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Gifted and Learning Disabled? It Is Possible!

By: Lynda Conover (1996)

In a recent conversation with the mother of a former student, I learned that her son, Rob, had been placed in the gifted class for math in the school he now attends. His mother was very pleased but told me that, because Rob is also learning disabled, she went to speak with the math teacher to explain accommodations Rob might need. She was stunned to hear the teacher say that, had she known about Rob's learning disability, she would never have allowed him to be placed in her class. The teacher went on to say that it was not possible to be gifted and learning disabled.

Even more recently, a college professor asked each of us in his class to state the program in which we were enrolled and our area of interest. His reaction to my response was to chuckle and say, "Now, how is it possible to be gifted and learning disabled?" It is at moments like these that I find myself thinking back over my twenty years in the classroom, working primarily with learning disabled students, and seeing again those students who were truly gifted and truly learning disabled. Rob grasped advanced math concepts with remarkable ease but had tremendous difficulty writing a cohesive paragraph. Tommy came to me in third grade, unable to read at a first grade level despite special services at his former school and much effort on his mother's part, but his understanding of and passion for learning about space and the universe were incredible. He sometimes grew impatient with my knowledge of the subject, and I was his science teacher!

Rob's mother will keep close tabs on his situation and Tommy did learn to read through a very structured program, while I'm left wondering how we can help teachers accept that students may be gifted and learning disabled and how we can better prepare them to identify and meet the needs of these students. As we take a closer look at this seemingly strange combination, it will be good to keep in mind the heterogeneity found in nearly every group of students with whom we, as teachers and administrators, work. Spend a day in a gifted resource class and you will begin to notice that gifted students vary tremendously in terms of learning styles, readiness, and interests. So, too, do those in the learning disabilities resource room and the regular classroom as well!

The gifted/learning disabled student is most often a child who functions at a high intellectual level, but who has a "specific academic deficit coupled with an executive processing deficit" (Van TasselBaska, 1991, p. 246). Such specific deficits often involve memory and perception, resulting in weaknesses in reading, mathematics, or writing (Baum, 1984). In many cases, children are not identified as gifted or learning disabled because strengths are being used to compensate for weaknesses. One of the limitations of testing to identify students who are eligible for either gifted services or services for learning disabled children is that conditions of high intellectual functioning and specific processing deficits tend to offset each other; test scores are depressed as a result. This decreases the likelihood that gifted students will qualify for services when test scores at particular cutoff levels are used to identify them.

Because the focus of educational programming for those with learning disabilities has been remediation of weaknesses in basic skills, those with high abilities have been unable to demonstrate or develop their abilities and potential. They have more often been subjected to stultifying drill and repetition leading to behavioral and motivational problems. According to VanTasselBaska (1991):

"the learning disabled gifted child often demonstrates an uneven pattern of behavior, with manifestations taking the form of aggression, or withdrawal, frustration, and lack of impulse control. These characteristics either cause or exacerbate poor peer relations which in turn feed the negative behavior. Typical intellectual strengths of gifted learning disabled children include their ability to engage in abstract reasoning, especially in oral communication, their strong problemsolving abilities, and creative strengths. Specific deficits often include poor memory skills, difficulty with visualmotor integration and visual/auditory processing " (p. 247).

Identification of gifted/learning disabled students may be accomplished through the use of:

  1. a multi- dimensional approach to assess strengths and weaknesses,
  2. use of the WISC-R,
  3. academic testing to determine
  4. discrepancies between performance and potential,
  5. data obtained
  6. from teachers and parents, and
  7. interviews with the students(Suter & Wolf, 1987).

Classroom teachers must be trained to observe student behaviors systematically and understand the characteristics of students whose abilities are in question. Teachers should also have the opportunity to improve their knowledge of various forms of communication development, including specific skills of receptive and productive oral and written language.

More accurate checklists of characteristics and behaviors need to be developed for regular and special education teachers which will include specific behaviors related to oral language, memory, problem- solving skills, curiosity and drive to know, and creativity, the five general areas in which learning disabled students are particularly likely to show giftedness. Of these, oral language and memory seem paradoxical abilities when considering that deficits in written language and reading are so prevalent among the learning disabled population. Likewise, memory may be evidenced as a particular strength in terms of remembering facts, general knowledge, or concepts and as a specific deficit area in terms of sequential memory of letters or numbers or deficits directly related to visual and auditory memory, particularly short term memory (Whitmore & Maker, l 985).

Teachers also need to be helped to differentiate their curriculum to meet the varying needs such students present. Both sets of needs must be addressed, offering basic skills and compensatory strategies as well as a stimulating educational environment that will enable them to develop their talents and abilities and engage in abstract thinking and creative production (Baum, 1989).

Students need to develop self understanding of learning disabilities and talents and the affective results of having these in combination. Gifted/learning disabled students are at great risk for developing negative self concepts as a result of frustrations at being unable to complete simple tasks successfully and yet thinking at high levels. Their intellectual abilities allow them to see clearly what they perceive as failures, characteristically perfectionistic, making comparisons with peers as a result of thinking critically and evaluatively, and suffering feelings of guilt as a result of teachers and parents who admonish them to try harder.

Gifted/learning disabled students need opportunities to interact and work with others with similar giftedness and difficulties. Placement in classes for learning disabled students may not provide opportunities for high level thinking and interaction. Placement with gifted students may exacerbate negative feelings if class members work together in areas in which the gifted/learning disabled child is deficient. Within the context of a regular class, with the addition of pullout classes to meet a wide variety of specific needs, these students must be helped to develop abilities, skills, feelings of self- efficacy, and positive self - concepts. They should be able to proudly demonstrate how well a student learns and achieves when he/she is gifted and learning disabled.

Lynda Conover University of Virginia Virginia Association for the Education of the Gifted Newsletter Volume 17, Number 3, Summer 1996