School counselors work individually and with other educators to meet the developmental needs of all students, including those with special needs or disabilities. In this article, the results of qualitative research are summarized involving comparative case studies of university students who were both academically talented and learning disabled. These students encountered negative experiences during the elementary and secondary school years due to this dual exceptionality that affected their social and emotional development. An in-depth analysis of their educational experiences enabled researchers to probe their perceptions, and a summary of these findings is presented in this article. Implications for the role that school counselors can play in the identification of students with this profile are discussed, as is the need for the provision of counseling services for this population within the context of comprehensive developmental school counseling programs.
Recent research on academically talented students with learning disabilities indicates that they have specific counseling needs that often are not addressed in elementary and secondary school (Olenchak & Reis, 2002; Reis, Neu, & McGuire, 1995). The primary function of the professional school counselor is to work individually and collaboratively with others to implement a comprehensive developmental school counseling program (ASCA, 2003). This program should focus on the academic, career, and personal/social developmental needs of all students, including those with special needs. Inconsistencies in the roles of practicing school counselors and in counselor education programs have caused some school counseling scholars to begin to address the emerging role of the counselor regarding students with special needs(Glenn, 1998; Isaacs, Greene, & Valesky, 1998; Keys, Bemak, Carpenter, & King-Sears, 1998;Lockhart, 2003).
The American School Counselor Association(ASCA, 1999) has outlined school counselors’ role in serving these students, including responsibilities such as serving on multidisciplinary teams to identify the special needs student and collaborating with others to provide social skills training in classroom settings, in small groups, or with individual students. To effectively implement some of these practices, counselors need to understand the counseling needs of students with specific disabilities. They also need to know how they can incorporate this knowledge into their ASCA-defined roles in serving students within the context of a comprehensive developmental counseling program.
Recent research indicates that elementary school counselors are well suited to serve a pivotal role in both providing information related to how to identify students with disabilities and overseeing the various collaborative ASCA roles associated with working with special needs students (Isaacs et al., 1998).School counselors could be extremely helpful for some students, such as twice-exceptional students, who are particularly difficult to identify and who may not receive either the educational or the counseling program services they may need (Reis et al.,1995). This article discusses recent research on academically talented students with learning disabilities and the specific counseling needs they demonstrate, and counseling intervention strategies that may help to address the unique needs of this population.
Background of the Study
Many academically talented students have learning disabilities, with some estimates suggesting that between 120,000 and 180,000 of such individuals currently attend American schools (Davis & Rimm, 2003). A major concern is that some educators “…may hold some rather stereotypical notions about learning disabled and/or gifted students which, in turn, may cause them not even to consider such children in a program for gifted youngsters” (Minner, 1990, p. 38). Whitmore and Maker (1985) summarized their view of this population in this way:
Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities are the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected segment of the student population and the community. Teachers, school counselors, and others often overlook signs of intellectual giftedness and focus attention on such deficits as poor spelling, reading, and writing. (p. 204)
Many counseling professionals do not know how to develop appropriate intervention programs for students with disabilities due to a limited understanding of approaches (i.e., attitudes, values, beliefs) and inadequate skills to address the needs of this group (Glenn, 1998). Without appropriate knowledge and understanding of the needs and characteristics of specific groups of students with disabilities, school counselors may not know how to contribute to their academic, career, and personal/ social development.
Recent research has been conducted on the social and emotional needs of talented students with learning disabilities, and this research indicates that academically talented students with learning disabilities have unique characteristics related to persistence and individual interests as well as lower academic selfefficacy than their peers without learning disabilities (Baum & Owen, 1988; Olenchak & Reis, 2002). This article discusses recent findings about the counseling needs of talented university students with learning disabilities as well as some of the social and emotional problems they may encounter in elementary and secondary school because of the interaction of their learning problems and giftedness.
