Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Education, Part II

So today I went over to my daughter's school for a Parent/Teacher Conference. I had previously spoken with the principal and the teacher on separate occasions, and got very different vibes from each regarding my daughter. This turned out to be very telling, at least to me.

The meeting this afternoon was between me, the principal, the school counselor, and the teacher. We very quickly agreed that the goal for all of us was for Carolyn to be successful. Academically, there is no problem, at least in terms of grades. She excels - surprise - at all her work. Homework is often done in class, and if not is usually done very quickly at home. No, the academics are not an issue. At issue here is behavior.

We got into a detailed discussion about the behaviors that were being seen, and not just what those behaviors were, but why. The counselor and principal seemed very in tune to the fact that Carolyn is very advanced intellectually for her age, but that the realities of asynchronous development in gifted kids often results in a wide disconnect between the intellectual level and emotional/judgment level of the same child. Carolyn is probably operating intellectually as a 9- to 11-year-old in many areas, but may not be quite to the level of her age peers in terms of judgment and emotional control.

And then came the surprise.

I had been prepped - by family, friends, and other - to not expect much. That there really wasn't much they could do, given the structure of the school system. That most educators and administrators really don't know much about dealing with gifted kids. That I would have to fight hard to get the kind of instruction that my child needs. Apparently, it was our lucky day.

The discussion between the principal, the counselor and myself turned to how we can challenge my daughter more. How insufficient challenge leads to boredom, frustration and potential behavior issues. We discussed methods with which we could further engage Carolyn, while still fitting into the basic day to day curriculum. What kinds of rewards would entice her? How could we give her more choice in what she does and what how she is rewarded, while still guiding her onto the right path and helping her learn the social skills necessary to survive in a school setting? What tools, what methods could we implement to let her grow at her accelerated pace, while staying within the structure of the classroom?

We discussed better techniques to communicate with her. Her teacher was taken aback when the principal, counselor and I all told her to talk to Carolyn in adult terms. She had been talking to her in a tone slightly more than a 1st grader. To Carolyn, this was coming across as talking down. We don't talk like that with her at home. The teacher admitted that she had never had a child like this and was unsure how to proceed. So we came up with a variety of game plans and goals to set, and ways to hit those goals that would minimize the conflict and maximize the potential for learning.

I had expected the teacher's lack of experience with a gifted child. But I had also expected a lot more resistance from the staff. Instead, I had a great, constructive experience with staff members working to find solutions, and educating a teacher in dealing with a gifted kid. We came up with some mentoring solutions, allowing Carolyn to express herself and investigate science and art - as long as she can maintain behavior in the classroom. We came up with a plan to give her more advanced reading, and then have her produce projects on what she read - create a board game, produce a skit of puppet show, get rewards by completing specific books with comprehension.

The ideas were numerous, inventive, and productive. Will they all work? Probably not. But some will. But most importantly, I got acknowledgment from the staff that with a gifted kid, an approach will only work so long before it needs to adapt. The child will outgrow the usefulness of the particular approach, and will change their behavior. And that's when we need to adapt to that change and figure out the next plan of attack. As we zig and zag with these adaptations, we will get closer and closer to achieving the goal of being able to self-regulate her emotions and behavior, while still feeding that Ferrari of an engine that is her mind.

I left the meeting, after 90 minutes, feeling optimistic and empowered. As a team, we will find what will work. If we don't, if they can't follow through on what was discussed, then other avenues exist. But if they are willing to work with us, and commit as they have to finding the right solutions, I'm going to give them the shot to do it.

Forward Thinking In Education

I wish this program existed when I was in school, and that more schools were aboard with it now:

From High Ability:

So what is Credit Flexibility, and how can it benefit gifted students? Credit Flexibility is a change in thinking. According to the ODE website, the “plan shifts the focus from “seat time” to performance.” Students now have several different avenues to get those extra credit hours needed to graduate. This benefits gifted students in several different ways. One benefit is that students can now test out of a class, and get the full credit for the class. This is very similar to the way universities operate. If a student can demonstrate that they comprehend the material at a mastery level they will have the option to test out of that class. Another benefit that is given in this provision is “education travel,” which basically allows a student go to a foreign country and learn the culture and language. The student then completes a project about what he learned and incorporates that into some real-world activity. And the student can get high school credit for that. There are other ways that students can earn those graduation credits:

According the ODE website, students can earn credits by:

* Completing coursework;
* Testing out of or demonstrating mastery of course content; or
* Pursuing one or more “educational options” (e.g., distance learning, educational travel, independent study, an internship, music, arts, after-school/tutorial program, community service or other engagement projects and sports).”
This is really thinking about the needs of gifted kids, and gives them an opportunity to excel at their pace. With a program like this in place, kids and educators can minimize the time spent in classrooms rehashing material that the student already knows, and instead focus on the new material to feed those hungry minds. In return, we get kids who flourish with brilliant minds, the kind that bring us new ideas, and new solutions.

