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How to Evaluate Schools for Twice-Exceptional Learners: The DEAR REEL Model

Updated: May 14

Twice-exceptional (2e) students have complex learning profiles. They have high potential or ability in academic, creative, or leadership spheres and at least one diagnosed learning difference such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, autism, or ADHD. Their strengths and challenges are interwoven, making it difficult to address their needs across all aspects of their lives—educational, social-emotional, and cognitive.1 Unfortunately, most locales do not have schools solely dedicated to 2e students. Even if an area does have a 2e school, parents still need to evaluate whether it will work for their child, since each child’s needs will be unique.


Finding the right school for a 2e child is a frequent challenge. Through our work at REEL, we have heard stories from parents and educators in our community support groups about children who refused to go to school, sometimes by hiding in the closet. Other children melted down after school as a result of masking their struggles all day. Some manifested anxiety physically through skin picking and finger biting. As one parent shared, “Our son had a teacher who just wasn’t able to meet the needs of kids who were different. Our son’s self-esteem plummeted rapidly.” Given all of this, what do parents of 2e children do to find a successful educational fit? What lessons have parents in our community shared about their experiences?


Will a School for Gifted Learners Work?

Researchers have noted that educators often emphasize 2e students’ weaknesses over their strengths.2 For this reason, parents of 2e students often wonder if a gifted school might be a place for their child—after all, those schools might appear to meet their child’s intellectual needs and be a place where their strengths can be celebrated. However, the answer is more complicated and depends on the specific school and the specific child.


Some gifted programs are designed for high-ability, fast-processing students who can move rapidly through content. If the 2e child is a slow processor or has challenges with working memory, this may not be the ideal place for them. Other gifted programs emphasize creativity and exploration, which can be a great fit for a 2e learner, but these programs may cater to self-directed, self-motivated learners, which may not align with the 2e child’s profile. Some gifted programs allow for asynchronicity between subjects, while others will expect a high level of performance across the board. Bottom line—it depends!


What About a Specialty School?

Sometimes schools that support a 2e student’s learning differ- ences will be a better option. For instance, for students with dyslexia, some schools provide specialized reading and writing instruction catered to them; schools for autistic learners will put a special emphasis on environmental considerations. These schools’ ability to support a 2e student’s strengths varies and should be evaluated in relation to what parents expect the school to provide versus what they can strengthen and support outside the classroom.


Is Private or Public School Better?

Private schools often are a tempting option for parents of 2e students, and can be the best fit for some students. But sometimes a public school is really the right place, especially since they are required by law to support kids with learning differences. As one parent in our community noted, after a string of up-and-down experiences with teachers in private schools, her son switched to public school for part of third and all of fourth grades. Her son’s fourth-grade teacher “blew away my stereotypes about public school not necessarily being a fit for a kid like this.”


However, while the public school was better able to address her son’s ADHD challenges, she said that the school wasn’t as well-equipped to differentiate the curriculum. She felt that the differentiation potential is generally better with private schools.


Our best advice? Because many private schools offer generous financial aid packages, don’t rule out a private school that may be right for a 2e child simply because of the cost. Explore a variety of schools and have lots of conversations with administrators, teachers, and admissions officers at both public and private schools. Evaluate local public schools alongside private school options and consider the best option for the individual child’s and family’s needs.


What Do Research and Experience Tell Us?

Research in the field of twice-exceptionality, along with our personal experiences and those of the families in our REEL community, confirm that successful schools for 2e learners require intentional design. Dr. Susan Baum, Chancellor of Bridges Graduate School and a leader in twice-exceptional education, and her colleagues suggest five essential environmental elements that must be addressed for a 2e learner to thrive—social, emotional, intellectual, creative, and physical.3 Other researchers reinforce school-based approaches that support 2e students, which include teacher attributes, educator preparation, school structure and culture, curriculum flexibility, and a strength-based approach.4


The DEAR REEL Model

At REEL, we have combined these best-practice research findings with detailed, first-hand parent experiences into our “DEAR REEL” model that delineates four critical considerations for parents and educators in their work with 2e children.





