game on! (using games to teach habits of mind and build connections in gifted families)

July 22, 2012 7 comments

This post is part of the SENG Gifted Parenting Awareness Week blog tour.  You can find links to the other posts here:

I’ve often heard GT parents noting sadly that it’s hard for their families to play tabletop games (boardgames, card games, etc) because the kids really struggle (and sometimes the parents do, too!).  It’s hard to find games that are fun for family members at very different developmental levels.  Games bring up all sorts of emotional experiences that are hard to handle — frustration, failure, gracious competition — and require all sorts of cognitive skills that are hard to develop — flexibility, prioritization, focus, and the like.  There is a lot to learn about big mistakes and small mistakes, big frustrations and little frustrations, good fortune and bad fortune, balancing risk and reward, balancing short-term and long-term, balancing cooperation and competition, enumerating and previewing your options, cheating and playing fair, asking for what you need… Games are hard work!

But they’re also an unparalleled opportunity to learn those skills.  When I was learning to do play therapy with children, one of the courses was organized around the question, “Why am I being paid big bucks to play Monopoly with a 9-year-old?”  You’d be amazed how much is going on inside my head when I’m playing with a kid — I’m constantly tailoring the situation to what the kid can tolerate and what the kid’s actions and the random factors in the game are providing as learning opportunities and how those dovetail with what the kid needs to learn… Part of what makes the play enjoyable for me is the complexity of that process, even while the game may be quite simple.

In our family, we have a lot of fun with games, despite having four people with very different capacities for various aspects of game play (at this writing, Laughing Boy is 6, Little Bird is 12, DH had a respectable chess ranking in high school, and I have somewhat limited working memory which makes me quite bad at detailed, multistep, sequential strategies).  So let me tell you a bit about how I think about games and some of the strategies we use in our family to make them fun and to use them as resources for growth.

Check your own competitiveness at the door:  If you cannot yet honestly enjoy losing to your own kids, then let me suggest this as a place to do a little self-exploration.  Reframe — your goal is to help them get good enough to be a creditable opponent.  To do that, you have to keep them in the game long enough to let them learn, and no one will stay in the game if they lose all the time.  The goal is to design the game-play experience such that the kids stand a real chance of winning.

Play early and often:  You can’t win if you don’t play.  If you play a lot, then the sting of any particular defeat can be diluted.  If a kid loses and seems upset about it, I almost always propose another round (and often tweak the rules to favor the kid a bit more).

Task analysis:  Instead of just thinking about the surface features of a game, start to disassemble it in your mind in terms of what executive-function (or cognitive or academic) skills are required to play it well.  Examples:  Does it require a lot of previewing?  Is it a game that presents a great deal of frustration?  Do you have to be patient when it’s not your turn?

Validate feelings:  When a kid is upset, don’t tell them they have no right to be.  Let them feel how they feel, and help them learn the skills to express those feelings appropriately.  You can be upset, but you cannot throw pieces or upset the board.

Teach sportsmanship:  We do not tolerate trash-talk or gloating or stuff like that.  “How would that make you feel?” is an ineffective strategy for redirection — a kid will typically claim that they wouldn’t mind, and then they’ll draw you into a long and pointless discussion.  Better to set the limit and gently ask for a rephrase.  If they can’t do that on their own, help them with a script.

Help!  Face it, kids aren’t born knowing how to do all of these cognitive or conative things.  Telling them that it’s a good idea to do something doesn’t magically confer upon them the ability to do it.  It takes guided practice and support.  Kids vary widely in how much of this they are willing to take and in what form they like to take it.  But I can say with confidence that most kids don’t like to be lectured.  My go-to strategies for coaching involve (1) noticing in vivo when they do a little bit of something good and subtly praising it (“Hm, so you’re thinking about other options… good idea…”), (2) asking questions that are likely to evoke certain problem-solving methods (“Hm, so what are you trying to do here…? how else might you approach that?”) (3) empathic and compassionate mirroring of what they are experiencing in real time (“Oh, that is so frustrating when the dice don’t come up the number you need!”) (4) direct coaching in the use of self-soothing strategies (“Oy, that was annoying.  Take a few deep breaths before you decide what you’d like to try next.”).

Focus on self-efficacy:  Perhaps the most crucial thing GT kids can gain from playing games is development of self-efficacy, the feeling that they can do things that are difficult and worthwhile.  Notice the accomplishments yourself, even small ones.  Be honest about your praise.  Help them see their own change over time.

Choices, choices:  As much as possible, give the kids choices in how they will participate.  What game should we play?  Do you want to be on a team with someone or play by yourself?  What special rules should we use?  Help them learn to be part of this negotiating process as a valuable set of skills in itself — knowing what you are capable of and asking for the support you need.

Flexible experimentation:  Don’t get too tied down to one particular way of playing a particular game.  Let the process of experimenting be an ongoing one, something we do together as part of the process of playing.  We’re in a joint process of trying to figure out how to make the game fun for all of us.

High variety:  Have a lot of choices available as far as what games to play (varied expansion sets are good, too), and actively resist getting stuck in ruts.  Engage the kids in the process of choosing new games for the family to buy.  Enjoy it when a kid runs into a new game at a friend’s house and asks for a copy for home.

Honesty:  Don’t be shy about saying when there is a game that you simply don’t like playing or have only limited tolerance for.  If you’re not having fun, then you’re not doing much positive for the kid, either.  I had to put my foot down about Mille Bornes about a year ago, when Laughing Boy was constantly asking for it and we hadn’t found a good workaround for some of the overly frustrating aspects of the game.  I despise Candyland and have never owned a copy.  If you cannot find a way to honestly enjoy a game, then put it away and choose one you can find fun.

Luck vs. skill: I like to use games that involve a balance of luck and skill.  The random factors dilute the advantage of old age and treachery, without making things totally random.  Plus, adults can model the “oh, man!” experience of being graciously frustrated when things don’t go the way we want.  Part of why I don’t own Sorry! is that it is too heavily based in luck, and presents an overwhelming and not very modulatable level of frustration.

Cooperation vs. competition:  There are a few games that are pure cooperation, where all of the players are playing against the game itself.  Those can certainly be fun and a good way to get kids in the practice of playing without feeling like they have to lose.  Kids can get a lot of coaching when they need it.  But there are also a lot more games in which the game looks competitive, but in which the optimal strategies require substantial cooperation.  The board games coming out of Germany are great for that.  For example, in Settlers of Catan, if you aren’t willing to make trades with other players and help them out sometimes, you are unlikely to be able to get the resources you need when you need them yourself.  This is a great opportunity for a parent to help a kid in a nonobvious way, by making trades that are favorable for the kid.

Open hands:  A lot of games involve a hand of cards or other resources that are kept secret.  So try playing open-hand, especially when the kid is learning a new game.  You can give much more useful coaching when you can see what the kid’s resources are, and the kid can make many more strategic decisions when they can see yours.

Hidden hands:  On the other hand, as it were, if you keep your hand hidden, then you can make choices about when to not do something you could do.  I do this all the time in games like Uno or Labyrinth — I might have a card I can play or a way to get a treasure easily, but I might choose to pretend that I don’t.  I can make slightly dumb choices, offering the kid an opportunity to capitalize on my “mistakes.”

Teams:  Particularly when we’re playing a heavy-duty strategy game other than chess (Laughing Boy is actually the second strongest of the four of us in chess, thanks to high motivation and Fritz and Chesster), or a game which relies too heavily on crystallized knowledge (“stuff you know”) such as Bananagrams, Laughing Boy’s young age makes it very difficult for him to play on his own.  So we ask him whether he’d rather play on a team with someone else, and let him choose who to play with.  We play other games as 2-on-2, so it’s not always the little guy who “can’t play by himself.”

