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How Can Teachers Build on Gifted, Hyperactive Students' Strengths?


Students with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder may have trouble adapting to the discipline of the school day, but that doesn't mean they can't tackle challenging academic work.

At a symposium on gifted students with disabilities at the American Psychological Association's annual conference here this week, researchers from a special issue of Gifted Child Quarterly argue that these "twice exceptional" students need better screening and supports for both their strengths and their weaknesses. (The entire issue is free to the public through the end of August.)

"We're under-teaching these kids," said Megan Foley-Nicpon, an assistant professor and assessment and counseling researcher at the University of Iowa's Belin-Blank Center, who edited the special issue. "So often [gifted ADHD students] reported their disability was acknowledged and provided for, but not their ability," she said.

That finding aligned with early findings of a separate, ongoing Lehigh University longitudinal study of entering college students with ADHD, which was presented in an earlier session. Matthew Gormley, the project coordinator for the Trajectories Related to ADHD in College, or TRAC, project, found less than 5 percent of high school graduates with ADHD go on to postsecondary education (versus 27 percent of those without attention deficits), and less than a third of those who do go on to college chose four-year degrees, as opposed to 77 percent of college-going students without the disorder.

Gormley and his colleagues found freshmen with ADHD had lower first-year grade point averages than peers without ADHD, and access to support services did not affect their grades. What did: The study skills, both alone and in groups, with which students entered college.

Learning Autonomy

In fact, several of the twice-exceptional studies found value in teaching students to take more control of their learning. For example, a team led by Colleen Willard-Holt of Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, conducted in-depth interviews with gifted secondary and college students with ADHD about the instructional strategies they had found most helpful in their K-12 schooling. Among them:

  • Being told how they would be marked or graded;
  • Being told how much time they would have to complete a task or test;
  • Being allowed to select from a number of assignment options;
  • Being able to negotiate deadlines;
  • Having freedom to continue to explore a topic after the class has moved on; and
  • Having a mentor or learning more about a topic from experts.

Similarly, a separate study by Kristie Speirs Neumeister found students with ADHD who succeeded in college or work after school had parents who "normalized the disability" and focused on making their children autonomous.

"They said, 'OK, you have ADHD, now what are you going to do about it? Everybody walking around this earth has things they struggle with. They taught them problem-solving strategies, and then they let the kids go and problem-solve," said Foley-Nicpon, who discussed the Neumeister and Willard-Holt studies in their authors' absence.

Foley-Nicpon was not surprised that independent study skills were proving a critical factor in helping students stay on track in college. Parents and teachers alike often focus on ways to structure and simplify studying and other academic tasks in elementary and secondary school, but "then they get to college where they have way more autonomy, and they can't do it and fall down."

Betsy McCoach, a University of Connecticut researcher who works with gifted but underachieving students, agreed. "I always tell parents that you can't be more invested in your child's success than they are. Sometimes it's the parents who want [their students] to succeed more than they [the students] want themselves to succeed, and so the students never develop the strategies or the motivation to succeed."

Building on Strengths

Across several of the studies, researchers found benefits from teachers and parents focusing on students' strengths rather than disabilities, particularly for twice-exceptional students.

For example, in a series of studies, Purdue University researchers have found students with ADHD were more likely to tell more creative stories and incorporate more novel themes into them. In a group problem-solving task, the groups with members with ADHD came up with more creative approaches--though the groups without ADHD members came up with more practical solutions.

In one small study, looking at 37 students in grades 5 to 12 participating in a two-week summer camp for gifted students, Purdue researcher Matthew Fugate found that students who reported and displayed more attention-deficit-related behaviors scored significantly lower than peers on tests of working memory, but significantly higher on tests of creativity.

"Because these ADHD students look at the world with a wide-open view, they tend to take more things in and that results in more creativity," Fugate said. He added, "Creativity is a pathway to learning as well as an outcome of learning. Using things like problem-based learning and authentic learning experiences is very important" for students with ADHD and arguably for all students.

"We're becoming more and more rigid in our classrooms, and the lesson of these twice-exceptional kids is flexibility, and that it's OK to be a little bit different," Foley-Nicpon said.

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