Commentary—Classification Procedures for Gifted/Learning Disabled Students: A Primer for Parents

Winter 1995 Masthead

Mary Rizza
The University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Robert is a 10-year-old boy who has been reading since he was 3. By the age of 5 he had read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and was reading the newspaper daily. His early conversations began as a mimic of the adults around him but soon it was apparent that he was elaborating on his own. His interest in reading allowed him to learn a great deal in science and history, leaving his second- and third-grade teachers at a loss for material to teach. There is little doubt that Robert would do well in the fourth-grade gifted class, but placement has been held up by his difficulties in spelling. Robert’s handwriting is almost illegible and his spelling is equally as bad. Most recently, he has been having difficulty handing in assignments because of his writing problems. Robert’s fourth grade teacher has recommended that he be tested for a learning disability.

Jason is in third grade and because of his high language arts achievement, is a member of the enrichment group on Fridays. His classroom teacher wants to suspend his enrichment time because Jason is not keeping up in math. Lately, Jason has been acting out in class. He has trouble staying in his seat and has begun calling out in class. Jason also has trouble keeping his books and papers in order, and frequently loses his work. His behaviors are disrupting to both the class and to himself. A meeting has been set up with his parents, enrichment teacher, and resource teacher to make a plan for Jason.

Both of these children exhibit characteristics of gifted children and of learning disabled children. To be gifted and learning disabled seems almost like a contradiction of terms. You, as a parent, know exactly what it means for your child. It could be that your child is bright, motivated, verbal, and creative. It also means that she/he is having some trouble in school. Sometimes the problem could be in spelling, reading, or math. Above all, there is some discrepancy between what you know your child can do and what she/he is able to do in the classroom setting.

More often than not, for the gifted/learning disabled (g/ld) child, it is the lack of school achievement that is noticed first. The identification of a learning disability, however, may be delayed because gifted children have the ability to mask the problems. There will come a day when the teacher of your bright child will begin using words like “difficulty” and “deficiency.” According to the federal government (PL 94-142), the definition of learning disabled children is, briefly, that they show a discrepancy between achievement and ability. The criteria used to define achievement, ability, and discrepancy vary from state to state, but the law mandates that a team of experts looks at specific areas within expressive language, reading, and mathematics. These experts then make recommendations for educational placement and remediation procedures. There are several ways that schools remediate learning disabilities. Some schools have specific classrooms set up to accommodate LD students all day. There is also the option of using a resource room for part-time remediation. The child would report to the resource room at predetermined times each day or week. Some schools have teachers or teacher aides in the regular classroom to assist the students as they have difficulties with the work during the course of the day.

For those experiencing the classification process for the first time, the road can be a confusing collection of terms and opinions. Be sure to keep an open dialogue with the school, especially with teachers and school psychologists. Know that they are trying to help. You can help yourself by requesting appointments with those at the school who are involved. Get as much information from them, since procedures will vary from school to school. Some districts offer printed material and pamphlets. As a parent of a gifted child, you need to be sure the school understands all your child’s needs. There will be areas that your child will excel in and areas that she/he cannot keep up in-both need to be considered.

The process generally begins with identification, then testing, followed by classification, and finally, intervention.

Identification: Unfortunately for g/ld children, they are recognized faster for their disability than their abilities. The identification can come from either the school or the home. In any event, someone notices that there is a problem. It can be that the child has high standardized test scores but low achievement in classes. She/he may exhibit specific problems like lack of attention, poor spelling, difficulty with memorization, and/or general disorganization. The teacher or the parent can request a screening with the school psychologist.

Testing: Probably the most controversial issue in education today is the use of testing. States will mandate that some form of testing be used to substantiate classification. Widely used is some form of IQ test, especially the Wechsler scales (WISC-III). The WISC profiles of g/ld children show distinct discrepancies between scores on each subtest. What you as parents want to see, though, is a wide variety of tests used in the evaluation. No one test should be used to evaluate your child’s functioning. A psycho-educational evaluation should include information about emotional issues and achievement levels. How children feel, after all, can influence their motivation for school.

