Twice-exceptional kiddos and the conundrum of Least Restrictive Environment

My son started 4th grade this week. This year he is at a new school, his third school since starting kindergarten. Between second grade and third grade we moved to another state, so naturally he attended a new school last year. We searched long and hard for a school rich in both Gifted and Special Education resources and deliberately moved to a neighborhood served by that school. But this year we had very little choice about where he would go to school. After working with him for a year, the administrators and teachers at his third grade school decided that his behavioral support needs exceeded what was available at that particular campus and that it was time for a different approach.

Let me put this into language parents of kids like mine will recognize. My son was in trouble for “disruptive behavior” nearly every day last year. (I’m qualifying “disruptive behavior” because I want to problematize it later.) Being pulled out of his general-education classes and going to his special-education teacher for “cool down time” was just as much a part of his schedule as Math and Social studies. He became very close with the Assistant Principal. Notes / emails / calls home were de rigueur. Behavioral charts tracking responsible, safe, and respectful behavior came home every day for most of the year. At some point during the year, the Assistant Principal decided that in-school suspension was no longer appropriate for my son, who actually preferred the contained, quiet space and unrestrained access to a single teacher. Behavioral specialists from the district were called in for observation and help. And by the end of the year, everyone at the school agreed that he needed a change in placement, at least as a temporary measure.

Over the course of last year, his schedule changed from a less restrictive environment to a more restrictive environment. He began the year in a regular third-grade class with an extraordinary teacher who excelled in differentiation. He also had pull-outs for Talented and Gifted (TAG) subjects, and scheduled sensory breaks with his Special Education coordinator. In some classroom spaces (even TAG), he was bored. In others, the sensory input was overwhelming. Boredom and overwhelm often lead him to behavior others find disruptive: verbal stimming, opposition and argument, and sometimes, loss of control of his body. We changed his schedule several times, reducing the number of transitions he had to go through each day. After spring break the principal suggested placement in 5th grade TAG math (a bit beyond his abilities) and 4th grade TAG language arts (still boring). This cut down on the transitions because they were back to back, but ultimately this wasn’t a good solution because it didn’t hit his brain needs just right. Then we put him on furlough from his TAG classes, trusting his amazing teacher to fill in the brain gaps through differentiation. She didn’t disappoint, and he felt less stressed with fewer places to go. But transitions continued to challenge him, and any change in routine (chair in a different place, substitute teacher, change in rule, change in schedule, etc.) made focusing on responsibility, safety, and respect nearly impossible.

(Notice, however, that these goals are all behavioral and have nothing to to with his academic performance; he managed to get fabulous grades even when he wasn’t really paying attention and was really stressed out. So this is not a kid who needs academic intervention. This is not a kid who needs help learning. This is a kid who struggles in a social and sensory environment that is not suited to his needs. His “behavioral problems” are very valid responses to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated.)

The remaining possibility for an even more restrictive environment at that campus would have been primary placement in a special education classroom. But because my son is gifted, this is not a good placement for him. He’s very impatient with the other kids in the class who need more time to sort through information. His impulses to shout out answers are even stronger in this environment. So we were stuck with a conundrum I’m confident every parent of 2e kids has to confront: what is the ideal classroom setting for a child who is gifted and needs a quick pace in terms of absorbing new knowledge, but who is also disabled, and needs patience, frequent breaks, iron-clad routine, and allowance for the variances of each day’s (each hour’s!) sensory needs? The answer was not the magnet school he went to for K-2. That school almost met his academic needs, but had painfully few resources for special education. The Special Education teacher was only on campus one day a week, and there was no resource room to retreat to in times of high stress. And the answer was not the school he attended last year, which had adequate TAG and Special-Ed resources, but a busy schedule that was too much for him.

So now he’s in a program called Achieve at another elementary school in town, one of three such Elementary school programs in our school district. Achieve is for kids who are already in Special Education who need more behavioral support. (In case you are tempted to google this, know in advance that there’s little to no information on the internet about this program. Kids are placed in Achieve by referral, not usually by parent request. The teacher-to-student ratio is incredibly low–there are 2 teachers and 4 aides to 14 kids in my son’s program!–and I imagine the district struggles to maintain those ratios. So there’s no advertising for Achieve. Even so, I find the lack of on-line information curious.) There are two classrooms. The first, where he is currently placed, is self-contained. That is, the kids don’t rotate to other classes; they don’t attend “specials” (such as Music and Art); they eat lunch in the classroom together. With fewer transitions and fewer opportunities for sensory overload, the kids are theoretically supposed to be better able to learn coping mechanisms for overwhelming school scenarios. We’ve been promised that a request for a sensory break is never denied. Kids are guided in ability-level academic work. When a kiddo feels ready, xie graduates to the next classroom, and begins to re-integrate into the gen-ed population one class session at a time, always accompanied by an aide (and always with the option of going back to Achieve, with zero judgment). If it takes months for a kid to feel up to attending music class, for example, then it takes months. (This was a particularly challenging class for my son, who is sound-color synesthetic and may have perfect pitch. There was just too much sensory information in music class for him to handle most days!)

The theoretical goal for all children in this program is to eventually re-integrate back into the less-restricted environment of general education, bit by bit, slowly so that the child feels completely in control. There’s no particular goal date, no set schedule for any of the kids. For some kids this process takes weeks. For others, the safety of the Achieve program feels more comfortable and they stay longer. There are equivalent programs in middle school and high school in our district. As my son’s new teachers told us, some kids always need the support of these programs, and that’s just fine.

At issue here is the legal mandate of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which is a complicated but crucial part of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I’m not an attorney, so I won’t attempt to explain this part of IDEA in detail. (This page is a good resource. And this page includes the original memorandum about LRE with helpful links inserted after original paragraphs.) What it boils down to for my son is this: he has the right to a free education with “peers”–who are not disabled–to the greatest extent possible. And herein lies the challenge: 2e kiddos are a minority within a minority. No one really knows how many 2e kids are currently in schools. In a 2006 handbook entitled “The Twice-Exceptional Dilemma,” the National Education Association estimated that about 6% of children served by IDEA may also be gifted. A paper by Micaela Bracamonte published in the March, 2010, 2e Newsletter provides a more specific number: 70,000 2e kids in self-reporting school districts across the country. “This number,” she writes, “represents a percentage consistent with estimates that two to five percent of the gifted population have LDs and two to five percent of students with LDs are gifted.” Then there’s this recent article that claims that 14% of gifted kids also have a learning disability. Any way you look at the issue, it’s a relatively small number of kids.

My son has yet to have a classmate who is both gifted and disabled. He knows other 2e kids, but they haven’t been his classmates. So who are his “peers”? When he is with his gifted “peers” in a less-restricted environment, his disabled self seems out of place. When he is placed in a more-restricted special education classroom, his gifted self is not well served. And, of course, he is not two selves. He is one boy, one incredible boy who simply needs a safe place to learn. His true peers, those who are best equipped to understand him, are likely to also be both gifted and disabled.

The jury is still out about whether or not this new program will be a good fit for him. I’m sure I will have more to say in the coming weeks and months. Maybe we’ll need yet another solution, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll find his tribe there.

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