Handicaps:  Some games have handicaps built into their traditions (e.g., golf, chess).  For most games, we have to create house rules that even out the task difficulty for different players.  But this doesn’t have to be purely an experience of feeling one-down.  Rather, the kids get to experience their own needs for handicap changing over time — even if they don’t win all that often, they can see their own progress changing in that way.

Take a mulligan:  There are times when we’ll offer (or when I have to ask for myself!) the chance to take back a move because it was pretty foolish.  Work that in as part of the regular set of options for modulating difficulty.  If a kid overuses the option, then put a limit on it — give him a limited number of mulligan chits and engage him in the process of deciding when to use them and when to save them.

Switch seats:  One of the best things DH’s father did when teaching him to play chess was to offer to turn the board around.  He’d get the kid totally on the ropes, and then offer to turn the board, giving his son a strong position and giving himself the challenging and interesting problem of, “Okay, now, how do I get out of this?”  Sometimes he’d turn the board two or three times.  Doing this confuses the notion of who really “won” and who really “lost,” keeps the adult hopping, and focuses the frame around learning to play the position.

Total torque:  Use the game materials to create a completely different game, and playtest the game together to learn more about how it works.  Recently, I had a kid suggest a shoot-the-moon (win by losing everything, as in hearts) strategy for Mancala, and before long, he and I were collaborating in the process of figuring out if it was possible to have a game in which one person actually got zero stones.  It was a very interesting project!

Ride the edge:  Pay attention to the kid, not just month by month but moment by moment.  Ramp up the difficulty, complexity, and frustration gradually over time, slowly and at a manageable level.  Notice when a kid is reliably able to handle things, and then use that as your cue to up the ante just a little bit.  Kids need to learn to lose without being crushed by it, so they don’t start trying to avoid the process.

Remember, your number one priority is to keep the kid in the game.  Be gentle and curious.  Admit your own mistakes.  Lose graciously and laugh at yourself.  And have fun!


let’s get off the seesaw (false dichotomies)

May 21, 2012 13 comments

I find myself hearing certain talking points frequently in the world of advocacy, and I think I have some pretty reasonable responses.  Since I can’t be in every single one of your meetings or discussions, perhaps it would help if I shared.  Let’s try one…

The issue is a legitimate one, which is the importance of serving gifted kids’ “social-emotional” (which is what educators use instead of “psychological”) needs.

This applies to adults, too, by the way.  There is a lot of kerfuffle in the world about whether gifted adults exist (we do!) and whether we also might have psychological needs (yep!).  So please don’t assume I’m only talking about kids.  It’s just that in advocacy situations, it typically is a bunch of grownups arguing about how to deal with kids, and it’s easier for me to use that language.

I’m very sensitive to implied frames (if you want to read more about that, try the writings of George Lakoff or Drew Westen), and this one is important.  The metaphor is that of a seesaw — academic-intellectual needs are on one side, social-emotional needs are on the other.  But a seesaw is a zero-sum game: the more you serve one type of need, the less you serve the other.  That is, we cannot meet a kid’s academic-intellectual needs without sacrificing their social-emotional needs, and we cannot meet a kid’s social-emotional needs without sacrificing their academic-intellectual needs.

If you accept this metaphor, you will always lose.  Face it, you’ve accepted being in the position of saying, essentially, “I don’t care about my kid’s psychological well-being.  I just want him to win a Nobel Prize.”  You are playing right into the image of the crazed Kumon parent (anyone besides me notice that the kid face in their logo looks distinctly miserable?).  You are convincing the educators that they are right, that they need to save your vulnerable child from your demanding, and perhaps abusive, parenting.  Even if you acknowledge that some academic needs might need to be sacrificed so that the kid doesn’t commit suicide before proving the Goldbach Conjecture or curing cancer, you’re still accepting the frame that the one of these can exist only at the expense of the other.

Side note: while I would be the first to agree that some parents do take things way too far and do push their kids too hard, the overwhelming majority of the time when I’m sitting with parents and educators considering this problem, folks are actually going too far in the other direction in their attempts to avoid it.

By becoming aware of our implicit frames, we can step outside of them.  I don’t agree with the seesaw.  Except at the extremes, social-emotional needs and academic-intellectual needs are not a zero-sum game.  They are tied together.  We meet them at the same time, by doing the same things.

One of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to experience and overcome meaningful challenge.  Every human.  Gifted humans included.  It’s just that school often does not provide meaningful challenge for gifted kids the way it routinely does for kids closer to the middle of the curve.  Wouldn’t you agree that an appropriate curriculum would be one that would enable a kid to develop self-efficacy, which is the fundamental building block of self-esteem?  You wouldn’t want to deny a kid the opportunity to develop self-esteem, would you?  I sure wouldn’t.  Glad we can agree on that.

Another one of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to connect with real peers, people who can get your jokes, who can understand what it’s like to be you, who share similar experiences, who can support you and you can support them.  Gifted kids are just like everyone else in that regard, too.  For typical kids, though, if you randomly pick a bunch of other kids with a similar manufacture date (thanks to Ken Robinson for that phrase), you’ll stand a pretty good chance of finding similarity of experience and interest.  Go outside the realm of the typical in any way, and manufacture date is no longer your best bet for finding real peers.  We take it as given that people who have a particular disease, or who are in a particular cultural minority, or who have a particular gender or sexual identity, might want to flock with other birds of a feather without being accused of looking down on everyone else.  We tell heartwarming stories about those connections (particularly when they’re things like summer camps for kids with disabilities).  No one is rejecting the notion that it’s good to interact with a wide variety of people.  Of course it is.  But it’s not normal to give kids access to only one or two other likely friends (usually of the cootie-bearing gender, as gifted kids are spread around most thinly and “fairly” in most schools).  We normally give typical kids in school a lot of possible friends.  Why wouldn’t we do that for gifted kids, too?

Let’s think about what experiences friends in school often share.  Um… the experience of being in school?  Doing that work, having that teacher, you name it.  But if twenty-nine kids experience, “sweet teacher who gives tricky work that I can work hard on and do it pretty well,” and one kid experiences, “teacher who doesn’t know that much about genetics and has never heard of Doctor Who and whose work is trivially easy and who thinks everything I do is awesome even when I know for a fact that it’s terrible,” (more on that and the development of pathological narcissism in another post) that’s not a shared experience.  Does that kid ever call a friend to work on the homework together (one of the major bonding experiences of school-bound people)?  No, they just get called when someone needs them to act in loco educatoris (more on that and social isolation in another post, too).

So get off the seesaw.  One of the most important social-emotional needs for gifted children is, just like everyone else, to have real peers with whom they share real serious academic-intellectual challenge.  Now that we all agree, let’s talk about how to meet that need.

hello excuse me, can you tell me where I am? (introducing yourself or your child)

September 6, 2011 11 comments

It’s the start of the school year, and we’re all agonizing over it… how to introduce our kids (or ourselves!) to the new teachers, professors, administrators, supervisors, managers, you name it.  And it feels deeply uncomfortable at some level… we don’t really know where we stand and already we’re trying to change something about it.

