The Gifted/Learning-Disabled Child: A Guide for Teachers and Parents

The Gifted/Learning-Disabled Child: A Guide for Teachers and Parents

Erin A. Fetzer

What do Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo DaVinci, Walt Disney, Whoopi Goldberg, Lindsay Wagner, and Robin Williams have in common? All are reported to have learning disabilities. For many people the terms learning disabled and gifted are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Children who experience both exceptionalities are often overlooked and underserved in the classroom. Although researchers have acknowledged the gifted/learning-disabled population and have developed procedures for identification, the majority of school districts do not have procedures in place for screening, identifying, and serving these children (Dix & Schafer, 1996). In addition, information on this population has not been transported into the classroom so parents are not aware of the possibility of dual exceptionalities in these areas. These obstacles make it difficult for the gifted/learning-disabled child to be identified and an appropriate program developed. Parents ant educators must work together as advocates for those children with gifts/learning disabilities to address this unique learning situation.


Don’t the terms learning disabled and gifted contradict each other? No more so than the presence of both weaknesses and strengths in one individual child (Ellston, 1993). Children who are both gifted and learning disabled simply exhibit remarkable talents or strengths in one area and disabling weaknesses in others (Baum, 1990). A more sophisticated definition can be obtained by examining the definitions of the two terms, gifted and learning disabled, separately (Ellston, 1993).

The definitions of giftedness range from specific to broad. Some have chosen to say that the gifted are the two percent who score highest on tests of intelligence (Terman, 1925 as cited in Clark, 1983). Others prefer a more broad definition such as one postulated by Witty (1940) describing them as children “whose performance is consistently remarkable in any potentially valuable area” (as cited in Clark, 1983, p. 5). The definition commonly accepted today is one given by Javits (Title IV, Part B, 1988) stating that the term gifted and talented student means children and youths who:

Give evidence of higher performance capability in such areas as

intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity or in specific

academic fields, and who require special services or activities not

ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such


Some still believe that giftedness is equated with outstanding achievement in all subject areas. Thus, a student who is an expert on bugs at age eight, for example, may be excluded from a gifted program because he has difficulty reading, even though he can name and classify a hundred species of insects (Baum, 1990).

The official meaning of learning disabilities is given in EL. 105-17 (1997) and states:

The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of

the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using

language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in

imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do

mathematical calculations.

This term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

This term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result

of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of

emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic


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 maintain passing grades due to a learning disability may slip through the cracks of available services because he is not failing (Baum, 1990).


There are three classifications of students with gifts/learning disabilities that have surfaced in the literature (Toll, 1993). The first type is the subtle gifted/learning disabled. This group of children is easily identified as gifted, however, they usually have poor spelling and handwriting. They may be disorganized and their work may appear sloppy. As these children grow older, the gap between what is expected of them and their actual performance may widen. Teachers expect them to be able to achieve because they are labeled gifted (Toll).

The second classification is the hidden gifted/learning disabled. These students are neither labeled as gifted nor learning disabled because their gifts and abilities mask each other. Their superior intelligence allows them to compensate for their learning disability by performing more like an average student. A clue to their intellectual brightness may surface in a specific content area or creative output (Toll, 1993). Students in this category are at a critical educational disadvantage because neither exceptionality is identified, which precludes their receiving educational programs designed to meet their individual needs (Rivera, Murdock, & Sexton, 1995).

The third group is the recognized learning disabled. They are commonly placed in a learning-disabled class and are usually well behaved, however their disability depresses their intellectual performance. They usually excel in an area of interest and may have good verbal skills (Rivera et al., 1995). This group is the most at-risk because of the implicit message accompanying the learning-disabled category that there is something wrong with the student and that must be fixed before anything else can be done (Baum, 1990), Parents and teachers alike become totally focused on the disability.

Early identification is stressed as the key to enabling students with gifts/learning disabilities to succeed. However, the identification process usually begins with the regular classroom teacher who frequently misses these students for the most obvious reason, they seem to be functioning at or near the expected level. These students are able to compensate for their learning disability through their giftedness (Rivera et al., 1995).


