Asynchrony is a term used to describe uneven development across cognitive, psychosocial, and physical domains. It’s often a striking characteristic of many gifted students who may have high cognitive ability but tend to experience marked unevenness or delays in the development of their social/emotional and motor skills. Socially and emotionally the development of these children is usually more akin to that of younger students, while their bright young minds far outpace their motor abilities. To work successfully with 2e students, it’s essential to understand their developmental asynchrony.
Twice-exceptional students typically experience uneven development in their growth pattern (Baum, Novak, Dann, & Preuss, 2010; Baum & Owen, 2004; Eide & Eide, 2006; Singer, 2000; Webb et al., 2005). This unevenness is frequently the cause of anxiety and unpredictable behaviors on the part of the students (Baum, Novak, Dann, & Preuss, 2010). As anyone who has seen Tom Ropelewski’s documentary will remember, one twice-exceptional student explained this dilemma:
Mentally I’m probably 2 or 3 years ahead of most kids my age, but socially I’m probably 2 or 3 years behind…. I’m stuck in a weird time warp thing….
This was a youngster who was clearly advanced cognitively, with interests and knowledge more sophisticated than those of her age-mates. Yet, she also had immature social skills and displayed oppositional behaviors when asked to write or produce anything, especially during her middle school years.
Uneven growth across areas of development causes these children to become easily frustrated while working on tasks beyond their readiness level, especially when it comes to production. This frustration can lead not only to anxiety, but also to aversion in initiating work. These bright students find it impossible to produce at a level that adequately reflects their intellectual thinking. On the other hand, if instruction is pared down to what the student can actually produce, he or she may become bored and distracted and may feel disrespected by teachers. Because the emotional regulation these students display may be like that of a younger child, behaviors resulting from their frustrations are difficult to understand and to deal with. In short, asynchronous development requires adults to alter expectations and to support the students at each of their disparate levels (Vygotsky, 1978).
Dealing with Asynchrony at Bridges Academy
Teachers at Bridges Academy are acutely aware of asynchronous issues. They use Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to meet students where they are at each stage of development. For example, if a highly verbal and knowledgeable student frustrated by a writing assignment melts down, teachers understand that the student needs to regroup. They allow time and space for the student to calm down, asking questions like: Would you like to wash your face? Do you need to take a break? Do you need someone to walk with you? While these strategies are more often used with younger children, they are appropriate for students whose emotional development is lagging years behind.
Another effective strategy is to provide talent development opportunities. Doing so can offset feelings of anxiety and frustration brought on by asynchrony and also show respect for what the student can do well. During 8th grade, the young woman quoted earlier was experiencing difficulties, spending more time out of the classroom than in the classroom, especially during physical education. She was an artistically gifted student whose passion was painting. The psychologist and school head excused her from physical education for a few weeks to pursue an artistic project that, when finished, was visible to the entire school. It made all the difference for her well-being, allowing her to gain self-confidence along with increased motivation to produce in her other classes.
Tips for Parents and Teachers
Here are some ideas that parents and teachers can use when dealing with an asynchronous 2e child.
- Give advanced opportunities in a student’s areas of strength, but make sure these opportunities don’t tax the student’s underdeveloped motor skills. For instance, if a student has advanced abilities in science, allow that student to engage in experimentation and discussion, but don’t require that the student write out lab reports at grade level.
- Use technology and scaffolded assignments, especially for writing tasks. Scaffolding builds on what learners already know and helps them accomplish what they would otherwise be unable to do. To be most effective, adults who provide scaffolding should have a keen understanding of asynchronous development (Baum, Novak, Dann, & Preuss, 2010). Many software programs or apps are available that help students organize ideas and put their ideas in writing without taxing their fine motor skills. For instance, have students prepare a PowerPoint presentation or an illustrated mind map instead of the more typical assignment like producing a five-paragraph essay. Both the PowerPoint presentation and the visual mind map can be a bridge, or scaffold, for the production of the essay when a student is ready.
- Coach students contextually in social skills when they are working with others. Instead of enrolling students in social skills classes, it might be easier for them to learn and apply social skills if they are taught in a context in which the skill is important. For instance, if students were to learn about active listening and looking others in the eye, it might be best taught and applied in a drama class or as part of preparing a student for an upcoming interview with a guest speaker.
- Provide appropriate physical education opportunities at a student’s own developmental level, allowing the student to compete against his/her own personal best in sports such as track, swimming, or golf.
- Be patient and understand that it takes time for discrepancies among emotional, physical, and cognitive areas of development to become more aligned. Focus on growth over time and recognize how far a student has come.
For more information, see this booklet from the Spotlight on 2e series: The Mythology of Learning: Understanding Common Myths about 2e Learners, pp. 8-12.
- Baum, S., Novak, C., Dann, M., & Preuss, L. (2010). The mythology of learning: Understanding common myths about 2e learners. Glen Ellyn, IL: Glen Ellyn Media.
- Baum, S., & Owen, S. (2004). To be gifted and learning disabled: Strategies for helping bright students with LD, ADHD, and more. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning.
- Eide, B., & Eide, F. (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success. New York, NY: Hyperion.
- Singer, L. (2000). If gifted = asynchronous development, then gifted/special needs = asynchrony squared. In K. Kiesa (Ed.), Uniquely gifted: Identifying and meeting the needs of twice exceptional students (pp. 44-49). Gilson, NH: Avocus.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R. (2005). Misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses of gifted children and adults: ADHD, bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, depression, and other disorders. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.