Parenting Dual Exceptional Children
By Denise Yates, Consultant, Author and Trustee of The Potential Trust.
No textbook can really prepare you for the reality of having your first child; and when that child has High Learning Potential as well as Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities, the rule book really does go out of the window. What are the kinds of things parents and carers can do to recognise and support both the gifts and talents AND areas of difficulty and struggle for their Dual and Multiple Exceptional Child and where can they look for support both for their child and themselves?
Having a child who can do the most amazing things or has ‘flashes of brilliance’ whilst at the same time struggling with often the most basic activities that others take for granted can be puzzling for many new parents. You may question what you are seeing and think you are over-exaggerating your child’s abilities (or their challenges). You may feel your behaviour somehow caused your child to act in this way, be frightened to ask others in case you sounded silly or overprotective of your child or experience a range of other emotions from disbelief to denial.
Don’t worry if you feel any of these things (or have felt them in the past); you are not alone. Estimates suggest that at least 60,000 children in the UK may be defined as Dual or Multiple Exceptional. That means that they have gifts or talents in one or more areas (the term some of us use is High Learning Potential) as well as Special Educational Needs and/or disabilities. Other terms used around the globe for these children include Twice Exceptional (or 2e), Gifted with Learning Differences (GLD), Neurodiverse and even bright and quirky and differently wired.
Research conducted by The Potential Trust and others suggest that parents and carers will start to identify a child with High Learning Potential and DME early on and certainly before they go to school. It is therefore a good idea for parents to look out for their child’s strengths and challenges as soon as possible and to make a note of what happens and when. This could be the age they walk or talk, what they say, the kinds of questions they ask and their hobbies and interests. Many parents and carers do this anyway and activities like making video diaries can help make valuable memories for the future.
The kinds of concerns parents and carers report early on about their children with HLP and DME include:
- Asynchronous development where their physical and/or emotional development is ‘out of sync’ with their intellectual development (imagine a child who is five years-old who talks like a ten year-old but has the emotions of a two year-old)
- Incessant questioning
- Worry and anxiety ‘beyond their years’
- Extreme sensitivity in one or more of their senses
- Extreme behaviour eg anger and meltdowns
- The need for the child to be in control
- Obsessions which can sometimes switch rapidly
- Extreme perfectionism from a young age
- Problems with sleep
- Poor organisational skills or memory
In some cases, these kind of characteristics may lead others to believe a child has a disability or special educational need (SEND). However, in some children any SEND may be masked by their high ability, making them appear ‘average’ (or even, when they are particularly clever, ‘above average’) or even bright but lazy where their test results or school work do not seem to match their performance in the classroom.
In the long term, these children can become increasingly frustrated, experiencing behavioural issues or finding alternative avenues for their abilities (such as becoming the class clown or resorting to criminal activities). Alternatively, they can ‘fold in on themselves’ and develop social, emotional and mental health issues ranging from anxiety and depression to self harm and worse. Such problems can then lead to specialist interventions for behaviour or mental health. However, without an accurate identification of the DME and customised programmes to address both the child’s high ability AND their SEND, these interventions are often short term solutions at best and can run the risk of making the situation worse.
So, as well as acting as a detective to identify what your child is doing and when, what other kinds of things can parents and carers do to support their child with DME?
- Understand DME. Whilst every child presents differently, equipping yourself with as much information as you can about DME, what it looks like and how to support it at home and in education is really important. There are lots of good books, podcasts and training out there about DME so get learning!
- Understand what is possible. If your child attends school, it is particularly important to get up to speed on education law in your country so you know what support you can ask for. Many parents and carers go down the route of having a formal assessment for their child to enable an action plan to be drawn up. Some parents go down the SEND route as there is often a legal framework for this in schools and then seek to have support for their child’s high ability bolted on. It is essential that a child’s High Learning Potential is supported first and this is used to help support the child’s special educational needs.
- Build on your child’s strengths. This does not have to be in school or through their formal learning. Many pupils with DME can develop low self esteem and so being part of activities they enjoy and in which they can excel can provide a boost to their confidence and help them to address more positively areas in which they struggle.
