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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.

a nice post from a fellow GT blogger

September 12, 2010 6 comments

I just read this post:

http://giftedparentingsupport.blogspot.com/2010/08/working-with-your-gifted-childs-teacher.html

and I think it’s really worth reading.  So often, I think, parents have had their own educational or social traumas, or they’ve heard countless stories about the problems and pain other people have had, that they come in assuming that all teachers are dumb, hostile, clueless, nasty, evil, you name it.  In the shrink biz, we’d call this a transference phenomenon, where your prior experience creates a distorted lens through which you view your current experience.  Quite naturally, you expect that what happened before is going to happen again.  But that often leads people to behave in ways that create the very problems they are afraid of happening.  Thus, the trauma becomes re-enacted, proving, of course, that you were right to expect that sort of thing to happen, and continuing the cycle.

Are a lot of teachers clueless about giftedness?  You bet.  Are some of them hostile?  Yes.  But they’re not the norm.  The overwhelming majority of educators do it because they like kids and because they like teaching.  (After all, the pay is pretty crappy and the working conditions are terrible.)  They don’t get up in the morning thinking, “Okay, how do I ruin little Freddie’s life today?”  Build the relationship and see if you can find a different ending to the story.

Meetings: the final frontier

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

In this article, a parent of a child with significant learning disabilities writes about how having her son in the meeting provided important information to the IEP team about the reality of what was going on in the classroom.  A few good grades were being taken out of context to indicate that he was doing extremely well, and the team was on the verge of exiting him from the special education system, until he pointed out that there were good reasons why he had done well on those assignments that had nothing to do with his disabilities having magically been cured.

http://www.ncld.org/at-school/your-childs-rights/advocacy-self-advocacy/a-parents-perspective-why-my-son-attended-his-own-iep-meetings

That’s an excellent point.   But I’d like to extend it.  I would say that in general, kids’ input should always be sought in the IEP process, as well as in any legal or other processes where grownups are talking with each other and making high-stakes decisions about them.

If a kid cannot behave in the meeting or tolerate having all of those grownups talking about them or about their situation, okay, fine.  Have a parent, therapist, guide, adult friend, or other safe adult who does not work for the school (or court, or whatever), someone who has no reason to pressure the child to give any specific answers, sit with the child ahead of time.  Explain the purpose of the meeting, explain the questions that the adults will be thinking through, and take the time to make sure the child understands as well as they are developmentally able to.  (Since I work primarily with gifted and multiply-exceptional kids, they tend to be able to understand this information at very young ages, and they tend to be very upset when they are aware of people talking about them without seeking their input.)  Invite the child to offer their own experiences, ideas, or opinions.  Ask things like, “What would you like the grownups to know?”  “What would a good solution look like for you?” “What are you most hoping (or most worrying) that they will say?”  And listen attentively to the answer.  If you can predict what the adults’ concerns about the child’s proposals might be, offer them for the child’s consideration.  You might be surprised how much depth of thought you will hear.

(Side note: those who are fans of Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon’s work around teaching kids to self-regulate will recognize this process, and those who are not familiar with it should read their book (professionals should read this one) or check out the website.  It’s not just for “explosive” kids.)

I also strongly believe that as soon as the kids are capable of tolerating the experience, they should be members of the team and participate in the meetings themselves.  I’d like to see them there by late middle school or early high school age, and absolutely by late high school age.  If they need to have an educational advocate, therapist, adult friend, or other non-parental helpful person sitting next to them to help them understand what is going on and to help them figure out how to express their own ideas appropriately, then that’s a great service to provide for them.

Think about it… when they’re 18 years old, legally, they chair the IEP meetings.  If they don’t want help, we can’t force them to accept it.  We can’t schedule a meeting if they don’t consent, and we can’t hold a meeting if they don’t show up.  Absent certain really seriously exacerbating circumstances, adults have the right to make their own decisions, no matter how foolish.  (I have personally see this play out, at times tragically, in a few situations, where a newly-minted legal adult made decisions that were mostly informed by their lack of experience.)

So part of the goal of the whole process is to train them to be good at the role of team member, and eventually to take on the role of team captain.  That’s good, because in real life, we are all captains of our own teams.  This is a great thing for them to learn to do, and a nice well-constructed venue for them to learn to do it in.  But they won’t learn how to do it without guided practice.

Are there kids for whom this kind of self-determination is not a realistic goal?  Certainly, there is a very tiny minority of children who will not be able to handle it, even with guidance and training and practice.  But if you feel that a kid shouldn’t be present in their own IEP meetings by the mid to late teenage years, chances are good that you also need to be thinking about legal guardianship or conservatorship in adulthood.  If you feel that a certain 16-year-old cannot even meaningfully participate in a meeting that may decide the course of their life, then I would be very, very concerned about that same person at 18 years old having the right to manage all aspects of their life on their own.

If your concern is that the child may be upset by the process, particularly if the child’s disability affects their emotional stability, let me say two things.  First, by high school age, even kids who are below average in intelligence tend to be aware that people are making decisions about them without their participation.  That’s really upsetting, too.  Second, one of my predoctoral internships was at the Arlington School.  It’s not in Arlington.  It’s a therapeutic high school on the campus of McLean Hospital, one of the world’s premier psychiatric hospitals.  The kids there are all there, at enormous school district expense, because they have debilitating major mental illnesses and really honestly cannot emotionally handle being in a regular high school.  If you were going to say that a kid couldn’t handle being in their own IEP meeting, those kids would be high on the list of kids you’d assume couldn’t cope.  Yet they do, and dialogue with them is an important part of the process both for the team and for them as they move into adulthood.  So I don’t think I’d be too quick to assume that a kid can’t learn to tolerate the experience.

Properly handled, having kids participate in their own meetings can contribute to their own maturational process.  Special education shouldn’t be something we do to kids, it should be something we do with them.