I have the same problem.  I have been staring at the “Parent/Guardian Information Sheet” for my younger child, Laughing Boy, for six days now, and I know I really need to finish filling out the part where his teacher asks what my “hopes and dreams” are for my child this year in first grade.  Last year I felt like we successfully pulled off “Operation Do No Harm” with half-day kindergarten, but this year is for real.  Laughing Boy is a great kid with tons of little boy energy and little boy sweetness (if I do say so myself), but I’m worried about whether he’ll be understood, challenged, mislabeled, ignored, suppressed, or something else.  I’m guardedly optimistic (the teacher has three male children of her own, plus a dog, and a good reputation from older sister Little Bird’s male friends’ parents), but it’s just hard for me to answer, “What are your hopes and dreams?” with something other than, “I hope the dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare!”

And I’m lucky — my kids aren’t markedly twice-exceptional, just gifted and intense.  When there’s some actual, “Um, I really need you to know about this,” aspect to the situation, as with many of the folks I work with (and even with myself as an employee or supervisee!), it’s even trickier.  “Maybe if I say something, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — perhaps I should just say nothing and hope the teacher doesn’t notice, maybe the kid will be okay this year.”  “Maybe they’ll think I’m one of Those Moms.”  “Maybe I should give them a few weeks to get to know each other before trying to have ‘the Talk.'”  But of course, that trick never works.  Some time soon, usually before Thanksgiving, but the longer it takes the worse you know it’s going to be, they call you, and then you know it’s going to be bad.  By that point, they’ll have already noticed, they’ll have already been suffering in silence thinking that you didn’t think there was a problem or that you’re going to freak out or get them in trouble with their boss if they don’t handle you correctly, and building in up in their minds just as much as you’ve been building it up in yours.  We all do this.

Okay, enough denial.  So what do we say and when and how?

“When” is easy.  Not at Back to School Night — teachers are very stressed out and trying to manage all of the logistics.  The only thing you want to do there is introduce yourself warmly (so they know you showed up!) and say something positive.  If what you need to talk about is something that can wait a few weeks, you can let it wait a few weeks and see what they do.  If it’s something that’s going to need immediate understanding, then I would advise asking the teacher when you could have “just a few minutes, nothing formal, I just wanted to tip you off about some stuff before we get too far into the school year.”

Now on to “what and how.”  Here’s a basic outline of a proactive introduction to someone’s, er, quirks.  Replace quirk descriptions to fit your situation.  (I’m going to alternate genders, sorry all you English teachers.)

0.  Fredwina is really excited about RitzySchool, and so are you.  You want to make sure that this is going to be a positive experience for her.  In the past, she has had some problems, and you want to make sure we’re all on the same page so that there are no misunderstandings, so that we can all work together, and so that we can head off any issues before they get big.  (Hear all that nice friendly collaborative language?)

1. When he does the stuff he’s been doing that has been creating problems in other situations… Give a couple of short examples, such as, “She wants to make friends with other kids but isn’t sure how to approach them, so sometimes in the past she has gotten too much in their faces,” or, “He’s really excited about learning something new and gets so into it that he forgets that he needs to let other people talk,” or, “She has a lot of ideas but struggles to get them out in writing and really gets stuck on classwork or homework,” or, “He has finished his work and his hands are so eager to be busy that he tends to stick peas up his nose,” or whatever.  Frame them positively in terms of what the child’s motivation typically is, and realistically in terms of what the behavior is.  The goal here is not to give the worst-case scenarios, but to give the person some sense of what they might observe and misinterpret and to let them know that you’re not in denial.

2. … it’s not because he’s a bad or wilful or nasty or lazy or dumb kid.  Neither is it because you’re a rotten or clueless parent.

3.  She’s doing those things because she is well-intentioned, but really does struggle, really is confused, really does have a hard time remembering what the rules are, etc.

3a. If the kid has a diagnosed or strongly suspected disability, say so.  Most professionals (especially in schools, perhaps less so in camps and various paracurriculars) will have heard of many of the major players (Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, etc) that are often in the news.  I know, you worry about the label.  But without the label, the kid gets different labels — “obnoxious,” “willful,” “disrespectful,” and worse.  Remember that helping professionals tend to do best when we evoke their compassion and their desire to be good at helping.

3b. If the kid presents differently from the way most kids with that label present, say so, in a way that respects the teacher’s experience.  “A lot of times, people don’t realize what’s going on because he has put a lot of work into learning how to compensate.  But it’s still very much a work-in-progress for him.”

3c. If the “disability” is that the kid is gifted and you’re concerned that she may be frustrated (never say “bored” — it tends to be viewed as if you’d said, “I think you’re a rotten teacher with a stupid curriculum”), it’s a bit tricky.  I don’t think it’s productive to frame high intelligence as a disability, unless you happen to be in a public school in one of the few states that treats giftedness as part of the larger special education umbrella.  This conversation is not one in which political theory is appropriate.  But you can say things like, “He is a curious and eager learner, and it’s sometimes hard for him to manage his frustration when he’s not able to feed that.”

3d.  If you aren’t comfortable with your own ability to explain the issues, try bringing one, maybe two at the most, short articles written for a general audience.  But my experience has been that this is not the moment to give them paperwork, much less homework.  Your goal is to establish a relationship with this helping professional.  (If people have particular articles they like, feel free to suggest them in comments below… I will put up a few I have suggested in the past to clients with various issues.)

4.  He is bright and highly motivated.  When he isn’t sure what to do, he tries to do something that makes sense to him — it’s just sometimes the wrong thing.  Wry gently-self-deprecating laughter helps a lot here, because you want to communicate that…

5. You are aware of the issues and you have been working on them on an ongoing basis.  If you had a formal evaluation done, say so.  If there has been any professional intervention, say so.  You don’t need to give details, just, “He’s been working with a therapist for the last year or so, and we’ve found it very helpful,” or, “We had a comprehensive evaluation done about two years ago.”  (And be prepared to share the report or sign a release to have them chat briefly with the therapist, even if you don’t think they’re going to follow through.)  It shows that you’re serious about dealing with the issues you’re talking about and that you’re not expecting the person you’re speaking with to create miracles or to tolerate everything forever.  I often find myself saying, “She didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s not going to all be fixed overnight either.”

6.  But, of course, all professionals who work with kids this age have seen plenty who aren’t perfect in their ability to avoid nasal pea-stuffage or whatever, and you know that experienced professionals like them probably see lots of other kids who need a little extra guidance to make sure that the day runs smoothly.  This should not sound sarcastic and you should not think of it as sarcastic.

7.  You absolutely would like to be informed if there are any concerns or bumps in the road.  You want to present clear and consistent messages to him about what is okay and what is not okay, and you want to be supportive of the professionals.  This is key.  You. are. their. partner.  You’re not going to get all defensive if they call you and say, “Fredwina had a rough day.”  You’re going to talk with them and problem-solve.  What you don’t want is something I’ve seen way too many times: “We have been having problems with this all year and now we’re completely fed up, and by the way your child is not welcome back in our school / has failed the entire course / etc.”

8.  If there are strategies which are particularly effective or ineffective, share them.  In particular, I’ve found that school folk tend to react to most stressful situations by trying to control them, telling the kid what to do in a louder and more directive way and brooking less and less delay before expecting immediate compliance.  (Bad combination with most kids I know, especially the gifted kids — they tend to respond to these attacks on their autonomy by trying to, er, reassert their autonomy.)  Instead, say what does work:  “Recognize that he’s not trying to be oppositional, so if you can remind him gently to stop and think things through, that often works.  He responds best to a warm coaching style.”  “She sometimes forgets what the rules are, but if you ask her a question that reminds her of the rules, even better if you let her use a cue card we can send in with her, that really helps, and we’ve found that she learns better if we get her to be the one who remembers.”

