4th July 2019

A parent’s guide to understanding your child’s spiky learning profile

A parent’s guide to understanding your child’s spiky learning profile Cover Photo

Julie Taplin, Chief Executive of Potential Plus UK, looks at the considerations for children with Dual or Multiple Exceptionality...

Does your child have some areas where they learn with ease? Perhaps they have expertise in one specific area of interest. Or they have exceptional visual or auditory memory? At the same time there are other areas where they really struggle. Perhaps they have difficulty keeping on track and finishing a task? Or they are frustrated by their inability to transfer their thoughts clearly onto paper?

In the UK, this kind of spiky learning profile is called Dual or Multiple Exceptionality and is often shortened to DME. It is used to describe children who have one or more special educational needs or disabilities and also have high ability (which Potential Plus UK calls high learning potential).

A minority within a minority

The majority of children in the UK do not have a special educational need or disability (SEND). The majority of children in the UK do not have high learning potential. Therefore, those children who have both high learning potential and have one or more special education needs or disabilities are a distinct minority within a minority. This is an important point for parents to consider, as finding an appropriate educational setting for these children is clearly very important and is made more difficult by the fact that they have very complex educational needs. Their abilities are advanced in some areas, but significantly lagging in others.

Characteristics and consequences of a spiky profile

These characteristics should help parents understand their child’s learning profile. Not all of these characteristics will relate to all DME children, but any combination is likely to create a spiky profile.

Intellectual strengths:

  • Ability/expertise in one specific area
  • Active imagination
  • Extensive vocabulary
  • Exceptional comprehension
  • High performance in tasks requiring abstract thinking
  • Excellent visual or auditory memory
  • Creativity outside school

Academic difficulties:

  • Poor handwriting
  • Poor spelling
  • Difficulty with phonics
  • Inability to do seemingly simple tasks, whilst completing more complex ones
  • Success in either mathematics or language subjects, but challenges in the other
  • Difficulties in completing tasks with a sequence of steps discussions
  • Inattentive at times

Emotional indicators:

  • Confusion about abilities
  • Strong fear of failure
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Experiences of intense frustration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of being different from others
  • Poor social skills


  • Disruptive in class
  • Often off-task
  • Disorganised
  • Impulsive
  • Creative when making excuses to avoid tasks they find difficult
  • Frustrated, sometimes spilling over into anger or aggression
  • Withdrawn at times

Dependent on how these characteristics are recognised and understood in a school setting DME children are likely to share some common traits.

1. Children whose high learning potential is recognised but whose special education needs or disabilities are unrecognised often share the following traits:

  • Compensate for their special needs through the use of their advanced abilities. This can lead to their learning difficulties being hidden.
  • As they grow older, their special needs cause an increasing discrepancy between their expected and actual performance in school.
  • The overall impression they give of being ‘very able’ is often contradicted by poor performance.
  • Ability enables them to ‘get by’.

When high learning potential compensates for a special educational need or disability, they frequently are not identified as having SEND. Neither are they deemed suitable for receiving extra support or provision. For example, a high potential learner with dyslexia might develop coping strategies within a classroom, perhaps by relying upon verbal proficiency to get through lessons.

2. Children whose special educational needs or disabilities are recognised but whose high learning potential is unrecognised can share the following traits:

  • Often noticed for what they cannot do, rather than what they can do.
  • Special educational needs and disabilities affect their achievement to a great extent and their strengths in other areas are not recognised.
  • Restrictions are placed on the extended learning opportunities on offer in school.
  • Often fail to achieve their potential in school.

For some DME children their special educational needs or disabilities are seen as their sole distinguishing feature. Such children are at greater risk of not being identified as having high learning potential and thereby lose out on support to develop their abilities. These children then miss out on opportunities for challenge and enrichment, which are the basis of good provision within the education system. This can be a very demoralising situation for high learning potential children to be in, as they are not given a chance to reach their own potential, but are instead set much lower targets (for them) across the board; irrespective of their individual strengths or weaknesses.

3. Children for whom both high learning potential and special educational needs or disabilities are unrecognised can share the following traits:

  • High learning potential masks their special educational needs or disabilities, and their special educational needs or disabilities mask their high learning potential
  • Intellectual abilities have to work harder to compensate for perceived weaknesses associated with an undiagnosed special need.
  • True abilities may only surface when they are given an opportunity to unlock their area of talent.
  • This is the group which is most at risk of under-achievement.

When DME in its entirety (that is the strengths as well as weaknesses) is not recognised and supported there can be severe implications, not only with regards to consistent underachievement, but also for these children’s self-esteem, mental health, emotional well-being, aspirations, further education and career prospects.

4. Children for whom both their high learning potential and special educational needs or disabilities are recognised are the lucky ones:

More likely to feel understood and supported both at home and at school.

Often feel comfortable enough to voice concerns regarding any difficulties related to their special educational needs or disabilities.

Academically or creatively challenged on a regular basis.

Access to learning support aids/provision if necessary.

These DME children are most likely to fully achieve their true high potential. The experience of a consistently supportive education will positively influence their self-esteem and self-confidence, enabling them to seek further challenges and new experiences, which should in turn lead to positive learning and wellbeing outcomes.

What next?

Having an understanding of why your child might have a spiky learning profile is the first step to ensuring that they are in a school that can provide appropriately for their educational, social, and emotional needs. Potential Plus UK is an educational charity that supports children with high learning potential, including DME learners. By providing information, advice and training to parents and to schools we aim to improve educational and wellbeing outcomes for DME children. There is more information on our website including free advice sheets on DME:

For more information about Potential Plus UK, see www.potentialplusuk.org

This article first appeared in the 2019/20 edition of Which School? for Special Needs. The digital version can be viewed here: