What I wish someone had told me about the power of words
What I Wish I’d been told about Teaching Pupils with High Learning Potential

Why telling real stories about children and young people with Dual and Multiple Exceptionality is so important.

Children and young people with Dual and Multiple Exceptionalities (DME) are highly able and also have special educational needs and/or one or more disabilities (SEND). They are often not easy to identify and their needs even harder to determine both inside and outside the classroom. Amongst other things, their abilities can mask their SEND and they can ‘disappear’ in the system; they can be misdiagnosed or labelled lazy, badly behaved or troublemakers or they can develop a range of social, emotional, mental health and other problems which provide the focus for intervention without looking at their holistic needs as a child or young person with DME.

Every child is an individual with unique abilities and needs. To best illustrate DME, The Potential Trust is seeking stories about children and young people with DME, their journeys, how their needs are met and what happens to them at home and in their learning.

Our series kicks off in GTN Awareness Week with some real stories extracted from The School Handbook for Dual and Multiple Exceptionality by Denise Yates and Adam Boddison (published by Routledge in 2020) reproduced in part here with the kind permission of the authors. For more information or to order a copy of this book, please go to: https://www.routledge.com/The-School-Handbook-for-Dual-and-Multiple-Exceptionality-High-Learning/Yates-Boddison/p/book/9780367369583

If you have a personal story about DME which you would like to share with others, please email this to potentialtrust@gmail.com Please change the names and details to preserve anonymity. The Potential Trust reserves the right to edit the story or not to publish it on our website. Sending us your story implies consent for us to send it out on social and other media to raise awareness and support others in this important area of work.

Alex’s story

About Alex

What are Alex’s specific strengths? High ability in music, drama and the creative arts.

What are Alex’s specific learning challenges? Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, anxiety, issues with working memory and organisation skills.

Schooling: Private nursery, state primary school, state secondary school and sixth form, drama school.

Alex was a highly verbal child, speaking in whole sentences by the age of two. By three he could tell his family members stories which tapped into his vivid imagination, and which left them in no doubt what a bright boy they had. He went to a local nursery setting on a part-time basis and they confirmed what his parents had thought when his key worker talked to them about his possible reasons for the sudden onset of his misbehaviour His key worker recommended that he should move to primary school as soon as possible to get greater intellectual stimulation, which his parents did.   

At school, he enjoyed anything which enabled him to talk and use his imagination. However, he struggled at the outset with his handwriting and organisational skills and avoided reading wherever possible. His maths ability was also extremely variable. For example, he struggled with mental maths but anything which involved visual or spatial maths he was extremely good at.

His teachers could not understand how, when he was asked a question, he usually knew the answer. However, when he had to write anything down or concentrate on something in which he wasn’t interested, he did not engage. Various teachers put it down to everything from laziness to poor behaviour and lack of ability.

As he grew older, Alex became the class clown and was good at playing his teachers and parents off against each other to get out of homework which, when he had to do it was a nightmare at home which could take the better part of a day to complete. His parents found that if he dictated the work to them it was fine and they then dictated it back to him in ‘chunks’ over the course of the day. Sometimes this lasted into the evening as he grew tired quickly and found it difficult to write for long periods.

By the time he was eight, his parents were extremely worried about Alex. They began to research everything about various Special Educational Needs, looking for answers about what was going on in school. He could read when he set his mind to it, although he wasn’t a natural reader, and so dyslexia didn’t cross anyone’s mind and as long as maths was explained visually or spatially, his only issues seemed to be with lack of interest and ability to process information. Lack of organisational skills was still a problem but that was just put down to ‘it just being Alex’. 

In secondary school, Alex remained the class clown and his parents were regularly contacted by his teachers ‘because of his sense of humour’ and imaginative antics. However, what they didn’t realise until many years later was that he was also bullied by the other boys because he did not like football, preferring music and drama.

To build on his strengths and his interests, his parents paid for music lessons and a drama club in the local community, and these were recognised when he was placed on the ‘Gifted and Talented Register’. This amused Alex because, from the age of about eight or nine his self-esteem in terms of his school work had been rapidly decreasing, making school in most cases a negative experience for him. For example, when asked who was better than he was at maths he answered, ‘an ant’.  

Identification of DME.

After years of struggling to find answers, when he was about 13, his parents finally took him to be assessed with an educational psychologist specialising in high learning potential and special needs. He identified Alex’s high verbal ability and visuo-spatial strengths and also his poor processing speeds and reading, writing and maths issues. He suggested that dyslexia and dysgraphia might be the cause of his issues and recommended various accommodations to be made in the classroom including increased time in exams and use of new technology as well as support for his dysgraphia.

His parents quizzed the psychologist about his dyslexia and specifically his reading, which hadn’t been spotted by anyone, including them. They were told that Alex’s brain was filling in the missing letters and reorganising the jumble so he could read.

Description of Alex’s DME provision.

Alex’s parents took the psychologist’s report into school and their first experiences of the SENCO and others were negative. His form teacher and Head of  Year said they were surprised at the results and ‘would have treated Alex differently if they had known.’ Before the assessment they had thought he was lazy and badly behaved. It took a change of SENCO and a new form tutor for the situation to change.

Alex was then given support from the Special Needs Department to help him with his organisational skills and support during exams including extra time in exams and access to a computer. He took the higher paper in GCSE maths as he struggled with the lower paper. Special dispensation allowed him to enter his sixth form without GCSE maths and with additional support he finally passed his GCSE maths when he was 17.

He took a course within the community, paid for by his parents, where he learnt to write again from scratch; how to sit, how to hold his pen, how to position his chair and paper and the professional gave him a style of writing which was easier for him to write. All of this was successful in helping to ensure that his handwriting was legible, albeit a little slow.

The reason why he struggled with reading was also explored through various eye tests and reading exercises where it was discovered that he eyes jumped from one line to the other which meant that he had read the same line numerous times. He also struggled with different colour printed paper. He was told to stick to certain colours and use a ruler or sheet to keep to the same line. A pair of glasses also helped with this problem, although for some variants of scotopic sensitivity syndrome, more specialist help may be required.

However, the biggest impact on his work came from the provision of a mentor whom he trusted and respected and to whom he could go to discuss any problems he was facing.

This person also helped to give him the confidence to build on his strengths and to see what he was good at. Thus, when he failed his English Literature GCSE and could not take the A level, his mentor helped him to see that this was not a disaster but encouraged him to take Dance A level and use it as an opportunity for the future.

At the same time as his bolstering his special needs; the school made sure that his talents gave him the skills and confidence both to believe in himself and to enable him to do the ‘hard stuff’. Building on the advice of his mentor, he deliberately took A levels which built on his strengths; in dance, music and drama. All of these were practical subjects which built upon his imagination, sense of performance and visuo/spatial strengths.  The school recommended that he should do these three subjects rather than further A levels so that he didn’t become too overwhelmed. He got his A levels because of his strengths rather than his written ability, balancing top grades in performance with low marks in his written work.

During all of this, particularly in later secondary school, his parents and the school worked closely together. The school had an open-door policy and parents could meet with key staff, including his mentor, when they had an issue. The school also knew that they could phone the parents if there was a problem, for example, failing to hand course work in on time. This positive relationship was enabled because it was built on mutual respect, and this enabled constructive problem solving to take place. Wherever possible, Alex was built into these meetings so that his views could be considered and, wherever possible, acted upon.

He was encouraged to apply for drama school, even though the process is hard with a low success rate and he got into one of the country’s leading drama schools. One of the first questions his group was asked when it started his course was ‘how many people have dyslexia?’. A number of other students raised their hands and Alex felt that the course he did supported these needs, including having lectures recorded so that he could watch them again and again or in small sections and keeping writing to a minimum and giving people plenty of time to get work done. He also felt that he was taught to understand exam questions and how to structure his answers for the first time in a way that he understood.

To read more about Alex and his journey and the other DME journeys, go to The School Handbook for Dual and Multiple Exceptionality by Denise Yates and Adam Boddison.

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

Names and details have been changed to preserve anonymity. Any views expressed are those of the authors.

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