Defining Academically Gifted and Talented Students
For many years, psychologists, following in the footsteps of Lewis Terman, equated giftedness with high IQ. This “legacy” survives to the present day, as giftedness and high IQ continue to be equated in some conceptions of giftedness. Other researchers such as J. P. Guilford argued that intellect cannot be expressed in such a unitary manner, suggesting more multifaceted approaches to intelligence. More current research conducted in the past few decades provided support for multiple components of intelligence. This is particularly evident in a reexamination of 16 conceptions of giftedness that are interrelated in several ways (Sternberg & Davidson, 1986). Most of the researchers defined giftedness in terms of multiple qualities and regarded the sole use of an IQ score as an inadequate measure of giftedness. Motivation, high self-concept, and creativity were found to be key qualities in many broadened conceptions of giftedness (Siegler & Kotovsky, 1986). One broadened conception of giftedness that has been widely adopted is Joseph Renzulli’s (1978, 1986) behavioral view of giftedness, which is used in school districts across the country. This definition, with three components, is inclusive enough to enable the identification of academically talented students with learning disabilities:
Gifted behavior consists of behaviors that reflect an interaction among three basic clusters of human traits-above average ability, high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity. Individuals capable of developing gifted behavior are those possessing or capable of developing this composite set of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance. Persons who manifest or are capable of developing an interaction among the three clusters require a wide variety of educational opportunities and services that are not ordinarily provided through regular instructional programs. (Renzulli & Reis, 1997, p. 8)
Academically talented students are a highly diverse group of individuals who have an ability, in one or more domains, that is sufficiently advanced and who require adaptation in the ordinary environment that serves the needs of average students their age, but many also learn differently and/or have learning disabilities.
The Interaction of Giftedness and Learning Disabilities
Educational research has expanded in recent years with the study of various special populations, and new theories of intelligence and assessment (Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1981) suggest that the potential of some students is not synonymous with scores on certain intelligence tests. Many students labeled as “twice exceptional” exhibit feelings of inferiority, an inability to persevere in the accomplishment of goals, and a general lack of self-confidence, all characteristics that are common among high-ability students with learning disabilities (Baum, Dixon, & Owen, 1991; Daniels, 1983; Olenchak, 1995; Whitmore & Maker, 1985). Current research indicates that it is the interaction of high ability and learning disabilities that may cause confusion and create social and emotional difficulties for students as they struggle to understand why they can know an answer but not be able to say it or write it correctly (Olenchak; Reis et al., 1995).
Identifying Academically Talented Students with Learning Disabilities
Many high-ability students with learning disabilities are identified later in their school career, either at middle school or high school, even though most were referred by teachers or parents for testing or various types of assistance because of difficulties encountered in reading or writing in primary or elementary school (Reis et al., 1995). Learning problems were evident in those early grades although most students were referred but were not identified as having a learning disability until later in school. The situation is complicated by the fact that the abilities of gifted students often mask their disabilities, and, in turn, their disabilities may disguise their giftedness. Due to this contradiction between high levels of ability and critical problems with learning, students who are academically talented and also have learning disabilities (gifted-LD) may be under identified. They may be excluded or underrepresented in both programs for students with learning disabilities and programs for gifted and talented students.
Social/Emotional Characteristics of Academically Talented Students with Learning Disabilities
Gifted students with LD may demonstrate a strong, personal need for excellence in performance and in outcomes that may embody unhealthy perfectionism and intensity of emotions (Silverman, 1993). These characteristics resemble what has been termed oversensitivity (Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977; Daniels, 1983; Olenchak, 1994; Vespi & Yewchuck, 1992), and unrealistic expectations of themselves, as students believe that they should be able to achieve (but cannot) in areas in which they have disabilities (Baum & Owen, 1988; Daniels, 1983; Silverman, 1989). They also may have a tendency to experience intense frustration with difficult tasks (Baum et al., 1991; Olenchak) that may produce a general lack of motivation (Olenchak; Silverman, 1989) as well as disruptive or withdrawn behavior (Baum & Owen), feelings of learned helplessness (Whitmore, 1981; Whitmore & Maker, 1985), and low self-esteem (Baum et al.; Baum & Owen). A comprehensive review of recent research about the characteristics of gifted students with learning disabilities (Reis et al., 1995) found many more negative descriptive characteristics than positive characteristics that describe this population, including high frustration levels, depression, and low self-concept and self-efficacy.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to examine the perceptions of academically talented university students with learning disabilities about their elementary and secondary school experiences. Of particular interest were the strategies these students used to be successful in school. To accomplish this, qualitative methods were used and a comparative case study analysis was completed. The coding paradigm suggested by Strauss and Corbin (1990) was used to analyze data, and core categories emerged from the data about specific negative occurrences in school that affected the social and emotional development of the participants in the study. An in-depth analysis of this core category of negative educational experiences is provided, as is a discussion of the findings. Implications for the role that school counselors could have played in the identification of academically talented students are discussed, as are suggestions for the provision of counseling services for this population within the context of comprehensive developmental school counseling programs.
