Gifted and Distractible: Understanding, Supporting, and Advocating for Your Twice Exceptional Child

Gifted and Distractible: Understanding, Supporting, and Advocating for Your Twice Exceptional Child

by Julie F. Skolnick
Gifted and Distractible: Understanding, Supporting, and Advocating for Your Twice Exceptional Child

Gifted and Distractible: Understanding, Supporting, and Advocating for Your Twice Exceptional Child

by Julie F. Skolnick


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A practical, research-based guide that demystifies giftedness and learning differences in order to help “twice exceptional” children thrive.

Does your child exhibit giftedness and behavioral issues like meltdowns, power struggles, and difficulty relating to their peers? Are they out-of-the-box thinkers requiring different teaching and learning methods? It’s a widely held misconception that intellectual ability and social and emotional success go hand in hand. In fact, “twice exceptional” kids—those who are gifted and have simultaneous learning differences like ADHD, Autism, or dyslexia—are often misunderstood by parents, teachers, and themselves.
    This much-needed and empowering guide reveals the unique challenges these remarkable kids face, and offers strength-based, hands-on strategies for understanding, supporting, and advocating for twice exceptional kids. In a world that labels them lazy, scattered, attention-seeking, and a problem that can’t be solved, these tools will help you reimagine the world through your child’s unique perspective—so you can help them thrive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593712696
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/17/2023
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 24,100
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., founder of With Understanding Comes Calm LLC, has passionately guided thousands of parents of gifted and distractible children around the world, mentors twice exceptional adults, and advises educators and professionals on how to bring out the best and raise self-confidence in their twice-exceptional students and clients. She serves as secretary to the Maryland superintendent’s State Advisory Council for Gifted and Talented Students, and produces virtual conferences and other engagement opportunities for the twice exceptional community.

Read an Excerpt


Gifted and Distractible
What Do the Labels Mean?

The Cycle for Success begins with the extraordinarily important step of gaining a deep understanding of the 2e child's true inner experience and complexity. Frequently described as "gifted with a learning difference or learning disability," the twice exceptional child elicits misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. The disability piece refers to learning differences and disabilities that are well researched and understood. Some of these conditions include ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, Autism, auditory processing disorder, and sensory processing differences. By no means is this an exhaustive list. The twice exceptional profile can also include more nuanced exceptionalities, such as working memory issues, "slow" processing speed, anxiety, executive functioning challenges, or social/emotional difficulties. It's imperative to note that 2e children's neurological wiring works against their ability to engage according to neurotypical norms, encourages negative self-concept, and undermines the strengths and gifts that are attendant to their profile.

Surprisingly intense reactions to unseen triggers often elicit reactive responses from parents, teachers, and peers. Having their own nervous system triggered by what seems like out-of-place and over-the-top behavior, parents often find themselves matching their 2e child's intensity. Understanding the inner experience of gifted and twice exceptional children is necessary for parents to shift from an intensely reactionary model of parenting to an informed, responsive parenting model.

Who Is the "Typical" 2e Child?

Even though each 2e child demonstrates her own cocktail of characteristics and symptoms, there are similarities. The "typical" 2e child's experience is one of intensity from birth. She has a rage to learn and master whatever is put in front of her. She feels intense emotions, literally from infanthood, and has sleepless nights, long bouts of crying, or incredibly deep sleep. Perhaps the child demonstrates an ability to focus and concentrate on highly stimulating input. Think of the child who watches the world unfold around her, who stares at a sunbeam rippling through the trees outside a window and casting shadows on the floor... the child who sits wide-eyed and refuses to eat in places with lots of commotion... the knowledge-seeking child who often and ironically finds school frustrating in an environment where problems and challenges usually first occur. Listen to parents describing their son:

We're the parents of a seven-year-old who was a precocious toddler. He talked early and was deeply interested in everything and everyone around him. He is an incredibly creative storyteller and can build anything. He was a happy, curious, clever guy until kindergarten.

Soon we started getting emails and calls from school about Miguel's "refusal" to sit and listen during story time. His teachers were frustrated because he would finish projects faster than the other students and then wander around the room pulling out drawers of LEGO and craft supplies. They reported that on the playground he "never sought out friends," but kept to himself, digging in the sandbox or even in the dirt.

Somehow, we made it through kindergarten. Our son is a pleaser, so he tried to comply with teacher requests. But he lost all enthusiasm for going to school. When Miguel comes home, our formerly joyful, gregarious son is sullen and quiet. There have been a couple of days when he refused to get out of bed in the morning, crying and asking if he can just stay home and try to "do school" on his own.

