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Unreasonable expectations, part 2

This is a second in a two-part piece about the current state of educational testing in our K-12 schools. The first half covered the reliability of standardized testing, whether we should be using standardized tests for younger children, and digital educational design. Click here to read Part 1.

The tests don’t test what we think they test

My informant pointed out a huge problem with her third graders taking the test: much of the test had no audio component, and assumed that they could all read and write well enough. But as anyone who has taught children to read will tell you, some kids just learn later. They don’t learn worse and it has nothing to do with their intelligence overall. Late readers are not less successful in life.

The test will now assess one skill ahead of all others: typing.

But here’s what she had to say about her group of kids: “There was no audio component to the math, so a lot of the test was really a reading test. If they couldn’t read the paragraphs, they couldn’t answer the questions. And they sure as heck couldn’t write a paragraph.” The Common Core assumes that if you understand something, you should be able to write about it. (I won’t get into the question of why any reasonable 8-year-old would actually want to write about math!) But clearly, the less able readers were not being tested on their understanding of math—they were being tested on reading, which depressed their math scores.

On top of that, this test is also a test of a skill most kids don’t learn until middle school: typing. “And OMG they have no typing skills. I’m not sure a 3rd or 4th grader needs typing skills in general, but they were not ready to type for a grade. It was painful to watch.” Again, their math skills took a backseat to something the test designers didn’t even take into account. If we really wanted to find out their mastery of math, we’d let the teachers read the instructions out loud and type for the kids, or install voice recognition software so they could dictate.

Unreasonable expectations:
Standardized tests have been around for a long time, and over those long years, we have learned a lot about them. Here are some things we know about the tests themselves:

  • They are inherently biased. They can be made better and better through tinkering, but they can never reach the stated goal of being instruments that find out “what a child knows” because some children, for a variety of reasons, will never do well on them regardless of their mastery of a subject.
  • They are not good predictors of much of anything except how well a child will do on his next standardized test. The SAT, a much better test than any ever designed by a state government, is retooling itself because of the much-publicized research that shows, conclusively, that a good SAT score predicts absolutely nothing. Except, maybe, a good GRE or LSAT score!
  • They do not measure the worth of a teacher. Great teachers have all sorts of effects on their students’ lives, but improving their students’ standardized test scores is not a given effect. You can have a great teacher who does amazing things with kids who does not bring up their test scores.
  • They do not measure the effectiveness of a school. There are so many other factors that are as important or even more important than test scores. Test scores are one tiny factor that administrators can use to judge schools, but they are not the most important factor by far.

Yet our unreasonable expectations of this test are that it will somehow:

  • Be better at testing all children at their own level. See the point above about the inevitable bias. These tests won’t do any better than other tests. Sure, the kids who have trouble tracking from a test booklet to the correct bubble to fill in might do better, but these tests will inevitably end up biased against some other group of kids.
  • Predict a child’s success outside of test-taking. No, these tests will not predict any such thing. They will merely predict how well the child will do on the next standardized test. Period.
  • Show how well a teacher is teaching. This is absolute idiocy and any idea that teachers should be punished or rewarded based on test scores is rooted in a deep cultural distrust of teachers, not in any sound educational theory. Some teachers may indeed bring up their students’ test scores, but I sure hope those teachers are also doing something useful for their students.
  • Give us a way to “rate” schools. I have my own personal way to rate a school. I walk into the school and watch. In a great school, the students will be happy and relaxed. Yes, they may also be deeply focused on what they are doing, but that doesn’t mean they’re not also happy and relaxed. The parents will enjoy the school and feel welcome there. The teachers will feel energized to come to work; they will feel a partnership with the school administrators, other teachers, their students, and the parents. None of these important factors is represented in a composite test score. Yes, the score is a useful piece of information, but it alone does not rate a school.

Until we as a culture deal with our unreasonable expectations, it doesn’t matter how “good” the test is. A standardized test is a measure of how well students take standardized tests. In other words, it’s a measure of how much vocabulary they have heard in their few years on this earth. It’s a measure of what their parents discuss at the dinner table, assuming they have parents, a dinner table, and food to put on it. It’s a measure of how often the people they spend the most time with (and this is not teachers) talk about numbers in real life so that they become comfortable with number sense before being required to learn other skills that build on number sense.

A standardized test is also a measure of a child’s personality—nervous, anxious children don’t test as well regardless of their background. A child who didn’t have protein with breakfast won’t test as well. A child in the first day or two of coming down with the flu won’t test as well as she would otherwise. A child who lives daily with the fear that his older brother will be shot by his friends won’t test as well as he should. A child who is told he is too stupid to learn won’t do well on tests, and a child who has been overpraised about her intelligence (ironically enough) won’t test as well.

In conclusion, there are simply too many factors within the messiness of one person’s little life to put such weight on the results of a test. Sure, let’s make a better test, because we always need to improve the information we gather. But let’s not think that this test is going to solve any educational problems we have. It’s just a test, imperfect, limited in scope, and vulnerable to bias and technical problems. Education is just too important and complex to be judged by such a narrow, flawed instrument.

Posted in Culture Critic, Education.


Unreasonable expectations, part 1

This is the first in a two-part post about the new tests being administered through the Common Core. To find out more background on these tests, visit the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium.

It’s that season again, the one that used to involve lots of filling in of bubbles. This spring, Google is giggling all the way to the bank as our schools purchase carts full of Chromebooks to have their students take the new, Common Core-aligned computerized tests.

Reports have been filtering in from around the country, with tales of crying children, broken software and hardware, and lots of overworked IT guys. But I wondered how things were going locally and talked to a teacher from a shall-remain-unnamed local public school. (Not my daughter’s school—her class hasn’t gotten to take the test yet because the district is worried about too much net bandwidth at one time so they’re spreading out the pain.)

