Nonprofit group wants schools to recognize, better educate 'twice-exceptional' children

The Baltimore Sun

Alexander Boser started reading at an early age and was devouring Harry Potter books by the time he was 4.

"There really wasn't a sign of a problem except that this kid just wanted to read all the time," said his mother, Katharina Boser.

But the youngster, now 10, has been diagnosed with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADHD). He gets anxious in school, is sensitive to criticism and has trouble memorizing facts, Boser said. Even though he is in a Gifted-and-Talented math class at his Ellicott City elementary school, he also has an individualized education program (IEP) for help with his learning disabilities.

Alex is what is now known as "twice exceptional" -- a bright child who has a learning disability. Until recently, there was no name for these kinds of students, and certainly no strategy for educating them. But that is starting to change, thanks in large part to Boser and her work with a local nonprofit group called Individual Differences in Learning Association, or IDL. The group, founded six years ago, is working to help the school system recognize and educate such children.

Boser and other members of IDL spent most of the summer in the county's Television and Media Production studio in the Applications and Research Laboratory on Route 108, interviewing students, teachers, parents and experts to create a two-hour video on twice-exceptional learners.

The video was created through a collaboration between the school system and IDL. Penny Zimring, instructional facilitator for the county's Gifted and Talented Education Program, is working closely with IDL, as is Patricia Daley, Ellen Hurd and Emily Hill, representing the special-education side.

Boser, who has a doctorate in cognitive psychology, was in charge of production and did most of the research for the video. Helping her and other IDL members were high school students, including Stefanie Seo and Hiroko Nishimura of Atholton, Liza Gipsov and Eric Lin of River Hill High and Nolan Walter of Glenelg.

Zimring described Boser's effort as "Herculean," and said the group is a valuable partner to the school system, one that is doing much of the legwork necessary to get school officials up to speed on the issue of twice-exceptional students -- also sometimes known as GTLD, or gifted and talented/learning disabled.

"It is really an amazing compilation of materials that will enable schools to use them in different and flexible formats," said Zimring.

IDL was founded about six years ago by Trish Budd, Meg Mekelburg and Laurie Rush, all parents of children who are "different learners." The group, which is truly local to Howard County and not simply a chapter of a national organization, incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2004. It has about 500 members.

Budd, whose son, Owen, was diagnosed with ADHD at age 5, had co-founded a support group for people coping with learning disabilities in her native Australia. But she said the goal for IDL is to focus on both the disability and the talent.

"You can't just look at the difficulties," she said. "You have to look at their skills and talents or you're only looking at part of the child."

Owen, a student at the University of Montana, is incredibly bright and creative, a person who "goes 120 percent into everything," Budd said. But he likes to teach himself and doesn't do well when he is forced to sit and absorb information. When her son was in middle school, Budd had few places to turn for advice about making sure Owen got the best education possible.

But thanks to her efforts, other parents can look to IDL.

IDL serves as a support group and resource for parents and holds regular meetings with speakers. But its more ambitious goal is to teach school officials in Howard County -- and maybe someday in other places -- how to recognize and work with students who are twice exceptional.

"That's what we're all about -- collecting this research," said Boser. "We want to educate schools about kids that just don't fit the mold."

Boser said the accommodations don't have to be onerous or complicated. Sometimes a student, even one without an official diagnosis such as dyslexia or ADHD, simply needs more time, or needs to hear an assignment, instead of only seeing it on a chalkboard, she said.

IDL member Melissa Kay said many teachers are "not trained to see issues and work on them."

IDL has been tackling that problem systematically.

For about three years, members of IDL put together workshops of experts and of twice-exceptional students who told of their classroom struggles. Schools would send a team consisting of a Gifted and Talented Program teacher, a special-education teacher and a general teacher, with the idea that those professionals would then pass along the information to other teachers.

"As a result of those workshops, teachers went back and looked for students with those characteristics and see what they could do to help," said Zimring.

However, those workshops were time-consuming for everyone involved, so IDL began work on the video. The group also created a 32-page companion book that teachers can keep, as well as a PowerPoint presentation for officials to take back to their schools.

The video and books were funded with a grant of about $20,000 from the Horizon Foundation, a sum that covered production costs but not the time that Boser and others spent on the project.

The video is in 16 segments, each 10 to 15 minutes long, with titles such as "Understanding the Myth of Laziness" and "Collaboration and Communication." The video begins with a fable, illustrated with still photos from Centennial High grad Julie Kuhn, a photography student at Howard Community College.

The story is of a woman who carries water in two pots, one that is cracked and one that is not. The unbroken pot always has a full supply of water when she reaches her destination, but the cracked pot is half-empty. However, the cracked pot has been watering the path as she walks, creating a row of colorful flowers. The idea is to value the journey that twice-exceptional students take.

Several schools are testing the video, said Zimring. Eventually, if all goes according to plan, every school in the county will use it.

"We're very excited about continuing to work with IDL," she said.

For her part, Boser is eager to see the videos start to make a difference in the classrooms.

"Now what we really need to do is see it happen in the schools," she said.

Information about the Individual Differences in Learning Association or to contact the organization: www.

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