A qualitative case study methodology (Erlandson et al., 1993; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Yin, 1994) was used to investigate the perceptions of university students who were both academically talented and learning disabled. Following the Institutional Review Board of Human Subjects approval of the study, open-ended questionnaires and in-depth interviews explored participants’ perceptions regarding their school experiences and, in particular, their social and emotional experiences in elementary and high school. Miles and Huberman, and Yin, indicate that the use of a comparative case study is an appropriate methodology for an in-depth study of a number of cases in order to make analytical generalizations (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) that emerge from the data.
The sample for this research comprised 15 currently enrolled college or university students with learning disabilities. Screening and documentation of students’ disabilities was conducted by examining the university program for students with learning disabilities admissions’ information. This documentation material included identification during elementary or secondary school and testing information and screening by university staff. The sample students for this study were identified as having a high aptitude in elementary and secondary school, but most were not selected for participation in their district’s gifted program, if one existed, because of the learning problems they experienced due to their learning disabilities. Extensive information was used to document the label of giftedness, such as IQ and/or achievement tests, outstanding performance in one or more academic areas, teacher nomination, and product information from an academic portfolio. Nine of the participants were males and 6 were females; full-scale scores on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised ranged from 109 to 140, although each participant scored 125 or higher in either the verbal or performance scale. Significant differences were found between verbal and performance scores in several of the participants, ranging from 6 to 40 points. The use of the IQ of 125 or above is not because any particular IQ score can be equated with giftedness, but rather because a score of this level is indicative of a well-above-average aptitude. Using any IQ cutoff to identify academically talented students with learning disabilities is problematic because of discrepancies among scores as well as decreasing scores over time, due to the nature of the learning disability and the inability of some students to learn information measured on these types of assessments.
This qualitative, comparative cross-case study (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, & Allen, 1993; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Yin, 1994) of academically talented students with learning disabilities was conducted with college students. Miles and Huberman believe that “… one aim of studying multiple cases is to increase generalizability. At a deeper level, the aim is to see processes and outcomes across many cases and thus to develop more sophisticated descriptions and more powerful explanations” (p. 172). Merriam (2001), Miles and Huberman, and Yin suggest the use of qualitative comparative case study as an appropriate methodology for the indepth study of a number of cases to make analytical generalizations.
Prior to the initial interview, each participant was provided with a biographical questionnaire and written information about the study and his or her anticipated role in it, and permission was sought from each participant for interviews, document review, and parent contacts. Parents and/or teachers also were asked to complete a brief summary of their perceptions of academic history and each interview session was used to clarify, verify, and expand upon the subject’s responses. All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed and the field notes and observations made by the researcher at the time of the interviews were added to the transcriptions. Interviews and other data collection procedures followed guidelines suggested by Spradley (1979), Strauss (1987), and Strauss and Corbin (1990).
Data analysis was conducted using techniques designed by Strauss (1987) and Strauss and Corbin (1990). As suggested by these researchers, data analysis coincided with data collection and affected the collection of additional data. Data analysis techniques included the use of a coding paradigm described by Strauss, and Strauss and Corbin, with three levels: open coding, axial coding, and selective coding. This coding paradigm results in the formulation of a core category or categories of results. The initial type of coding, known as open coding, involved unrestricted coding of all data included in field notes, interviews, and other pertinent documents. In open coding, data were analyzed and coded. As the researchers verified codes and determined relationships among and between codes, a determination was made about the relationship of a code to a category. After initial categories were determined, axial coding enabled the researchers to specify relationships among the many categories that emerged in open coding and, ultimately, resulted in the conceptualization of one or more categories selected as the “core.” A core category accounted for most of the variation in a pattern of behavior; therefore, “the generation of theory occurs around a core category” (Strauss, p. 34). In the final stage of coding, selective coding, the relationships among categories were examined to determine the saturation of categories in the identification of the core category.
The findings in this study identified a dominant core category for both participants and parents involving the negative experiences that all participants had in school due to the interaction of their abilities and their disabilities and the way that those experiences affected their social and emotional development. The negative experiences included problems with teachers and peers, as well as internal problems such as low self-confidence and low self-esteem.
Negative School Experiences
Every participant recalled negative and painful memories from their elementary and secondary school years. These negative school experiences included repeated punishment for not completing work on time, retention in a grade, placement in a self-contained special education class in which the majority of students were developmentally delayed, and negative inappropriate treatment by peers and teachers. The participants often were criticized, punished, or told to work harder. Many of their teachers realized they had high academic potential and many of the participants had superior oral skills that were not matched by their written or reading skills. Yet, each participant recounted numerous instances in which their teachers, confused because of the superior abilities they displayed in some areas, repeatedly called these students lazy and told them to “shape up” and “work harder.”
