously in his English class that he’d knocked a screw loose from his chair. In the middle of root-word review, his chair had crashed to the floor. His teachers wanted to meet to discuss how to support his moving forward.

My thought was: “Here we go again.”

While I couldn’t fault teachers for reaching out, as a veteran of such meetings, I felt a knot in my stomach. I was ready to put on my armor to once again defend and advocate for my son until my last breath. This time, though, it wouldn’t be necessary.

The Early Years

My son is twice-exceptional, a 2e. This sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Not only is my child exceptional, he is doubly exceptional. In a school setting, though, “twice exceptional” means being intellectually gifted and having special needs that affect learning—in his case, ADHD, anxiety, and visual-motor processing challenges. His 2e was neither good nor bad. It just described what type of learner he is. It meant that finding the right academic fit would be a long journey.

In preschool, my son often crashed into his classmates, half-sat on their laps, and pushed himself into the middle of groups. He had no patience for tasks requiring fine motor skills, like sharpening a pencil or tying shoes. He loved to play chess and, by age four, played a great game. But play date invitations were rare.

It was clear that my son needed help, but I wasn’t sure what kind of help he needed or how to get it. His principal recommended an IEP, a full-scale evaluation by the school district to determine which types of services, if any, he would qualify for. At the IEP meeting, the district counselor said that our son had made the most insightful comments she’d ever heard from a preschooler. She also said he would not be eligible for services. Our principal, angry that no “shadow” (personal classroom aide) was provided by the school district, told us it was “only a matter of time before he has no friends.” I didn’t know what to do. Was he a rambunctious little boy who would “grow out of it”? Or did he need interventions to thrive?

I paid for behavioral therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. Our son worked hard, but preschool was still a struggle. It was better when we finally moved on to our neighborhood public elementary school, but his twice-exceptionality continued to present challenges.

After a private neuropsychiatric evaluation, it was confirmed that our son had ADHD, anxiety, and visual-motor processing challenges. He also had the highest word fluency in his first-grade class. In his spare time, he read novels. His teacher had difficulty teaching him. His confidence spiraled downward, and he felt he was “always in trouble.” we tried again to get him an IEP—two more times, actually. Two more times the school district turned us down.

They did grant him a 504 Plan—not for services, but for classroom accommodations, such as being allowed to take frequent breaks or to stand by his chair. We continued to pay for services, and our son continued to be frustrated and challenged. After he was officially identified as “gifted,” in the second grade, we arranged for him to go to a higher grade level for math. Although this boosted his interest and self-esteem, in fourth grade, his teacher wouldn’t let him leave her classroom for differentiated instruction. Afraid he would “miss the basics,” she kept him in the fourth-grade curriculum. She and my son argued frequently. At the end of the arguments, she’d send him to the fifth-grade classroom (where he should have been studying math) to calm down.

It was like a circular conversation. The school told me my son needed help, I told the school my son needed help, but help never came. His teachers shared their frustrations with me, but when I relayed these to the school district, the answer was that he didn’t qualify for services. His grades and sky-high test scores proved he could “access the curriculum.” Meetings with his principal went nowhere. I spent thousands of dollars on therapy and evaluations, and I couldn’t get my son an IEP. He was caught in the middle—under-stimulated by the curriculum and struggling to meet too-high social and emotional expectations.

As middle school approached, I thought a gifted-and-talented program would be a good fit, but he was not accepted. When I asked about the weaknesses in his application, I was told that there were concerns about his “impulse control.” My son had struggled for years with ADHD, and had been denied services over and over because he was gifted. Now he was being denied admission to a gifted program because he had ADHD. I filed a formal complaint with the school district and, well after their 60-day deadline, they responded, claiming “insufficient evidence of discrimination.”

I couldn’t sleep. I filed complaints, contacted advocates and attorneys, and argued with the school district. The unfairness was infuriating. I had tried to be a team player to get my son’s needs met, but I had failed. Worst of all, I felt like I’d failed my son. With three kids, my paying private school fees wasn’t an option, and, despite the meetings, medications, and therapies, school hadn’t gotten any better.

As I planned my next step, I received an e-mail saying that my son had been accepted into a science academy at a nearby public school. He loved science, and he had a thirst for learning, but I was apprehensive. Something had to change. My husband and I met with the head of the program to describe our son’s challenges. At the end of the discussion, he smiled. “I think your son will do well here,” he said. After a little thought, we decided to give it a try.

Moving Forward, Finally

We met with our son’s teachers at his new middle school. We came up with several ideas to support him, including rethinking his medication and making revisions to his 504 Plan. After he got over the shock of the school’s rigorous curriculum, and the challenges of learning at a larger school, he’s doing well. He’s stimulated by his studies in advanced science, math, and robotics. He’s made some friends. His teachers noticed his many strengths and asked how they could help make the year a success for him.

And there was a bonus: No one was angry about the broken chair.

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  1. This sounds very similar to my experience with the Seattle public schools system and my son. I have been an advocate for him for years and he has been turned down by gifted programs although he scored in the gifted spectrum. He is depressed at school and feels uninspired to go. A first grader should not be experiencing this. Can you talk more about the science school, you found and other resources for 2e elementary kids? Thank you…

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