By: Erin Parkes, PhD

Teaching Music to Twice Exceptional Students

As a music teacher, you may not be familiar with the term twice exceptional, but you’re most likely familiar with twice exceptional characters in popular culture. The eccentric genius, the scatterbrained professor…there are many examples of these profiles out there. People who are intellectually gifted, but have a secondary diagnosis such as autism, ADHD or a learning disability are identified as twice exceptional, and they are a bright, quirky, and fascinating group to teach! They are also a complex group, and it’s important to understand students with these profiles in order to be able to fully support them and help them reach their full potential.

Note that I used the term intellectually gifted rather than academically gifted…there is a difference, and it matters! Intellectually gifted is based on IQ. The level that people identify as gifted varies, but most often anyone with a full-scale IQ above the 95th percentile is considered gifted. This does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with being academically gifted which refers to very high achievement on academic tasks. In fact, due to the learning differences experienced by most twice exceptional (or 2E) students, many may be extraordinarily intellectually gifted, and yet not be high achievers in most academic or learning settings. 

This is where issues often arise, both for the student and for the teacher. Because the student is so bright, teachers often assume that they should also be able to achieve at a high level. However, an additional diagnosis (most often ADHD, autism or learning disability) may lead to challenges in a traditional learning environment. This often leads to asynchronous development, meaning that the student develops at different rates across different areas of development. For example, a student may have very strong abilities in verbal communication, but struggle with organizing their thoughts in a written manner. Or more specific to music learning, a student may understand high level theoretical concepts, but have poor motor skills. Teachers often don’t see the challenges for what they are, or assume the student must just be “lazy” since they’re so bright and are assumed to be capable. The student in turn often feels supreme frustration at knowing what needs to be done but not being able to do it. 

This is what makes teaching music to 2E students a challenge, but a rewarding one! There’s no doubt that these students are brilliant, but they also need supports that reflect their entire profile. However, some of the supports suggested for typical students with various diagnoses are not appropriate for gifted students due to their advanced intellectual abilities. It really requires looking at the student as a whole and accurately assessing their strengths and support needs in order to help them reach their full potential.

Here are a few common traits in 2E students. Note that these are general, and it will vary depending on the diagnosis (from

  • Outstanding critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Above average sensitivity, causing them to react more intensely to sounds, tastes, smells, etc.
  • Strong sense of curiosity
  • Low self-esteem due to perfectionism
  • Poor social skills
  • Strong ability to concentrate deeply in areas of interest
  • Difficulties with reading and writing due to cognitive processing deficits
  • Behavioural problems due to underlying stress

The perfectionism noted above is a big one! This is a challenge for many gifted kids, but can lead to particular frustration for those who are 2E since there are other factors holding them back from achieving at the level that they expect of themselves. This can lead to intense anxiety, which can create behavioural challenges in learning environments if not handled with care and understanding by the teacher.

Here are some strategies to help you bring out the brilliance while supporting the challenges of your 2E student:

  • Use their areas of interest for motivation. Try to find ways to create a project that teaches the concepts you’re working on, for example, analyze chords or clap rhythms in a song from a favourite video game.
  • Go deep with conceptual knowledge and skim over repetitive learning. Gifted students can become frustrated if they need to dedicate lots of time to concepts or skills they feel they have mastered. Either move on once they’ve got it, or find ways to expand on the concept or skill you’re trying to teach by allowing more advanced theoretical and conceptual work.
  • Allow your student to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that works for them. If they have trouble with written theory, allow them to work it out on their instrument or with manipulatives. 
  • Understand and support any anxiety that may arise. Don’t brush it off—your student may feel it intensely. Let them know that you see and understand what they’re going through and that you’re here to help them.
  • Provide support with elements of learning like planning, organization, self-assessment, and goal setting. These are often challenges for 2E students. 
  • Allow for student-led learning. Gifted students are often very inquisitive and enjoy the process of discovery. Follow that! It can bring you to such interesting places!
  • Ensure that your expectations take the whole child into account. Your student’s perfectionism, anxiety, learning challenges, etc. may make progress go slower than you would expect based on their intellectual capacity. But it’s all part of the package…your student’s potential and learning pace is based on their entire profile, not just their IQ. Allow them to be who they are and avoid setting unattainable goals. This would result in frustration for both you and your student.

As with all students, the bottom line is to see who your student truly is beyond the labels and to meet them there. With 2E students in particular, it’s often a fascinating journey!

Happy teaching!