Guidelines for early identification of a child with gifts/learning disabilities should include traditional test scores, although they should not be the sole determinant. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children–III (WISC-III) is the most frequently used because it allows the examiner to evaluate the quality and structure of a child’s response rather than simply the right and wrong answer (Rosner & Seymour, 1983).

A multidimensional approach should be used to identify students with gifts/learning disabilities and should include a large assessment battery including, but not limited to, the intelligence test. Along with the test score, educators should give attention to children whose performance varies significantly in different areas (Ellston, 1993). For example, a child scoring very low in the reading comprehension section of a test but extremely high on the math portion may be a gifted in math but have a learning disability in reading comprehension. Teachers should be given lists of characteristics to increase awareness of behaviors in their students who are both gifted and learning disabled (see Table 1). Parents should be interviewed about specific interests, behaviors, and developmental milestones (Silverman, 1989). Measures such as questionnaires for parents and teachers, self-concept scales, talent checklists, and interviews for adults associated with the child are all good tools in assessing whether a child is gifted. The assessment of a child should be a continuous and long-term process (Ellston, 1993).

Table 1

Positive and Negative Characteristics of Children with Gifts/Learning Disabilities


* Adept at thinking abstractly

* Good at problem solving skills

* Superior in mathematical reasoning ability

* Easily able to recognize relationships

* Highly creative

* Good communication skills

* Productive and motivated

* Intellectual curiosity

* Wide range of interests

* Ability to work on their own

* Sophisticated sense of humor

* Unusual and active imagination

* Keen visual memory

* Artistic, mechanical, or musical aptitude

* Grasps metaphors, satire, and analogies


* Aggressive

* Careless: forgets when assignments are due, loses

papers, does not complete assignments

* Easily frustrated

* Learning problems especially in: language, spatial conception,

memory and sequencing abilities,

* Poor or completely phonetic-based spelling

* Poor handwriting

* Is often disruptive

* Daydreams

* Doodles instead of listens

* Complains of head and stomach aches

* Difficulty with rote memorization

* Acts first, thinks later

* Performs poorly on timed tests

* Has difficulty with computation

* Does not respond well to auditory instructions/information

Note. Information for this table was compiled from the following resources: Barton & Starnes, 1989; Baum, 1990; Silverman, 1989; Suter & Wolf, 1987; Tannenbaum & Baldwin, 1983; Wolf & Gygi, 1981.

What makes dual exceptionalities possible is that the strengths and weaknesses lie in different areas (Ellston, 1993). Tannenbaum and Baldwin (1983) labeled these students as paradoxical learners due to the many discrepancies in their performances. These discrepancies are the key to identification (Dix & Schafer, 1996). For Silverman (1989), the realization that some gifted children also had learning disabilities came from a close examination of discrepancies between: scores on different tests, performance on certain subtests or types of items within a test, behavior at home and at school, strong and weak subjects, even IQ scores of siblings.


As noted earlier, parents and educators must become familiar with the characteristics of students with gifts/learning disabilities in order to identify them. The student with gifts/learning disabilities will possess characteristics of both the gifted and the learning disabled (Toll, 1993). Most researchers (e.g., Barton & Starnes, 1989; Baum, 1990; Silverman, 1989; Suter & Wolf, 1987; Tannenbaum & Baldwin, 1983; Wolf & Gygi, 1981) have a common list of both positive and negative characteristics in this population of students, as shown in Table 1.

Silverman (1989) provided several alternative assessment strategies that can be used by educators when assessing a child with gifts/learning disabilities. Educators should recognize indicators of ability to compensate for a disability when selecting students with learning disabilities for the gifted programs and should also recognize the areas unaffected by the learning disability. If possible, scores should be compared to other students with similar disabilities rather than with norms for children without handicaps. Entrance to the gifted program should be allowed on a trial basis to see if students are capable of achieving higher level work (Silverman, 1989). By becoming aware of the characteristics of students with gifts/learning disabilities and understanding the importance of early identification, teachers and parents can focus on developing appropriate and individualized programs.


