Surviving or Thriving?

By: Mary Ruth Coleman

21 gifted boys with learning disabilities share their school stories

For many gifted students school is a place to flex the mind, to show accomplishments, to have fun, and to demonstrate abilities. Teachers often view gifted students as outstanding performers and see these students as top picks for their classes. Yet, not all gifted-students thrive in school. For gifted students with learning disabilities, school is not always the most comfortable place. Thirty years ago, Thompson (1971) in his article "Language Disabilities in Men of Eminence" drew our attention to a very special group of gifted individuals whose outstanding abilities were coupled with moderate to profound disabilities. Thompson was one of the first to give us examples of people with this dual manifestation and to share the stories of several successful men whose early lives were riddled with school problems. Among those he discussed were Harvey Cushing, an eminent brain surgeon whose spelling deficiency followed him into adulthood; sculptor, Auguste Rodin, whose father was convinced that his son was uneducable; and bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, whose failure on the language portion of his preparatory examination almost kept him out of college.

Patten (1973) extended the examination of eminence coupled with deficiency with an in-depth look at the life and learning of Albert Einstein. Einstein's early school life was fraught with difficulty. He exhibited behavioral problems, poor spelling, and was weak in language expression. Einstein's strengths lay in visual/spatial reasoning and problem solving. Patten noted that it was not his teachers who were able to recognize his gifts, but his parents. Patten's work warned educators that school failure does not always reflect the child's true ability.

These early portraits of distinguished men with learning problems laid the groundwork for educators to investigate the phenomenon of children who seemed to possess great potential despite difficulties in school. These students continue to perplex educators with a coexistence of superior intellectual abilities and intellectual deficits (Vail, 1987). In the following article, I will briefly review what we have learned in the last 30 years. Then, I will listen to the stories of school experiences told by today's gifted students with learning difficulties.

30 Years of Learning

Elkind (1983) was one of the first to address the identification and programming needs of the gifted/LD (twice-exceptional) child. He called for individual, rather than group, testing and evaluation and suggested that standardized tests would not offer a true picture of the child's potential. Elkind recommended that educational programming focus on the strengths, as well as the weaknesses and suggested that a variety of modifications be made to circumvent the learning deficiencies.

Richards (1981) raised the educational issue of when to switch from programming aimed at remediation to a focus on adaptation or "getting around" the deficits. He recommended that we teach strategies to bypass the learning problems, and we should provide the tools necessary for students to learn in spite of their difficulties. Fox, Tobin, and Schiffman (1983) extended the role of adaptation in their discussion of modifications using technology to help students cope with learning problems. Daniels (1983) expected the teacher to modify the program to help students find success, and Moller (1984) requested enrichment-based curriculum matched to the students needs.

Several authors explored the need to help students develop positive coping behaviors through providing them with appropriate counseling (Elkind, 1983; Gallagher, 1983; Schiff, Kaufman, & Kaufman, 1981). Duncan (1983) expressed concern that teachers mistakenly view a bright child with learning problems as lazy, unmotivated, and undisciplined---increasing their frustration and lowering their self-esteem. Whitmore and Maker (1985) explored the role of creative problem solving in the lives of gifted individuals with disabilities indicating that schools should support creative coping strategies. Baum (1984, 1988, 1989; Baum & Owen, 1988) called for comprehensive programming combining academics and enrichment. Coleman (1992) extended this call to include the direct instruction of coping strategies, study skills, self-advocacy, and curriculum-modification techniques.

More recently, an entire issue of The Journal for Secondary Gifted Education (Spring, 1994) focused on gifted students with learning disabilities. In this special issue, authors present strategies for classroom support (Howard, 1994); transition to college (Coleman, 1994; Reis & Neu, 1994); ideas for parents, (Hayes, 1994) and a comprehensive program description (Nielsen, Higgins, Wilkinson, & Webb, 1994). In the last five years, others (Kiesa Kay, editor, 2000), have echoed these calls but have they been heard?

