ERIC Identifier: ED321484
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Baum, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Gifted but Learning Disabled: A Puzzling Paradox. ERIC Digest
How can a child learn and not learn at the same time? Why do some students
apply little or no effort to school tasks while they commit considerable time
and effort to demanding, creative activities outside of school? These behaviors
are typical of some students who are simultaneously gifted and learning
disabled. For many people, however, the terms learning disabilities and
giftedness are at opposite ends of a learning continuum. In some states, because
of funding regulations, a student may be identified and assisted with either
learning disabilities or giftedness, but not both.
Uneasiness in accepting this seeming contradiction in terms stems primarily
from faulty and incomplete understandings. This is not surprising, because the
"experts" in each of these disciplines have difficulty reaching agreement. Some
still believe that giftedness is equated with outstanding achievement across all
subject areas. Thus, a student who is an expert on bugs at age 8 may
automatically be excluded from consideration for a program for gifted students
because he cannot read, though he can name and classify a hundred species of
insects. Many educators view below-grade-level achievement as a prerequisite to
a diagnosis of a learning disability. Thus, an extremely bright student who is
struggling to stay on grade level, may slip through the cracks of available
services because he or she is not failing.
WHO ARE THE LEARNING DISABLED/GIFTED?
Recent advances in
both fields have alerted professionals to the possibility that both sets of
behavior can exist simultaneously (Baum and Owen, 1988; Fox, Brody, and Tobin,
1983; Whitmore and Maker, 1985). Children who are both gifted and learning
disabled exhibit remarkable talents or strengths in some areas and disabling
weaknesses in others. They can be grouped into three categories: (1)identified
gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities, (2) unidentified students
whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and (3)
identified learning disabled students who are also gifted.
IDENTIFIED GIFTED STUDENTS WHO HAVE SUBTLE LEARNING DISABILITIES. This group
is easily identified as gifted because of high achievement or high IQ scores. As
they grow older, discrepancies widen between expected and actual performance.
These students may impress teachers with their verbal abilities, while their
spelling or handwriting contradicts the image. At times, they may be forgetful,
sloppy and disorganized. In middle school or junior high, where there are more
long-term written assignments and a heavier emphasis on comprehensive,
independent reading, some bright students find it increasingly difficult to
achieve. Concerned adults are convinced that if these students would only try
harder, they could succeed.
While increased effort may be required for these students, the real issue is
that they simply do not know how! Because they may be on grade level and are
considered gifted, they are likely to be overlooked for screening procedures
necessary to identify a subtle learning disability. Identification of a subtle
disability would help students understand why they are experiencing academic
difficulties. More important, professionals could offer learning strategies and
compensation techniques to help them deal with their duality of learning
A word of caution is necessary at this point. A learning disability is not
the only cause of a discrepancy between potential and achievement. There are a
number of other reasons why bright children may be underachieving. Perhaps
expectations are unrealistic. Excelling in science, for example, is no assurance
that high-level performance will be shown in other academic areas. Motivation,
interest, and specific aptitudes influence the amount of energy students are
willing to apply to a given task. Social or emotional problems can interfere
with achievement. Grades and school are simply unimportant to some students.
Some youngsters have not learned how to study because, during primary grades,
school was easy and success required minimal effort.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS. The second group of youngsters in which this
combination of learning behaviors may be found are those who are not noticed at
all. These students are struggling to stay at grade level. Their superior
intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses
caused by an undiagnosed learning disability. In essence, their gift masks the
disability and the disability masks the gift. These students are often difficult
to find because they do not flag the need for attention by exceptional behavior.
Their hidden talents and abilities may merge in specific content areas or may be
stimulated by a classroom teacher who uses a creative approach to learning. The
disability is frequently discovered in college or adulthood when the student
happens to read about dyslexia or hears peers describe their learning
IDENTIFIED LEARNING DISABLED STUDENTS WHO ARE ALSO
These bright children, discovered within the population of students who are identified as learning disabled, are often failing miserably
in school. They are first noticed because of what they cannot do, rather than
because of the talent they are demonstrating. This group of students is most at
risk because of the implicit message that accompanies the LD categorization that
there is something wrong with the student that must be fixed before anything
else can happen. Parents and teachers alike become totally focused on the
problem. Little attention, if any, is paid to the student's strengths and
interests, other than to use them to remediate weaknesses.