The evaluation should include the following types of testing (Note: tests listed are for example only and will vary from school to school):

Individual IQ:

  • Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – III (WISC-III)
  • Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scales of Intelligence (WPPSI)
  • Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale-IV (SBIV)

Achievement Test Battery:

  • Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT)
  • Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Battery
  • Detroit Tests of Learning Aptitude (DTLA)

Some Form of Spatial Evaluation:

  • Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test

Social/psychological Functioning Inventory:

  • Vineland Social Maturity Scale
  • Adaptive Behavior Scale-Public School Version

and/or a Classroom Observation Checklist

You want the assessment to specify many forms of functioning: academic, social, and psychological. Does the testing account for all areas? Is there a “whole child” perspective? Most importantly, you want to see the report generated by the school psychologist prior to any committee meeting. You have the right to see what is written about your child and should expect enough time to read it. You may even want to arrange a meeting with the school psychologist so she/he can explain the report to you.

Classification: At some point a meeting will be scheduled so that classification can be discussed. In some districts this is called a Committee on Special Education or a Pupil Personnel Team. Whatever the name, this is where Individual Education Plans (IEP) are developed and classification made. The make-up of the group will vary with members of the committee and school personnel. Those conducting the evaluations should be present to make the case for appropriate programming. One thing to keep in mind if you are looking for a g/ld classification is that there may not be a gifted specialist on the committee unless you make a case for it. This is a question of enrichment as well as remediation, and accomplishing this requires the coming together of both sides. Above all, keep in mind that this is meant to be a coming together of concerned parties, not a battle about your child. You, as parents, are a vital part of the process. Your insights into your child are invaluable; if something does not correspond with what happens at home, then ask for clarification. Offer suggestions to teachers, if need be.

Intervention: Remediation is always the first concern of special education personnel. Certainly you would not be sitting in a committee meeting if your child did not need help with some skills. Don’t let anyone forget that your child has talents that can be tapped. What better way to teach her/him to read than by using material that is interesting to the child? This is where your insight into home behaviors will help the school personnel understand. Above all, concentrate on strengths. Ask if it is possible to have enrichment as well as remediation. Sometimes you won’t know unless you ask.

What Can Parents Do?
  1. Be involved with your child and her/his schooling. Find out what’s happening and not happening in the classroom. Be sensitive to the subtle signs from your child that needs (social and academic) are not being met. Boredom and frustration are always the most visible indicators. Find ways to do work at home that blend with what is happening in the classroom. More is not always the answer; sometimes the work has to be different to be effective.
  2. Become an advocate for your child. Learn all you can about what is available in your school, district, county, and state. Become active in the PTA. Don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard. There are many other parents in similar situations. Look for ways to utilize the resources of both special education and gifted education.
  3. Spend time with your child and focus on activities that accentuate her/his strong points. Children with disabilities tend to concentrate on their own weaknesses. Help your child see that there are things at which she/he excels. She/he may never learn how to spell or read quickly, but there are things she/he can do quite well. Tap into creativity; help her/him find new ways to get information that does not frustrate efforts.

Most importantly, keep a positive attitude. This will facilitate the home-school relationship. The school is there to help your child learn; let them know you are, too.

Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Fall, J., & Nolan, L. (1993). A paradox of exceptionalities. Gifted Child Today, 16(1), 46-49.
Gunderson, C. W., Maesch, C., & Rees, J. W. (1987). The gifted/learning disabled student. Gifted Child Quarterly, 31, 158-160.
Silverman, L. K. (1989). Invisible gifts, invisible handicaps. Roeper Review, 12, 37-42.


Resources for Parents
Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1987). Perfectionism: What’s bad about being too good? Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press.
Alvino, J. (1985). Parent’s guide to raising a gifted child. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Delisle, J. R. (1987). Gifted kids speak out. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press.
Fisher, G., & Cummings, R. (1990). The survival guide for kids with LD (learning differences). Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press.
Galbraith, J. (1984). The gifted kids survival guide. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press.
Walker, S. Y. (1991). The survival guide for parents of gifted kids. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press.


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