A time of difficulty

Adolescence is considered, by some, to be a stressful period (Newcomb, Huba, & Bender, 1981). During adolescence, individuals are faced with many changes, both within themselves and in relation to others. In addition to the expected stresses that most adolescents experience, gifted adolescents may experience more intense or extreme pressures (Coleman & Cross, 2001; Culross & Jenkins-Friedman, 1988; Kerr, Colangelo, & Gaeth, 1988) and the gifted/LD adolescent is likely to be even more vulnerable to stress (Whitmore & Maker, 1985; Coleman, 1994; Silverman, 2000).

In a study of school competence and the needs of students with mild disabilities, Calhoun and Beattie (1987) identified three primary areas which require successful coping within the school environment: study skills and organization, communication, and social skills. The conclusions stated that part of the curriculum should address these areas to teach students how to cope with the school environment. Clearly, students with learning disabilities face problems in school that require coping. Gifted students, likewise, encounter special issues within a school setting. The gifted/LD student faces both sets of issues: The challenge of wider discrepancies and greater inconsistencies within and across academic tasks combined with increased frustration generated by heightened expectations and higher standards for achievement. The interaction between the gifts and the learning difficulties creates a unique set of variables that each student must face and overcome in order to be successful in school (Olenchak, 1994; Silverman, 2000). What do the students say about how they are coping and succeeding with school?

Stories from gifted/LD students

Twenty-one gifted/LD middle school boys were interviewed to learn how they handled difficult school situations. The boys, in grades 6-9, had all been identified as learning disabled by the North Carolina exceptional children's guidelines. They each had at least one measured IQ score of 125 or higher on the WISC-R (this was the test used by the school systems in their identification) indicating their giftedness.

To provide a common ground for the boys reactions, the interviews were structured around scenarios of difficult school situations (Coleman, 1992). Four themes were used as a base for the scenarios: failing a test you thought you would pass; report cards that are not "up to par" and difficulties with organizing to do better; problems with spelling and remembering facts and details; and difficulty with reading speed. The scenarios were structured around the description of a student in a specific situation, relating to specific content areas, and names were used to personalize the stories. Each scenario included several issues designed to elicit responses from the students. The scenarios were intentionally short, yet, complex enough to provide a wide variety of talking points.

The individual interviews lasted 45-90 minutes and focused on open-ended questions about the scenarios. The first question, "Has this kind of thing ever happened to you before?" showed that in almost all cases the students could relate to the situations presented from their own experiences. The follow-up questions were probes that asked how they handled the situation, "When this happened what did you do?" and "Did you do anything else?" The next question asked, "If you had a good friend who was in this situation, what would you tell him to do?" Interestingly, the boys often had more advice for their friends than they seemed to use for themselves, and some of their best ideas came out with this question. The final question asked the boys to reflect on how they handled the situation and how they might improve in the future with similar circumstances.

The author conducted the interviews on an individual basis at the school sites. All the interviews were taped and transcribed for analysis. The author coded the responses by themes and a second coder completed a cross-check for inter-rater reliability (83%). The full report of the themes and analysis can be found in Coleman (1992). This article focuses on the specific responses given to each scenario: How did the students cope with their school-related problems?

Voices of the boys

Many of the students commented that they had never been asked to think about how they handled difficult school situations, and they offered thoughtful responses. The process of sharing their concerns seemed to be a relief, and several students marveled at the idea that someone seemed to understand what they were going through. Comments like "How did you know this happened?," "This is me in that story!," and "Have you been following me around?" were common. The recognition that others must have experienced similar problems seemed to reassure the boys that they were not alone.

Scenario 1: Joe's math test

Joseph had a chapter test in math. He had studied for the test very hard, working problems and doing all the practice sections in the chapter. The day of the test he felt pretty good. He knew that he could work the problems and he "understood the math."

When he got the test he started working on it, but he couldn't remember how to do the first set of problems. Joseph became frustrated and nervous that he would not finish on time, and he rushed through the rest of the test.

As you might imagine when he got his test back his grade was a 55 (he got an F), and the teacher) comments on the top said "careless errors -- you should be more careful, you can do better than this!"

This scenario seemed to trigger several memories of frustrating tests. The most common responses were something like these:

"Well, I studied for a test and got in there and it was not the exact same thing I studied ... and some of the problems I didn't understand. I got really mad, because I thought I'd studied all of it a long time and sort of rushed through, so I could get through. I did not do too well"

"I was real nervous, scared. I studied all this time, and my parents helped me. Then, when I got it back, well ... I got real frustrated."