Interestingly, these children often have high-level interests at home. They
may build fantastic structures with plastic bricks or start a local campaign to
save the whales. The creative abilities, intellectual strength and passion they
bring to their hobbies are clear indicators of their potential for giftedness
(Renzulli, 1978). Because these students are bright and sensitive, they are more
acutely aware of their difficulty in learning. Furthermore, they tend to
generalize their feelings of academic failure to an overall sense of inadequacy.
Over time, these pessimistic feelings over-shadow any positive feelings
connected with what they accomplish on their own at home. Research has shown
that this group of students is often rated by teachers as most disruptive at
school. They are frequently found to be off task; they may act out, daydream, or
complain of headaches and stomachaches; and they are easily frustrated and use
their creative abilities to avoid tasks (Baum and Owen, 1988; Whitmore, 1980).
Since school does not offer these bright youngsters much opportunity to polish
and use their gifts, such results are not surprising.
Although each of these subgroups has
unique problems, they all require an environment that will nurture their gifts,
attend to the learning disability and provide the emotional support to deal with
their inconsistent abilities. Four general guidelines can assist professionals
in developing programs that will meet the needs of these students.
FOCUS ATTENTION ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE GIFT. Remediation of basic skills
historically has been the single focus of efforts to serve students once they
have been classified as learning disabled. Few opportunities exist for bright
students with learning disabilities to demonstrate gifted behaviors. Research
has shown that a focus on weaknesses at the expense of developing gifts can
result in poor self esteem, a lack of motivation, depression and stress (Baum,
1984; Whitmore & Maker, 1985). In addition to offering remediation, focused
attention on the development of strengths, interests, and superior intellectual
capacities is necessary. These students need a stimulating educational
environment which will enable them to fully develop their talents and abilities.
Enrichment activities should be designed to circumvent problematic weaknesses
and to highlight abstract thinking and creative production.
Over the last 6 years, the state of Connecticut has funded a variety of
special programs for gifted students who have learning disabilities. All the
programs have emphasized the development of gifts and talents of these students.
The results of the projects showed dramatic improvement in student self-esteem,
motivation, and productive learning behaviors. Improved achievement in basic
skills for many students has been an unexpected bonus (Baum, 1988). In fact,
according to Whitmore and Maker (1985), more gains are seen when intervention
focuses on the gift rather than the disability.
PROVIDE A NURTURING ENVIRONMENT THAT VALUES INDIVIDUAL
According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1962),
individuals must feel that they belong and are valued in order to reach their
potential or self-actualize. How valued can a student feel if the curriculum
must be continually modified, or assignments watered down, to enable the student
to achieve success? Currently, only certain abilities are rewarded by schools,
primarily those that involve strong verbal proficiency. Indeed, according to
Howard Gardner (1983), schools spend much of their time teaching students the
skills they would need to become college professors. Success in the real world
depends on skills or knowledge in other areas besides reading and writing.
A nurturing environment--one that shows concern for developing student
potential--values and respects individual differences. Students are rewarded for
what they do well. Options are offered for both acquiring information and
communicating what is learned. The philosophy fosters and supports
interdependence; students work in cooperative groups to achieve goals. Many
types of intelligence are acknowledged; A well-produced video production about
life in the Amazon is as valued as the well written essay on the same topic. In
such an environment no child will feel like a second class citizen, and the
gifted students with learning disabilities can excel.
ENCOURAGE COMPENSATION STRATEGIES. Learning disabilities tend to be somewhat
permanent. A poor speller will always need to check for errors in spelling
before submitting a final draft. Students who have difficulty memorizing
mathematics may need to use a calculator to assure accuracy. Thus, simply
remediating weaknesses may not be appropriate or sufficient for the gifted
learning disabled student. Remediation will make the learner somewhat more
proficient, but probably not excellent, in areas of weakness. For instance,
students who have difficulty with handwriting will ultimately fare much better
if allowed to use a computer to record their ideas on paper than they will after
years of remediation in handwriting. The following list outlines suggestions for
providing compensation techniques to help students cope with weaknesses typical
of learning disabled students:
Find sources of information that are appropriate for students who may have
difficulty reading. Some examples are visitations, interviews, photographs,
pictorial histories, films, lectures, or experimentation. Remember, these
children do not want the curriculum to be less challenging or demanding. Rather,
they need alternative ways to receive the information.