The tests are new, and this year they “don’t count,” which actually doesn’t mean that they aren’t taking data from the results. The data, in fact, will be very important. We the parents, however, will not get to see our children’s scores, nor will the scores be used to fire our beloved, hardworking teachers. Not yet, at least. The data they’re taking is supposedly going to improve the test itself, and from what my teacher-informant tells me, there’s room approximately the size of California for improvement.

Reliability of the test itself

This is the issue that, it seems, the state is most concerned about, but frankly, it’s the least of our worries. My informant tells me that there were questions that required answers to proceed, but the test offered no spaces in which to put answers so the students couldn’t proceed. OK, that’s a simple software problem, but since the teachers aren’t supposed to “help” the students in any way, kids like my very literal daughter would have just sat there, unable to proceed.

There was no way for my informant to judge the quality of the content of the tests, but I’m sure we’ll find out that these tests have all the same problems as other standardized tests: multiple choice questions for which there are two, truly valid answers; deliberately misleading questions; fuzzily worded questions that don’t actually have a valid answer, etc. That’s par for the course in state-designed tests, and I really don’t know that there is a fix for it.

Appropriateness of the test for the age group
examcomicFrankly, I don’t think any standardized test should be administered to any child under the age of, say, 12 except in situations where you really need certain specific information. The very word “standardized” says it all—by creating a common standard you end up judging seals by how well they climb trees.

However, that said, if we must test younger children we can do two important things to make sure the test is appropriate:
1) Don’t make the test too long.
Let’s face it, even if the above-average 3rd-grader can sit for an 8-hour test over three days, most kids suffer.
2) Don’t create a test the requires tools that some kids might not have mastered.
For example, the old bubbles were a challenge for some kids, especially those with trouble tracking their eyes from the booklet to the answer sheet.

This test fails miserably on both counts. This year’s test was shorter and my informant said her 3rd-4th graders did OK, but she can’t imagine them hanging on for next year’s 8-hour test without some of them suffering terribly. Just because we adults have become office drones attached to our computers doesn’t mean our 8-year-olds need to be! If we really want to know their achievement level, why do we administer tests in such a way that will make it impossible for them to do their best?

And then there’s the whole question of asking young children with varying degrees of familiarity with technology to be able to use a computer with a trackpad, little tiny icons, and little tiny boxes they have to click in. Imagine the difference between the speed of a well-off kid who owns her own iPad and a kid who has no computers in the home—this is clearly not fair and clearly not developmentally appropriate. The number of hours of exposure in school is not enough by third grade to expect mastery of these physical skills by kids who don’t practice at home.

Digital educational design
I had a very bad feeling when it was announced that our tests would all be delivered by computer. Yes, there are some great aspects of this. No more tracking from booklet to answer sheet. No more one-test-fits-all since computers can adaptively offer questions at each student’s level. No more checking patterns of erasure after the teachers have had unmonitored access to the tests.

On the other hand, I started in digital educational design in the 90′s, creating the first online classroom materials for our local community college. The teacher I worked with on one project had learning disabilities and was a passionate advocate for his learning disabled students. Instead of a paper textbook, he and I created a website that had resizable text and also audio versions of the text. (Since screen reading software wasn’t advanced at the time, he recorded the whole thing!)

This experience led me to be keenly aware of the fact that online educational tools create very different challenges, and not everyone who is hired to design these tools is really qualified to do it. (I’ll save my rant about the quality of educational IT in general for another time!)

My teacher-informant reported a shocking first fact: Her school had “chosen” not to let the students take the tutorial that teaches them how to use the test environment first. How is the state letting this be a choice? Obviously, any school administrator who looks at the enormous pile of curriculum they’re required to get through is going to try to “save” tutorial time for something else. But in order for the tests to be effective, each and every student should be required to use a tutorial until s/he reaches a minimum standard of proficiency on the tools. Any student who can’t get up to speed on a tutorial should not be allowed to continue with the test.

This should be obvious to the people who designed the test, since (theoretically) we’re not designing these tests to prove that economically disadvantaged students are “stupid,” right? (Or are we?) You might think that I’m exaggerating how much trouble these kids have with the technology. However, my informant’s students are largely not low-income, yet she reported a number of problems, most of which she was not allowed to help with:

  • In the first part of the test, the students themselves are required to type their name in all caps (Chromebooks don’t have a caps lock key), an i.d. number with mixed numbers and letters, and a session passcode that had both 0′s and O’s in indistinguishable type.
  • And then there’s the use of icons with no text, one of my major pet peeves. Yes, there are those who think in pictures, and they all love Ikea’s instruction sheets. The rest of us, though, need language. I’ll let my informant describe what it was like to watch kids with varying levels of exposure to modern technology deal with this: “The kids don’t know the speaker icon is for hearing stuff. Some can’t read the directions. For example, they are given a paragraph and the directions are, Highlight the sentence that is out of place. They don’t know that they are supposed to highlight a sentence. They are looking for the dot to click or the space to type something. AND I CAN’T TELL THEM they are supposed to highlight a sentence.” Cuz that would be helping, right? And God forbid we let teachers help… the kids might learn something.

Continued:

Click here to read why the tests don’t test what we think they test, and why our expectations for this test really are unreasonable.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Education.


Firmament

Most of life goes on as we plan. We make our to do lists and write events on our calendars, and for the most part we keep with the program. Occasionally I find myself deleting something from a to do list that I realize I am never actually going to do. And relatively often, usually late in the day, I beg off on something I’d wanted to do but is just one too many events for that day.

But then there are those hiccups in life that push everything else aside. Ours came in the middle of the night last week, when our phone rang with the caller ID displaying my husband’s mother’s name.