Although each of the subgroups described above has unique problems, they all require an environment that will nurture their gifts, attend to their disability, and provide emotional support to deal with their inconsistent abilities (Baum, 1990). Teachers should focus on their gift and remediate their disability. To provide only one or the other service would be detrimental to the student.

The most typical programming approach is to have these students’ primary instruction in the regular classroom and also attend a resource pullout program, a gifted pullout class, or a combination of both (Nielsen & Morton-Albert, 1989). Since most students that are both gifted and learning disabled are identified in only one area, they may be placed in a self-contained class. Students with diagnosed learning disabilities may be placed in a self-contained class for them and their giftedness may go unfostered. Those students who have been identified as gifted and whose learning disability has gone undiagnosed, may not receive services for that disability and may continue to struggle in school.

In a study conducted by Nielsen and Morton-Albert (1989), the self-concepts of students with gifts/learning disabilities reportedly varied with the type of educational service they were receiving. Students had a lower self-concept when they primarily received learning disability service. In contrast, when these students’ schedules included gifted programming that focused on their strengths, their self-concept scores closely matched the scores of gifted students without handicaps. The exception to these findings was reflected in the scores of the students with gifts/learning disabilities within self-contained LDG (learning disabled gifted) classes. Although students received a special type of program, their self-concepts more closely matched those of students with learning disabilities than those of gifted students (Nielsen & Morton-Albert, 1989). These findings suggest that the self-concept of students with gifts/learning disabilities is influenced by the comparison peer group against and by the expectations placed upon them by their school and their parents. Additionally, when students with gifts/learning disabilities warrant remediation for their learning problems, it must be supplemented by gifted programming. It is “educationally unacceptable for the high abilities of these students to remain undetected and their academic potential to remain unchallenged” (Nielsen & Morton-Albert, 1989, p. 36).

One innovative pilot program for these students that demonstrated the short-term positive effects of providing an enrichment class for students with gifts/learning disabilities was based on the Enrichment Triad Model (Baum, 1991). This model incorporated skill development into the production of new knowledge through the pursuit of independent or small group investigations based on the student’s own strengths and interests. The students attended a class for two hours a week. Children with gifts/learning disabilities required a supportive environment that valued and appreciated individual abilities and that developed an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. Baum (1991) found that students should be given strategies to compensate for their learning problems, as well as direct instruction in basic skills. These guidelines are important for professionals who work with students with gifts/learning disabilities in regular classrooms and special settings.

Teaching Strategies

Along with providing supplemental gifted services for the gifted and the learning disabled, several successful teaching strategies and practices have been suggested in the literature (Dix & Schafer, 1996; Rivera, et al., 1995; Silverman, 1989).

1. Staff development is necessary to ensure that educators have the information they need to screen, identify, and successfully teach the gifted/LD students.

2. When possible, students need to select from an array of products to show mastery of the material in a manner that matches their strengths.

3. Children should be taught compensation strategies to address their weaknesses. For example, they should learn calculator skills to do math computation or learn to type on the computer and use a spell checker to compensate for poor spelling.

4. Educators and parents should use technology such as cameras, computers, calculators, and recorders to enhance the student’s academic potential and enable them to produce quality work.

5. Teachers should continue direct basic skill instruction.

6. Perhaps most importantly, attention should be focused on the development of the students’ strengths and not on the weaknesses.

Silverman (1989) provided more specific teaching strategies to be used in the classroom. The suggestions include:

1. Make eye contact with the child before giving instructions.

2. Limit the number of instructions given at one time.

3. Write directions on the board.

4. Allow the child to observe others before attempting new tasks.

5. Use visuals and hands-on experiences.

6. Place the child near the teacher and provide a quiet work space.

7. Use a sight approach for reading and a visual approach for spelling (p. 41). It should be noted that specific teaching strategies should be used according to the type of disability the child exhibits. For example, in cases of severe auditory dysfunction, the child may require notes prepared by the teacher or be allowed to record lectures and assignments. If their problem stems from auditory processing difficulties, teachers need to allow more time for responses in order for the child to process incoming auditory verbal information (Bireley, Languis, & Williamson, 1992).

