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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.

The portable brain (planners and task management)

September 12, 2010 14 comments

Okay, I promised some ideas on planners and how to keep track of assignments.  This got a lot longer than I thought it would… there is a lot of complexity!

As I feared, Little Bird’s middle school has handed out Their Official Agenda Book that they plan to Periodically Check that the kids are using the way they have decided is the One Right Way.  Given that the notebook system they’ve chosen is even worse than I’d feared (I might even need to do another rant!), let’s just say I’m a bit skeptical. Sigh.

I can’t say as I’ve found a bulletproof system for keeping track of tasks (what needs to be done) and time (when it will be done and when it will be completed), but let me at least raise the issues I think need to be considered in the process.

Simplify, simplify. As with the paper-management system, I advise keeping things as simple as possible.  The goal is to have one object that handles all of the task-related information and time-related information in as simple a fashion as possible.  I lovingly call mine my “portable brain.”  If you have two different things, then you’re going to (a) put information in the wrong place or in only one of the places (b) look in the wrong place or in only one of the places and thus miss something you need to know. It needs to be easy to put information into and easy to get information out of.

Paper or plastic? Since you only get one object to play with, you have to decide whether it’s going to be a hardcopy paper calendar (like they hand out at school) or whether you’re going to use an electronic system.  Personally, if you can afford to implement it, I favor the electronic solutions, because they offer some advantages that are hard to duplicate in paper form.

  • If the writer has bad handwriting or doesn’t like to write, typing is likely to be more legible, particularly at smaller font sizes, and most non-writers don’t mind typing as much.  Workaround for paper:  Try preprinting some small stickers with typically-used words (e.g. “test”) and stapling those to the inside cover.
  • Remember that being able to write small also contributes to keeping the whole object small, too (see below).
  • When there are (inevitable) changes in task or time information, they can be changed easily without leaving lots of scribbly mess.
  • Electronic systems can be set to harass remind you of upcoming tasks or deadlines.
  • Electronic systems can back up to a main computer or store the information in the “cloud.”
  • If there are multiple people within a family who might need to look at, add, or change information, electronic systems can be set up to enable this.  (More on this issue below.)
  • You don’t have to deal with discontinuities in time.  Most pre-bound systems that schools hand out and that are  easily available in stores don’t handle this elegantly, and you’re stuck copying some pages as you make the transition from one year to another.

(Note that both paper and electronic systems are likely to be royally messed up by laundering, and both can often be restored by various heroic means.  Choose your poison.  I will say, however, that many disorganized kids (including everyone in my household old enough to need an organizer) do manage to hold onto electronic devices, despite everyone’s fears, so don’t assume that the kid who loses everything will also lose their electronic portable brain.)

If you would like to use a paper system, I’d recommend something like a DayRunner or Franklin Planner, which allows you to customize sheet types and to keep adding new sheets and retiring old sheets as you go.  To reduce costs, try just a regular half-sheet 3-ring binder, for which you can buy refills (check that they’re compatible in hole placement!) or print/chop/hole-punch your own.  (eww, that’s starting to sound like work… will you really do it reliably?  Or will you procrastinate and run off the end of the system?)  If what you find doesn’t come with a zip or other means to close it and protect the pages, try adding an elastic strap or rubber band.

Size: You could, I suppose, use 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, whether purchased or homebrewed, and integrate this right into the front of the traveling zip-binder I describe in this post. However, I usually actually prefer the planner to be a separate item that is small enough and portable enough to be with you on a constant or near-constant basis.  For kids in school, that may not be a show-stopper; the times they get told things that need to get into the binder usually are the times when that zip-binder will be right with them.  For us oldsters, or for older kids who are homeschooling or who do a lot of out-of-school activities, the smallest item you can get the information into reliably and neatly and can keep on your person, without forgetting it’s there and laundering it (sigh) is probably best, because it facilitates efficient idea capture.  Which brings me to…

Capture method: Think your way through a typical week.  What are the kinds of things you need to write down?  Is it just homework, or do you have other activities that also create things you have to do and pulls on your time?  When and under what circumstances do you get information, either from other people or from your own head, that needs to get recorded in the system?  What are the precise kinds of things that need to get entered?  What might interfere with your getting those exact things into the system at those exact moments?

See, I have a Crappy Working Memory ™, which means that if I don’t capture an idea within about ten seconds, it will be gone gone gone.  Within about thirty seconds, I won’t even remember that there was an idea that I was supposed to remember.  So I advise making a personal rule:  “I will not say, ‘I’ll write that down later.'”  (I know, your kids think they’re super and will remember.  Tell them that it’s not an admission of fault or imperfection that they develop and use a system so that they don’t have to waste brain cycles remembering.)