For many of these students, the discussion of these school memories was troubling and several indicated that they tried never “to think about what happened to them in school.” In some cases, they admitted to “blocking out” memories of painful events that they would rather forget, but each was able to “dredge up” those incidents during the course of the interview. As one male student eloquently summarized, “I still have a lot of emotion about it. I had a lot of mistreatment. It [this interview] conjures up memories of things that I don’t like to confront.” It is also fair to say that the participants in this study tended to remember the negative experiences more vividly than any neutral or positive experience. As one female student explained, “I tend to remember the bad teachers better than the good ones.”
Participants all recalled negative experiences with some of their teachers, and these were not isolated instances as similar experiences were remembered by each of the participants in this study, and in almost half the cases painful memories and wounds still remain. Each student could specifically remember at least one teacher, and most could remember more, who had been a very negative force in their school experiences. Some teachers denied opportunities that would have enabled the participants to use various compensation strategies that they needed to use to be successful in school. One male student explained,
Some of my teachers were awful to me. I remember one English teacher. To this day, I hate her. She would just have the idea that if I couldn’t do it, if I couldn’t get an essay exam done in the time, then I just didn’t deserve extra time… That was the hardest English course I’d ever had, you know, because I couldn’t do the work in the allotted time. Because of the essays…
Several participants discussed teachers who used various forms of punishment when participants could not do their work in a similar style or pace as their peers. For example, participants discussed missed recesses because they could not finish class work and the detentions they were assigned because they completed what was perceived to be poor work due to laziness or sloppiness as opposed to their learning disabilities. The negative experiences with teachers often caused anger and resulted in insights regarding what could have been done to improve the school experiences of these participants. One female student recalled,
I remember being so angry at the kids who would get the A’s and stuff, because I actually knew more than they did, but nobody would let me say anything. If they had given me oral tests, I could tell them anything that they wanted to know about, but they always gave me the written stuff. I would be on question 3 and the time would be gone, because it took so long for me to figure out what the words in the questions were.
Several of the participants were placed in self-contained special education classes that they perceived were primarily intended for students with developmental delays and students with emotional and behavioral disorders. This experience was traumatic for some of these students. One male student, for instance, who has a verbal IQ of 150, indicated that the experience was degrading and admitted that he had “blocked out that part of my life.” He explained that he was called “retard” and remembered this period as “awful and degrading.”
The theme of lowered self-concept occurred repeatedly in many participants’ interviews. As the majority had not been identified as having a learning disability until they attended secondary school, they spent years in school being told they were lazy and that they could achieve if they worked harder. Almost half of the participants in this study were retained and had to repeat a grade. This repetition usually occurred because reading or writing skills were not mastered or, in some cases, behavioral problems developed as a result of frustrations faced by the participants. Some were angry about the experience and believed that their retention was due to teachers who did not recognize or understand learning disabilities. Other participants accepted what had happened with seeming complacency. Participants also had difficulty reconciling their reported high cognitive ability with their learning disability. Many were perplexed about how their advanced abilities and their learning disability interacted. Some still believed they were “dumb” because of all of the negative comments made to them throughout their years in school. The majority of the participants discussed peer problems that began in the elementary grades and continued throughout school. One female student explained that other elementary students made up songs about her and harassed her on the playground when she could not pass her times-tables tests. Some passively accepted their treatment and some fought back. Some were angry, and one participant in the study explained that she learned “early that the quieter you were, the less trouble you would get into. If the other kids teased me in class, I knew that I couldn’t do anything in class, so I would wait until recess or something, and I would just beat them up.” Participants also described class incidents in which they knew the answer but could not answer correctly because “the right words would not come out,” causing their peers to make fun of them. Several discussed having few or no friends in school, and one explained,
I didn’t have friends because I was different, because I would say things that were not right… I didn’t think the way most kids thought. I didn’t care about a lot of the things that they did, and I would spend a lot of time alone because I was comfortable alone, and when you would go out at recess walking alone being comfortable by yourself, people start to think you are strange. So that made the cycle even worse. I had to be comfortable alone because I wasn’t accepted into a group, because they saw me comfortable alone, etc.