I was the one who picked up. I knew, as soon as I heard the tone of her home care provider, Pamela, what the news was going to be. My mother-in-law had died in her sleep, simply stopped breathing after complaining of flu-like symptoms at bedtime. The paramedics were unable to revive her.

Her death was not completely unexpected – she was 89 and suffered from a variety of smallish health concerns. But what is smallish in a younger person can be life-threatening in the elderly, and we knew that just as she could conceivably live for years more, she could also go anytime.

Gram

She was an ardent admirer of both her child and her grandchildren!

Her death was a shock, and we are all saddened and miss her a lot. But given the circumstances, it was about as good a death as one could hope for. She surpassed her life expectancy, nurtured strong family bonds in her very large extended family, and maintained active friendships with people throughout her life—from those she’d known since she was a child to those she had met recently in her years in Florida.

My husband and I went to Florida to pick up the pieces, and found that she’d left us one of the best gifts we could remember: Her papers were in order, with very few questions and oversights. I can only imagine the chaos that we would have stepped into if she hadn’t been so thoughtful and organized.

Life goes on and we continue to make plans and put things on the calendar. But as my husband said on the plane, it was as if a piece of the firmament that our family’s life was built on had dropped out, leaving us all off-balance. We’ll miss her dry wit, her unswerving faith in her child and grandchildren, and especially that quality in her that led nearly everyone she met to consider her a friend worth having. Everyone from neighbors who had recently moved in to the woman at the medical device company reacted to her easygoing Brooklyn charm. And once they got to know her, they were never let down. We hear the same story from everyone: she was a great friend, mother, grandma, and mother-in-law.

We’ll miss her.


Addendum:

My husband writes:

I just realized that I misspoke: the firmament is the sky, thus we could not build our lives on it. :-( I meant to say fundament… although that has the unfortunate alternative meanings of buttocks or anus. My mom would have loved that. :-)

I guess you could alter that sentence to say something about living under that firmament.

I have to say that living “under” one’s mother-in-law doesn’t quite work for me! But I agree that she would have thought the pun with “fundament” quite funny, so please feel free to replace firmament with fundament in all of the above!

Posted in Avant Parenting.


Parenting tip #324: Don’t be indispensable

When we had our first child, there were naturally things that I did better or things that my husband did better. And quickly, as new exhausted parents, we fell into a trap: We let ourselves become indispensable.

It took me years to understand how dangerous this trap is. A few successes in packing snacks for my kids going on an outing with their dad, and suddenly my packing snacks became a necessary part of each outing. My husband puts a child to bed successfully with no bedtime call-backs and no nighttime wake-ups, and it becomes his de facto job.

Both of our kids were pretty inflexible about a change in plans when they were little. In preschool jargon, this is called “difficulty with transitions.” My husband and I joked that our kids could set up a non-negotiable new tradition in our household just by experiencing something once. So if I once put chocolate milk powder into a child’s milk, suddenly, they had always wanted chocolate milk powder, they will always want chocolate milk powder, and the world will end if we’re out of it and they want milk.

When you have kids higher on the intensity scale, you know how easy it is to fall into this trap: One time things go better getting a kid out the door if you get his jacket and shoes and help him put them on, and suddenly you are a slave to the jacket and shoes routine. You know that every child-rearing book on the planet is reminding you that it’s best to let kids muddle through doing things on their own, yet you also know that the doctor’s appointment is in 15 minutes, you have a ten-minute drive, and somehow it always takes at least 5 minutes to exit the door and sit down in the car with a seatbelt on.

So you let yourself become indispensable one more time.

(‘Just this once won’t hurt’ is, of course, the addict’s refrain.)

Both of my kids are double-digits now, and you’d think it would become easier to keep from being indispensable. But even with older kids, it’s easy to fall into the trap.  I still find myself working hard against my mothering need to “make it all better” for my kids. I see them struggling through something and know that I could do it better, faster, easier. Or I find myself doing something that I really should have them do, just because it’s more expedient. Or I give in to a demand that we both know is unreasonable, and once I give in, suddenly it’s my responsibility to take on the task—even when you have teens, a repetition of one can set a new routine that’s hard to break.

Recent research has shown what parents have known (and ignored) for eons: when you let kids muddle through, not only do they become more self-sufficient, but they actually learn better and more deeply. Part of parenting is knowing when to step back: when to let the other parent put a child to bed even if it results in a tantrum, when to shrug and say “that’s life” when kids make ridiculous demands, when not to help even if you know things will go better.

For my part, I had to do it again this morning. Having been presented with a demand that I simply could not fulfill, I just had to answer, “Hm, I wonder how you will solve that dilemma.” My mothering instinct was screaming at me to make it all better, but at least I knew I had science on my side!

Posted in Avant Parenting.


Forging new teacher relationships for your twice-exceptional child

Note: This article was originally published in the Winter, 2012 issue of the Gifted Education Communicator.

Parents of gifted children have it hard enough: each time our children interact with a new adult, whether a teacher in school, a camp counselor, or a new violin teacher, we have to be prepared to train yet another adult in how to work with gifted children.

Parents of twice-exceptional gifted children face a much higher barrier: Most teachers have never even heard of the term “twice-exceptional.” Not only will some of them have no training in giftedness, but most of them will believe that a child with learning differences could not possibly be gifted at the same time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first hurdle parents face, therefore, is whether to mention the word “gifted” at all.

“Mention giftedness, and be mentally prepared for eye-rolling,” advises J. Marlow Schmauder, founder and executive director of the Asynchronous Scholars’ Fund (asynchronousscholars.org), “although there are definitely teachers out there who will respond with an open mind and intent to help.”