As always, when researching schools, it is critical to consider which elements are most important to the individual child’s success. Delineate “must haves” and “nice-to-haves,” remembering that there is no perfect fit option.

Four critical considerations when working with 2e students are:


1. Develop Connection

It’s essential to find a school that places kindness and empathy at the center of their core values, where teachers foster love and belonging. Kind, patient, enthusiastic, and accepting teachers who honor 2e children as whole people and learners are the key to success. Teachers and students should have an appreciation for differences and feel empowered to be themselves. When 2e students feel safe, teachers can encourage productive risk-taking.


2. Embrace Flexible and Creative Options

Twice-exceptional students do better when schools provide high challenge and low-threat opportunities, as well as choice in how they show what they know. Parents of 2e learners often prefer schools that have flexibility built into their cultures so that children can accelerate in areas of strength and receive support in areas in which they are challenged. Within this flexible approach, teachers may integrate and foster more opportunities for creativity, a core strength of many 2e learners. In addition, parents tell us they value environments that honor children’s need for varying amounts of time to complete assignments, take breaks, or receive learning interventions.


3. Accentuate and Nurture Strengths, Interests, and Talents

Educators and parents must focus on developing and nurturing the strengths of 2e students. Twice-exceptional students need opportunities to pursue challenging coursework that interests them, offers choice, and provides space and time for talent identification and enrichment.5 While many 2e students will be given accommodations such as extra time to complete assignments, pull-out tutoring, or 1:1 support, it’s important these supports not come at the expense of time spent on things that the students are good at and enjoy.


4. Reframe Challenging or Confusing Behaviors

It’s essential that schools understand that when students act out or shut down they are trying to communicate a need. A 2e learner will thrive better when the adults understand and reframe behaviors rather than punish them. Often, these behaviors manifest from a poor fit with the school’s physical environment.


Twice-exceptional children benefit from environments that consider individual sensory needs, including frequent breaks, fidgets, alternative seating, lighting, and opportunities for movement/exercise throughout the day. Parents should look for a match between the child’s individual needs and the school environment.


For example, some children with ADHD prefer a stimu- lating environment while others are more successful with very few distractions. Some children respond better in classrooms with abundant natural light and designated quiet spaces.


The takeaway: A lot of behaviors that are labeled as “challenging” are actually the result of ways the school environment interacts

with 2e kids’ sensitive and/or differently wired sensory systems. It’s essential to find a match between the child and the environment— and/or work with your school to offer flexible options that are a better match to the child’s sensory needs.


Bringing It All Together

We hope our DEAR REEL model helps parents get started on the search for a school for their 2e child. The parents in our community consistently agree that no single school will work for every child, much less every 2e child; it’s all about finding a school that is a good fit for each child and their family. (Often families with multiple siblings must find a different school for each child to meet their individual needs.) Don’t forget to include the child in the decision: What do they like? What would they like to change? Involving kids helps them learn self-advocacy, and having their buy-in during the school selection process is an important first step.


And, selecting the best environment for any 2e child may be a fluid process—what works for the child this year may not be what works in the long term. For example, a dyslexic 2e child may switch schools several times depending on their literacy progress. While it’s tempting to search for the “perfect” school, ultimately parents may need to optimize educational choices based on the factors that are hardest for them to address at home, and then supplement in areas that the school is not able to support. For example, a family may select a school that best supports a child’s social skills, while opting to provide advanced math opportunities at home.


In the end, whether parents decide to pursue public school, private school, or even homeschooling or unschooling, they should do what they can to find a place where their unique child can thrive and grow, excited to go to school every day. We hope each 2e learner finds the educational option that helps them get up and go!



