By Rachel DeMaris
When I was first introduced to the concept of the twice exceptional learner, I felt the piece of a lifelong puzzle finally drop into place.
“Whoa,” I thought. “That’s me!”
As a highly anxious child, I frequently suffered in silence in the traditional school setting where I was educated. I performed well academically and generally maintained my emotional composure at school, so my need for extra support went unnoticed. As is common for anxious young women, I hid my severe anxiety behind quiet compliance until I could no longer keep it a secret. When pushed too far out of my comfort zone, my anxiety presented as inflexibility, perfectionism, and procrastination in the forms of freeze, fight, and flight. I experienced friction with teachers due to my need to be in control. I spent the majority of my time in school feeling like an imposter, completely misunderstood and unseen by the adults charged with my academic growth.
I muddled through, but I never forgot the intense fear of failure or the belief that I didn’t have an adult who had my back at school. I was drawn to teaching because I knew there were many more kids with my learning profile, and I wanted them to have an adult who understood what it felt like to learn with that brain. I often jokingly comment that I entered the profession to be the “teacher for weirdos like me.” Little did I know how true this would turn out to be!
I’ve been working with 5th and 6th grade students for the last seven years and absolutely relish the challenge. My current school is not an intentional environment for 2e students. However, many 2e students have joined our community due to our small class sizes, project-based learning curriculum, and reputation for guiding neurodiverse students to academic and social success. I have loved learning alongside my students in this accidentally 2e-supportive space. The faculty here have embraced the joys and challenges of working with 2e students and supports one another in building skills to better serve these unique learners.
My team is often asked what works when guiding a 2e student to classroom success. While each child has unique needs and requires a personalized approach, there are a few fundamental methods that I have found to have a positive impact.
- Choose Your Battles: 2e students often arrive in our classrooms with a set of adaptive behaviors that may have been labeled as disruptive in other learning environments. Much of the child’s time in school thus far has often been spent receiving consequences for these behaviors and the child has built up a sense of distrust and resistance in them. When behaviors are exhibited, teachers could consider whether or not the behavior is an “us-problem” or a “me-problem.” An “us-problem” disrupts instruction in a significant way or creates an unsafe environment. These behaviors must be addressed and halted. A “me-problem” often only creates an irritation for the teacher! For example, repetitive noise is annoying to me. But, does it hurt anyone? No. That’s a “me-problem.” If students ask for sounds to stop, I will enforce that, but generally ignore it if I’m the only one bothered. Students can be taught that all individuals have different needs and that those needs are honored in our classroom. So, a student may need to pace when reading, might blurt out during discussions, may tap fingers or use a fidget, or might need to have a cool-down break when emotions become too big. A big place of growth in my own teaching has been understanding that it is okay to let go of control of every little detail sometimes. If it isn’t hurting anyone and we’re all still learning, let it go. Save your (and the child’s!) emotional energy for the battles that matter.
- Flexibility: Classroom routines and systems are important for establishing an environment conducive to learning. However, for some 2e kids, these structures can feel unnecessarily restrictive. Invite them to work with you on designing tweaks to your existing system so it better fits their needs.
- Intentionally Include Social-Emotional Learning: All students benefit from the purposeful inclusion of social-emotional skills in the curriculum. However, explicitly teaching skills such as conflict management, showing empathy, helpful self-talk, techniques for calming big emotions, and leading by example can be game-changing for 2e students in the classroom. Everyone receives the message that we’re all learning to be kind people, and we all need practice in managing our emotions. All students gain practice both in patience and in walking in someone else’s shoes. Short, thoughtful social-emotional lessons, coupled with teachable moments and just-in-time lessons in response to classroom happenings, can move a classroom of neurotypical students from tolerance to acceptance and inclusion of their 2e peers who may struggle socially.
- Embrace Project-based Learning: The student-driven learning at the heart of project-based or inquiry-based teaching is a good match for 2e learners. When given the opportunity to self-select specific elements of the content or decide on the learning output that best suits their skills, 2e students are invited to shine in their way, rather than being required to fit into a neurotypical mold. In my experience, most students thrive in a PBL environment, because they are motivated to produce work that reflects what they have learned about a topic of personal interest. Kids appreciate being trusted to build their own knowledge (with teacher support, of course!).
These four ideas are by no means a comprehensive guide to building a 2e-friendly classroom. However, these shifts in teacher approach can begin paving the way to welcoming these bright and creative “weirdos” into a classroom. Teaching 2e students can be a challenge, but like all things worth having, the success the child experiences is worth all of the effort.