Provide advanced organizers to help students receive and communicate
information. Students who have difficulty organizing and managing time also
benefit from receiving outlines of class lectures, study guides, and a syllabus
of topics to be covered. Teach students who have difficulty transferring ideas
to a sequential format on paper to use brainstorming and webbing to generate
outlines and organize written work. Provide management plans in which tasks are
listed sequentially with target dates for completion. Finally, provide a
structure or visual format to guide the finished product. A sketch of an essay
or science project board will enable these students to produce a well-organized
Use technology to promote productivity. Technology has provided efficient means
to organize and access information, increase accuracy in mathematics and
spelling, and enhance the visual quality of the finished product. In short, it
allows students with learning disabilities to hand in work of which they can
feel proud. Preventing these students from using word processing programs to
complete all written assignments is like prohibiting blind children from using
texts printed in braille!
Offer a variety of options for communication of ideas. Writing is not the only
way to communicate; all learning can be expressed and applied in a variety of
modes. Slides, models, speeches, mime, murals, and film productions are
examples. Remember, however, to offer these options to all children. Alternate
modes should be the rule rather than the exception.
Help students who have problems in short-term memory develop strategies for
remembering. The use of mnemonics, especially those created by students
themselves, is one effective strategy to enhance memory. Visualization
techniques have also proved to be effective. Resources are listed at the end of
ENCOURAGE AWARENESS OF INDIVIDUAL STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. It is imperative
that students who are gifted and learning disabled understand their abilities,
strengths, and weaknesses so that they can make intelligent choices about their
future. If a goal that is important to such a student will require extensive
reading, and, if reading is a weak area, the student will have to acknowledge
the role of effort and the need for assistance to achieve success."Rap"
sessions, in which these students can discuss their frustrations and learn how
to cope with their strange mix of abilities and disabilities, are helpful.
Mentoring experiences with adults who are gifted and learning disabled will lend
validity to the belief that such individuals can succeed.
In the final analysis, students who are both
gifted and learning disabled must learn how to be their own advocates. They must
ultimately choose careers that will accentuate their strengths. In doing so they
will meet others who think, feel, and create as they do.
One such student, after years of feeling different and struggling to succeed,
was finally able to make appropriate decisions about what he truly needed in his
life. He was an outstanding amateur photographer who loved music. He had also
started several "businesses" during his teenage years. In his junior year at
college he became depressed and realized that he was totally dissatisfied with
his coursework, peers, and instructors. He wondered whether he should quit
school. After all, he was barely earning C's in his courses. His advisor
suggested that he might like to create his own major, perhaps in the business of
art. That was the turning point in this young man's life. For the first time
since primary grades, he began to earn A's in his courses. He related that he
finally felt worthwhile. "You know," he said, "finally I'm with people who think
like me and have my interests and values. I am found!"
Baum, S. (1984). "Meeting the needs of learning
disabled gifted children." ROEPER REVIEW, 7, 16-19.
Baum, S. (1988). "An enrichment program for gifted learning disabled
students." GIFTED CHILD QUARTERLY, 32, 226-230.
Baum, S. & Owen, S. (1988). "High Ability/Learning Disabled Students: How
are they different?" GIFTED CHILD QUARTERLY, 32, 321-326.
Fox, L. H., Brody, L. & Tobin, D. (Eds.) (1983). LEARNING
DISABLED GIFTED CHILDREN: IDENTIFICATION AND PROGRAMMING.
Baltimore, MD: Allyn & Bacon.
Gardner, H. (1983). FRAMES OF MIND: THE THEORY OF MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES. New
York: Basic Books, Inc.
Maslow, A. (1962). TOWARD A PSYCHOLOGY OF BEING. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
Renzulli, J. (1978). "What makes giftedness: Reexamining a definition." PHI
DELTA KAPPAN, 60, 180-184.
Whitmore, J. (1980). GIFTEDNESS, CONFLICT, AND UNDER ACHIEVEMENT. Boston:
Allyn and Bacon.
Whitmore, J. & Maker, J. (1985). INTELLECTUAL GIFTEDNESS AMONG DISABLED
PERSONS. Rockville, MD: Aspen Press.
Heimlich, J. E. & Pittleman, S. D. (1986). SEMANTIC MAPPING: CLASSROOM
APPLICATIONS. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Large, C. (1987). THE CLUSTERING APPROACH TO BETTER ESSAY WRITING. Monroe,
NY: Trillium Press.
Rico, G. L. (1983). WRITING THE NATURAL WAY. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.
TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE MEMORY.