9.  Invite them to preview their own concerns — how they could imagine the issues you described playing out in their own environment, and what approaches they have found helpful in the past in similar situations with similar kids.  Validate each other’s concerns and each other’s experience — you know a lot about your kid, but they also know a lot about kids in general and may in fact have quite a lot to bring to the table.  If they don’t, let them save face anyhow.  Don’t worry about proving anything to them or being right.  Your goal is to evoke the helpful problem-solving response and to validate that effort, regardless of how effective you think it’s going to be.  They may seem not concerned enough right now — don’t worry about it.  If the call in a few weeks is, “Wow, Mom, I thought you were overexaggerating, but you really meant it!”  you and the professional can share a laugh and then get on to problem-solving together.

The entire conversation should be no more than five minutes — ten at the absolute maximum — and should be warm and friendly on both sides.

If you get a nasty, intolerant, push-back, maybe-he-shouldn’t-be-here response, which I certainly have seen happen in some instances (but honestly, is much rarer than most of you are probably assuming!), recognize that a professional who cannot tolerate having the above conversation with you in a calm and productive way probably could not tolerate having any conversation about this topic in any calm and productive way.  If they cannot cope with that conversation, then chances are good that nothing you or I or anyone else could have done would have improved the situation.  And that is not useless — you have now learned something important which you’re going to take into account in your planning.

Do your best, let the professionals do their best, and recognize that none of these relationships will last forever.  If some of these experiences are going to be more about helping your kid learn to tolerate people who aren’t themselves very good at their jobs, then fine, that’s still an important learning experience.

And now I’m going to finish filling out that paperwork for Laughing Boy.

really actually not dead, and might even be able to blog again

September 3, 2011 2 comments

Hi folks!  No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth.  But I’ve gotten at least a bit further through the backlog of work such that I’m willing to spend my time on the blog for a bit.  It often happens that I write something for a specific person and then realize that it’s something I tell a lot of people often, so I go ahead and blog about it.  The next post is one of those things….

Categories: Uncategorized

testing, testing, one, two, three

April 26, 2011 2 comments

Testing.  It’s become so much part of the life of a learner or a teacher, at any age.  And it’s a fascinating topic.

Okay, I’m one of those weird people who thinks of test-taking myself as a sort of competitive athletic event, one at which I’m really quite good even while thinking that the vast majority of tests I’ve ever taken were nearly completely pointless.  No, that’s not my impostor syndrome kicking in.  It has to do with a central concept in test design, which I’ll explain below.

What I love most about assessment is how useful it can be when done well.  One of my colleagues says that testing doesn’t bring out the best in people, it doesn’t bring out the worst in people, but it brings out the most in people.  We put you in a situation where your normal compensatory strategies for getting along in the world aren’t going to work.  As Peter Ossorio says, when you ask a person to do something they can’t do, they’ll do something they can do.  You’ll figure out something to do, the best you can, and what you do will be a reflection, in some way, of you.  It’s like science — each test is an experiment that you and I do together.  No one bit of data proves anything by itself, but when we put things together and look for themes, consistencies, divergences, a story begins to emerge, and it often does so surprisingly quickly.

But what bugs me is how little most folks understand about tests of all stripes — most importantly, how they’re built, how they work, what they’re good for… and what they aren’t.  So what I’d like to do is to kick off a random-access series of posts on various aspects of assessment, including ordinary classroom tests, high-stakes testing for No Child Left Behind Allowed Ahead (also known as No Teacher Left Standing) and other similar “accountability” movements, bubble tests like the dreaded SAT and its ilk, and, of course, my favorite, the one-on-one kinds of tests used for special education and other diagnostic work, the kind that seriously geeky people like me give.  Those include cognitive tests, neuropsychological tests, academic tests, psychological tests, behavioral questionnaires, and other fun stuff. I’ll start there because, well, because I like them and I think they’re really pretty interesting.  I’ll try to chew off manageable chunks to talk about, and over time, I hope people learn something.

The most serious and popular misconception I encounter is a fundamental misunderstanding of what tests can do.  They’re not magic, and neither are those of us who give them magicians.  We’re just very observant (or at least we’re supposed to be!), and we’re using them to make a series of structured observations.

Again, this is like science.  When I was training as a molecular biologist, one of the things I had thwacked into my head (through reading in the literature some of the truly impressively weird things that happened when people didn’t remember it) was that no experiment ever tells you anything about the real world.  It tells you what happened on that day when that person did that experiment in that way.  You might use that information to conjecture about the nature of the real world based on your data, and over time, as you build up more data, you can get a better and better sense of what the real world might be like.  But you might see a different experiment, claiming to answer the same question, where you get different results.  Uh, oh.  Where do you look, to figure out what was going on to find the difference that made the difference?  In the Materials and Methods, the specifics of how the experiment was designed and constructed.  Very often, that’s where the difference lies.  You cannot separate data from the experiment that generated it.

Same with assessment.   No test, no matter how beautifully it’s designed, how skillfully it’s administered, and how insightfully it’s interpreted, can possibly tell you anything incontrovertibly true about the real human being.  The test tells you what that person did on that day on that test with that tester in that environment.  It might reflect something probably true about the person, but you have to stay humble with your interpretation.

Since you will always value what you measure, it makes sense to think very carefully about how to measure what you actually value. In education, we talk about the idea of “alignment” — we’d say that this test is or is not well-aligned to the skills we want the student to be able to demonstrate.  That’s what I was talking about above, why I don’t respect the very bubble tests that I tend to be able to blow out of the water.  They typically test what is easy to measure, but not what a thoughtful professional would consider all that valuable.  At the conclusion of many thousands of hours of clinical training, psychologists in most states have to take a detailed fact-recall bubble test covering basically the entire field.  We to prove that we know which classic theorist suggested that you were running from the bear because you were afraid, versus which one suggested that you were afraid because you were running from the bear.  But we don’t have to demonstrate the capacity to actually manifest any clinical competencies with actual, oh, I dunno, human beings in distress.  In test design, we talk about the very-closely-related concept of “validity,” which comes in many flavors.  In this case, the construct validity of the test — how it defines what it is that it’s trying to measure — is awful.  Fact knowledge within a domain is a useful thing, and might be a good prerequisite to beginning clinical work.  But the public is not protected from incompetent psychologists by choosing only those who can remember the facts printed in their textbooks.

I think the best-aligned test I ever took was the qualifying exam for the Ph.D. I didn’t get in cancer biology.  I was required to dive in to fields I was unfamiliar with, learn about the prior research in those fields, and propose new lines of research that would answer important unanswered questions.  Minus the speed with which I had to do it (three of these, in completely different fields, within a single week!), this test was testing very much what I would need to do if I became a principal investigator running my own lab someday.   Of course, the alignment/construct validity of that test wasn’t perfect either.  What it didn’t explore was the personality traits which set me up to be a very sad and bored and frustrated person in the lab, the precise difference between thinking about science, which I love and am good at, and doing bench science on a day-to-day basis, which I don’t and am not.

What I find most concerning about the high-stakes testing (aka “accountability”) movement in education is that it tends to use tests with poor validity in a variety of domains (construct validity, content validity, and predictive validity being the most notable), and that it tends to ignore other underlying methodological differences between comparison groups (most notably, differences in the populations being served and the resources available to teachers and administrators to serve them, but also differences in how various jurisdictions define their goals and standards).  When science teachers teach kids about experimental controls, we start with the idea of a “fair game.”  But there’s no way on earth that these “games” are fair.  There’s nothing truly “standardized” about these experiments, and almost every interpretation that is made of them is a massive overinterpretation from inadequate data.  Gives serious testing a bad name.  Harrumph.