“Mentioning my child is gifted has never really helped,” says Linda Hickey, mom of a profoundly gifted six-year-old. “Even a teacher who was a developmental specialist and was the head teacher in a developmental preschool my son attended, and who claimed she has worked with lots of gifted kids, did not truly understand.”

Marté J. Matthews, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with families of gifted children in San Jose (martejmatthewsmft.com), suggests that it may be a matter of wording.

“Teachers are less likely to be receptive to parents using terms like ‘gifted’ or ‘twice-exceptional’ or criticizing every fault their child has,” Matthews explains. “’All or nothing’ descriptions tend to be a red flag for teachers that this parent is going to be a handful to deal with all year.”

Lyn Cavanagh-Olson, GATE Coordinator for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, agrees that the starting place for parents should be to clarify their intent to support the teacher rather than to define their child and appear to predict failure.

“Most teachers welcome insight into their students,” Cavanagh-Olson says. “If parents approach the teacher not with demands but with information and support they will be doing their child a great service.”

Whether or not their training included giftedness, most teachers will likely have little understanding of twice-exceptionality. Linda C. Neumann, editor of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter (2enewsletter.com), says that parents need to be strong advocates for their 2e students.

“Teachers may not realize that a student’s strengths are helping compensate for the deficits and that this compensation can use up a lot of the child’s energy, making it hard to keep up a consistent level of performance,” Neumann explains. “If a teacher becomes aware of this situation right from the start, it can save the child from embarrassment, discouragement, and even worse, anxiety, depression, and loss of self-esteem.”

Offering information can backfire, however, if the parent implies that she believes that the teacher is inexperienced, or gives an overwhelming amount of information that the teacher will not be able to use. Parents need to draw on the teacher’s previous experience, be good listeners, and offer information in a non-threatening manner.

“Parents need to be respectful of the teacher’s time when sharing information,” Neumann advises. “Instead of saying, ‘You should read this book,’ or ‘You should read this 50-page report about my child,’ it’s better to provide the teacher with a brief summary of the situation and suggestions for accommodations and strategies.”

“Write out a short summary with the highlights of your child’s strengths and needs to share with your child’s teacher,” advises Matthews. “Bring the additional testing, grades and reports, but don’t lead with them.  Ask your teacher about successful approaches they have used with kids who ‘love math but avoid spelling’ or ‘tend to distract others when they need more intellectual challenge’.”

When giving advice about working with a 2e child, try to stay very specific. A generalization like “too many options overwhelm him” will not necessarily result in the teacher changing his strategies, but a specific suggestion like “please assign him to a learning station rather than asking him to choose” will help the teacher adapt in actual classroom situations.

“I will alert teachers of specific things they might want to watch out for with my son like how he gets wound up easy and gets really excited,” Hickey explains.

“Mention strategies you find helpful at home,” Schmauder suggests. “Provide fidgets and such similar assistive things from the start, if not against the rules.”

“Goal setting and organizational strategies are important for all students,” says Cavanagh-Olson. “But most 2e’s need specific instruction and tools, so if parents can share past success in these areas, most teachers will be open to building on what has worked in the past.”

In acting as advocates for their children, parents will benefit from refocusing from the negatives of the past to the positives they hope will come from the new relationship. Lyn Cavanagh-Olson says that parents she works with see greater success when they frame the discussion in the positive.

“The concept of 2e may be foreign to some teachers,” she says. “So stressing the need to focus on the child’s strengths and compensation strategies will keep the conversation constructive.”

“Often, the strengths aren’t easily recognized,” Neumann explains. “2e children can appear to be uninterested, lazy, distracted, or disruptive; and their inconsistency can make it look to others as though they can achieve when they want to, but they don’t always want to.”

Schmauder, who developed “The Healthcare Providers’ Guide to Gifted Children” for the Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum (giftedhomeschoolers.org/professionalresources.html), is in the process of creating a similar brochure for educators.

“Tell the teacher you are so happy to have them be able to help your child succeed, and that you’re willing to help in any way, and that you appreciate their support,” Schmauder suggests.

Teachers say that this approach completely changes their ability to work with students. Rebecca Hein, who teaches cello and wrote a memoir about raising her two profoundly gifted children (caseofbrilliance.wordpress.com), offers testimony that learning about a student’s learning disability made a huge difference in how she approached teaching.

“I had a young Suzuki student whose progress was quite slow for her age,” Hein remembers. “I had no idea why until the mother finally told me. It was much easier for me to work with her, knowing that she had this particular issue in her learning. I was grateful to have the information because it helped both me and this little girl.”

Cavanagh-Olson has seen a lot of gifted students in her district suffer from their other exceptionalities. She reminds parents that 2e students need even more support after they have suffered difficulties in school.

“They often feel defeated about school because their deficits have defined them. Focusing on the whole child with the balance tipped toward their strengths is a good vision for parents and students to work toward.”

New teacher checklist:

  • Set up a brief meeting to talk about your child’s learning needs
  • Offer a short summary of your child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Do not overwhelm with information, but be prepared to offer other resources such as testing/diagnostic results, articles that define your child’s exceptionality, and suggestions for modified teaching strategies
  • Be a good listener, and make it clear that you want to draw on the new teacher’s experience
  • Offer specific advice that has worked in other classrooms
  • Be your child’s advocate, focusing on success
  • Offer strong support to your child

 

 

2e Resource List

Resources regarding twice-exceptional children and adults are changing daily, with new research, treatment options, and understanding of what comprises giftedness and learning disabilities. Hopefully some of the resources below will be helpful as you seek to understand your 2e children and students.

