Gifted and Learning Disabled: A Holographic Image

  • by: Craig S. Fabrikant

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Heshvan 5750, pp. 38-40. Appears here with premission.
The educational community has long grappled with teaching children who are not average or are not part of the mainstream. These children are traditionally identified as being educationally handicapped in one form or another. In reviewing the statistics, the number of students who fall into this category has ranged from fifteen to twenty percent of the school age population. Students who traditionally fall into these categories are identified as “learning disabled.”
For learning disabled children, problems can range from specific deficits to perceptual, neurological, cognitive or physical ones. A learning disabled child is identified according to the particular definition and diagnostic tests used.
There is, however, another whole population of children who are not traditionally recognized as being educationally handicapped. This group, comprising three to five percent of the school age population, also falls outside the mainstream of our current educational system. These children are identified as gifted or intellectually talented. Because our educational system is not usually geared to accommodating their needs, these students may in fact, based upon some theories, be handicapped.
There is the general belief that learning disabilities are not limited to a particular select group, but rather are present among all groups of students. As a result, the Gifted/Learning Disabled child is slowly becoming a recognized entity within the educational community. Although, statistically and conceptually, educators are aware of this, psychologists, developmental pediatricians and others are just beginning to recognize the need to provide extended services to these children.
Unfortunately, this recognition still remains in a state of confusion and professionals are perplexed as to how to adequately identify these children. More importantly, how is this unusual and distinct population to be educated? This is especially complex because these children combine characteristics of behavior similar to both the gifted and the learning disabled.
The following overview of definitions, identification procedures, case studies, and recommendations for educational programming, will attempt to provide a basic understanding of these children.
A. The Gifted Child
Gifted children are often identified as a result of their performance. This performance/ability is usually first observed by educators, parents or others who notice that the child is performing above age level. The child is then sent to a professional whose evaluation determines that the child is indeed performing above a particular cut off point.
There have been numerous definitions on what constitutes the gifted child. Most begin with the cognitive level, traditionally thought to be an Intellectual Quotient above 130. This number can vary depending on the test used or the parameters set by a particular program. Once this has been identified, other criteria or dimensions are evaluated. These include specific academic abilities, psychological and visual motor abilities, thinking and processing, and leadership abilities. A determination is also based upon reports of interpersonal skills as well as recommendations from parents, teachers and peers. Each of the above areas alone does not necessarily define a gifted student. However, in some combination, students with these traits will stand out above the average student in the classroom.
B. The Learning Disabled
Clear parameters have been developed to identify the learning disabled child. Traditionally, either the Joint Commission on Learning Disabilities definition is used or that of Public Law 94-142. According to the latter, a learning disability is “a disorder in one of the psychological processes … that may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations…”
C. The Gifted Learning Disabled Child
Although not absolute, it is far easier to define the child who is gifted or learning disabled than the one who is Gifted/Learning Disabled. This results, in part, from the many children who, on the surface, fit into neither the learning disabled nor the gifted definitions. Many of these children become camouflaged and proceed through school without identification.
Daniels, in 1983, put forth four groups of gifted children. These include the:

