Teachar on yellow cushion reader a book for students
Teachar on yellow cushion reader a book for students

Twice-exceptional students: do you know them?

Did you know that despite their geniuses, Agatha Christie and Albert Einstein had learning challenges as children? Einstein, for instance, could not speak comfortably until around the age of six, and Christie had dis orthography, which made it difficult for her to write. Both became world-famous, but gifted students with learning or behavioural challenges often remain invisible. Being a teacher or a parent can be challenging when you sense that a child has more potential than they currently show. Why is it important to bring the best out of them, and how do you cope with this situation?


A lack of self-confidence, melancholy, or even depression may arise later in life if you and those around you do not understand your learning difficulties. Behavioural scientists Evelyn Kroesbergen and Marielle Wittelings have therefore spent three years researching what needs to be done to recognise pupils who are likely to be twice-exceptional: gifted children in whom learning, for various reasons, does not come naturally.

Mind the gap

Kroesbergen explains: 'Twice-exceptional children do not get the right attention and care because, for example, due to strong adaptability, the learning and behavioural challenges remain invisible. But it can also be the other way round; because of those challenges, schools overlook that they are gifted'. 'In the latter case, there's a lot of prejudice at play,' says Wittelings. 'Because how can a gifted child possibly have learning difficulties? The conclusion is then often that the child is not gifted after all. In addition, schools are not set up for twice-exceptional students. Kroesbergen explains: 'Think, for example, of access to a quiet, stimulus-free room during test moments. Due to their adaptability, twice-exceptional students often don't meet a 'label' to be entitled to this. Because they do need it, they fall between the cracks.

Contributing to happiness

Why are we so keen for gifted children to perform well in the classroom? Are gifted children sometimes more important than other children? Kroesbergen explains: "First and foremost, every child has the right to be happy. Twice-exceptional children are often not understood and struggle to express themselves. This can make them extremely unhappy, especially if they don't get appropriate help.

Kroesbergen gives an example: 'A gifted child with dyslexia has an enormous will to learn, but also has difficulty reading. That, in turn, gets in the way of that will learn'. Wittelings adds: 'We see helplessness and sadness in these students. They often know they can do more but cannot express it for some reason. The happiness of twice-exceptional pupils should not depend solely on prejudice or teachers' gut feelings. You should always be able to rely on proven knowledge.

Starting at the beginning

And that proven knowledge still needs to be there, so Kroesbergen and Wittelings set to work. How? By starting at the beginning. They started mapping the current affairs at several secondary and primary schools. Using questionnaires, interviews and file analyses, they examined how the current educational provision is geared to pupils with twice-exceptional needs. These schools then drew up, implemented, and evaluated development plans. The first results and recommendations can be read in the brochure 'Niet langer tussen wal en schip' (in Dutch). It includes, among other things, a checklist that schools can immediately start working with.

What can schools do?

Where else can schools do? Kroesbergen indicates: 'Organise a study day with your team once a year to pay attention to twice-exceptional pupils. So that teachers at least know it exists and can think about appropriate solutions or where to find help. Wittelings adds: 'One of the insights from our research is that once a learning challenge is identified, teachers often start steering towards more structure and restrictions. That works precisely not for twice-exceptional children, as they often need more freedom and room to move'.

Should every school have an ortho-pedagogue?

'I often yell: every school should have an ortho-pedagogue!' laughs Kroesbergen. 'We need specialists who know exactly how to recognise signs of twice-exceptional students and understand how best to support those pupils in their education and development. In doing so, we contribute to inclusiveness and diversity in education, and above all, happy children.'