Okay, so my plans for this series of posts right now involve topics like the various types of validity and reliability (the twin pillars of assessment for people who actually want usable data!), and a sort of overview of each of the major types of clinical testing (e.g., cognitive, academic, neuropsychological, behavioral, projective) and what they are and aren’t good for.  I’ll do classroom and educational and high-stakes stuff later, but I’d rather start with what I do the most of.  If there are specific ideas or questions you’d like me to address, feel free to drop them in the comments area here.

coming up for air

April 26, 2011 4 comments

Okay, I’m still swamped, but a little less so than I’ve been.  Those of you who know me personally know that I lost a lot of concentration and work time over the course of the last several months when both my grandfather and aunt became ill and died within two weeks of each other, and various other stressful events rippled through my personal and professional network.  Blogging needed to go very far down my priority list.  I really appreciate the kind thoughts and words and gestures which have come to me backchannel.  But I think I’m able to put a little bit of time in here… so hello, again!

Categories: Uncategorized

I’m not usually political on this blog, but… (thoughts on mental illness and culpability of public figures)

January 9, 2011 12 comments

Oh, look, here we go again.

Public figures, folks in positions of leadership and authority, present their violent fantasies, talking about their political enemies as evil, dangerous, deserving of death, etc.  They often suggest methods that would be way-cool, too, and talk about how great it would be to “take decisive action” or somesuch.  Over and over again.  In loud voices, using all of their charisma.

(I will refrain from calling out specific speakers and specific incidents here, because it is wrong no matter who does it, and because I do not want this blog to degenerate into a pointless debate about the minutiae of precisely who said precisely what and whether that counts.  The specific tragedy that occurred today is just the latest instantiation.)

Lots of folks say, “Oh, that’s awful!  Don’t go around inciting violence!”

The speakers respond, “Oh, come on, can’t you take a joke?  I was only speaking figuratively!  That’s just political rhetoric!  I’m not really telling people to go out and do those things!  And besides, other people are doing it, too!  And I’m not really an authority figure anyhow, because, after all, I’m just an entertainer, or a candidate, or a humble religious leader, or a Citizen Just Like You.”  Right, because we all happen to have hundreds, thousands, or millions of people listening to us on the TV/radio/internet/lectern/pulpit.

Then someone does something awful: blows up a building, shoots a bunch of people, or otherwise takes violent action that looks rather like what that authority figure fantasized about.

And everyone is shocked! shocked, I say!  Everyone, especially including the public figures themselves, decries the violence and does their best to distance themselves from the person who actually did the bad thing.  The good news is that when we learn more about that person, we find out that they were a “crazy” “lone wolf.”  They’ve often posted rambling and incoherent monologues on the internet or left other clear evidence of serious and persistent mental illness.  Everyone titters and points and does their level best to say, “That person is nothing like me,” because thought disorders are scary. (I’m not being sarcastic.  The idea that your own brain might turn on you is legitimately terrifying.  But when we’re scared of something, one of our normal and natural defenses is to try to make it be as separate from us ourselves as possible.)

So hooray!  The public figures are off the hook!  They couldn’t possibly have predicted that some whack-job would have taken them seriously and done that awful thing.  Those people aren’t like us.  They can’t be held responsible for what those not-like-us-people might do, even if it was disturbingly like what they were talking about on the TV/radio/internet/lectern/pulpit.

Folks, the population incidence of schizophrenia is approximately 1%.  One. per. cent. Think about that for a minute.  Think about going into a movie theatre… or a house of worship… or a football game…  Now think about the population of the country (or the world).  Move the decimal place two spots to the left.  That’s a lot of people struggling with serious and persistent mental illness, typically in overburdened systems that rarely manage to provide the kind of help they need.  I’ve worked with folks who are seriously affected by these disorders — I have a great deal of compassion for them.

Let me be crystal clear — not all people with thought disorders are violent.  In fact, the research data is quite clear that the overwhelming majority are not.  (In fact, they are no more likely to be violent than the general public, although most people massively underestimate how violent the general public is).  Even those few who are dangerous are rarely dangerous to people they don’t know.  (That’s true of the general population, too, by the way — the overwhelming majority of victims of violence know their attackers well… they’re often closely related to them.)

But “knowing” someone in this case can include being introduced to them by, say, a public authority figure who talks about them a whole lot and tells you that they know all about this person who is evil and they know that this person should be killed and they create a concrete image of how that could be done and they repeat the message over and over again or have lots of friends who repeat similar messages.  Especially if part of your thought disorder includes the relatively common symptom of believing that the TV/radio/internet/movie/music has a special message just for you.  When you’re having a hard time holding onto reality and making it make sense, then those nice, simple, consistent messages getting repeated over and over can feel comforting.

While I’m on the subject of relatively-common-symptoms of thought disorders, let me also point out that the belief that you are somehow important, special, have a special mission to carry out, have to sacrifice yourself, have to save the world, etc… is also on the list.  Ahem.

Folks like to hide behind the “abstract language” thing.  I can’t agree.  You may speak abstractly, sure, but you’re speaking to lots of people in the population who are not abstract thinkers.  (Think about how frustrating it can be at the DMV, or with the TSA, or on a telephone support line, or any of the other situations that provoke the typical Xtranormal video.)  And when someone has a thought disorder, they often become highly concrete and not-quite-logical in how they process language.  Words don’t quite mean what they usually mean, sounds start meaning more than the words, sentences can start in one place and end someplace very different, language and logic can start to feel like one of those water-snake toys that keeps slipping out of your hands.  Understanding the niceties of figurative language and hyperbole and rhetorical flourish from the public authority figure on the TV/radio/internet/lectern/pulpit, figuring out what they really mean…?  Go ahead and look up the writings of any of these “lone crazies” and tell me if you think a person who has that little control over language and thought can tell when an authority figure’s comments about the nobility of sacrifice and the necessity of violence and all that are really just entertaining and clever words, and when they’re concrete calls to real-world action.  I like to think I’m a good consumer of the subtleties of language, and I am often unsure of what the shouting heads really mean.

The saving grace is that most of us, most of the time, have an observing ego.  We think about what we’re going to do at least a little bit before we do it, and we judge our planned actions in light of whether they conform to the usual rules of the culture, what the likely outcomes would be, and so forth.  And most of us, most of the time, have enough executive functioning to inhibit the acting out of the planned actions we judge to be poor choices.  When I hear about something despicable, when I’m angry or scared, I might think, “Gee, I wish I could just… <fill in some random violent fantasy>.”  But I don’t then actually do it… at least not most of the time (grin).  But serious mental illness can wreak havoc with those self-controls.

What really concerns me is when the same authority figures who claim that they couldn’t possibly have known that they were sooo powerful… seem to feed their own sense of power by watching other people (who have less in the way of observing ego and executive function) carry out their own violent fantasies.  I have known a few individuals who seemed to thrive on the chaos they caused within a community.  Metaphorically, they would throw bricks high up in the air.  When the “brick” came down and hurt someone or caused some other form of contention, they’d be as shocked as everyone else — perhaps more so.  But there was also the sly smile, the subtle recognition of their own power to have caused that. Heh.  I wonder if some of these folks who seem so often to step over the lines of appropriate authority-figure behavior are being repeatedly reinforced by how much crisis, both actual and feared, that they cause.  That’s a problem, because even telling them how powerful they are and reminding them that with power comes responsibility feeds the narcissism.