One female participant cried when recalling several negative incidents with peers:
I remember an instance when I wanted to die. My girlfriend sat next to me in a history class. I don’t think she even knew what she did. My history teacher asked me to read out loud, so I had to read. I only read like one paragraph and I stopped, and he picked someone else in class and my girlfriend turned to me and said, “What’s wrong with you, you can’t even read?” And I thought, “You’re my friend. Why did you have to embarrass me like this?” It was so hard.
Social and Emotional Problems
Half of the participants in this study were so affected by what happened to them in elementary and middle school due to the discrepancy created by their high abilities and their learning disabilities that they sought professional counseling after graduating from high school. In every case, participants perceived that their teachers, and sometimes also their parents, believed that these academically able young people were lazy. They discussed the conflicting messages they received about their advanced academic potential as opposed to their lower performance. Complex emotions relating to the intersection of giftedness and disabilities continued to affect many of them during their college years. Seven of the participants had sought professional counseling to reconcile some of the problems and mixed messages that they encountered in their educational experiences. One woman, for example, explained that she had multiple learning problems during school and was retained in second grade, despite having a high IQ. She could not read but was not identified as having a severe learning disability until she was an adult. She was placed in a self-contained class for students with developmental delays in junior high school. Her school experiences were so negative and painful that she planned to commit suicide as a senior in high school. A supportive teacher recognized the warning signs of suicidal tendencies and immediately brought her to the guidance office. She was subsequently hospitalized, and the same teacher later helped her learn strategies to compensate for some of her learning problems, encouraged her to see a counselor, and helped her to get her first job. Despite having a very supportive mother, this young woman often had been depressed about the discrepancies between her own high potential and her poor performance in school. Some participants who sought counseling in later years indicated that they used this opportunity to discuss specific negative situations that occurred in their school years with their psychologist or psychiatrist. One participant, for example, explained,
I am still very angry. I’ve discussed this with my psychologist. I carried a lot of anger toward my second grade teacher, toward my fourth grade teacher. I was upset, I mean, I used to sit in front of the classroom and cry, because I couldn’t get my work done, and she would send me from my desk to another desk in front of the class and I would sit there and my friends would come over and say, “What is wrong?” And she would say, “Leave her alone, she just feels like crying.” I never got my work done. I never would get to do the things that people got to do. You know, when you got your work done then you could go play. I think the only day I ever got to play was the last day of school and everyone did. I remember looking over and being told, you know, “Get your attention back on your work, you are supposed to be copying this down off the board!”
Some participants also recalled embarrassing and frustrating experiences with educators other than teachers, such as counselors and principals. One male student explained,
There are stories about what the principal did to embarrass me. One time, she walked into the bathroom while I was in the bathroom and told me that I got a D on my report card and said, “Young man, you had better shape up.” To say that in front of four other kids, yelling at me in the bathroom was nothing short of humiliating. It certainly didn’t add to my reputation among my peers.
Some of the participants in the study are still angry about the negative experiences that occurred when they were in school. A male student said, “I am very resentful of my elementary school treatment. I am rather resentful of public education as a whole.”
Another counseling need of the participants in this study was the challenge they faced reconciling their academic talents with their learning disabilities. Many were perplexed about the ways in which their advanced abilities and their learning disability interacted. Some still believed they were “dumb” because of the negative comments made to them throughout their years in school. One male student explained that he was never told by anyone in the schools that he had academic potential. In fact, he and several other participants indicated that being asked to be involved in this study was a validation of their high academic potential. Others had problems related to hearing consistently that they were lazy and if they would only work harder, their learning disabilities would be cured, or drastically diminished.
Comprehensive developmental school counseling programs were not accessible to these students during their elementary and secondary school years and most had troubling memories. Most, with the passage of time, were able to reconcile the problems associated with their earlier school experiences but half sought professional counseling after high school to achieve this reconciliation. This study offers a strong rationale for the need for counselors to better understand the social and emotional and educational needs of academically talented students with learning disabilities. A school counselor who is aware of these needs can help both to identify these students and to make recommendations for how to address their unique academic and personal developmental needs within the context of a comprehensive developmental school counseling program.
School Counselors’ Role in Identifying Academically Talented Students with Learning Disabilities
To address the problems with identification, gifted- LD students need someone in the school environment who understands how to address the social and emotional areas of student development that may be affected by the interaction between academic talents and learning problems. School counselors can help to ameliorate or prevent developmental issues for these students by proactively addressing student academic, career, and personal/social developmental needs. For example, school counseling goals for improving academic self-concept, acquiring selfknowledge, and acquiring interpersonal skills are an integral part of the ASCA National Standards (Campbell & Dahir, 1997) and should help to direct school counseling programs. School counselors are in key positions to assist with identifying students who have special needs (Bowen & Glen, 1998).