We recently had Miguel assessed and received a thirty-five-page neuropsychological report that includes a whole host of diagnoses. On the one hand our son tests "off the charts" verbally, but there are also several diagnoses like dysgraphia and attention deficit disorder, slow processing speed, and most worrisome, generalized anxiety disorder. How can all of this be true when we have such a happy, loving home?

We're being advised to address Miguel's disabilities before trying to get him into a gifted program. We were told that until we get his challenges fixed, he won't be allowed in gifted programming. We also wonder what do we do about the generalized anxiety disorder? The psychologist recommends therapy and possibly medication. Our son is only seven; how can so much be so wrong already?

Unfortunately, the story above demonstrates a common experience for parents of 2e children. Their formerly precocious learner enters school and is labeled a behavior problem. He is evaluated, and the parents struggle to understand the assessment report and are advised to focus on deficits before celebrating strengths. So much is wrong with this approach.

Parents notice uncommon skills or abilities early on in their child's life, and ironically, once the child begins school, the twice exceptional child often crashes and burns. In Miguel's experience, rather than acting out, he went inward. Inward-facing kids are at particular risk for their challenges and abilities to go unrecognized or ignored. They don't disrupt class or act out in an obvious way. Often this type of child is labeled "lazy." Other times, a 2e child responds to his inappropriate school environment dramatically, by having a tantrum, yelling, throwing, kicking, shouting, hitting, or self-harming. This child is often labeled as "oppositional" and "defiant."

In both cases, the child receives negative feedback at school and at home. In both cases, typically the real underlying reasons for behavior are simply misunderstood. In my practice, the biggest groups of parent clients seeking support are those who have children in third, eighth, or eleventh grade, when demands for output increase. The twice exceptional child can no longer mask his learning differences, views busywork as an affront to his internal moral code, or suffers because his weak executive functioning skills are tapped beyond his capabilities.

Misunderstanding Gifted

Much of the misunderstanding and, therefore, ineffective responses to 2e children are because most people assume that the "gifted" label means smart and talented, that the child has it easy, that schoolwork is a breeze, and that as a parent you are lucky if your child is "gifted." What most people fail to understand is that intellectual acumen is only a small part of the gifted experience. Strong sense of justness and fairness, unhealthy perfectionism, intensity, and often a lag in social/emotional maturity are identified in the literature as defining characteristics of giftedness and, by extension, twice exceptionality. Simultaneously, the learning difference part of twice exceptionality does not necessarily exclude strong intellect.

When outward expressions of twice exceptionality manifest more obviously as challenges, most adults in a 2e child's life spend more time addressing the child's disability.

Parents are advised by medical or education professionals to have their child evaluated. Receiving a neuropsychological evaluation from a psychologist or therapist well versed in gifted and 2e provides excellent assessment information and suggested interventions, but these professionals are hard to find. (We discuss evaluations later, in chapter 4.) The more typical evaluation experience includes results that focus on deficits. Rarely are parents advised to research and address their child's giftedness, let alone taught that a gifted identification means something beyond advanced intellectual abilities. (We explore this in chapter 2.) With an emphasis on challenges, a misunderstanding of the gifted experience, and confusion about next steps, parents often set off on a path that further underscores their child's challenges, without an accurate perception of needs or how strengths can serve to offset struggles.

It's as if parents of a 2e child suffer whiplash from their child's uneven abilities and disabilities. Twice exceptional children often display intense behavior and emotions as soon as they enter this world. In some cases, this is rewarding for parents-"Wow, look what my kid can do!" For other parents it's exhausting, and they spend a lot of time trying to contain their child so they and others around them can gain some "peace and quiet." In most cases there is both-awe at the twice exceptional child's abilities and frustration and confusion at their challenges. A typical expression to describe the 2e person's experience is, "Easy things are hard and hard things are easy." Consider this anecdote from a client describing her seven-year-old child:

Our son came downstairs the other day and loudly sighed and grunted, "Why is life so hard?!" He was complaining about getting dressed! The task was interrupting the flow of his thoughts and creative process as he planned his next LEGO build.

If this type of expression by the 2e child is dismissed or punished, the kernel of frustration is never addressed, and the child feels invalidated and out of sync. A failure to recognize this child's very real difficulty with transitions and struggles when shifting tasks leads to the typical response, "Are you kidding? Just get dressed!" Parents' reactions are based on inappropriate expectations for neurotypical behavior in the face of a neurodiverse reality. Twice exceptional kids know they're different from those around them-siblings, parents, and peers. Attendant strengths and struggles are confusing for the grown-ups, and the 2e child is ill-equipped to understand why they feel, react, or elicit the responses that they do. They know they aren't meeting expectations, and no matter how hard they try, they just can't do those hard-easy things. Here's how two clients described this conundrum:

How do I get my child to brush his teeth or clear his plate? Difficult algebraic equations and complex coding are no problem. But the life skills are nonexistent. We are constantly in power struggles and negotiations over wearing clean clothing and taking a shower.