Books:

  • Academic Advocacy for Gifted Children: A Parent’s Complete Guide by Barbara Jackson Gilman MS
    This general guide helps parents navigate advocating for their gifted students in school, and offers advice on homeschooling when advocacy fails.
  • Helping Gifted Children Soar by Carol Strip & Gretchen Hirsch
    This book is a general guide for parents and teachers on the educational needs of gifted children. It offers a basis for understanding the educational and emotional needs of gifted children, with some mentions of issues specific to twice-exceptional students.
  • Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults by James T. Webb et al
    Because giftedness itself often leads to behaviors shared by such disabilities as ADHD and autism, this book is an important guide for parents and educators of the gifted. Misdiagnosis is common in gifted children because so few psychologists and therapists are trained to recognize the traits of giftedness separate from disorders that present similar behaviors.
  • Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties by Rich Weinfeld et al
    This is a straightforward guide to navigating the public and private school experience with a gifted, learning disabled child. The book includes information on a range of disabilities including Asperger’s, ADHD, Dyslexia, and social/emotional difficulties. Each chapter includes tips for educators, parents, and students, and is accompanied by helpful worksheets and guides for identifying and solving problems faced by students in school.
  • Successful Strategies for Twice-Exceptional Students by Frances A. Karnes and Kristin R. Stephens
    This resource book useful for parents, teachers, and homeschoolers, offers focused advice for a variety of learning challenges. Rather than starting with the source of the disability (e.g. autism or ADHD), the book is organized by the educational needs themselves: difficulties with mathematics, writing, reading, spoken language, and social-emotional issues.
  • Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner
    This book addresses a wide range of learning difficulties that teachers may encounter in the general education classroom. Winebrenner addresses twice-exceptional students early in the book and emphasizes teaching to the strengths of all children, regardless of ability.
  • Twice-Exceptional Gifted Children by Beverly A. Trail
    This book aimed at educators presents detailed research about the characteristics and learning needs of twice-exceptional students in school. It offers concrete guides for identifying needs, selecting strategies, and developing a comprehensive plan for each student.
  • Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner by Linda Kreger Silverman
    Though the visual-spatial learning style is not defined as a disability, it can manifest itself as one when a VS learner is placed in an inappropriate educational environment. Silverman’s book offers tips for identifying, teaching, and parenting VS learners.

Websites:

  • Davidson Institute for Talent Development Database: http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/browse_by_topic_articles.aspx
    The Davidson Institute offers this enormous database of articles about all aspects of giftedness. On this page, take a look at the far right column to see the list of twice-exceptional topics that they have categorized: ADHD, Asperger’s/Autism, Asynchrony, Dylexia/Dysgraphia, Learning Disabilities, and Sensory Integration. The breadth of this collection may seem daunting, but you can find unexpected gems here.
  • Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum: http://www.giftedhomeschoolers.org/2eresources.html
    Whether or not you homeschool your child, this resource page will point you to many organizations, websites, support groups, and books about your child’s specific disability.
  • Hoagies’ Gifted 2e Page: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/twice_exceptional.htm

Hoagies’ offers their own comprehensive list of 2e resources, with links to websites, books, and magazines with a variety of approaches and target audiences.

An online database of articles, webinars, and speeches on all topics of giftedness.

Specific articles available for download:

  • “The Paradox of Giftedness and Autism,” from the University of Iowa: http://www.education.uiowa.edu/belinblank/pdfs/pip.pdf
    Designed for educators, this detailed discussion of educating gifted children with Autism/Asperger Syndrome will be also helpful for parents who wish to offer specific tips to teachers working with their children.
  • “Strategies for Teaching Twice-Exceptional Students,” by Susan Winebrenner: http://www.2enewsletter.com/article_strategies_winebrenner.html
    This article offers tips for parents and educators that can help students with a variety of exceptionalities succeed in a classroom setting.

Newsletters/magazines:

  • 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter: http://www.2enewsletter.com
    2e offers a free semi-monthly e-mail briefing as well as a fee-based semi-monthly PDF newsletter. The magazine’s accessible articles are written by expert educators, psychologists, and others who work with gifted children with learning challenges. 2e also offers a series of Spotlight on 2e booklets, which cover a variety of issues of concern to parents and educators.
  • Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities Newsletter: http://www.smartkidswithld.org
    This newsletter offers short articles on news, research, and support for parents and teachers of children with learning disabilities.

In person:

SENG groups are run by a facilitator (a parent, teacher, or counselor) who has been trained by SENG. This can be an excellent way to connect with local resources, including learning more about other parents’ experiences with your schools and teachers.

For twice-exceptional kids:

  • Free Spirit Publishing’s books for kids: http://www.freespirit.com/
    Free Spirit offers lively books written for kids on a variety of topics of interest to twice-exceptional learners: ADHD, autism, anxiety & fear, etiquette & manners, social skills, and more.
  • The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide by Judy Galbraith
    For kids 10 and under, this book helps kids understand giftedness and why they may feel different from other kids.
  • The Gifted Teens’ Survival Guide by Judy Galbraith and Jim Delisle
    This is a general-use manual for gifted teens. It covers what giftedness is, how different gifted children’s lives look, school, homeschool, college, and careers. There is a lot of good advice in the book, which encourages teens to see themselves as a full person rather than an IQ. The book also covers topics such as sexuality and depression.
  • How to Talk to an Autistic Kid by Daniel Stefansky
    This touching book is short and to the point. Written for neuro-typical children who interact with kids with autism, it could also be used to help an autistic child understand better how others perceive him and what he can do to help them understand him. The book is most suitable for adolescents and teens.
  • Neuroscience for Kids website: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/neurok.html
    This fun, free newsletter features links to interesting articles that help children understand their brains.
  • The Smart Teens’ Guide to Living with Intensity by Lisa Rivero
    Rivero’s book is like an owner’s manual for the teen gifted brain. It presents teens with information on what intensity is and how to manage their emotional and social lives. It also helps teens learn about learning and how to become more self-directed in their studies.