A recent study of school counselors’ attitudes toward inclusion found that elementary school counselors have greater levels of confidence about tasks associated with serving the needs of special needs students than either middle or high school counselors (Isaacs et al., 1998). Isaacs et al. believe that with this “advantage” in confidence, elementary school counselors “appear most ready to be consultants for tasks closely related to those they traditionally assume- consultation with teachers and parents and assisting in the identification and evaluation process” (p. 74). Additionally, with the knowledge of the social and emotional characteristics of this population, counselors can assist in helping both to identify and to provide services that may prevent some of the social and emotional problems experienced by students in this study.
According to ASCA (1999), the primary role of school counselors in regard to special needs students is to serve on multidisciplinary teams that work to identify the educational and counseling needs of special needs students, share this information with appropriate faculty and staff, and use a team approach to address those needs. To facilitate this process, school counselors can develop their own checklist of student behaviors or characteristics (Lockhart, 2003). The present study suggests that academically talented students with learning disabilities may experience some of the difficulties suggested in Table 1.
Table 1. Social and Emotional Characteristics of Academically Talented Students with Learning Disabilities
- May exhibit feelings of inferiority
- May show an inability to persevere in the accomplishment of goals
- May demonstrate a general lack of self-confidence
- May exhibit confusion as they struggle to understand why they can know an answer but are not able to say it or write it correctly, which may create social and emotional difficulties for students
- Abilities of academically talented students often mask their disabilities
- Disabilities may disguise their giftedness
- May demonstrate a strong, personal need for excellence in performance and in outcomes that nears and often embodies unhealthy perfectionism
- May exhibit an intensity of emotions
- May have unrealistic expectations of self
- May have a tendency to experience intense frustration with difficult tasks that may produce a general lack of motivation
- May experience feelings of learned helplessness
- May exhibit low self-esteem
School counselors can use these characteristics to help to identify such students, taking into account that the abilities of academically talented students can mask their disabilities or that their disabilities can mask their abilities. For example, a school counselor who uses this checklist during classroom observations and/or interviews with teachers, students, and parents can document whether these behaviors are occurring. A school counselor also can help to probe whether and how classroom experiences contribute to a student’s relationship with other students, and whether he or she displays characteristics such as low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority, feelings of learned helplessness, or lowered self-concepts and self-confidence.
This research study illustrates the need for more accurate identification of academically talented students with learning disabilities, especially before students enter middle or high school. School counselors can play a critical role as advocates for the use of more contemporary definitions of giftedness and help in the complicated identification and assessment of students who are both academically talented and learning disabled. If this identification occurred, these students would have a better chance of being served in their schools. These actions also may have helped participants in this study avoid negative emotional residue they experienced.
School Counseling Program Activities
Once a student has been identified as twice exceptional,an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can be developed, following a fairly standard procedure(Lockhart, 2003). Regular meetings with the school counselor for either individual students or groups of academically talented students with learning disabilities can be integrated into the IEP process to address educational and counseling needs. Counselors also can encourage these students’ teachers and parents to emphasize student abilities and talents, as opposed to focusing solely on their deficits. They also can encourage the acquisition and use of compensation strategies to address learning disabilities, such as books on tape and other technological aids, as well as the acquisition of targeted study and learning strategies (Reis, McGuire, & Neu, 2000). Abilities, interests, and talents can be assessed and counselors can encourage the use of some time both in school and at home that focuses the on the development of students’ talents and strengths. When educators view the successful development of talents in these students with optimism and hope, more opportunities for school success may occur. Counselors also can help to encourage both teachers and parents to find enrichment opportunities that will positively engage students, possibly focusing on mentorships and independent study options. Educators and counselors also can help students to learn higher-order problem solving and information processing skills.
Drawing upon the ASCA National Standards and implementing programs to address the standards (ASCA, 2003; Campbell & Dahir, 1997), school counselors should try to help students achieve specific goals and competencies, such as learning to apply knowledge and utilize learning styles to positively influence school performance. Academically talented students with learning disabilities should learn to independently seek information and support from faculty, counselors, staff, family, and peers. Counselors should strive to help students identify and express their feelings, identify personal strengths and assets, and develop effective compensation skills for dealing with learning problems.