Our daughter is captain of the soccer team. She's amazing at game strategy, stamina, and motivating her teammates. But try to get her to do her homework or remember to bring her lunch to school? Forget it. She's being recruited by Division One schools-should we worry about how she'll get through the life part of college?

For the child to thrive, a deep understanding of the twice exceptional experience by the adults in the world is necessary. Children do not have the awareness, communication skills, or frankly, the power to advocate on their own behalf. Parents cannot assume that professionals, psychologists, teachers, medical professionals, or even family members can understand the often radical contrasts of a child with such abilities and disabilities. Most importantly, there is an overall failure to truly understand how the juxtaposition of these strengths and struggles affects a child's mental health. Hence the importance of starting at the beginning and diving deeply into the inner experience of being twice exceptional. What do these labels mean?

Gifted and Distractible

Twice exceptional, or 2e, includes the simultaneous diagnoses of gifted and learning differences or learning disabilities as described in Miguel's case on page 12. Casting my net widely, I often refer to the population as "gifted and distractible," because as much as "2e" and "twice exceptional" are becoming accepted research terms for this population, many professionals, let alone parents, have yet to know these terms. Twice exceptional potential often goes unmet because of a lack of understanding of differing needs and a misunderstanding of the 2e person's behavior by adults and peers in their lives. This lack of understanding negatively affects self-confidence, and self-confidence is necessary for success.

There is a push-pull effect of uneven strengths and struggles for the 2e child. The manifestation of his experience presents through diagnoses (sometimes inaccurate), behavior (oftentimes trauma-informed), stress, disconnect, and discontent. Conventional responses to these manifestations include inaccurate assumptions, inappropriately high or low expectations, impatience, behavior plans, incentives, bribery, and ineffectual consequences.

In the example above about seven-year-old Miguel, consider whether his generalized anxiety disorder is a diagnosis based on his neurology or a manifestation of a toxic environment. For Miguel, the ongoing boredom and inappropriately low academic expectations are likely causing him to feel demoralized. His love of learning-formerly a strength-has dwindled in the face of rote and meaningless work. He's neither challenged nor expected to think critically. Teachers, school administrators, and often parents require that their 2e child complete rote work before giving them challenging work or enrichment. The result is a power struggle in which the 2e child has no power, except to refuse the demoralizing tasks at hand. Many parents ask me, "How do I get my child to just do the work so he can move on?" Some parents recognize a risk and reward situation and actually do their child's homework for him because they know it is a hurdle to their child's ability to move forward.

To break this pattern, it is crucial to seek true understanding of the 2e person's inner experience and to advocate for the child so that others understand what is truly going on. For instance, doing rote and meaningless work is an affront to the 2e student's sense of justness and fairness. Characteristically, a black-and-white perspective of right versus wrong is more important to the 2e person than jumping through hoops, even if jumping through hoops will get him to his overall goal. Some view this conviction as rigidity, but can't it also be seen as having high standards?

Similarly, it's typical for gifted and 2e kids to not want to waste time. For example, gifted and 2e people often avoid small talk in a social situation; what's the point if the goal is meaningful relationships? Making your bed when you're just going to mess it up again seems a waste of time and energy. Showing work when you intuitively know the math is another area where 2e kids commonly push back.

The more 2e kids are asked to set aside their ideals, the less compliance we see. Asking them to do something that is an affront to their natural approach to the world makes them feel unseen and misunderstood. If parents themselves were raised by authority without reason-"Do what I say because I said so"-they likely carry these tactics into their own parenting and are certain to engender dissension from their children. Twice exceptional kids usually don't stand for it, and a contest of wills intensifies with every demand and expectation.

While every twice exceptional child is uniquely complex, parents and teachers frequently share similar questions and concerns about gifted and distractible children:

Why does my child or student do seemingly perplexing things?

Why do I feel like I'm walking on eggshells, no matter what I say?

Why doesn't my child notice the effect of their behavior on others?

How do I handle behavior in school or at home?

How do I make school understand and see my child's strengths?

How do I protect my child's or student's emotional well-being and keep her self-confidence intact?

How do I communicate with teachers about my child without making them defensive or getting defensive myself?

How do I as a teacher communicate with parents about their child?

How do I help my child or student advocate for what they need?

Often seemingly out of sync with normative behavior, age-appropriate interests, and social expectations, 2e children learn quickly that they are perceived and described negatively as "weird" or "quirky." Feeling marginalized and unseen, and with a focus on perceived deficits, 2e children choose between withdrawing and acting out. They may decide it's easier to fail-socially or academically-than to try and then fail. The child's powerlessness requires parents and allies to educate themselves deeply about the complexities of being 2e.

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