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.

1 comment:

Missy | Literal Mom said...

Leo -
I have chills reading this. It reminds me so much of where I was with our Oldest a few years ago. You know what the answer is, but you have to climb a scary, IMPORTANT uphill road, advocating for her, while at the same time not alienating the people who have her under their care all day long. It's tough. Carolyn sounds brilliant and vivacious and wonderful. It is so sad that some others aren't yet seeing that from her.

A couple of thoughts about your meeting today if you get this before it:

1 - I always, always take the angle of "we are in this together and we ALL have the best interests of this child at heart" when meeting with school personnel.

2 - I would not expect them to roll over and say "oh YEAH, you are SO right" at this initial meeting. It sounds like they have "decided" certain things about her and psychologically it's very hard to get people to change an impression once formed (I'm sure you know this well). But it's so important that you continue working on it with them. Emotionally "disturbed?" Why that word - so stark. "Challenged" would be so much more PC - it makes me a little concerned about the way they approach their kids.

3 - I'm not sure where you got the reading test done, but good for you! I suspect that you might have to go the full monty, though, and provide them an IQ at some point. Some people really can't "believe" until they see that kind of number, you know? And from what you describe, it sounds like she will be quite high.

GOOD LUCK. Please share how it went. If you don't want to post publicly about it, send me a DM on twitter and I'll give you my email.

Thanks for sharing what a wonderful girl she is,
Miss E