  1. Gifted Achiever
  2. Gifted Underachiever
  3. Gifted Pseudo achiever
  4. Gifted/Learning Disabled

Even though Daniels defines these four groups, the only clear identification is achieved through academic performance. The Gifted/Learning Disabled child must first be determined as gifted. However, there can be no proper identification of this child when the learning disability keeps him/her from falling into this category.
In Tannenbaum’s (1983) comparison of the characteristics of the Gifted and Gifted/Learning Disabled child, several consistent traits emerge, including: high knowledge base, broad range of interests, highly developed language skills, and sensitivity. However, there is, within the child, an inconsistency, and at times an inability, to realize these characteristics. Many times there is a diversion to areas of comfort or success, with an avoidance of difficult areas. What surfaces is a sense of frustration which is all too often defined in terms of some maladaptive behavior. Due to the misperceptions of those attending to the child, many characteristics in the Gifted/Learning Disabled are disguised and, unfortunately, become unacceptable in the educational setting. Gifted areas are thus rarely identified and the child becomes lost in the system. There are times when these children display more negative than positive behavior, including disorganization, self-criticism, disruptiveness in the classroom, and slow and laborious in work (Baum, 1988). Such children often perceive themselves as educational failures, which in turn, lowers their self-image. These students can become less flexible and have difficulty in adapting to social or educational situations (Daniels, 1983).
As previously stated, Gifted/Learning Disabled children can develop a number of different characteristics to compensate or even hide from their difficulties. Some of these prevent the child from being identified, let alone educated, as gifted. There is a whole population of students who, through their disguises, are perceived as average students. Typically, these students plod along getting average grades. Since the average student constitutes the mainstay of our educational system, they tend to fit in. Ultimately, there is little reason to regard them as having a problem with education. What the system does not realize is the intense frustration and the negative self image that eventually causes the children to completely reject education. It is not until teachers, parents or other professionals see a spark that diagnostic testing occurs.
The next major group of Gifted/Learning Disabled students that come to the attention of professionals are those who present behavior problems. These can range from “hyper-active,” being the class clown, general disruptiveness in the classroom or other more serious problems. If not helped, some of these students will eventually drop out of school and use other mechanisms to deal with their frustrations.
One of the easiest groups to identify are those who vacillate between gifted programming and resource or remedial assistance. Such children might be able to read and discuss topics above their chronological age. However, when asked to put this same information on the written page, they do so at or below their chronological age. For this group – gifted and learning disabled – both areas become more obvious as general academic performance has significant highs and lows.
Identification of the Gifted/learning Disabled
Identification procedures of the Gifted/Learning Disabled can be a difficult and, at times, cumbersome task – in part because many may never have cause to come to the attention of professionals. Those that do, present a wide range of variables, for there are no clear cut cognitive or learning assessment profiles that distinguish this population. The only valid alternative is to review each child on a case by case basis, which, for practical purposes, can become a monumental task.
Some of the clearest examples are those students who present a profile of inconsistent functioning, with one or more areas clearly in the gifted ranges. On the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Verbal or Performance scale abilities may be well above a prorated Intelligence Quotient of 130. However, one of the scales (either the Verbal or Performance) will be significantly lower than the other. Academically, these children would be considered average students.
One particular child, not classified as being or close to being gifted, was found to have, on a general cognitive level, overall abilities in the High Average range of intelligence. When the cognitive levels were broken down, verbal abilities were well above an IQ of 100; performance or visual motor abilities were within the average levels; whereas tasks requiring perceptual skills were well below average.
The above child was then given a comprehensive battery of educational testing. The results showed that her general knowledge, language abilities and comprehension were at the eighty-fifth to ninetieth percentile. However, math applications, visual-motor tasks and spelling were found to be below the twenty-fifth percentile.
What emerges are clear cut discrepancies in functioning. Within a verbal-oral modality, this child is clearly gifted. When required to put the information on paper, however, functioning becomes clearly learning disabled.
Another example is the child whose intelligence testing qualifies him for gifted programming. However, he came to the attention of professionals because he was doing only average work and, in recent years, had become a behavior problem. Upon further investigation of educational areas, significant inconsistencies were found. Skills requiring reading and reading decoding were deficient. Although this child was knowledgeable, his ability to read was approximately two years below his sixth grade level. It became clear that there was a learning disability in reading and he was given resource assistance. One other adaptation was made. His textbooks and other reading materials were provided to him orally. In addition, testing and performance were only graded on oral responses. The result is an excellent student who is now working hard to compensate for his deficit area.
One final example is a high school sophomore who was spending a good part of his time getting into trouble. His parents and educators assumed that he was a behavior problem. Some were convinced that he had resorted to drug use. It was a counselor who noticed that he was bright, with a high vocabulary and general knowledge abilities. The result was a referral for comprehensive testing. The battery of testing revealed some interesting results. First, his cognitive abilities were found to be within the Very Superior range of Intelligence. There were some definite problems in areas of responding to perceptually based tasks. However, there was enough frustration early in his schooling that this child was turned off to education. With assistance there was a change in his, as well as his teachers’, attitudes and a significant improvement in his grades. The result is that this sophomore is once again enjoying a positive and successful educational experience.
The above are three examples of Gifted/Learning Disabled students who have come to the attention of professionals. However, many students who should be professionally identified as both gifted and learning disabled won’t be because other labels have already been given to them. In most systems, unless a child has a reason to be tested he/she may never be identified. It takes a well trained observer to note that there is something wrong, that there is another level of ability that is not being realized.
Curriculum for the Gifted/Learning Disabled student takes a different approach than either gifted education or programming for the learning disabled. Placement in either one or the other, exclusively, may prove to only frustrate a child. Enrichment programs may be too advanced, requiring skills that are in deficit areas. The result is frustration and a sense of failure upon return to the regular classroom. Learning disability classes may not be stimulating enough, which may result in boredom, and basic remediation may turn the student off.
The Gifted/Learning Disabled students, by their unique characteristics, force educators to find special teaching methods. The major role of teaching must focus on strengths and not on weaknesses. In fact, the child’s strengths should be used to assist in remediation of any weaknesses. In fact, the child’s strengths should be used to assist in remediation of any weaknesses. This requires a highly individualized program of instruction.
According to Baum (1988), in order for potential to be recognized, special enrichment activities should be designed to develop the student’s superior talents. Activities must encompass both interest and strengths as well as provide sophisticated challenges to motivate bright minds. Enrichment activities must be designed to circumvent problematic weaknesses and creative behaviors should be reinforced and appreciated within the school setting.
Teachers must learn to encourage the growth of strong areas while supporting weaker ones. Curriculum implementation, methodology, and approach should be geared to the highest level of response. Furthermore, the child must be viewed as an active participant, aware of what is being done and thus his/her cooperation must be sought at all levels of the educational process.
Gifted/Learning Disabled education is a new, as yet unchartered area. There is a lack of adequate research and a need to do much more before we can approach a viable operational definition. But, as students continue to present us with unique problems, we must first and foremost properly identify them. This is particularly critical for the many who do not display traits that would bring them to the attention of professionals.
The Gifted/Learning Disabled children who straddle two polar categories present well trained educators, counselors, and other professionals with the challenge to unearth their gifts, as well as their deficiencies, thereby discovering and proclaiming their potential for so much more.

  • Baum, S., “An Enrichment Program for Gifted Learning Disabled Students.” Gifted Child Quarterly, 1988:32.
  • Daniels, P.R., Teaching the Gifted/Learning Disabled Child, Rockville, Md.: Aspen Systems Corporation, 1983.
  • Tannenbaum, A.J. and Baldwin, L.J., “Giftedness and Learning Disabilities: A Paradoxical Combination.” In Fox, L.H., Brody, L. and Tobin, D., Learning Disabled/Gifted Children: Identification and Programming. Baltimore, Md., University Park Press, 1983.

DR. FABRIKANT is the Section Chief of Psychology at the Hackensack Medical Center, Institute of Child Development. He is also in private practice in Westwood, New Jersey. He has written and lectured extensively on the Gifted / Learning Disabled.