"Well, sometimes ... I do that. I sit there ... like I'm ready to take the test, and I'll think I'll know it. Then they'll put something that I think I wasn't told about ... it makes you feel kind of stupid, like you should have known that, and you didn't. You didn't prepare for it. It's kind of your fault ... but, it kind of really isn't."

When asked if their teachers help them in these situations, most of the students indicated that they received some support. Extended time was a key help and extra credit was also sited. A few students said they were allowed to take the test in the resource room where it was quiet. Others indicated that study guides and reviews were helpful. The main strategy offered by teachers when students did not know something oft a test was to continue working on the test and then return to the part you skipped.

"Well, I've heard enough teachers say, `if you don't know this, skip over it and do the rest of the test and come back to it.' I mean, what one teacher says is almost always going to be the same for every test."

One student expressed the extended time dilemma clearly,

"There's not much I can do about it. I've tried to slow down, and stuff like that, but it takes me two and a half hours and [it] just really bugs me to be sitting in front of a test. Each minute goes by, it gets worse ... it's sort of a double-edged sword. If I go real fast, then I mess up on the easy stuff, but I get to go to lunch next period class. But, if I go real slowly, then I get all tired of it, and I start making those errors anyway."

The strategies the students rely on include taking small breaks, working to stay positive, and studying harder. These comments capture their ideas:

"Sometimes I lose concentration, especially when I'm going slowly and trying to do everything right. Sometimes, it helps to just put down my pencil and just sit for a while."

"Well, during the test, I just try to do the best I can. After it, I knew I was going to fail, so, I knew it was coming but, I'll have to do better next time."

"I didn't really do anything about it ... I'll just have to study harder on those."

One of the hardest things for the boys seemed to be the fear of disappointing their parents. This sense of disappointment was true; they believed their parents got "mad" at them or felt that their parents "misunderstood" them. The boys felt that their parents were counting on them, and they were letting their parents down.

"Well, I failed it. I went home and told my parents, and they were mad at me. Then, they were mad at me for about a week.... I couldn't get them to believe that I would do better the next time."

"I just told my mom ... that I forgot the first problems, and I think she understood."

"My parents usually help me a lot more after I make a bad grade. My teachers, usually there's not much they can do. They just say `study harder.'"

The second scenario captured the feelings of "swimming upstream"--trying to do better but getting overwhelmed and not being able to turn the situation around.

Scenario #2: Thomas's grades

Thomas was thinking about the grades on his last report card. His parents would not be happy. He had three Cs, a B and an F. His B was in physical education, and that hardly counts, he thought. It was confusing. He felt like he was trying. He studied, but then had difficulty on the tests. He did his homework but often lost it, and sometimes he forgot what his assignments were. His papers were often torn or raggedy, and his teachers commented that his work was sloppy and disorganized.

Now, he was faced with a report card that was not good. It seemed that no matter how he tried, he never was able to do as well as he wanted. Maybe his teacher was right and he was lazy.

This scenario really hit home. "That's almost exactly like what happens to me ... the teachers, they don't just say I have sloppy work ... if I do it, they like it, but a lot of times I lose it like the story said."

"Well ... it was, like, five to six weeks before Christmas, and I knew that the report cards were gonna go home real quick in January. I, umm, decided that I would really start working on my homework, because that's my real problem ... I got it going pretty good, my papers weren't wrinkled or anything like that, but I just couldn't keep it going for the whole five weeks before Christmas."

"It just takes me a lot longer. That's a lot like I am. I can do the work, but I forget to do it or it takes me like one hour.... Then, I forget papers; sometimes, I lose them. Most of my teachers will let me bring it in the next day, but then, it's just like I got that assignment that day, and it's on top of my regular homework .... It just starts piling up."

The most common strategies to cope with the situation involved assignment pads with teacher sign-offs, some kind of organization strategy for books, and a specific study place at home with parental supervision.

"I have this assignment sheet that I get to sign, I got it in my pocket. I got my first two teachers to sign it, so far, and, if I don't have it at home, I'll lose TV privileges for the day. I don't like that."

