Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bright not Broken

Diane M. Kennedy and Rebecca S. Banks with Temple Grandin wrote, Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD and Autism: Why Twice-Exceptional Children are Stuck and How to Help Them, to explain their views on the challenges of labeling and providing an education to children with these three identifiers. Primarily they assert that labeling as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) tends to interfere with addressing giftedness even though there is significant overlap in characteristics. They identify remarkable similarities between the core deficits and symptoms of these three labels- for example, all tend to involve intense interests and poor social skills. Since there is overlap, diagnosis for these children is often in flux, starting with either giftedness or ADHD and progressing to ASD. If giftedness is identified, it often interferes with appropriate education.

I have struggled with RTI and its implementation. In spite of documentation from the Department of Education, I have seen RTI used as an excuse to not test or delay testing of students. I have also witnessed a moving of the bar to receive services. Special Education was formed to provide appropriate education for students to help them meet their potential. With the advent of RTI, however, the goal has shifted to preventing failure. This means that a child who is gifted and able to function at a barely passing level may get no support for his learning disability, mental health issue or autism. The guideline has shifted from achievement in line with cognitive expectations to passing, a much different bar. The authors acknowledge this trend, but see more hope than I see in the field. Struggling students are not being deemed eligible for special education because their cognitive strengths enable them to pass. Access to special education has traditionally been achieved through failure, I am afraid current trends are making it worse not better.

The authors propose using a whole child approach to dealing with students who are twice exceptional (2e)- look at their strengths and support and extend them, rather than remediate their weaknesses, teach compensatory strategies. The idea of addressing the strengths is supported by the gifted community and Temple Grandin, a prominent autism advocate. Whole child education is the goal of the educational organization, ASCD, as well. I believe that advocating for merely compensatory strategies, however, is not adequate, especially for young children. Yes, we need to acknowledge that our students have unique interests and we need to incorporate them into instruction- they provide a hook without which we might never gain access to the child. We need to encourage advancement in areas where it is appropriate. NO child should be subjected to endless practice of known material- especially truly gifted children for whom, research demonstrates, extra practice decreases performance. We also need to teach foundational skills. Students need to build on these for success later on. These are not just academic foundations, but social foundations as well. Students need instruction and skill development in any area of weakness, be it academic, social or physical.

The authors propose an individualized approach to teaching students who are 2e. One that recognizes the multidimensional nature of children, highlighting strengths to build on and weaknesses to build. They see specific IEP's as the tool to achieve an appropriate education for 2e students. One logistical challenge is that when we talk about interventions we often talk about things that take time out of the day. Pulling for direct speech services, the ideal way to provide initial instruction in social skills for students with ASD, takes time away from classes. Providing OT interventions to meet sensory needs takes time away from classes. Providing PT to address the gross motor needs and poor coordination many on the spectrum possess takes time away from classes. Finding time to enrich, something that is rarely and often poorly done for gifted students who do not have special needs becomes a challenge. Deep understanding of student abilities and school curriculum need to be coupled with planning time for teachers to plan and implement the kind of individualized support and intervention plans that 2e students require.   Kennedy and Banks also see a need for training general education teachers in the nature of gifted, ADHD and ASD. This way the front line teachers can recognize and provide daily support as needed.

The beginning of the book is a description of our system not labeling our children correctly and why. Their anti-DSM commentary is extensive. The last three chapters are where the meat of the book lies and where practitioners will get the most value.  It would have been helpful if the authors had included some case studies about effective plans rather than only comments about how ineffective things were for individuals. By focusing on the negative impact of labels on education, they missed an opportunity to truly add to the discussion with concrete ideas of how to meet the needs of 2e children in the classroom. This book's target audience is discontent parents, not teachers, so going into specifics of how to teach might be beyond the scope, but without concrete examples of how to implement the suggestions, it does a disservice of providing too little information which ultimately may result in frustration. We can, however, certainly agree on the overall arching theme: only by celebrating their strengths can we truly appropriately support our learners.

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