School counselors and school counseling team members could determine which of the counseling needs are consistent with developmental competencies associated with the school counseling program (ASCA, 2003). For example, within the Academic Developmental Domain, Standard A states, “Students will acquire the attitudes, knowledge, and skills that contribute to effective learning in school and across the life span” (ASCA, p. 81). Within this broad standard, academically talented students with learning disabilities can “acquire skills for improving learning,” which would be indicated by students who can “apply knowledge and learning styles to positively influence school performance” (ASCA, A:A-2.4, p. 81). In the Personal/Social Domain Standard A, students are asked to acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and interpersonal skills to help them understand and respect their self and others. This is a critical area for this population as suggested by the participants in this study who often experienced a loss of self-respect and confidence. School counselors should strive to help students to “acquire selfknowledge,” which would be indicated by students who can “identify personal strengths and assets” (ASCA, PS-A1.10, p. 85).
If school counselors in the schools attended by participants in this study had been able to serve on the multidisciplinary teams (ASCA, 1999) and had access to research on this population, the students could have perhaps been more accurately identified, perhaps as early as elementary school. This might have enabled school counselors to address the special needs of these students earlier. For example, attention to the emotional pain associated with the interaction between their academic talents and learning disabilities would have been a primary counseling need. Meeting both responsive and preventative goals in the personal/social developmental domain is a priority that could have been accomplished with individual and group counseling, classroom guidance experiences, and consultation.
Inclusion of group and individual counseling and other specific affective strategies that address the unique issues of talented students with learning disabilities might have helped to increase academic achievement in this population (Reis et al., 1995). Forums and opportunities could have been provided for students to learn appropriate coping techniques for releasing emotions and for dealing with heightened sensitivities (Bredekamp, 1996; Coleman, 1992; Olenchak, 1995). For example, in individual counseling, the establishment of rapport between a counselor and a student would facilitate the opportunity for students to discuss their feelings associated with classroom situations such as those experienced by participants in this study. This would have provided students with appropriate outlets to discuss their feelings and reduce the chances of negative internal and external emotional expressions.
School counselors can help teachers with the social and emotional aspects of their role in educating academically talented students with learning disabilities, particularly as it relates to the student’s relationship with self, peers, and the teacher. They also can consult with teachers to ensure that negative comments and behaviors such as those experienced by participants in this study can be eliminated. The eradication of these painful experiences can be accomplished through observations of classroom interactions and informal interviews. Additionally, the school counselor’s consultation with teachers can help to establish a safe environment for students to talk with teachers about their social and emotional concerns, such as problems with peers, depression, or low self-confidence. Students may become more successful in approaching their teachers to gain the support they need for both academic and personal success.
When both individual counseling and teacher consultation are implemented, attention can be given to peers who might be involved in behaviors that negatively affect the twice-exceptional student’s personal and social development. Group counseling can help to alleviate the teasing, bullying, and other forms of hurtful behaviors toward these students. Specific goals also could be stated in terms of the ASCA National Standards (ASCA, 2003; Campbell & Dahir, 1997) and include student competencies in the personal/social domain. Students should learn to recognize, accept, and appreciate individual differences; recognize that everyone has rights and responsibilities; and distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
Group counseling also can be an effective format for addressing the immediate social/emotional problems experienced by talented students with learning disabilities, as it provides the opportunity for students to gain support from others in similar situations. Groups can simulate students’ real-world experiences and provide opportunities for practicing coping skills needed in their learning environments. To prevent personal/social and academic problems from occurring, school counselors can provide classroom guidance lessons that are developed with specific personal/social student competencies as the goals. With these goals as the focal point of the guidance lessons, the school counselor does not have to draw attention to any particular student but can focus, instead, on creating a healthy environment for all students. These lessons can provide students with new cognitive structures and emotional experiences to use in the future. For example, students could have participated in a 6-week unit addressing specific personal/social goals discussed earlier. If two students begin to engage in teasing, bullying, and emotionally hurtful behavior toward talented students with learning disabilities, immediate steps can be taken to address the issue. Because most guidance lessons include an application step, this behavior could be handled within the context of the lesson and the behavior stopped immediately (Kline & Vernon, 1986).
It is important that teachers play a role in the guidance curriculum through observance and/or co-teaching of the guidance lessons (Betts, 1986; Betts & Neihart, 1986), such as eliminating negative behaviors toward talented students with learning disabilities, and all other students as well. Also, once the guidance unit is complete, the teacher can maintain student learning by being more conscious of instances in which students are not, for example, accepting and appreciating individual differences. With this awareness, the teacher may be more likely to respond to a student’s social and emotional needs well before problems have a chance to emerge.