Another disability sometimes associated with the gifted learning-disabled students is that of Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In these instances behavioral and, in some cases, medical attention for this condition is important (Bireley, Languis, & Williamson, 1992). Regardless of the type of disability, the emphasis when teaching children with gifts/learning disabilities should be on individualization of the teaching strategies and interventions.


Perhaps the best way to ensure that the needs of the students with gifts/learning disabilities are being met is through the use of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The IEP meeting brings together everyone involved in the education of the student with dual exceptionalities and provides a forum for an open exchange of ideas and information. All teachers that service the student should be present at the meeting including the special, gifted, and regular teachers, as well as the parents. Others that may be invited to provide useful input are the other teachers that have contact with the child, the psychologist or psychometrist that conducted or can explain the results of the testing, an administrator, and the student.

The IEP provides written documentation of the present level of performance, educational and, if necessary, behavioral and vocational goals and objectives, specific services to be provided and the amount and duration of those services, and evaluation procedures used to determine whether or not the goals and objectives are being met. It serves as a guide for managing the testing, placement, instruction, and procedural safeguards that each student needs (Davis & Rimm, 1985). The broad goals for a gifted student might include: (a) the development of problem solving and decision-making skills, (b) the development of the ability to work at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and (c) the encouragement and nurturance of creativity. The specific objectives should be determined by the program curriculum as well as the strengths and interests of the student. The goals and objectives that will address the learning disability should be specific to the area of the disability and the curriculum.

Accommodations and modifications to assist the student in achieving these goals and objectives for all classes need to be spelled out in the IEP. These will be determined by the needs of each student but can include such items as increased time to complete assignments, the use of calculators on tests, special seating arrangements, and one-on-one assistance as needed. Anything that the IEP team feels the student will need to be successful should be written into the IEP.

Parents as Advocates

Parents need to be active participants in the IEP process. They can also help their children in several other ways. They can provide the support and encouragement the child with dual exceptionalities will need to be successful and maintain a positive self-concept. They can gain knowledge about giftedness and learning disabilities by reading journals and books, getting involved with professional organizations, and talking with teachers. By forming a partnership with the school through parent/teacher organizations or the school board, parents can influence what goes on at the school (Ellston, 1993). The best advocates for a child with gifts/learning disabilities are their parents.

When schools, parents, and the student with gifts/learning disabilities work together in a supportive and nurturing environment, the child can have a positive experience throughout school and into adult life. One case study outlined the life of a boy with gifts/learning disabilities from pre-school through adulthood. Today, he enjoys professional success working for a company that designs and manufactures office machinery. In essence, he is paid high sums of money to daydream, brainstorm, and tinker–the strengths identified in him when he was young. The programming strategy that worked best for him was dual enrollment in both gifted and learning-disabled classes (Thrailkill, 1998). His success is attributed to the high level of involvement of his parents and the willingness of his teachers to accommodate and modify in the classroom.


According to Silverman (1989), we are now in an era when the words “handicapped accessible” are emblazoned on the consciousness of most Americans and yet we still have not made gifted education “handicapped accessible.” In order to make this a possibility, researchers, educators, schools, and parents will have to work together. More research will need to be conducted on identification, effective teaching strategies, and successful programming practices. Educators, in turn, will need to be open to alternative assessment and classroom strategies that will enable these students to succeed. Parents will have to act on behalf of their children to ensure that appropriate accommodations and programs are being provided. When parents, educators, students, and researchers work together in the best interest of the child, the child with gifts/learning disabilities can reach his or her maximum potential.


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Erin A. Fetzer is currently teaches a first grade inclusion class in Petal, MS. She may be reached at 301 Margaret Ave., Petal, MS 39465.

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