 

Posted in Education, Psychology.

Tagged with , .


Getting body, heart, and soul back

I was explaining to another mom recently about how I felt now that my kids are older, and I have gone through the process of getting my body back (not having a kid hanging on me all the time) and my soul back (feeling like my emotions are tightly wrapped up in theirs). She said that she has heard other parents say that having a child is like reinstalling your heart in another person’s body, which is a similarly appealing analogy. (Though then the literalist in me wonders how you split up your heart into your multiple children…. the soul I can imagine as a more diffuse thing, easier to divvy up among the children!)

It’s a surprising thing the day you step back and realize that you’ve got it all back—yes, you still love your children and their joys, failures, heartaches, and successes are an important part of your life—but you see them go off and have these experiences independently from you. I can see this both with my homeschooled child and the one who is attending school, so it’s not just a function of sending your kids physically away from you each day. There’s something else, some elemental bond that is still there but becomes less like a heavy leather leash and more like an ethereal thread that can stretch to any distance necessary.

The leash was hard for me. I remember the weird mix of relief and anxiety I’d get when I found a way to get away from my small children for a time. They both went to preschool, and both spent time with babysitters and other family members. But no matter how much they were away from me, it didn’t make that leash feel any more comfortable. Small children are so dependent on us physically that even when they’re not with us our bodies are in tune with theirs. I would get a morning to work and have to resist the temptation to call my mom to see if she’d remembered to give them a snack. My body would remind me, even though I wasn’t hungry, that unless snacktime happened it would be fusstime.

Yesterday I had a real milestone dropping my 14-year-old at his first community college class. Those of you with smaller children are probably expecting that I’ll say that he and I were both anxious and wondering how it would go. The wondering part, yes, but anxious? Not really. It just seemed natural and easy to leave my child in the company of random adults with an apparent age-span of 50 years. He and I waited outside the classroom, then once the other class let out, it was just a simple “seeya later” and I walked away.

One of the things I’ve learned in my parenting years is that when your child is really ready for something, you can actually feel it. I remember when I realized that my son was truly ready for kindergarten, about half-way through his last year of preschool. His teacher noticed it, too. “He is SO done with preschool,” she told me. I also remember my anxiety about whether my daughter was ready for kindergarten. If I had listened to myself more, the answer would have been a clear “no.” Though she was truly more than ready to do the intellectual learning expected of her, she wasn’t ready for the demands of a classroom. It took us three miserable months to get that through my thick skull (which had been so busy planning what I was going to do with my free time that I ignored all the signals). She ended up not being ready for the classroom experience until she was almost ten. How much heartache could we have avoided if we’d listened to the clear signals that she needed time to develop skills that other children tend to develop earlier?

I think this being able to feel your child’s readiness is related again to the leash—or that ethereal thread. There’s just a certain feeling that comes up with a child is attempting something doable. Of course, at times there is value in attempting something that will end in failure, but for the most part I like to use the image that teachers use: scaffolding. You offer up learning in chunks big enough that the child is able to go up a step and reach something new, but you don’t offer that high window of learning until the scaffolding is built up. Similarly, in deciding which new experiences are right for a child, it’s helpful to look and see what kind of a stretch that experience will be.

Only a year ago my son was saying that he “never” wanted to go to community college during his homeschooling. But in that last year the scaffolding rose up, and yesterday that new window was an easy reach.

“Seeya later—”

and that ethereal thread stretched just a little bit further.

Posted in Avant Parenting.


What’s a parent to do about health and diet?

I think parents around the Internet responded strongly to the article Puberty Before Age 10: A New Normal?, published in the New York Times, because it hit on how vulnerable we feel when it comes to making decisions about food. It’s extremely hard to decide what to believe on the issue of how to feed our children a healthy diet and avoid dangerous substances in their food. There is so much competing information out there, and so much “evidence” that is cited that really isn’t evidence at all. How can we make decisions when the information we get is so confusing?

First of all, what sort of evidence should be considered “hard” evidence? The difference between “hard evidence” and “evidence” is that hard evidence withstands rigorous inquiry:

  • It’s reproducible
  • It can be seen on a large scale
  • It doesn’t go away in double-blind testing

There’s lots of “evidence” out there that indicates that some things in our environment may be making our kids sick. But how do we know how to react to all this information?

The problem with knowing whether we are “causing” these problems with the chemicals in our environment is that human bodies are so incredibly complex. And the problems we’re seeing are complex. Put those two things together, and designing a strong study becomes nearly impossible. Sometimes scientists can look at epidemiological evidence (longterm evidence, for example, that a certain type of cancer is rising), but that doesn’t answer the important question: Why? What’s causing it? Is only one cause or a combination?

Here’s an example of this complexity: I wrote at one point about the clear evidence, from the experience of many parents and with some evidence from studies, that gifted kids are more likely to have what is called “reactive hypoglycemia” and that they are likely to respond well to adding Omega-3 oils to their diets. Someone wrote back telling me that if my child was acting crazy when he was hungry, then there must be something deeply wrong with my child and he needed a full medical work-up. But no, many parents see that if we keep enough O-3 in our kids’ diets, we see marked improvement. And since that’s an easy, healthy way to fix the problem, and it’s very hard to find “hard” evidence past that, parents have to be satisfied that at least there’s a workaround.

But how would we get “hard” evidence for something as complex as the behavior of certain kids when they are hungry? First of all, they would have to take parents’ opinions out of the mix, because we are unable to be truly objective observers. But next, they’d have to find a way to verify that they have a large sample of kids who have this problem, and since it’s hard to test the problem without living with the kids, you’d have to put parents back into the formula. In other words, there’s no “hard” evidence for this phenomenon or the cure, but that doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist or that the cure doesn’t work.