Kudos to the State of Ohio!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Education

Tomorrow, I get to experience my first parent/teacher conference. Included in this meeting will be the teacher, myself, the principal, the counselor and the behavioral specialist. Sounds like fun.

So, what is this meeting about? On the surface, it's about Carolyn's behavior. She's had a hard time the first six weeks of school. She's fidgety, she questions authority, she is sensitive and intense, she seems to lose focus. I have been advised that they are going to want to label her Emotionally or Behaviorally Disturbed.

That's the surface. What they're missing - and a lot of folks have a hard time understanding - is that she's neither. There's a very good, valid reason for the behavior she's exhibiting. She's bored. Very bored.

Recently, we tested Carolyn's reading ability. She tests out somewhere between 4th and 5th grade reading level. Today, she was curious about how bees make honey, so I pulled up a few web pages for her to read. I put them up on the big flatscreen TV so that she could read them more easily. She read about how the bees draw nectar into their honey stomachs from the flowers, and how enzymes break the complex sugars into simple sugars, then regurgitate the sugars into the honeycomb cells, sealing them with wax. She read about how 80% of nectar is water, and how many bees serve the queen bee on average.

When she finished reading one, she asked me to look at another. I pulled it up and she began reading, and noticed - very quickly - that much of the information about water content, enzymes and hive population were the same. I directed her to where the information was new, and she read that as well.

When she was done, she asked me what an enzyme was. I explained that it was a chemical that allowed other substances to react and change. She said "Oh, so that's how the nectar changes into the honey in the honey stomach. So how come it's so sticky"?

We talked a bit more and I sent her off to read a children's encyclopedia to try to find more information on bees.

Carolyn is not yet 7 years old. She reads - with comprehension - three to four years ahead of her grade level. In speaking with her teacher last week, I mentioned that Carolyn had used the word practical to describe someone, properly, in context, and spelled correctly. The teacher looked stunned. "Really? Practical? She proceeded to tell me that Carolyn had maybe two other children in her class that were slightly above grade, two or three more that were at grade, and the rest below grade, some of whom can't read at all. Carolyn is reading and comprehending the basic idea behind the conversion of nectar to honey.

Carolyn is gifted. That's not a proud dad talking. It's actually a specific term for individuals who perform in one or more areas significantly above their peers. But even that definition doesn't come close to describing how these individuals process information, or truthfully, the challenges they face. For example, the kids in her class are spelling three- and four-letter words: "cat", "hat", "sat". Carolyn, in writing about what might be an unacceptable behavior, wrote "disrespectful".

When you talk with her, she sounds much older than she is. Which, of course, is part of the problem. One of the first challenges gifted kids face is that of "asynchronous development". While in some ways they are far ahead of their peers - particularly in intellectual areas - other areas are at, and sometimes below, the norm for their age. They talk like a ten-year-old. They act like a 6-year-old. This disconnect causes problems because people expect them to behave like an older child.

Gifted children are also more intense by nature. Things that make them happy make them very happy. Things that upset them make them very upset. It's one of the reasons that gifted kids get misdiagnosed as suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder. But there's a big difference: BPD sufferers won't cycle from minute to minute. Their cycles last days, weeks, even months, traveling up to a mania and back down into depression. They don't go from high to low. And there usually isn't a specific trigger. Gifted kids will get very upset about something, but there is usually (at least in their reasoning) an explanation for it. It will usually make sense, even if it is from a mistaken impression. Child expects A to happen, has nor reason to believe it will not, B happens, child wigs out. The child has not yet learned to adapt (she's six), and the reasons she has built her expectation on have gone away. As a rule, kids don't misbehave because they want to cause trouble. They misbehave because there is something else bothering them and they don't know how to deal with it. Intellect and judgment are not the same thing. Intelligence and wisdom complement each other, but are not the same trait. One is inborn, the other is acquired. At six, how much wisdom, home much judgment could they possibly have acquired?

Another folly is to try to get a gifted kid to do something "because I said so". Gifted kids are too bright for that. They want to know why, and it had better be a good reason. If it's not, they'll call you on it. Not because they want to cause trouble, but because it's the way their brains work. They have a need to know, to learn, to grow. It comes across as defiant, because we all too often fall into the trap of thinking in terms of what we think is "appropriate" behavior for a child. But for a gifted child, the questioning is in their nature - they're just wired that way.

