Gifted but Learning Disabled:
A Puzzling Paradox
ERIC Identifier: ED321484
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Baum, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
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 behaviors.
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 difficulties.
- IDENTIFIED LEARNING DISABLED STUDENTS WHO ARE ALSO GIFTED.
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 DIFFERENCES.
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
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
- 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
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 this digest.
- 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!"
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 Press.
Dr. Susan Baum is an assistant professor at the College of New Rochelle in New York.
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.
ERIC digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RI88062007. The
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of
OERI or the Department of Education.
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
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.
RESOURCES - WEBBING AND MIND-MAPPING.
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.
RESOURCES - VISUALIZATION TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE MEMORY.
Write to Trillium Press, P. O. Box 209, Monroe NY 10950 for information on the
Bagley, M. T. USING IMAGERY TO DEVELOP MEMORY.
RESOURCES - USING TECHNOLOGY
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 instruction.
Daniels, P. (1983). TEACHING THE GIFTED/LEARNING DISABLED CHILD. Rockville,
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 and checklist.
"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 junior colleges.
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
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.
definitions of the qualities of students who are gifted and learning disabled, with ideas
about identification and programming.
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