In the case of what’s causing this “early puberty” and how it can be fixed, we have even greater complexities. Is the onset of puberty really getting earlier in our country? Is early breast development the same as early puberty or does it just have one obvious characteristic in common? And even if we can prove it’s happening, how can we prove that a substance nearly ubiquitous in our food supply is the cause? One of the reasons it took so long to prove that smoking causes lung cancer is that smoking was so ubiquitous, scientists had trouble proving that it could be a factor. (Even one of the lead scientists on the first major study doubted they’d get any clear results… the day they started compiling their data, he quit smoking, but still died of lung cancer a few years later!)

I talked to my kids’ pediatrician about this and he said he believes, as I do, that the influence of diet on our health is the major new frontier in medical science. The way our healthcare and scientific systems are set up, however, it’s really hard to get funding for this type of research: the “cure” doesn’t involve a drug that a company can benefit from. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of non-MD/scientists getting into this field — people who are into alternative medicine and are seeing marked improvements in patients just by dietary control. But since that field is also rife with charlatans (who just want to make money) and true believers (who are willing suspend rational judgment), the insistence on rigor and sound data goes out the window.

Correlation vs causation

From XKCD.com

As to how we parents should respond to this confusion, it’s clear that each parent has to make her own decision based on principles she believes in. Some parents are willing to make huge, difficult changes in their lives in case the people who espouse radical opinions are correct. My family’s approach involves straightforward lifestyle decisions:

  • Avoid milk/meat raised on hormones and antibiotics
  • Avoid BPA-lined cans and no heating in plastic containers.
  • Mostly organic produce, with an emphasis on all organic for plants that show high residues (root veges, fruits that you eat the skin of)

But I am not going to turn our lives upside-down for this, because I also believe in a balanced, enjoyable life. Thus, yes, sugar is pretty bad for us, but we love desserts and do eat them in moderation. And yes, we would be better off eating only whole grains, but pleasure in food is also part of health and frankly, sometimes a lovely croissant is just what your body and soul needs!

Finally, I think it’s best for parents to avoid reading inflammatory articles if these articles affect them negatively. Definitely don’t go looking at these magazines whose sole purpose, it seems, is to make us fearful of modern life. We are living longer and healthier lives because, in many cases, of the very same advances in applied science that may be making some of us sick. It’s very complicated, but with reasonable people taking reasonable care to sort it all out, things will continue to improve. As parents, we have an obligation to make our concerns known. But we don’t have to torture ourselves about the decisions we make – sometimes we just have to go forward with what we’ve got.

 

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Health.


Neither good nor bad, but very different

Recently I spoke about blogging at my son’s journalism class, and we talked about a lot of aspects of how journalists’ lives have changed due to the Internet. I talked about how my blogging is probably the equivalent of the ‘zines that used to pass between people who shared similar interest. When I was in my 20′s, for example, I read zines about music. They were little photocopied pamphlets that a person would make and sell to others with similar interests. The likelihood that a zine would reach even 1000 people was very small—back then, it was so hard to find people with similar interests because you were confined to the physical world.

These days, every blog is like a zine but with some obvious differences: for one, it’s free, and more importantly, you can reach so many more people. Blogs range from those with no readers (save the writer) to those with millions of readers. The effort that the bloggers put forth ranges from occasional musings to the equivalent of a full-time job. And the rewards of a blog range from a charming pastime to, in a few cases, a decent income.

What blogs don’t have, what has largely been dumped from the process altogether, are editors. Blogs are a journalistic free-for-all—taken as seriously by many people as serious news websites, they are not held to any journalistic standard at all. This gives bloggers incredible freedom, but also means that bloggers don’t benefit from the intellectual back-and-forth that characterizes a good writer-editor relationship.

Do I think this is a bad thing? Well, on the one hand, yes, we all suffer from the loss of editorial control. Writers suffer because editors force us to be better writers and to think more deeply about what we’re writing about. Readers suffer because we are presented with such a range of content that it’s hard to discern what has been written thoughtfully and with attention to facts and what has been dashed off by someone in a steam. Media outlets suffer because they think that they’re gaining—cool, we don’t have to pay those pesky editors anymore!—but actually they’re losing quality, credibility, and the maturity of writers who have someone to answer to.

Back in the day of ‘zines, the zine writers didn’t have to answer to anyone, and that made them exciting. It was so fun to read someone’s uncensored opinion. At the same time that I might pick up Spin Magazine from a newsstand, I’d read some photocopied zine with a person’s bold thoughts in it. Spin would have access to all the stars and all the opinion makers, but the zine would be much more fun.

Blogs have blown the world of journalism wide open. The world has changed and will never be as it was. Is this a good thing? Sure. Are there things I think we’ve lost? Most definitely. I hope that as the Internet matures, we all learn to find both the fun and excitement of uncensored opinions and also the challenge and importance of well-reasoned, well-edited journalism. Right now, I fear that such journalism is just going to go away, but I hope that things will shift as we all become more savvy consumers of online media.

How the world has changed 

A girl dying of leukemia made a request to hear holiday caroling outside of her home. 6000 people turned up. Would this have happened in the days before social media? Certainly, spontaneous, large gestures did happen, but behind the seeming spontaneity was a group of hard-working people who had to physically round up the participants. Social media, blogs, and the immediacy of the Internet has changed the landscape of our lives.

Posted in Culture Critic.


iPotty, uPotty, we all scream for iPotty!

Well, the votes have been tallied up and the winner has been decided. The award? The TOADY, given by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to the toy most deserving of our parental disdain. The competition is really tough out there, but this year the award has again gone to a toy built around a screen, the iPotty.

iPottyWhy, you might wonder, do these parents hate screens so much? Are we all luddites, looking back to the past before technology took over our lives?