I’m not sure how we as a civil community can address that effectively, not when the ranting is what makes money.  To a great extent, I think we all have to get serious with ourselves about how our own fantasies are being fed by the violent talk.  Personally, I’ve noticed a few shows that I enjoy and typically agree with politically, but I start to feel that I am getting too much pleasure out of the implied combat.  When I stop liking who I become when I listen to them, I vote with my ears and whatever ratings statistics I might happen to be contributing to.  I have stopped listening to them.

So all this is why I can’t accept that “no one could have predicted.”  No one could have predicted precisely which person would react to precisely which turn of violent-fantasy speech or imagery in precisely which way at precisely which time and kill precisely which people.  The population is too large to be keeping tabs on every person to the level that would permit experts to make such predictions, and I personally would not want to live in a country that kept tabs on its citizens in such a fashion.  But the idea that someone would react in some violent way at some point was extremely predictable.  And in fact, in most of these cases, as in the tragedy this morning, the prediction was in fact made and ignored, made and pooh-poohed, made and shouted down.  And in most of these cases, there was that little “heh” coming from the background as those who agreed with the violent fantasy got the pleasure of having their fantasy gratified by someone else.

Those who have the attention of the public, on the TV, shouting on the radio, posting on the internet, ranting from the secular lectern or preaching from the religious pulpit, all have a responsibility.  The more people who listen to you, the more you tell them what to do, the more responsibility you have when they act on what you tell them.  Some of the blood spatters on you, too.


bubble, bubble, toil and trouble… (multiple choice exams)

December 23, 2010 24 comments

I hear a lot, particularly around late fall / early winter, about students who have a particular difficulty with multiple-choice exams, like the SAT, ACT, GRE, and so on.  I personally think bubble tests are nearly always worthless in terms of telling us anything we actually want to know about a kid (it is possible to create a really good multiple-choice exam to explore real understanding of content and mastery of higher-order thinking skills… but it is extremely rarely actually done).  Unfortunately, they are a fact of life for students.

Sometimes, bright kids are like me — I cordially despise these tests, but I’m very good at them.   Always have been.  Even when I haven’t actually learned the content (in fact, especially so, since I have a terrible memory for the kind of isolated facts these tests so often rely upon).   I consider them something of a competitive sport.   But very often, “bubble tests” are a bright-to-gifted kid’s personal nemesis — “I understand it all, but I just can’t get things right on the stupid test!  I can’t remember the nitty little details and I can’t decide what answer they think I’m supposed to give and it’s all just awful!”

Neither the research literature nor the professional lore would support the idea that some people should be diagnosed with 315.9 Learning Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, Cannot Take Multiple-Choice Exams.  Typically, if a kid (or adult) has persistent problems with bubble tests, one or more of several things is going on…

Test anxiety:  These tests tend to push an already-slightly-anxious person’s buttons.   The pace tends to be very rapid (in the realm of one minute or less per question), the stakes tend to be perceived as high (will you get into such-and-such program?), there are more wrong answers than right answers but they’re all pulling at you… eek!  According to the inverted-U hypothesis (aka the Yerkes-Dodson law), overly-high levels of arousal tend to decrease performance.  Moderate levels of arousal are good (see below under EF/ADHD), but if you get too buzzy, you end up crossing the line into freaked-out, and no one can concentrate well or do their best when they’re freaked out.

Lack of test savvy:  While I don’t think there’s any value to the kinds of apocryphal loree. kids like to rely on (“if you’re not sure, choose C”), it is worth recognizing that these tests are written by human beings.  Your goal is not actually to get the right answer.  Your goal is to think like the writer of the test questions, to see the underlying question they’re trying to ask, to spot the trick they’re trying to lead you into, and to choose the answer they want you to choose.  This is absolutely a learned and learnable skill.

Executive functioning problems (including ADHD):  Most often, the kids with ADHD are impulsively choosing the first “pretty-good” answer they see, or they drift off before reading the question thoroughly and carefully considering all possibilities.  Many of them have a hard time keeping their arousal level high enough to stay focused, keeping their focus on the task, and maintaining a working tempo that will let them finish in time.  Note also that kids who aren’t getting enough sleep will also typically struggle with these things.   Coffee can sometimes help… but it’s not as good as having the brain properly rested in the first place.

Issues with speed and pace: This is properly a subset of “executive functioning” above, but it’s something that a lot of folks have trouble with specifically on this kind of test, even when they don’t have trouble with it in real life.  Timed test-taking is itself a skill.  It is difficult to maintain the pace and rhythm needed to get the whole thing done.   People often get bogged down in a few hard questions and then can’t pick up the pace after they extricate themselves from the bog (too much mud on the boots, if you will).  Also, many kids have a hard time maintaining the required effort over the long period of time the tests take (the high-stakes tests such as the SAT are often several hours long).  Staying focused that long without reorienting cues is something we don’t practice that much these days.

Language comprehension problems (including Asperger’s):  Test questions are often quite finicky in terms of language — they’re highly specific in their meaning, and if you don’t read really carefully and focus on (1) exactly what they’re saying and (2) exactly what they meant (yes, I know those might sometimes seem like opposites… that’s part of the game!), you will trip up.  The wrong answer choices are almost always based upon the typical misreadings of the questions — these “attractor” answers are the reason that some kids actually do worse than chance when they guess.  Kids who have trouble in this domain often also have subtle weaknesses in the rest of the “real world” in terms of reading comprehension, analytical writing, and oral direction-following.

Overthinking:  I’ve often seen bright-to-gifted kids overthink these stupid multiple-choice questions, choose the second-best answer on a technicality because, “Well, it could be that,” etc.  Sometimes they’re getting all proud of themselves for coming up with a technicality, like, “Lookit me, I’m smarter than the test, ha, ha!”  But in school, teachers only rarely grant credit retroactively for coming up with a clever justification, and on those high-stakes tests, you’re almost never going to get credit this way.  The goal is not to get the right answer.  The goal is to get the answer the test writer wanted you to get.  Personally, when I was taking the tests for my high school teaching credential in science, while I pegged the upper reaches of the scores, I found it interesting that I had a relative weakness in the areas of science I knew the best (courtesy of ten years of training as a molecular biologist).  Why? Because I got stuck saying things like, “Okay, B is the actual right answer.  However, the overwhelming majority of the population thinks it’s C, and lots of textbooks say it’s C, too.  Did the person who wrote the test know about B, such that C is the attractor answer, or am I supposed to say C because that’s probably what the person who wrote the test thought the answer was?”

So, what to do?

What I generally recommend in terms of intervention, regardless of the cause, is to provide explicit instruction and guided practice in the specific skills involved.

Numero uno, the most likely area of weakness.  Make it a habit.  Always.  Read the  question carefully.  Read all of the choices.  Think through what each choice means and why it would be a good or bad choice.  Then (and only then) choose the best one.

Practice solving items by thinking out loud with a test-savvy tutor.   When mistakes are made, go over the explanations for the answers and use these as learning opportunities to understand better how test-writers think.

If there are specific high-stakes tests at issue then get the Big Thick Book of Real Practice Tests from the local bookstore and study the test itself. Learn to identify common question types.  In fact, it’s often worth it to practice rapidly identifying question type as a separate skill.   When you’re good at knowing the general kinds of questions, your study can then focus on strategies which fit each type — that makes your work a lot more efficient.   It’s better to practice a whole bunch of questions of the same type and master the skill, saving the mixed practice for when you’re reviewing skills you’ve already mastered.

As with any sport or musical instrument, regular practice, on items that are difficult enough to be challenging, is what you need to improve.  Massed practice (“cramming”) might feel like, “Ooh, I’m doing something heroic, this has gotta work.”  But it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as regular practice.  I know, I know.  You think it does.  Everyone thinks it does.  Sorry.  It doesn’t.   You’re not special.

Frankly, I generally don’t recommend the courses from test-prep companies unless you’re a kid who honestly won’t do the Big Thick Book technique reliably.  The courses tend to be basically just the same thing as the books, only there’s a grownup standing at the front of the room keeping you on task.  If that’s the only way you’ll reliably study, well, okay, fine.  But if you’re trying to take a high-stakes test that will get you into, oh, say, college, where, did anyone mention, no one reminds you to get out of bed or do your homework, perhaps this would be a good time to learn to get yourself to do the stuff you don’t like to do.

Particularly if anxiety or drifting-off is an issue, practice, practice, practice, under the most realistic conditions you can muster up.  Try out different techniques for reducing your anxiety or getting yourself woken up to the right level, and figure out what works best for you and is legal under test conditions (that is, if you do best with music, sorry, you will almost never be allowed to have an mp3 player on a standardized test, so you need to come up with something else).  If the unfamiliar location of a high-stakes test is a problem, try taking practice tests in different locations (public libraries are good).  Take them timed.  No food.   No potty.  No breaks.  No standing up.

For timing or pace issues, practice with a loop timer, gradually decreasing the time per item, to work on tempo.  Set a tempo that will get you finished in approximately 80% of the time allotted — that leaves time to work on the really hard questions that will take more thought.

Practice a strategy that will maximize the number of items answered probably-correctly.  A lot of people get stuck on hard items and won’t move on until they’ve figured out the answer.   It’s much more advantageous to look at each question, and if you know or can quickly figure out the right answer, do it, and if you don’t, circle the item number and move on.  That both ensures that you get to all the easy ones (which have the same point value as the hard ones!) and puts the content of the hard ones into your head where it can cook.  Once you’ve done that, go back and do all of the moderately-hard ones, the ones you can get with some serious thought.   Cross off the circles as you answer them, so that you can easily scan for the not-yet-done ones on later passes.  The very-hard ones should not get time wasted on them until you’ve done the moderately-hard ones.

Yes, I know, if you’re taking a computer-adaptive test (where it insists that you answer each question because it’s adjusting the difficulty level of the next question based on whether you got this one right), you may not be able to use this strategy, but if you can, it is a huge benefit.  Note, by the way, that on some computer-administered tests, you can skip forward and go back as you wish.  If so, then use the scratch paper to keep track of the item numbers you have skipped and cross them off as you get them dealt with.

Know the scoring rules of the test. If there is no penalty for guessing, you should make sure to answer every question even if all you’re doing is bubbling randomly in the last minute.  If there is a penalty for guessing (typically -1/(n-1) where n is the number of choices, such that a purely random guessing pattern would result in a score of zero), you need to get a bit more strategic.   Some people are good guessers — they guess above chance.  If you’re one of those people who guesses at or above chance, again, you should always guess on every item.

However, some people are not good guessers, and actually guess below chance, typically because they’re getting caught up by those attractor answers.  The usual advice to guess if you can eliminate even one answer as definitely correct is wrong, or at least oversimplified. If you can eliminate one or even two out of four choices as definitely wrong, but then choose the wrong answer of the remaining choices often enough that your guesses are below chance overall (that is, if you work your way down from four choices to two but then still pick the wrong answer more than 3/4 of the time), then you’re still guessing below chance.  “Almost right” or, “It was my second choice,” doesn’t count (this is, as the proverb says, neither horseshoes nor hand grenades).  You need to gather data on your own guessing patterns to know whether guessing is an advantageous strategy for you.  This is a great use for the Big Thick Book.

Furthermore, if you’re a bad guesser, or even if you’re a decent one, study what is tripping you up when you guess wrong.  What are the traps you’re getting caught in?  Can you create specific rules and checklists for yourself to make sure you don’t forget about them?  For example, when I’m doing quantitative comparisons, I always check to see what happens if the variables have values of 0, 1, -1, some other negative number, and a fraction between 0 and 1, trying to find a situation where the obvious answer is wrong.    When I do reading comprehension tests, I always read the questions first, and then read the passage with a pencil in hand so I can mark it up.   Stuff like that.

What are the specific skills or content areas that they seem to always throw at you and you always forget?  How can you make sure you get it into your head long enough to write it on the scratch paper as soon as the test starts?  I’m a hawk when it comes to cheating, but even I don’t think it’s cheating if you write a “cheatsheet” out of your head during the test.   I knew one dyslexic young man who could not for the life of him memorize the quadratic formula, but he was a great conceptual thinker and could remember easily how to derive it.  He got to the point where he could rederive that thing in thirty seconds flat on the scratch paper (and he went on to major in mathematics in college).

Anyone have any special tried-and-true techniques that work for them for studying for bubble tests?  Inspirational stories on how you destroyed a stupid test that had been making you miserable?  Post them below!

letters of recommendation — some tips

November 24, 2010 4 comments

‘Tis the season… I get the polite-but-nervous phone calls for MIT applicants who are setting up their interviews (side note: if your alma mater does alumni interviews, and you’ve been thinking about it but haven’t tried it, try it!  This is my 12th year doing it, and it’s always fun and interesting to get to meet the kids), and, from parents and kids, I’m getting questions about how to handle the whole letter of recommendation thing.  I’ve also just gone through a six-year period of my life in which I had to be the recommendee on a yearly basis.  Ugh.   And I’ve been both a writer of letters and on admissions committees reading them.  All sides of the desk.

I also know that, well, let’s say this nicely… sometimes it’s hard for kids to hear stuff from their parents that might seem like common sense, and sometimes it’s easier to hear it from someone else.   So, let me offer a few tips.

Numero uno.   I know, this might sound dorky.  But really.  Make it easy and pleasant for the person writing the letter.  It may be part of their job (and, by the way, many people who write letters as part of their jobs, myself included, quite enjoy doing it), but it’s still a favor you’re asking, and it does take time.  (If you cannot listen to anything non-Machiavellian, then at least remember that people who are happy write more positive letters than those who are grouchy.)   If you’re applying to a large number of schools, particularly if there are lots of annoying forms they have to do along with their letter, be extra-nice about it.  For those who like scripts, I like to use phrases like, “Would you be willing to…?” “I really appreciate your offering to…”

Unless you are in one of those awful situations where the school dictates exactly who has to write the letters, choose intelligently.  Recent is good.  Long period of contact with you is good.  Contact with you in some in-depth collaborative endeavor is excellent.  Someone who can make it clear that you didn’t just do whatever it was that you were doing because you thought it would look good on your resume, someone who can talk about how they observed you persistently pursuing your passions, is terrific.  Long experience in the field is nice (some forms ask), but not a crucial thing.  If you happen to have a recommender who is a big name in the field, such that the recipient will know who it is and that getting that person to make a recommendation at all is meaningful, then that’s nice.  But a big-name highly-experienced recommender who had very little contact with you and can’t say much in detail about you is not as useful as a run-of-the-mill recommender who knows you well and who can speak in detail about you.