Parents of students who are both academically talented and learning disabled often struggle with their role in their children/adolescents’ educational development (Hackney, 1981). This struggle can manifest itself in parental pressure on students for high performance and grades. Although it is important that students work to their level, special care must be exercised in making sure that parents do not re-create the kinds of emotional pain experienced by participants in this study. Therefore, school counselors should assist students in gaining support from their parents to enhance their educational development. For example, a school counselor might learn that a student is having difficulty completing homework due to his or her parent’s lack of understanding the student’s need to use compensatory techniques, such as the use of books on tape or other forms of technology. Consultation with the parents might suggest that parents consider, for example, help with stress management to assist children with their homework while adhering to already identified compensatory strategies. Parent pressure on students can manifest itself in other ways as well, and the school counselor should maintain open communication with the parents of these students to address emerging problems in a timely manner.
Limitations of the Study
This study provided valuable information concerning the social and emotional experiences of academically talented university students with learning disabilities. However, findings from this investigation need to be viewed in light of several limitations. First, in this comparative case study, students were asked to provide self-reports about their academic experiences across elementary and secondary school, and their memories may be selective or inaccurate. When researchers use interviews in a qualitative study, validity and reliability standards are applicable (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996). To achieve cross-validation of the qualitative data, this study used “between-methods” triangulation (Guba, 1978; Jick, 1983; Van Maanen, 1983) with two methods. The data were gathered using a general interview method (Gall, Borg, & Gall; Patton, 1990) and by document review of the students’ admissions records, as well as interviewing parents of all participants. All academically talented students with LD provided permission for their parents to be interviewed and their records from the university program for students with LD to be thoroughly reviewed, enabling verification and triangulation of data.
Another limitation involved the selection of participants, as they may not be a representative sample of academically talented students with learning disabilities and therefore this limits the findings to those who participated in the study. One purpose of qualitative research is to provide descriptions of particular individuals, and generalizablity of findings is not the intended outcome (Guba, 1978; Van Maanen, 1983).
Another limitation is coding and analysis of data. Techniques discussed by Marshall and Rossman (1989) were used to establish the trustworthiness of this study. For example, other researchers from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented played “devil’s advocate” to critically question the researchers’ analyses. Researchers checked and rechecked the data, conducted purposeful testing of rival hypotheses, asked questions of the data, and conducted an audit of the data collection and analytic methods. The accuracy of the observations and the trustworthiness of this investigation were enhanced by the use of interviews and field notes that enabled the researchers to examine and clarify information; triangulation across methods; depth of detail; and continuous cross-checking with research team members for accuracy. The methods, procedures, and strategies used to ensure accuracy included observations of informants in various settings, interviews with participants and parents, and document review.
Construct validity was further achieved through the use of a sound interview protocol, and an audit trail validated key decisions made during the research process. In addition, the researchers conducted member checks, providing the core categories to the informants to check the accuracy of the findings.
Talented students with learning disabilities make up a unique population of young people who may have special risks for social/emotional issues that may be served by some specialized counseling. Some of these issues may result in unresolved social and emotional problems causing diminished development of talent in these students, resulting in their subsequent underachievement (Reis & McCoach, 2000). The self-awareness and knowledge that some students with learning disabilities, discussed in this study, gained about how to create academic success was achieved through their individual experiences and with the help of others, including parents, some educators, and some peers. However, for other participants, additional help was sought from counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists who helped to address negative memories, fears, and insecurities that developed during their school experiences and early lives. The need for this professional help usually was most clearly experienced by those who had the most negative school experiences.
School counselors can play an important role in assuring that academically talented students with learning disabilities are properly identified in a timely manner. Also, because the needs of students who are both academically talented and learning disabled are synonymous with the goals of a comprehensive developmental program, school counselors should help to identify academically talented students with learning disabilities as a part of a continual needs assessment process in their school counseling programs. Addressing the social and emotional needs of these students may help counselors prevent the underachievement of these students and promote their healthy social and emotional development.
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Sally M. Reis is a professor and department head, and Robert Colbert is an assistant professor. They are both with the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut, Storrs. E-mail: [email protected]
The work reported herein was supported under the Education Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award No. R206R000001, as administered by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. The findings and opinions expressed in this report do not reflect the position or policies of the Institute of Education Sciences or the U.S. Department of Education.