That is, perhaps, one explanation. It’s natural for parents to compare their children’s lives with their own and wonder whether they’re doing the right thing. We remember climbing trees when we were kids though now we’re raising our kids in a treeless desert, or we remember how much we loved our public school though we have chosen a private Montessori, or we remember the joy of eating a bologna and American cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread while we’re raising our kids whole grain vegan organic.

But most parents are pretty quick to separate silly nostalgia from serious comparison. We may expound on the delights of eating Ho-ho’s while watching Gilligan’s Island, but that doesn’t mean we think it’s the right choice for our kids. Most of us actually make choices with some amount of thought, and we know that we make compromises each and every day. If we didn’t come to peace with our compromises, parenting would lead directly to a padded cell.

There is nowhere so fraught with compromise than how we parents have allowed screens into our children’s lives. Most of us probably grew up with television, but none of us grew up with cellphones that play high-resolution video games. The change that our society has gone through is extraordinary, with today’s children facing an adult future dominated by jobs that didn’t even exist when we were kids.

My own parenting life has straddled this change. A very useful book I got during my first pregnancy reviewed various brands of baby equipment and noted that some of the companies even had websites! If I were pregnant now, I wouldn’t buy such a book—I’d be reading blogs, consulting reviews submitted by thousands of parents, and subscribing to Facebook pages.

But despite our longing for a past when our kids actually wanted to go outside and play, there’s a much bigger and better reason for parents to reject a product like this: Our small children simply don’t need screens. Every piece of evidence gathered about babies and toddlers is that they learn through human interaction with the real world. Babies who are regularly put in front of screens have measurably lower IQs. They don’t bond as well with the adults in their lives. They don’t get on the business of learning what children their age should be learning. [Read this great piece by Media Mom.]

Apptivity Seat

And hey, how ’bout the “Apptivity Seat” from Fisher-Price? Yet another bad idea to put kids in front of screens.

Yes, I’m sure that some study will come out showing that babies who use iPads have quicker reflexes or learn to track small objects earlier than other babies. But that’s not the point. Babies with screens are hitting the pause button on the business of being babies. In my family, we use technology as useful tools for learning, working, and entertainment. But when technology gets in the way of life, it’s time to turn it off and get back to real life.

And how much more “real” can you get than potty training? Integrating screens into an essential physical learning process is silly at best, psychologically damaging at worst. If I had small children now, this is one compromise I personally wouldn’t be able to come to terms with. Introducing screens into the bathroom is an idea that simply…eh…stinks.

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Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Health, Psychology.


Enter the big girl

I just gave away my daughter’s play kitchen. This may not sound very monumental, but in our house, it’s huge. She’s about to turn 11. The play kitchen is the correct height for a 3-year-old.

A few years ago, I first broached the idea that if she got rid of it, she might have room for something else in its place…something she’d actually use.

“But I love my kitchen!” she exclaimed. OK, I thought, she’s not ready yet.

Some time later, the subject came up again. She set her face in one of those stern looks that signals no room for bargaining.

“OK,” she said. “But only if I can sell it for $100.”

Boots

A long ago time when the kitchen had all its knobs.

In case you think this sounds reasonable, let me describe the kitchen: Once upon a time it may have cost $100 from one of those fancy European kid stuff catalogues. However, it had been through a few children before my daughter took over. Every time we glued the handles back on, they’d fall off. She put stickers on it and then peeled them—mostly—off. With new kitchens sporting microwaves and faucet handles that turn, this one harkened back to the days when kids were supposed to use their imaginations. In other words, no one was going to pay $100.

So I gave up again.

Sometime last year she started to complain that she had nowhere to put anything. Please note that this kid is not hurting for storage space. She has an enormous closet, a dresser, a set of shelves, and three huge drawers that pull out from under her bed. But her room was filled with the details from every stage of her life. She not only had every baby doll she ever got, but also all the clothes she’d bought and made for them, their broken stroller, and medical equipment from surgery she had when she was four (now used when her babies were sick). She won’t let me give baby books away, so I one time I put them all up on the highest shelf to make room for books she was actually reading. Over the next few weeks, most of the baby books came back down, one by one as she felt the need to read them for the thousand-and-fifteenth time.

This is a person who places great value on remembering her past, which is something I definitely understand. (Heck, I wouldn’t keep this blog if I didn’t get that!) But while I am a particular culler and documenter, she is a pack rat extraordinaire. When I attempted to get her to throw away two plastic water bottles she’d brought back from Greece, she said in exasperation, “But they’re Greek! I have to keep them.” She wants to keep pretty much every piece of paper she ever does a scribble on, and doesn’t see any harm in keeping broken toys “in case I need them someday.”

But along with double-digits comes a new practicality. She has started to be more selective in what she keeps. The Greek water bottles, yes. The broken toys, cheap stuffed animal from the dentist, and great numbers of pieces of string that might come in handy someday went without complaint.

And now the kitchen. It was taking up a small but important piece of real estate in her room, and it was clear that if she were going to be able to make changes, she’d have to part with it. You may be expecting that I will now tell a tale of tears and fond goodbyes, but that’s the magic of growing up. As we hauled pounds of her past life out of the room, I asked what she wanted to do with it.

And received a shrug in return.

After it was loaded into the car, she didn’t even bother to ask where I was taking it. The kitchen that could only be sold for $100 was given away to a nice little girl my daughter doesn’t even know.

I find these periods of punctuated growth one of the most fascinating aspects of parenting. One day you despair that your child will never do some thing that you desperately want, then months later you realize that he’s been doing it and you didn’t even notice when he started. Our kids’ growth charts may show a smooth, steady line, but their personal growth is all jigs and jags.

Yesterday, hang onto the kitchen at all costs. Today, enter the big girl.

Posted in Avant Parenting.