Write to Trillium Press, P. O. Box 209, Monroe NY 10950 for information on
the following materials:
Bagley, M. T. USING IMAGERY TO DEVELOP MEMORY.
Bagley, M. T. USING IMAGERY IN CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING.
Bagley, M. T. & Hess, K. K. TWO HUNDRED WAYS OF USING IMAGERY IN THE CLASSROOM.
Hess, K. K. ENHANCING WRITING THROUGH IMAGERY.
Summa, D. & Kelly, S. (1989). "What's new in software? Computer software
for gifted education." READING, WRITING, AND LEARNING DISABILITIES, 5, 293-296.
Armstrong, T. (1987). IN THEIR OWN WAY: DISCOVERING AND ENCOURAGING YOUR
CHILD'S PERSONAL LEARNING STYLE. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. Distributed by St.
Martin's Press. A former teacher and learning disabilities specialist describes
learning differences and provides suggestions.
Cannon, T., & Cordell, A. (1985, November). "Gifted kids can't always
spell." ACADEMIC THERAPY, 21, 143-152. Briefly discusses characteristics of the
gifted learning disabled child, possible patterns on tests, and strategies for
Daniels, P. (1983). TEACHING THE GIFTED/LEARNING DISABLED CHILD. Rockville,
MD: Aspen. Designed for educators and often technical.
Fox, L., Brody, L., & Tobin, D. (Eds.). (1983). LEARNING DISABLED GIFTED
CHILDREN: IDENTIFICATION AND PROGRAMMING. Austin, TX: Pro Ed. The most
comprehensive study available, containing a variety of experts' opinions.
"Getting learning disabled students ready for college" (n.d.). Washington,
DC: American Council on Education, HEATH Resource Center. A useful fact sheet
"How to choose a college: Guide for the student with a disability" (n.d.).
Washington, DC: American Council on Education, HEATH Resource Center.
Prihoda, J., Bieber, T., Kay, C., Kerkstra, P., & Ratclif, J.(Eds.).
(1989). "Community colleges and students with disabilities." Washington, DC:
American Council on Education, HEATH Resource Center. Lists services and
programs for disabled students at more than 650 U.S. community, technical, and
Rosner, S. (1985, May/June). "Special twice: Guidelines for developing
programs for gifted children with specific learning disabilities." G/C/T, 38,
55-58. A very basic overview.
Scheiber, B., & Talpers, J. (1987). UNLOCKING POTENTIAL. Bethesda, MD:
Adler and Adler. Offers advice on everything from diagnosis and vocational
assessments to specific college programs designed to accommodate students with
learning disabilities and provide them with study skills.
Silver, L. (1984). THE MISUNDERSTOOD CHILD: A GUIDE FOR PARENTS OF LEARNING
DISABLED CHILDREN. New York: McGraw-Hill. An easy-to-read basic and informative
book with a focus on children with learning disabilities, yet relevant to
children who are gifted and learning disabled.
Vail, P. (1987). SMART KIDS WITH SCHOOL PROBLEMS. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Emphasizes the traits of gifted students and the learning styles that set
students who are gifted and learning disabled apart.
Whitmore, J. (1982, January). "Recognizing and developing hidden giftedness."
THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL, 82, 274-283. Explores myths about GT children
that hinder the identification of children who are gifted and learning disabled.
Whitmore, J., & Maker, C.J. (1985). INTELLECTUAL GIFTEDNESS AMONG
DISABLED PERSONS. Rockville, MD: Aspen. One chapter is devoted to children who
are specifically gifted and learning disabled, with excellent case studies.
Wolf, J., & Gygi, J. (1981). "Learning disabled and gifted: Success or
failure?" JOURNAL FOR THE EDUCATION OF THE GIFTED, 4, 204. Provides well-stated
definitions of the qualities of students who are gifted and learning disabled,
with ideas about identification and programming.
Note. Reprinted by permission of the publisher Helen Dwight Reid Educational
Foundation, published by Heldref, 4000 Albemarle St. N.W., Washington, D. C.
20016, from PREVENTING SCHOOL FAILURE, (Fall 1989), 34 (1)11-14. Derived from TO BE GIFTED AND LEARNING DISABLED...FROM DEFINITIONS TO PRACTICAL INTERVENTION STRATEGIES, by S. Baum published by Creative Lear
The additional Readings section is from S. Berger (1989), COLLEGE PLANNING
FOR GIFTED STUDENTS. Reston, VA: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and
Gifted Children/The Council for Exceptional Children.