 

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER IN CHOOSING A SCHOOL FOR A 2e CHILD


When evaluating school fit, the following questions help ensure all bases are covered. Information to answer these questions may be gathered during school visits, shadow days, open houses, info sessions, website reviews, and networking with parents whose children attend the school. Gathering information for each category is crucial to gaining a more holistic view of the school’s ability to meet the needs of your 2e child.


DEVELOP CONNECTION

  • Do all students feel safe to participate in the classroom in a way that is comfortable for them?

  • Do students display care for one another?

  • Do the teachers and administrators speak about the students as whole children, or as success metrics and statistics?

  • Do students seem confident enough to express their individuality?

  • How is social-emotional learning integrated throughout the students’ day?

  • Do teachers and administrators demonstrate a willingness to learn, grow, and change?


EMBRACE FLEXIBLE AND CREATIVE OPTIONS

  • Do students have choices in how they learn the material and show what they know?

  • Does the teacher seem to encourage creative solutions to projects and problems?

  • Does the teacher invite students to give their perspec- tives on topics?

  • Does the classroom itself inspire a creative mindset, including art, desk arrangement, color, etc.?

  • Is there a maker space on campus? How frequently do children have an opportunity to use it?

ACCENTUATE AND NURTURE STRENGTHS, INTERESTS, AND TALENTS

  • Are students asked about their strengths, interests, and talents, and are these woven in meaningful ways into the curriculum?

  • Are students given pre-assessments, and are the results used to determine the appropriate curriculum starting point and level of challenge?

  • How robust is the school’s enrichment and/or elective program?

  • Do students miss classes they enjoy to work on remediation, or are interventions woven into the day so as not to detract from these opportunities to explore and grow in strength/interest areas?


REFRAME CHALLENGING OR CONFUSING BEHAVIORS

  • Are students using fidgets (without distracting others), and sitting in alternative chairs or seating?

  • Are the students given frequent movement breaks?

  • Are there distinct spaces in the classroom for quiet reflection, interest zones, movement areas, etc., and are all children encouraged to use them?

  • How do teachers respond to unwanted behavior? Do they attempt to provide adaptive solutions to problems? Do they involve students in collaborative problem solving?



 

Resources



REEL's 2e Toolkit: School Selection: https://www.reel2e.org/2e-topics/schoolselection


TiLT Parenting School Listings. A list of schools around the world that may be a good fit for “differently wired” children. https://tiltparenting.com/schools-for-children-learning-disabilities/


Seed Starter Educational Consulting: support for parents researching school placement for their gifted and 2e children. www.facebook.com/SeedStarterEducationalConsulting


GHF: Empowering Gifted Families. https://ghflearners.org



 

Copyright notification


Copyrighted by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). This article first appeared (with minor modifications) in Parenting for High Potential, (December 2023), a publication of the National Association for Gifted Children, Washington, DC.



 

Endnotes


1. Reis, S. M., Baum, S. M., & Burke, E. (2014). An operational definition of twice-exceptional learners: Implications and applications. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58, 217–230.


Cash, A. B. (1999). A profile of gifted individuals with autism: The twice‐exceptional learner. Roeper Review, 22(1), 22–27.


Willard-Holt, C., Weber, J., Morrison, K. L., & Horgan, J. (2013). Twice-exceptional learners’ perspectives on effective learning strategies. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57, 247–262.


2. Gierczyk, M., & Hornby, G. (2021). Twice-exceptional students: Review of implications for special and inclusive education. Education Sciences, 11(2), 85.


Wu, I., Lo, C. O., & Tsai, K. (2019). Learning experiences of highly able learners with ASD: Using a success case method. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 42(3), 216–242.


3. Baum, S. M., Schader, R. M., & Owen, S. V. (2017). To be gifted and learning disabled. Routledge.


4. Gierczyk, M., & Hornby, G. (2021)


Wu, I., Lo, C. O., & Tsai, K. (2019)


5. Reis, S. M., Gelbar, N. W., & Madaus, J. W. (2021). Understanding the academic success of academically talented college students with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 52, 4426–4439. https://rdcu.be/c7vv1

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