Why can’t my child excel and have a difficulty/disability at the same time?

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Ever met a parent or carer who has asked you this question? I have, more than a decade ago. This started my journey into the field of Dual Multiple Exceptionality (DME) or as it is known in the USA as Twice Exceptional (2e). This blog is divided into two parts: Part 1: explores what is DME and identification Part 2: considers case studies and reflective questions for practitioners.

Part 1: What is DME and identification?

The question prompted two responses from me:

Firstly, I started to look at children in class with SEND in a different way.  I started to see, observe and discuss with them potential (not just need). It was quite an amazing transformational process in me as the teacher, the pupil, his family and our relationship. We were still addressing needs, but through the eyes of possibilities and a can-do approach. As a senior leader of SEND in the school, this began to filter thorough to other colleagues. It changed our culture; slowly but surely.

My second action was to start researching the topic and working alongside others.  I teamed up with the then National Association of Gifted Children; now Potential Plus UK. This charity has a vision to ‘enable children of all ages with high learning potential to grow in confidence, thrive and achieve social, emotional and academic fulfilment’.

Under the National Strategies in 2008, the government published a guidance document on DME. The dialogue now had national impetus … well until the elections in 2010!

Does fulfilment matter?

Your natural response to this question might be ‘of course it does, what a silly question!’  My next rhetorical question then is ‘what do we intentionally do to enable fulfilment?

Prior to 1948, the Olympic Games, an internationally renowned sports competition amongst the top athletes only included three participants who had a disability. 1948 saw the launch of the Paralympics.  The originator, Dr. Guttman (from Aylesbury, England) had an aim to create an elite sports competition for people with disabilities that would be equivalent to the Olympic Games. Today, we have an Independent Paralympic Committee (IPC) over seeing 178 National Paralympic Committees (NPC). 

The motto for the Paralympic movement is “Spirit in Motion”; with the three colours of its symbol representing the flags of the nations. The asymmetrical crescents are known as the shape of Agito meaning ‘I move’ in Latin. The vision of the IPC is, "To enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and to inspire and excite the world” and their anthem is "Hymne de l'Avenir" or "Anthem of the Future" (adopted in 1996).

My vision for children and young people with difficulties and/or disabilities is also for them to excel, inspire and excite the world of today and the future.

The spirit of the Paralympics has given rise to many other projects such a 11 Million Reasons (2014-16) led by People Dancing. They had a vision to engage deaf and disabled people in dance. There has also been an increase of successful professionals publicly sharing their disabilities and how they have overcome it. For examples, actors who have dyslexia sharing in the media how they read and learn their lines for their part in a weekly drama series. All these point to one thing: hope. Children and young people with SEND can excel, they can break world records and they can make their mark in the world.  Maybe we need to introduce them to a few more role models:

  • Dyslexia: Keira Knightley (actress), Orlando Bloom (actor), Whoopi Goldberg (actress), Steven Spielberg (film director, producer and entrepreneur), Jamie Oliver (Chef)
  • ADHD: Michael Phelps (Olympian swimmer), Karina Smirnoff (dancer), Howie Mandel (comedian)
  • Dyspraxia: Daniel Radcliffe (actor)
  • ADD: Justin Timberlake (singer, songwriter and actor)
  • OCD: Justin Timberlake (singer, songwriter and actor), Howie Mandel (comedian), David Beckham (Footballer, writer and model)
  • Sensory: Stevie Wonder (musician and singer)
  • Mental health: Brittany spears (singer, dancer, songwriter, actress and author)
  • Tourette’s Syndrome: Tim Howard (America soccer player and English goal keeper)

The same vision can be seen in the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice 2015, with a greater focus on aspirations and preparing children and young people for adulthood.  Making time and space to think about how they will live, how they will be independent and healthy how will they participate and contribute to society and the community. In other words, recognising, each and every child and young person with SEND has a significant contribution to make.

What is DME?

Quite simply, it a term used to describe (not label) children and young people who have special educational needs and a disability (SEND), who also excel in other areas. Complexity is often confounded when abilities mask difficulties and learning difficulties often mask high abilities.

Based on their experience of working with children, young people and their families, Potential Plus UK suggest typically this gives rise to four groups of learners. For the purposes of this blog, I have represented these groups in a matrix.

4 groups of learners

4 groups of learners illustration

Suggested by Potential Plus UK

Where high ability is recognised, but SEND is not; it is possible for children and young people to mask their difficulties. The impact being more evident as they develop and with increasing misalignment of expected and actual outcomes. SEND pupils, where high ability is unrecognised too often fail to reach their potential in school and later in life. Focus is far too often on the cannot do, rather than the can do. This can often lead to low self-esteem, poor behaviour and mental health issues. In situations where SEND and high ability are both unrecognised – quite simply, the system has failed the child or young person. Assessment and other forms of data have not been used effectively to understand what is going on for this pupil. Nor has the learner voice been used to accelerate progress. The optimum position is when both SEND and high ability is recognised, valued and celebrated.

In considering DME we start from the supposition: High achievement is NOT always synonymous with high ability. Speaking at an event on Social Mobility (March 2017), Rt Hon Justin Greening MP, said; 

We have to assume talent is evenly spread and if that isn’t reflected in outcomes, we are missing a trick.

 Rt Hon Justin Greening MP, Secretary of State for Education

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.  This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counselling in order for them to develop optimally.

The Columbus Group, 1991

Stay tuned for Part 2: where I will explore further case studies and practical application in schools.

About the author: 

Anita Devi is an Educational Consultant, Policy Developer, Change Strategist and Trainer with international teaching/ leadership experience from Early Years to postgraduate. Her passion is promoting the ‘Joy of Learning’. Anita has previously worked as a SEN Advisory Teacher as well as SEN School Improvement Advisor.

View Anita's contribution to #EducationLearn 2015 on Assessment and Observation in 2016.