Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties: Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potential


Rich Weinfeld

Linda Barnes-Robinson

Sue Jeweler

Betty Roffman Shevitz

Diamonds are rare. Two hundred and fifty tons of rock, sand and gravel must be processed to yield one carat of polished diamond. Bright students with learning difficulties are often not identified because their brilliance and roughness may mask one another. Often, we see only the rough parts—their inability to write or read effectively. What results is an attitude of discouragement and defeat. When we do find these diamonds, we must help them to shine and reach their potential by identifying their gifts and talents that will benefit our entire society.

Each day, parents and teachers are challenged to find ways to empower their bright kids who, while able to participate actively in a class discussion, may be unable to write a complete sentence. These are the students who rarely have homework completed, or if done, cannot find it. They may be light years ahead in math, but reading below grade level. In contrast, these same students are the ones who may not only be able to program the computer, but they can completely take it apart and put it back together again. Ask them about dinosaurs, global warming, lasers or ancient civilizations and one might get bombarded with information, but ask them to write about the same topic and they may produce little or nothing. Ask them to do a research paper on types of bridges and they are unlikely able to complete the assignment. However, sitting on a table at home may be an elaborate structure built out of Legos or toothpicks that reflects their understanding of advanced concepts in physics, engineering, and architecture. Outside of class, they are the creative problem solvers and analytical thinkers who show strong task commitment when the topic is personally meaningful. In school, frustrated by their inability to demonstrate academic achievement commensurate with their ability, they often have feelings of inadequacy and are at great risk of failing.

Students who are bright and underachieving, including those who are gifted and talented/learning disabled (GT/LD) must be given access to rigorous and challenging instruction. Accommodating for student learning disabilities and/or difficulties is essential. Dynamic tools empower these students to access appropriate instruction through their strengths while improving and working around their weaknesses (*Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties: Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potential, p. 1-2).

Bright students who are not reaching their potential present themselves in different ways depending on what is contributing to their lack of achievement. Sometimes their difficulty in school is due to a documented learning disability. Sometimes it may be due to a health impairment such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD). At other times, they may be students with neurological differences, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, including Asperger’s Syndrome, that provide challenges to their learning. In addition to the more typical learning disabilities like spelling and writing difficulties, organization, word retrieval, and processing speed, some students have non-verbal disabilities, those characterized by problems in visual-spatial-organizational, tactile-perceptual, psychomotor, and/or nonverbal problem-solving skills that adversely affect their academic performance with rigorous instruction (p. 13).

What we do for these students is only part of the equation. How we do “the what” is just as important. In the right climate, where students know and feel they are respected and valued for their uniqueness, anything is possible. When students perceive they are de-valued, the interventions, however appropriate, may fail. The goal of education is to provide opportunities for students to build knowledge, skills, and positive attitudes in order to become successful, contributing members of a global society. Successful, practical programming is based on solid research and theory. These students must be guaranteed access to accelerated and enriched instruction that maintains the rigor and high standards expected of all gifted students. Bright students with learning challenges are, therefore, not to be excluded from this promise.

Research and a review of successful programs indicate that the most important component of the education of these students is providing rigorous instruction in the student’s area of strength. It is important that the instruction emphasizes problem solving, reasoning and critical thinking, as well as including extension and elaboration of the regular curriculum. Classroom organization must be flexible, yet structured with opportunities for collaborative goal setting, significant peer interactions and cooperative learning. Students must receive this rigorous instruction in the least restrictive environment where they can receive educational benefit. In order to benefit from this instruction in a typical classroom setting, these students need educators to utilize appropriate strategies. Implementing these strategies involves close collaboration between special educators and general educators. By receiving appropriate instruction these students develop their full potential. (Baum, Emerick, Herman, & Dixon, 1989)

These students also need instruction of skills and strategies in academic areas that are affected by the student’s weakness or disability. Instruction is generally needed in one or more of the following areas: writing, reading, math calculations, organizational skills, test taking skills, self-determination skills and social skills. For “twice-exceptional students” who are gifted and have learning disabilities to effectively gain access to enriched and accelerated instruction, they often need to have appropriate adaptations and accommodations (Baum, 1991; Barton & Starnes, 1989; Cline & Schwartz, 1999; NAGC, 1998). Many accommodations allow bright students with learning challenges to demonstrate their knowledge without being handicapped by the effects of their difficulties. In planning, it is crucial that the teacher consider instructional methods and strategies that either circumvent the student’s difficulties or build in the necessary scaffolding to empower students to be successful with the demands of the assignment.

It is clear that in order to be successful, these students need to have appropriate adaptations and accommodations as they access challenging curriculum and realize their full potential. In order to make the decisions regarding which adaptations and accommodations are appropriate, staff, parents, and students need clear guidelines, based on current laws, research, and best practices. Through training, collaborative formulation of educational plans, on-going communication, and evaluation, staff, parents, and students will come together to make wise decisions regarding appropriate adaptations and accommodations, programs, and instruction (p. 61-68).

As Dr. Ben Carson said, “Within every child’s brain is a mind teeming with ideas and dreams and abilities unrealized. The greatest thing we can do—as parents, teachers and friends—is to nourish that potential, both intellectual and humanitarian, so that each mind can fulfill its promise to the benefit of mankind.”

*Unless otherwise noted, page number references in this article refer to Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties: Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potential, Prufrock Press, 2006

Washington Independent Services for Educational Resources (WISER) members work to improve educational services and promote child advocacy by providing resources to children and parents. Please visit  or call 301-816-0432 to find a specialist to work with your child and family. Rich Weinfeld, Linda Barnes-Robinson, Sue Jeweler, and Betty Roffman Shevitz are members of the WISER group. The authors’ book, Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties: Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potential, is published by Prufrock Press. To learn more about the authors’ current work, particularly their advocacy and school selection services, please visit

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