• Jennifer

Gifted and Twice Exceptional Learners, Part One

Hey! Aim High Music Therapy is looking to offer some social skills groups later on this summer, but we need your help! If you have a child and live somewhere around South Jordan (or know someone who does) that could benefit from a social skills group, would you take five minutes and fill out our survey? Knowing more about how many people are interested and what their needs are will help us to plan more effectively. Thank you! <3 Jennifer

Since we attended (and presented at) the UAGC Conference this month (that's the Utah Association for Gifted Children), I wanted to do a blog post series on gifted learners.

This is a topic that's very close to my heart-- I am passionate about so many populations and groups that I have the opportunity to work with, but this was what made me want to become a music therapist in the first place.

Like with my blog posts on Cerebral Palsy and Autism, I'm going to start out in today's post by talking about what giftedness is and how it works. Upcoming posts will discuss how music therapy can be used to help gifted individuals, and some resources online and in the community.

I need to start by talking about what Giftedness actually means. And what it doesn't mean. For example, if I tell you that I am gifted, I am not bragging. I am not trying to say that I am better than you, or in some way more special than you. I'm stating a fact that can be determined quantitatively, and that, like having a disability, affects every part of my life.

There's an idea that Gifted students have it easier than their peers. I remember taking a class in college on "Exceptional Learners", where the professor defined an exceptional learner as a student with some sort of disability-- "Or," she said, "A gifted student with a high IQ, but we won't be discussing that in this class since those students don't really need any extra help."

That's not exactly true.

Giftedness, though we rarely talk about it this way, is an abnormality in the brain. There is something structurally different about how a gifted brain works, and while this comes with benefits, it also comes with unique challenges. It's not uncommon for gifted learners to also have some kind of learning disability or mental illness-- these individuals are referred to as "twice exceptional", "2e", or "dual exceptional". 2e people might be diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, executive function disorder, auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder, conduct disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder... The list goes on. You'd be surprised how often gifted kids are the struggling students instead of the high achieving ones.

So what does it mean to be gifted? That's actually a complicated question. Setting aside those who say that "all children are gifted" (kind of like saying "all children are disabled" --not only is that an inaccurate overgeneralization, but that sort of statement takes away the recognition that some children truly do need extra support), there are a lot of definitions that various researchers, educators, and parents are considering.

The easiest way to explain giftedness is with IQ scores, but take this with a grain of salt. First of all, IQ scores are not completely accurate. Individuals from different cultures or with less knowledge of the English language tend to score unfairly low. Certain disabilities, such as ADHD or dyslexia, can interfere with taking the test. And even in the absence of the above factors, IQ tests are developed around evaluating the average. The higher (or lower) a score you have, the easier it is for a small mistake or a lucky guess to skew your score by several points. There are other tests, such as the Woodcock-Johnson, that can be more useful. But IQ is easy to explain because I tutored college statistics. Ready for some math?

This picture is a bell curve. You might've seen one before. The basic idea of a bell curve is to show what a population looks like.

This bell curve represents IQ. You'll notice that the number in the middle is '100'. That's because an average IQ is 100.

Now, when you have a bell curve, there's something called a standard deviation. The extremely oversimplified explanation is that standard deviations show how far something is away from average.

The standard deviation for IQ is fifteen points. In practice, what this means is that roughly 68% of all people have an IQ between 85 and 115. That's what the shaded area represents. If you have an IQ in that range, that's great. That's normal, and that's perfectly good for having a job and raising a family and generally living life.

OK, so let's say we go two standard deviations away from the mean. For an IQ distribution, that's 30 points. Which means that about 97% of all people have an IQ somewhere between 70 and 130. This is pretty much everyone you would run into on the street. This is still pretty normal, though individuals with an IQ around 70 are where you see students who struggle more and might attend a special education class. Students around 120-130 are where you tend to find the really smart kids who do well in school, the valedictorians and the straight A students.

So here's where things start getting a little complicated. When you look at individuals with an IQ of 130 or higher, you're seeing Gifted individuals. Intellectually, the top 3%. And the thing is, these individuals are as different from "normal", from that average 100 IQ, as the individuals who are under 70 IQ-- where you start seeing some more serious developmental disabilities. So having a child with this sort of IQ in a regular education classroom is a little like taking an average child and putting them in a special education classroom. Their brain is completely different from the brains of their classmates, they learn at a different speed and on a different level, and most of the time they are bored out of their minds.

Now let's talk 3 standard deviations above average, or an IQ of 145 or higher. (Again, this is not me bragging, this is me giving a fact to inform this article, but my IQ is somewhere around here. Also for your reference, Einstein scored 160. But, again, the higher you go, the harder it is to get an accurate score) Here, we're talking about students who are as far from average as those who have an IQ of 55, which is quite a bit more severe. Roughly 1% of the world's population has an IQ of 145+.