"This guy probably thinks in his mind that there's no real reason to work in school. There's no actual reward. And, before his grades are going to improve ... he's got to get some kind of motivation either by his parents or himself. My parents won't let me go to my horse. And, they take my horse away and anyway, it became virtually that they had to do these things, I had to do these things or else I wouldn't get to do anything else, basically. But then, when I started doing better, I kind of liked it. I saw results ... it wasn't such an incredible task anymore."

For the most part, the boys tried to keep a study system going, worked to keep their anxiety level down, and they relied on parental support to help them keep on top of their work. The next scenario tackles specific problems with spelling.

Scenario #3: Andrew's spelling problem

Social studies was not Andrew's best subject. He had a hard time with the tests. Mostly it was remembering facts and dates. Even on the essay tests it seemed like he always ran out of time and couldn't get all the information straight. Part of his difficulty was with spelling. Andrew was getting ready for a social studies test and felt like it was going to be really hard. He already jolt discouraged.

On the last test, the teacher had taken off 15 points for spelling errors, and commented that she could not read some of the answers. Now he had to do better to get a good grade.

The problems with spelling seemed to resonate with most of the boys, "I hate spelling tests, I can't spell to save my life" was a common reaction. The discussion about what to do about it, however, was fairly short. The strategies mentioned included asking teachers not to take points off for spelling, using alternative words that were easier to spell, carrying a Franklin Speller, using a spell checker on the computer, and getting parents to check the work.

Many students just seemed resigned to the fact the spelling was going to be a problem.

"Well, I couldn't do anything about that [not being able to spell] there's not much chance of me learning to spell every word that I just might use if I'm writing an essay. That's no problem--I have a computer with spell check on it, and my parents can check it."

The final scenario focused on reading problems, especially the speed of reading.

Scenario #4: Stephen's reading dilemma

English was not Stephen's best subject. He had a hard time with all the reading. When they would have to read in class, it seemed like everyone finished before he did. He hated being the slowest one, and usually could not participate in the class discussion, which he liked, because he had not finished the reading.

He knew that he understood what he read but hated being the last one finished.

There always seemed to be more reading than he could do in the time allowed.

Like the scenario depicting poor spelling, this one triggered many examples of similar experiences.

"In a way, it sounded just like me. I've had numerous problems with being like the last person to finish reading, and I was caught always being frustrated about that. That's why most of the times I would fail some of the tests `cause I didn't get a chance to finish the assignment and the reading discussion."

"It's like I'm reading, but I'm going zero miles-per-hour through the words."

The strategies used to overcome reading slowness included skimming, skipping, saving it for homework, getting parents to help with the reading, listening to the discussion to get the information, and watching the movie.

"I kind of took some of the work home, like the reading part, and, my parents, they helped me finish it."

"It's sometimes easier to just make yourself read a little slower because if you're going to try to rush through it, you're not going to understand it, and you're going to be slower anyway.... Ask the teacher to give you a little more time, or ask her to give you the assignment before you leave, before you really have it, to hand out the papers to the books so you could read it before."

"I would talk to some people who read the book or watched the movie. No, I'm kidding ... I would try to do those things, but I would really talk to somebody and just get caught up so, I could skip a few chapters and get a brief summary about them--then you could catch up."

The boys shared their frustration, their humor, and their strategies for survival. The combination, of these ideas provides a powerful set of tools to help move from surviving to thriving in school. Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 present the ideas generated to cope with school difficulties.

Figure 1: Strategies used to cope with their environment

How other people can help


  • Reminder system, homework
  • Help with reading
  • Study/quiz material
  • Set a space for study
  • Proofreading
  • Make quiet study time
  • Set rules on TV and other privileges, based on effort
  • Check bookpack (inspection)


  • Extra credit opportunities
  • Additional assistance
  • Oral tests
  • Project format vs written report
  • Preferential seating
  • Study guided/syllabus
  • Notes for lecture
  • Use your LD resource help for specific strategies

Organization system

  • Color-coded notebooks, with perforated edge
  • Folders with pockets
  • Trapper Keepers
  • Assignment pads
  • Plenty of supplies
  • Keep locker and bookpack neat