In the November 10, 2009 issue of The Tech, MIT's campus newspaper, Ryan Normandin gives some great examples of the challenges facing gifted kids and their parents:

The Maryland Council for Gifted and Talented Children has an excellent list that compares talented children to those who are gifted. Some of these comparisons include: while a talented student knows the answers to the questions, the gifted student will ask questions of the teacher. While a talented student listens well and learns easily, a gifted student displays strong opinions and emotions and is often bored in class, having already known, sometimes intuitively, the answers. Other characteristics include a willingness to challenge authority, a subtle, sophisticated sense of humor, and the ability to see patterns, trends, or connections that others do not pick up on. Some gifted students will often accomplish high academic achievement with little effort while others will suffer bad grades due to a lack of challenge, lack of interest, and boredom with what they view as basic or intuitive subject matter. With abilities so different from the average student, is there any question that there is a need for a comprehensive, federally mandated gifted program? Apparently there is.
So, these kids need to be fed the fuel to keep their mental engines running. When you don't they start to let you know with their behavior. I've been reading a number of books and blogs on the topic, and in virtually every example they give, you can take out the subject's name and drop in my daughter's.

It has been an education for me. Some of these things I knew intuitively because I was identified as a gifted kid, and I think she's ahead of where I was. Some I have had to learn.

But the real education seems to be with others. With family and educators who don't yet understand the difference between these kids and the average kid. And what I feel is now my priority. We make accommodations for kids who are behind their class, and rightly so. We need to help these kids be the best they can be. But along the same lines, we need to help gifted kids be all that they can be. That should be the goal of all education - to help our kids achieve the most they possibly can. And that means learning about how to help the kids who are behind, and the kids who are ahead.

So tomorrow, I'll be walking in with some information, with some knowledge, and the hope I can bring better understanding to the situation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009


Originally, I was going to write a post about gifted children, and the challenges in identifying and parenting a gifted child. While we have always believed Carolyn was ahead of other kids, I have recently been doing some suggested research on parenting a gifted child specifically. I was going to write about that. Now, I'm just too exhausted.

Tonight, we endured a 45-minute screaming freak-out from the kidlet. What was the freak-out about? She had been told that using a hairbrush she found on the playground could result in her getting lice. Cue atom bomb.

This isn't the first time she's gotten wigged out by ideas of bugs in her hair. A couple of months ago, while at daycare, one of the kids put a mop on her head and told her that now she had cockroaches on her head. She insisted that she had to wash her hair because of the aforementioned cockroaches. When the teacher at daycare wouldn't let her soak her head in the sink, she flew into a rage, hitting a teacher, screaming and crying. Of course, there were no cockroaches, but the damage had been done.

Tonight was close to the same. In fact, the tantrum went on for a solid 45 minutes, insisting that since Melissa told her that she *might* get lice, that meant she would. And that she wanted clean hair and didn't want to be itchy, so we had to cut off all her hair RIGHT NOW! She kept repeating it, over and over and over - "Just cut my hair off! I don't care if people laugh at me! Just cut it off NOW!", all the while tears streaming down her face and screaming as loud as she could.

She finally calmed down after her Grammy called and explained that we would just comb through her hair and if there were any lice, we'd find them. Of course, we'd already explained that, but she wasn't upset with Grammy. And she went to bed, and off to sleep. And we were exhausted. Emotionally, physically, mentally spent.

But this behavior, as I'm learning, is not unexpected. Gifted children often have to deal with "overexcitabilities", extra sensitivity to certain stimuli. These include intellectual, sensual, imaginational, psycho-motor and emotional stimuli. Carolyn exhibits at least some of the signs of each of these, with some very strong. From the book "A Parent's Guide To Gifted Children":
"People with emotional overexcitability may show frequent temper tantrums (beyond the age of three) and displays of rage, possibly related to losing a game, feeling left out, needing to be the best, or not getting their way.  Their emotions can be extreme, and also puzzling, to adults."  Id.  Sadly, children with this overexcitability are often accused of  "overreacting."
 Hmm... sounds familiar.

Kids who suffer from this type of overexcitability are often described as "sponges". They soak up everything, sights, sounds and emotions. And when the things don't work out the way she expects - boom. As Miss E over at "Loving Your Gifted Child and Much, Much More" explains:
I learned early that she wouldn't fall apart over not getting her way, she would fall apart over her perception of reality being different than the reality itself.  It LOOKED like she was having an "I want my way" tantrum to the casual observer, but it was actually that she


that the situation was different than the expectation she had created for it.
In Carolyn's mind, the possibility of getting lice was a reality. She had already processed in her mind that she had lice, that it would itch, that it would mean she had dirty hair, and that the only solution was to cut off her hair. And no amount of discussion, explanation, or reasoning was going to convince her otherwise.

This happens a fair amount. She paints pictures of how things are, and when they turn out not to be that way, things go south. I don't believe she's trying to be difficult - she just sees things a different way. Of course, once she gets locked into an emotional situation, it's done until she can't get back in control.

This results in an exhausting battle. In the end, we just stand there, letting her scream, keeping her from kicking the walls or breaking anything. And eventually, she calms down. Eventually. Meanwhile, you're spent watching your child go off the deep end, screaming in your face to cut off her hair.

We'll work through this, and we'll all figure out how to teach Carolyn the skills to get better control of her emotions. But in the meantime, we'll be a little more tired.