What is Multi-Exceptional (2e/3e)?

Multi-exceptional students are those who are identified as gifted AND are identified with a state/federal qualified disability (e.g., learning, physical, behavioral, or emotional) that qualifies them for either an IEP or a 504 plan. These are the students who are often overlooked in a traditional classroom.  Twice-exceptional (2e) students are often characterized as highly intelligent students who struggle in school due to a learning disability, ADHD, or a sensory integration disorder.  These gifted students often fly under the radar, and many parents and teachers fail to recognize their potential. 


Types of Twice-Exceptional Children

Many experts group twice-exceptional students into three distinct categories:

1) students who excel but later show signs of a disability

2) students with diagnosed disabilities who show exceptional gifts in some areas

3) highly intelligent students who seem average because they have disabilities

Children who fall into the third category are often overlooked because learning disabilities like ADHD can hide their abilities and they are not recognized as gifted students.  They appear average, but are truly struggling.


Definition of a Multi-Exceptional (2d/3e) Learner from the  National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)

What’s not often well-known or well-understood is that students who are gifted may also have a special need or disability— just as students with disabilities may also be gifted. The term “twice-exceptional,” also referred to as “2e,” is used to describe gifted children who, have the characteristics of gifted students with the potential for high achievement and give evidence of one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria. These disabilities may include specific learning disabilities (SpLD), speech and language disorders, emotional/behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, autism spectrum, or other impairments such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Like other gifted learners, 2e students are highly knowledgeable and talented in at least one particular domain. However, their giftedness is often overshadowed by their disabilities, or these students may be able to mask or hide their learning deficits by using their talents to compensate. Sometimes a twice-exceptional child’s special educational needs are overlooked until adolescence or later, or are never identified throughout his or her life.

Twice-exceptional children often find difficulty in the school environment, where organization, participation, and long-term planning play a role. They can be highly creative, verbal, imaginative, curious, with strong problem-solving ability, and a wide range of interests or a single, all-consuming expertise. However, at school, they may have difficulty keeping up with course rigor, volume, and demands--resulting in inconsistent academic performance, frustration, difficulties with written expression, and labels such as lazy, unmotivated, and underachiever. All this may hinder their excitement for school and be detrimental to their self-efficacy, self-confidence, and motivation.


Identifying Twice-Exceptional/Multi-Exceptional Children

Identifying twice-exceptional children is rarely a straightforward process. All children have their own gifts, but they also have their own struggles.  The high number of combinations makes it difficult to pinpoint a single way to identify gifted children with disabilities.  They might be identified as gifted when they show promise of high performance in one or two areas.  ADHD might make it difficult for the student to answer math or reading questions, but that same student may excel when it comes to solving real-world problems like a puzzle, or finding a creative solution.  On the flip-side, twice exceptional students might be identified when there is a decline in performance or regular struggling in class. A student might do very well before succumbing to difficulties created by a learning challenge or disability.  If the child's performance begins to slip, the teacher should take a closer look to determine whether an outside influence is contributing to lower grades.  Declining performance could come from poor eyesight, trouble hearing, or from other physical problems.  When it comes to identifying a twice-exceptional student, patience is very important.  Collecting the necessary data to dig into the student's performance is the first step in determining what to do.  Using your school's MTSS framework to bring the student up for a problem solving team meeting will surely help.  To view an excerpt from the Aurora Public School's MTSS Handbook about gifted, 2e, and multi-lingual learners, please click here. 

Some common challenges faced by twice-exceptional students includes (but is not limited to):

  • Frustration
  • Poor written expression
  • Argumentative personality
  • Overly sensitive to criticism
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Slow processing speed
  • Executive function disorders
  • Stubbornness
  • Analysis paralysis
  • Difficulty in social situations
  • Difficulty working with peers

A child who has some of these traits combined with his/her perceived strengths probably has a sophisticated intellect that gets overlooked because of the problems with learning, behaviors, and expression. These students will not do well on their own.  If you suspect something "isn't right" please explore your gut feelings.  It is our job as educators to ensure that every child's educational needs are being met - it is our job to ensure they all reach their full potential.  Please work to meet each child at his or her point of entry every single day! 




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Teach them the way they learn:

  • Know their strengths and weaknesses
  • Allow equal time for strengths and weaknesses
  • Don't pull a student out of a subject they are good at to work on weaknesses
  • Incorporate all of the senses when teaching by incorporating music, movement, and hands-on activities in lessons
  • Provide choices of how to demonstrate their knowledge: projects, writing, portfolios, slide presentations, tests, etc.
  • Break tasks down into smaller steps or chunks
  • Use reflective questioning/metacognition

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Build on what they know:

  • Understand what students already know and build on it
  • Have a conference with each individual student to duscuss what they know, what they do not know, and where they have misconceptions
  • Present the big picture and then go into the details
  • Connect what they are learning to what they already know or have learned in the past through the use of graphic organizers, charts, graphs, timelines, thinking maps, and vocabulary maps
  • Show relationships across ideas

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Use assistive technology to support learning:

  • Teach students how to use assistive technology to support their learning:
  • Audio Recordings for Blind and Dyslexic students
  • Books on Tape
  • Seat cushions to improve focus
  • Speech to text programming
  • Spell check and editing programs
  • Dictation programs
  • Virtual Reality (VR)

Strategies for Teaching Children With Learning Challenges

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Help them organize:

  • Offer graphic organizers
  • Use visual checklists
  • Provide timers
  • Teach students how to use assignment notebooks and daily planners
  • Organize each subject by color
  • Offer positive reinforcement
  • Use self-monitoring systems
  • Give then two sets of one text: one for school and one for home
  • Give them containers to hold all of their supplies and help them label

Ideas for Kids Who Struggle with Executive Function Challenges




CDE offers free online or face-to-face learning for Colorado school staff members. Learn more by visiting the Colorado Department of Educations, Office of Gifted Education website.