Now, another thing you have to keep in mind about IQ scores is that they change. School students have a higher IQ at the start of summer vacation than at the end. Your brain is a muscle that can be exercised. And while going up a whole standard deviation is unlikely, it is entirely possible for every person to become smarter if given a good opportunity.

I've worked some time in a special education school for kids with more severe disorders. Sometimes parents of those children have very few expectations for their children, believing that their disabilities and challenges are too severe to permit growth. But it's not true. Those kids can learn, and can grow, and can do amazing things that you never expected.

But what I'm getting at is that this is true for gifted kids as well. They are capable of growth, of potential, of doing amazing things-- but that isn't going to happen if you never give them the challenges they need to learn and grow.

There are a few challenges that most gifted students have to some degree. I could talk about a lot of them, but I'm going to focus on four for right now.

Asynchronous Development

Remember when I said that giftedness is an abnormality in the brain? Part of that is increased connectivity in parts of the brain-- in other words, there will be parts of the brain that work faster or more effectively. But in turn, there are parts of the brain that are weaker because the brain has put so much effort into "specializing". This can look like a person who is excellent at math but can't spell and struggles with reading. Or someone who's language skills are advanced beyond their years, but who has little ability to pick up on social cues. Or a kindergarten student I knew who could read and do math on an eighth grade level, but who had a level of maturity several years behind his peers.

Asynchronous Development can be very challenging for students in school, and for the teachers who work with these students. What do you do with a child who can read on a college level but has the emotional maturity of a four year old? What on earth do you give them to read? And there aren't many schools which will allow a student to take high school english and fifth grade math at the same time.

Social Skills

Remember my allusion to putting a regular education child in a special education classroom. You've got an average, say, seven year old. He can read and write and do basic math. You put him, for some reason, into a classroom for children who are his same age but have more severe developmental disabilities. His classmates can't talk. Some of them wear diapers. They are working on counting to five. And the teacher and staff are too busy helping the other students to do anything with this average student except maybe give him jobs to help out the other students.

This kid is going to be bored. He's not going to learn anything. And if he tries to play a game with his classmates, they won't understand the rules. If he tries to talk to his classmates, they won't understand everything he says. Making friends is going to be a challenge.

Understand, I'm not saying that typically-developing kids shouldn't have opportunities to make friends with the kids in special education programs and vise versa, or that gifted kids shouldn't spend time with typically developing kids and kids in special education. Given the right circumstances, those kids can all develop friendships and have fun together and learn from one another. I am in favor of inclusion programs, so long as the students who need extra support can get it.

And that's the thing. The students in an special education program genuinely need support. But a more typical student in that setting would also need help and support-- to learn how to interact with his classmates that act so differently, to get an education that matches his intellectual ability.

When Gifted kids are in regular classrooms, it's a similar situation. A lot of times the subject material being taught is so easy that they are bored (and act out because of it). The other classmates won't understand everything that the gifted child says or likes or tries to do, because there's such a difference in cognitive abilities. But a gifted child can be successful if they are given an education that matches their abilities, and the tools and supports to learn how to make connections with their typically developing peers. (The chance to meet and spend time with other gifted kids also helps a lot.)


Gifted individuals tend to experience life as a roller coaster. Their emotions and feelings and thoughts can be more intense than for most people. This can mean getting excited about an idea, or having a strong response to music, or getting upset and frustrated over what other people see as a small problem.

I've known some gifted kids who could be explosive. One minute they're happy, the next they're screaming and breaking things, or bursting into tears. Gifted learners can get caught up in ideas or emotions and forget about everything else. These kids are often hypersensitive-- a lot of them show symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder, which is what the next blog post series will be about-- and are at high risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression.

Intensity is a challenge, but it can also be a good thing. It can lead to increased empathy, or to discovering a passion. Gifted kids (and adults) often have a higher than average appreciation for art and music.


Here's the thing about being a gifted kid in the public school system. Kindergarten is really easy when you can already read and count to 100. Which is a problem.

You see, typically developing kids spend Kindergarten learning something so much more important than letters or numbers, even while they learn those things. They learn how to make mistakes, how to try over and over again, how to ask for help.

But the gifted child just breezes past all those lessons.

Until a couple of years down the road, when school gets a little harder, and there's something the student doesn't understand without trying.

Learning to fail is hard. Learning to fail years after your classmates did is harder. Gifted students tend to respond by becoming highly self critical, assuming that they are "stupid", even refusing to try new things for fear of failure. These kids need opportunities to fail, to mess up, and to learn how to get back up again afterward.

That's it for now-- this post has already gone overlong, so thank you so much for reading if you made it all the way to the end! Next time we'll be talking about what music therapy can do to help gifted and 2e learners deal with the above challenges.

Again, please feel free to contact us or leave a comment if you have any thoughts or questions. And as always, see you soon!

#2e #gifted

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(801) 871-8036

South Jordan, UT, USA

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