- Praise the effort your child puts in. Many children with DME can struggle really hard to appear average. They should be encouraged to value the effort they put in and their learning experiences, even when they make mistakes. This will help them have a more positive learning journey than one where they are only praised for the results they achieve and are seen as lazy or unmotivated when they fail to meet expectations
- Model the behaviour you want your child to show. Your child is perceptive. They will learn from the behaviour you show them. Show them anger and they will be angry. Show them how you cope with failure and they will learn from that. None of us is perfect but treat your child as though they are the best they can be; listen to them and show them how to behave. You will all benefit from the experience.
- Help your child problem solve for themselves. Many children and young people are excellent problem solvers. Help them to develop these skills early on. Ask them what their ‘Plan B’ is so they learn to cope when things go wrong. Give them real-world problems to solve. Put in place the solutions they come up with so they can see what happens. All of these kinds of things can help them cope with what life throws at them later on.
- Work positively with your child’s teachers and develop holistic programmes of support which recognise your child’s strengths and challenges at home and at school.
- Find your – and their – community. We all need like-minded people who understand us and can empathise with our journey including or struggles and achievement. There are communities of DME families out there in the UK (Potential Plus UK, Powerwood, GIFT, British Mensa) and overseas (SENG, Bright and Quirky, Tilt Parenting, Our Gifted Kids). Look them up and find one that works for you.
- Enjoy your child and celebrate with them who they are. We ‘borrow’ our children for a relatively short period of time. Nurturing them in the right way can help lay the foundations for their future health and well-being.
Although it may not seem like it, the time in which we are currently living is an incredibly exciting one for children and young people with DME. Unlike in any other period, the skills they have and could develop will be more in demand than any time before. Prepare them wisely for the future; lay the foundations for what they need now; encourage a strengths-based approach to DME and be positive about this with them and those who support them. Most of all, put their health (including their mental health) and well-being first. Finally, love them and believe in them. All of this will carry them a long way through life and help them to be the best version of themselves they can be.
About Denise Yates
Denise Yates has worked in education and training for over thirty-eight years to enable all individuals to maximise their potential. Over the years, this has included ex-offenders, children with moderate learning difficulties, adults with numeracy and literacy problems and in inner-city areas working with young people at risk of offending.
For ten years, Denise was Chief Executive of the national charity, Potential Plus UK (formerly The National Association for Gifted Children Ltd). In 2017, Denise left to pursue her passion which could be summarised as ‘hidden potential’; children and young people with Dual and Multiple Exceptionality, those with mental health problems and those who have been failed by the system, for whatever reason.
A Cambridge economist, Denise is currently, amongst other things, a Trustee of The Potential Trust, a charitable trust which supports more able children from low-income backgrounds, a non-executive Director of Nisai Education Trust which is interested in exploring different models of education and a Board member of Potential in Me a CIC which provides coaching to young people, families and businesses working with young people. Denise is a Fellow of the RSA, a consultant on issues related to inclusion and also a trained Adviser with Citizens Advice and spends time practically helping individuals and families within her local community. In 2020, with Adam Boddison, she wrote ‘The School Handbook for Dual and Multiple Exceptionality’ and in 2020 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to children and young people. In 2022 her second book about DME, ‘Parenting Dual Exceptional Children’ https://www.hachette.co.uk/titles/denise-yates/parenting-dual-exceptional-children/9781787758100/ was published.
About The Potential Trust.
The Potential Trust is a registered charity (charity number 326645) whose aim is to provide, promote and encourage whatever makes education and learning more interesting for children and young people (up to school leaving age) who have High Learning Potential (sometimes called more able, highly able or Gifted and Talented) or Dual or Multiple Exceptionalities (sometimes called DME, Twice Exceptional or 2e, neurodiverse or gifted with learning differences). We want to support all those children with more than the average share of curiosity, creativity, perception and persistence and to enable them to have access to events and experiences that facilitate their personal and social development and their creative, artistic and practical abilities as well as their intellectual abilities. We do this by:
- Providing Potential Bursaries
- Running Potential Conferences
- Developing Potential Collaborations
- Being a catalyst for Potential Change.
For more information about how to get involved or to support us, please log onto our website at https://thepotentialtrust.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @PotentialTrust
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own.