Twice-exceptional learners are students who have the ability to think, reason, and problem-solve at very high levels but also have special education needs. These children are best served by teachers who recognize and build on their exceptional strengths while at the same time are flexible in areas where the students require accommodations and support. For example, teachers may modify assignments, offer flexible timelines, provide alternative learning experiences, and employ other strategies that are often used with students who have special needs. These adaptations provide the twice exceptional learner important access to the many advanced learning opportunities that Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) provides.
The school district has made a concerted effort in the past several years to raise teacher, parent, and student awareness of the learning profiles and needs of twice exceptional students. Collaboration between gifted education staff and special education staff has been a key component in efforts to address this issue through ongoing and varied professional development activities. As a school district, FCPS embraces the notion of differentiation and the importance of a child-centered approach to delivering instruction that meets the needs of each individual child. Differentiation provides powerful language for an approach to education that focuses on student strengths and provides curriculum and instruction that is designed to meet the needs of each and every child. Working closely with special education staff, the gifted program staff shares and exchanges strategies, practices, and interventions that allow students to be successful in gifted programs with special education interventions and support.
Because we are a very large school district, we use multiple venues for providing professional development and support to schools and teachers, Kindergarten - grade twelve. These include graduate courses, presentations to school staff, all day institutes, and courses offered through an FCPS sponsored Leadership Academy.
One graduate course offered online that has helped teachers understand the importance of serving these learners is called Underserved Populations of Gifted and is offered through an online professional development program called CaseNEX. Participants explore issues related to twice exceptional learners as well as analyze and apply research-based best practices for meeting student needs. Information about this course may be found online at www.casenex.com. In addition, a focus on twice exceptional learners has been woven into other graduate courses that lead to an endorsement in gifted education. For example, in an introductory course on gifted education, teachers are asked to interview an adult that was twice exceptional and ask about their educational experiences and what specific strategies/interventions/teachers helped them to succeed as they worked their way through the educational system. Through the interviews, the teachers gain a deeper understanding of the struggles and challenges that twice exceptional learners face and they gain an appreciation for the importance of providing the necessary accommodations and support.
Through presentations and conversations, FCPS continually works with school psychologists, special education teachers, GT resource teachers, and classroom teachers to implement research-based practices designed to meet the needs of twice exceptional children. Fairfax County Public Schools has adopted the notion of schools as communities of professionals which highlights the importance of sharing and exchanging knowledge, skills, and expertise to ensure that twice exceptional learners have access to the services and accommodations that they need in order to be successful. The presentations consist of an overview of gifted services, opportunities to discuss the various profiles that you might find in twice exceptional learners, and a discussion of variables that can be manipulated in order to help students succeed in challenging courses (e.g., time, structure, tools for learning). The main issue that surfaces again and again is fairness. Teachers are often concerned that accommodations for a twice exceptional learner may not be fair to other students who are not receiving the accommodations. This requires a lot of discussion on the importance of a child-centered approach to education in which every child is treated individually and receives whatever they need in order to be successful. It is helpful when teachers who are already providing accommodations for specific children with learning challenges and twice exceptional needs share their stories and the successes they have experienced.
Another venue is the FCPS Leadership Academy. Through the Academy, FCPS offers professional development to school teams. A course on twice exceptional learners is co-taught by special education staff and gifted education staff. Schools are encouraged to participate as teams, which include special education teachers, GT teachers, and principals. The school teams learn about the characteristics, issues, and profiles of twice exceptional learners and strategies and practices that can be used to ensure their success in advanced academic programs. The first session introduces the issues and research-based practices that support student success. School teams are then asked to apply what they learn to a situation or student in their school. When they return for the second session they share and discuss successes and challenges. Many teachers have written that as a result of these classes, they are more open to providing accommodations and have gained a better understanding of the profiles and needs of twice exceptional learners.
FCPS has also brought in various consultants and experts in the field to present to teachers and principals, K - 12. These include Dr. Shelagh Gallagher, associate professor in the area of Special Education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and Rich Weinfeld author of Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties. Both presenters have provided thoughtful, interactive sessions that encourage educators to dialogue and problem-solve as they consider the issues, challenges, and rewards of teaching twice exceptional learners. After each presentation, teachers noted that the professional dialogue that accompanied each session and the opportunity to collaborate and share strategies provided some of the most power professional development they had experienced in their efforts to serve twice exceptional learners.
To support their ongoing efforts, a district-wide subscription to the 2e Newsletter is posted for all K- 12 teachers on a school district intranet site. Teachers find this to be a valuable resource and especially like the fact that they can search past issues for information and ideas as they need them. It is not unusual for a teacher to share on a discussion board an article or feature that they found especially helpful in their work with twice exceptional children and their parents.
We know the critical role parents play, and we encourage parents to meet with school teams if they have a child with twice exceptional needs and establish a partnership with the school. It takes the expertise of numerous individuals to problem-solve and find out what works best for each child. The ultimate goal is to work toward self-understanding for the child as this is the most powerful way for a child to become a self-advocate and experience success. Finding and serving twice exceptional learners is a complex task that requires commitment and support on multiple levels to ensure that every child who has the capacity to succeed in advanced academic programs has access, accommodations, and support. FCPS is continually working toward that goal.
Dr. Carol V. Horn
K-12 Program Coordinator
3877 Fairfax Ridge Rd.
Fairfax, VA 22030
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