Ask not just if they are willing to write a letter, but if they are willing to write a strong letter.  A mealy-mouthed recommendation is a huge double-whammy, because it both says the kinda-sorta-okay things about you while everyone else is getting positive recommendations, and because it suggests that either you didn’t have any better choices, or that you didn’t realize that this recommender didn’t think as highly of you as you might have thought they did.  If there’s a particular area of concern, something you know the recommender might want to say or have to say about you that is less than complimentary, bring it up directly, and talk with them about how (or whether) it could be presented in an honest but not awful way.  If they cannot write you a good recommendation, it’s okay to part ways politely (I had a kid once who insisted that I write a recommendation, despite my clear statement that I would not be able to fail to mention her frequent, severe, and admittedly intentional disruptions of my class.  Weird choice.).  You are not asking the recommender to lie or in any way misrepresent their perspective — that would be unethical.   But you need to know where you stand.   Although this may be a one-time thing for you, it’s not a one-time thing for the recommender.  The school gets to know recommenders over time, and recommenders who are unreliable, who tell them candidates are terrific when they aren’t, lose credibility.  Plus, being aware of your weaknesses (in the shrink biz, we like to call them “growing edges” — doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy?) and being able to speak about them honestly, thoughtfully, and nondefensively is itself a good thing that a recommender might mention in a letter.

At the college level or before, most recommenders will not offer to share the letter with you.  As you move further up the food chain, it becomes more typical for letters to be shared and even, in very good relationships, to be collaboratively edited.  If someone does offer to share it, that’s very sweet, and can go a long way towards reducing the I-don’t-know-what’s-inside-that-secret-envelope anxiety.  Say an extra thank you for that if they do it, but don’t ask them to if they don’t do it spontaneously.  Similarly, I do come down on the side of checking the “I waive the right to see this letter” box — if they want you to see it, they will show you a copy anyhow.   I know some folks probably disagree with me on this, but it just feels like a covert, “If I don’t get in, I might see if you wrote something less-than-perfect about me and I might Take Retributive Action of Some Kind.”   Fundamentally, if you don’t feel you can trust the recommender, don’t ask them for a letter in the first place.  This is one of those areas where it really pays to listen to the niggling feelings in your gut.   (Been there, done that myself.   No, I won’t put the details on the web.)

What’s much more typical at all levels is for recommenders to ask you what you’d like them to focus on in the letter, and/or for a copy of your resume or curriculum vitae, and/or for a description of what you’re applying for and what you think they’re looking for, what attracts you about it, why you think you’re a good match, etc.  That doesn’t have to be well-written — a simple bullet list is just fine.   As both a candidate and a writer of letters, I like this system a lot.  It makes the writing process easier for the recommender, and it enables the candidate to make sure that the recommender doesn’t forget or misunderstand what the candidate thinks is important.

In fact, it’s a good idea to have  already thought about all that before you start asking people.  It’s nice to be able to put together a group of recommenders who can each speak well to a different aspect of your wonderfulness.   If a recommender doesn’t ask for information, ask them “if there’s any information that would help you.”  If they say no thank you, don’t worry about it.  It very likely just means that they feel confident in terms of what they would want to say about you to that audience.

Yes, you might have numerous forms for them to fill out.   If you’re applying to a ridiculously large number of places, (1) reconsider whether you really need to do that (2) warn the recommender ahead of time before they agree to write for you (3) say a huge thank-you both at the time and later on if they agree.   Many recommenders will write a single letter on their own letterhead and attach it to the forms, doing only the minimal checkboxes or sometimes ignoring the form altogether.  That’s generally no big deal.  Admissions offices understand that recommenders are not the applicants, so they give them a fair bit more slack in terms of being perfect with the paperwork.

Logistically, make things as completely easy as you can for them.  Fill out everything you’re supposed to fill out.   Pre-address all of the envelopes to individual colleges for them.   If the recommender is supposed to mail them to you, so that you can submit your recommendations in a single packet with your application, provide the recommender with a self-addressed large envelope to stick them all in and mail them back to you.  Include plenty of postage — assume that the recommender will have both the form from the school and a separate letter on letterhead, so a large packet of envelopes might add up to more ounces than you expect.   Frankly, I usually just spring for a priority-mail flat-rate envelope.

If the recommender is supposed to send them directly, then you’re fine with one stamp per envelope.  Also, inside each pre-addressed-to-the-college pre-stamped envelope, include a self-addressed pre-stamped 4×6″ card with the name of the school and the recommender on it, and a nice note asking the admissions office to drop the card in the mail to you when they receive it.  It’s an easy and cheap way to be sure that things got where they were going.   (I use the same system with the applications themselves, or at least use a trackable / delivery confirmation method for mailing them.  Things don’t get lost in the mail often, but it’s nice to know about it ASAP if they do!)  If they’re supposed to use any online system to submit the recommendations, I think it’s nice to write clear directions for them and offer to help them if there are any technical glitches.   Don’t assume that your recommenders are as comfortable with computers as you are, unless you have good reason to think so.  The good news with the online systems is that you can generally track what’s been submitted and what hasn’t.

Give the recommender a lot of lead time — a month is good, two months if you can manage it.   You’re making a major life decision here — procrastinating until the last minute isn’t a good move.  Colleges are usually slightly flexible with recommendation deadlines (shh!), because they know it’s usually not your fault if the recommender is a day or two late, but remember that you don’t want a grumpy hassled person feeling pressured to write a letter for you at the last minute.

If you’re getting close to the deadline and they haven’t written them yet, it’s okay to nudge gently.  My script is, “Hi, just checking in… just wanted to find out what your timeline was, in case you forgot…”  And smile nicely and be really super-nice about it.   Think about how nice you have to be when correcting a teacher… and then triple that.   Yes, they’re letting you down.  And you have to take it.  Yes, it’s not fair.   Resolve that when you’re the recommender, you won’t do that to kids.   And don’t. even. think. about. getting. mad. where. they. can. see.  If they appear likely to miss the deadline by any substantial amount of time, give them a graceful way out — “I know you’re really busy.   Would you prefer that I ask someone else?”  (Yes, I have a personal horror story here, too, which, again, I will not share with the intertubes.)

If you are a young-for-grade applicant, either because you skipped grades a while back, because you’re in some form dropping out of high school to go to college, because you’re homeschooling, or for whatever reason… all of this required professionalism goes double for you.  If you’re getting letters of recommendation written for you, then you’re entering the phase of life where “really amazing for his age” needs to start being replaced by “really amazing, period.”  If you’re not good enough on an objective scale to get in to whatever you’re trying to get into, then you don’t get extra credit or a bye or anything for being young when you try.  Same with the letters — there’s going to be a presumption on the part of the reader that you’re “normal” for your age and hence immature as compared to other applicants.  If the recommender can’t say honestly that you’re on a par (or better) maturity-wise with the other kids they write letters for, then you run a risk of being portrayed as “mature for her age,” which is the same thing as “not as mature as the older kids.”

Overall, your goal is to help your recommenders feel terrific about the whole experience.  Let them see that you can handle the whole situation in a professional, responsible, adult fashion.  And send a warm and personal thank you note afterwards.  Chocolates and flowers aren’t necessary, unless you had them write an inordinate number of the darned things.  It’s very anxiety-provoking, but if you choose well, realizing what others are willing (or even eager) to say about you can be tremendously validating.

I’m not dead yet!

November 15, 2010 2 comments

(just in case anyone is wondering, I am still blogging. Or rather, I’m still trying to get “real” work done so I can feel okay making time to blog. But I’m still here. I have an article that I’ve been writing in the tiny bits of time between clients at the clinic, which I hope to post before it’s out-of-season.)

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