  • Note taker
  • Study buddy
  • Assignment reminder


  • Tutor
  • Counselor


  • Computers (with spellchecker)
  • Franklin speller
  • Calculator
  • Lap-type writer
  • Copy machine
  • Tape recorder
  • Dictation (tape) machine
  • Books on tape

Note. From "A comparison of how gifted/LD and average LD boys cope with school frustration," by M.R. Coleman, 1992, Journal for the Education of the Gifted 15, pp. 239-256. Copyright by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Figure 2: Strategies used to cope with academic content

Reading Strategies

  • Determine amount of time it takes you to read various materials.
  • Get assignments ahead of time, read assigned books in the summer and outline them so you can recall information.
  • Use chapter organization, headings and subheadings, bold print, summaries.
  • Use charts, graphs, timelines, pictures, etc.
  • Highlight, underline, or star important ideas, keywords (buy the test).
  • Use self-questioning as you read to make sure you understand it (answer questions in the book!).
  • Listen to class discussion and ask questions.
  • Outline the chapter, and then write a summary of it.
  • Focus on topic sentences, conclusions, and summaries.
  • Use Cliff Notes as a study guide (but you must read the materials first).
  • Use a card to guide your eye as you read.
  • Watch the movie.

Math Strategies

  • Make sure you know how to work the problems (the computations can be checked).
  • Use a calculator for multiplication facts.
  • Work problems slowly, try to be neat, check computations you think you missed.
  • Turn lined paper sideways to create columns for your work.
  • Use a cover sheet so that only the problem you are working on shows.

Note. From "A comparison of how gifted/LD and average LD boys cope with school frustration," by M. R. Coleman, 1992, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15, pp. 239-256. Copyright by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Figure 3: Strategies for test taking

  • Start reviewing early.
  • Make up questions you think will be on the test, ask for the test format, and use study guides.
  • Learn essay-writing techniques and use them.
  • Let someone quiz you, and quiz yourself.
  • Make flashcards to study with: question, word, etc. on one side, answer, definition on the other side.
  • Use phonics, pictures, timelines, and movement to help remember information.
  • Look over the whole test first (quickly).
  • Focus on questions that are worth the most points--don't blow the 25-point essay!
  • Keep track of your time and get extended time if you need it.
  • Ask questions if you don't understand.
  • Use relaxation techniques to calm down.
  • Take a brief time out if you get frustrated.
  • Try to view the test as a worksheet.
  • Ask the teacher to read it to you and let you tell her the answers.
  • Convince yourself you can do well, and give it your best shot.

Note. From "A comparison of how gifted/LD and average LD boys cope with school frustration," by M. R. Coleman, 1992, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15, pp. 239-256. Copyright by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Figure 4: General Strategies

  • Don't get discouraged.
  • Use your weekends to catch up.
  • Go to the Parent-Teacher conference and communicate your needs.
  • Try to get interested in school and cultivate an "I care about this" attitude.
  • When you start to feel overwhelmed, get assistance.
  • Make an effort to communicate your needs to teachers and your parents in a positive way.
  • Don't overuse "LD" but do get help. You are not alone in what you are dealing with!

Note. From "A comparison of how gifted/LD and average LD boys cope with school frustration," by M. R. Coleman, 1992, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15, pp. 239-256. Copyright by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Taken as a whole, the strategies generated by the boys in response to the scenarios are quite comprehensive. They shared ideas of how other people can help support learning, how they can change their approaches to study and even how they can work to maintain a positive attitude in the face of difficulties. One student poignantly expressed his wish for school when he said,

"Everybody should be able to help because this is a place for kids to learn. It's not a place where you have a book, and you're given work and you just do the work, and then get a grade every nine weeks. This is a place where you grow, school is a place where you grow and learn, it's not just some place where you 'are.'"

For this young man's wish for school to become a reality, schools and parents need to collaborate in implementing strategies that support gifted students with learning disabilities. Professional development should focus on individual programming that incorporates flexible instructional approaches and adaptations suggested by these boys and researchers. Once these exceptional students are understood and curriculum modifications are consistently implemented, gifted students with learning disabilities will do more than survive, they will thrive and some may even become men of eminence



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

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COPYRIGHT 2001 Prufrock Press in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

Mary Ruth Coleman, Gifted Child Today Magazine. Summer, 2001