whyParents and teachers often talk to me about behavior. “What can we do about this behavior?” “How can we stop the behavior?” “I can’t deal with this behavior.” In order to durably address challenging behavior, we first have to understand it. Behavior is communication. Challenging behavior signals that something is not right in that child’s world. Something is affecting his or her ability to do what is expected at that moment.  Unless and until we understand why, this is like putting a bandage on a child’s arm, without an examination or x-ray, because he says it hurts.

So how do we figure out “why” the behavior is occurring? How do we x-ray the behavior? There are actually two layers of explanation for gifted and twice exceptional kids. There is the understanding of the child’s giftedness and learning disability or learning difference, and there is the understanding of the neuroscience behind these gifted and 2e traits.

The first step is to understand the true meaning of giftedness, which goes beyond the typical definition as ability and potential. In fact ability is really a small part of the gifted person’s inner experience. I liken the definition of giftedness to a three layer cake including asynchronous development, perfectionism and intensity or overexcitability as the layers, and ability – the gift in giftedness – as the frosting on and in between these layers of our giftedness cake.

Asynchronous development is when a person develops different abilities and skills at different speeds. I love the way this is explained in Producer, Tom Ropelewski’s documentary “2e: Twice Exceptional” where an educator simplifies the concept to what she calls “the 5-10-15 rule.” A child is 10 chronologically, 15 in some ability and 5 emotionally or socially or possibly lagging a skill due to a learning disability or learning difference. This asynchronous development affects the child’s self esteem and is confusing and frustrating to everyone with the frequent query, “If you can do this so easily and so well, why can’t you do that?”

Perfectionism is sometimes good; it can serve as a driving force or incentive to do our best work. But often in gifted and twice exceptional individuals perfectionism comes with anxiety. Setting expectations so high for themselves, these folks cannot possibly meet them, so they give up, don’t try or are unable to move forward. Some gifted kids are constantly told how smart they are rather than how hard they work. Their gumption, grit and mindset are not recognized, so it is debilitating when they cannot complete a task or struggle with a problem. Anxiety that can accompany perfectionism causes a person to wonder whether they can meet other’s expectations as well as their own, and robs the person of the ability to stay with a task that doesn’t come easily.

Intensity or overexcitability (OE) in the gifted and twice exceptional is a reality identified by Kazimierz Dabrowski, (1902-1980) and is the concept of heightened awareness and a grander response to stimuli in five domains; intellectual, emotional, imaginational, sensual (sensory) and psychomotor. This intensity may present as a student “getting stuck” on a particular esoteric fact during a lesson or having a strong desire to learn everything he can about a certain topic (intellectual OE). It may include a person’s ability to read other people, to feel what others are feeling and to experience great highs and lows about their relationships (emotional OE). A person may exhibit incredible creativity, turning everything into a project including building, writing, drawing, etc. (imaginational OE). A person may experience great pleasure or displeasure due to experiences involving their five senses (sensual OE). Lastly, a person may be in constant motion, needing to move for movement sake or even in order to attend (psychomotor OE).

Learning disabilities or learning differences, if misunderstood by the child and/or the adults around them – teacher, parent, coach – can cause further frustration and fear, confusion and reticence.

Understanding all of these factors: asynchronous development, perfectionism and anxiety, overexcitabilities and the possibility of a learning difference or disability, is necessary before strategies can begin and be effective.

But what about the why behind the why? I wondered why these factors define gifted and twice exceptional people. Why are gifted and 2e people intense, asynchronous and perfectionistic?

In March 2016 gro-gifted.org published an article regarding neuroscience research indicating six ways the gifted brain differs from the typical brain (March 17, 2016, Dr. Nicole Tetreault, Dr. Joanna Haase, and Sharon Duncan). In my words, they wrote about “The why behind the why.” What are these six ways?

  • Increased regional brain volumes.
  • Greater connectivity across brain regions.
  • Brains that operate more efficiently.
  • Greater sensory sensitivity.
  • Expanded brain areas dedicated to emotional intelligence.
  • Expanded brain areas that respond more actively to challenges.
  1. Increased regional brain volumes

Individuals with higher IQ have increased grey matter volume in various regions of the brain. Grey matter is used to compute information. This increase may account for the ability of gifted individuals to make decisions quickly, especially decisions involving large volumes of information. The increase may also explain the greater sensitivity to sensory stimuli (OEs).

  1. Greater connectivity across brain regions

Think of this connectivity as road systems or as you have probably heard before “the information highway.” Gifted individuals have increased white matter tracts compared to the general population. White matter tracts relay information across the brain to different regions and are critical to processing speed and information transfer. This greater connectivity could explain an increased processing speed or a decreased processing speed due to the amount of information coming in. I think of it like a computer crunching data. The gifted child is noticing more, taking in more, considering other angles and therefore their processing speed is affected. Rather than slower processing speed I like to refer to this as deeper processing speed. This deeper thinking and consideration of a wide swath of ideas may make it difficult to respond quickly and with a simple answer. Consider the child who pauses or seems to respond slowly to questions or situations. They’re waiting while their “system processes.”

  1. Brains that operate more efficiently

Most school students require eight to ten repetitions to learn a new task or skill. Gifted students often need only one to two repetitions. Greater neural efficiency (making associations quicker) is thought to be the reason and one way to measure neural efficiency is glucose utilization. Everyone’s glucose level drops once they master a task but gifted brains showed this drop in glucose utilization after fewer repetitions than others. So while gifted students wait for everyone to master a topic or skill, they experience boredom. That’s why these students are resistant to repetitive schoolwork and why behaviors plummet when gifted and 2e kids are not engaged.  Think of it this way; have you ever seen an anteater’s tongue? It’s about two feet long! Have you ever seen a rhinoceros’ tongue? Tiny! If you give them both a lollipop to lick, one of them will be down to the stick in no time…waiting for the other to finish. This is the experience for some gifted kids in our classrooms, they’re left with the stick, waiting.

  1. Greater Sensory Sensitivity

Brains of gifted children respond more intensely to sound – amplitude and duration. The amplified sensory response can be either pleasurable or painful. While the study covered in the paper was limited to auditory responses, the gifted population has been observed to respond more intensely to all sensory input. Think of kids who experience disgust based on tastes or textures or kids who need more or less firm touch to regroup.

  1. Expanded brain areas dedicated to emotional intelligence.

Research shows that the brain areas needed for processing emotional information are expanded in gifted individuals. Expansion and enhanced connectivity in these regions of the brain account for an intense drive to satisfy intellectual curiosity. It may also explain the frequency with which high IQ individuals experience heightened emotional responses including depression and anxiety.

  1. Expanded brain areas that respond more actively to challenges.

When the gifted brain is presented with increased challenge it is further activated. The brain’s ability to utilize its increased size and activation in a qualitatively unique and more complex way is why we see a different approach to challenge and problem solving. The greater bilateral brain activation results in what has been called a state of flow and a rage to learn as can be seen in gifted learners.

When I meet with parents or I train educators, I start with Ross Greene’s premise that kids would do well if they could. We must approach challenging behavior as benevolent detectives. A mixture of empathy and curiosity goes a long way in bringing out the best in gifted and twice exceptional kids. If we understand what lies behind their erratic and sometimes, disruptive behavior, we can help adjust the environment, we can check in with them and come up with a plan that will make their classroom experience easier. We can ignore what needs to be ignored and most importantly we can let them know we understand.