If you aren’t going to have your actual planner ready to hand all the time, what will you have with you that will enable you to capture information that needs to get into the planner?    Some ideas on this front:

  • Email can make a good capture site and a good way for members of a family to send each other information, but only if you then also take the oath that you will immediately transcribe any information found in your inbox into the proper place later, or create a folder (better: one with an automatic sort-int0-this-folder rule!) that is only for these to-be-captured items, that you then empty regularly (see below).  Otherwise, your inbox will fill up too fast with stuff that doesn’t need to be in the capture  box and stuff will get lost.
  • There is a paid-but-not-expensive service called www.jott.com.  You basically register a phone and an email.  You call their number from the phone (they have an iPhone app, too, of course), say your voice memo, and it gets transcribed and sent to you in an email.  It’s not perfect, but it’s nice for situations where writing doesn’t work well (like, say, if you’re driving).  Remember, though, that in most situations in which you could make a phone call or send an email, if your electronic device were also your portable brain, then you wouldn’t need to use this.
  • A low-tech concept, particularly useful if your planner system is too large to be on your person all the time, is to have an index card jotter (here’s an example) to scribble things in.
  • I know this might sound silly, but if your capture system requires a writing implement, then you need a writing implement attached to it, so no time is wasted searching.

But remember that you now have a two-step process.  You need to set up some kind of regular routine that will remind you to empty that capture-box into the actual planner.  Think about how often this needs to happen in order to be useful (if your deadlines tend to be only a few days after you find out about them, then a weekly process is too slow!), and how you will make sure that you don’t forget to do it.  Consider putting a repeating appointment on your calendar, or a repeating task on your task-list, and setting your system to nag remind you to do it.

Loose slips sink ships. There is a tendency to let a handout or flyer or or appointment card email stand in for the event or assignment, to hold onto the paper that someone else gave you and to say, “Oh, I’ll enter that into the system later.”  (Yeah, right.) But if you’re not entering it immediately, it needs to actually physically be put in the capture inbox, and it must get emptied into the real system with everything else.

To avoid the problem, I make it my personal goal to get rid of those pieces of paper as soon as possible by entering the relevant information into my system.  Literally, I say, “No, please don’t give me a reminder card, let me just write the appointment down right now.” (Permission slips and forms, where someone else wants the sheet of paper back, are not assignment sheets — they go into the hot-folder system in the binder, silly!)

Home sweet home. Whatever you choose, losing it will be a time-wasting and anxiety-provoking crisis.  So think about the routines you create for its movement.  Does it need to have a special place of honor on your bedside table?  A specific pocket in your purse or backpack?  Do you always wear the same type of jeans (or whatever), such that it could always live in your pocket?  Just like you need one object, it needs to have the fewest possible places where it could be.  If you ever spot it outside one of those places, it needs to get put back in one of its permissible “homes” right away.

A family affair.  Organizing tasks and time is a lifelong skill.  Everyone in the family needs to model the skills that you want your kid to develop.  Plus, most families have a raft of out-of-schooling activities and other pulls on their time.  In order to prevent the crises when events collide, it really does help to have a system that everyone can use.  In our family, we manage time with Google calendars — we have one for the kids (they might end up with one each when they get older), one for the parents’ public information, and one for each parent’s private information.  (My family needs to know that on a certain day between certain times, I am seeing clients and am therefore unavailable.  They neither need to know nor care which clients I’m seeing each hour.)  The nice thing about this system is that any member of the family can make changes which then everyone can see, and any member of the family can create an appointment for anyone else — I can let Little Bird know that we have company coming on a certain evening, so she can’t count on homework help then, for example.

Similarly, we have a family set of task lists — since we’re an iPhone / iPod Touch family, we use an app called GeeTasks that interfaces with Google Tasks.  Each of us creates the tasks we need, but anyone can edit any list.  Very useful for groceries and errands, too!   It can handle some level of hierarchy, although for most complex tasks, I think it’s okay to maintain the separate assignment sheet the teacher handed out, or the separate outline you created for yourself in something like OmniOutliner or FreeMind (more on that below).

The low-tech version, of course, is the Official Family Calendar, located at some central place in the household (usually the kitchen).  You can use an ordinary monthly calendar, or whatever other calendar system is both easy for everyone to write in and easy for everyone to check.  A whiteboard that shows two months is okay, but I tend to prefer systems that allow the entry of information arbitrarily far into the future and don’t require periodic recopying.  If you like that size/form factor, try using a large desktop monthly-organizer pad pinned to a corkboard.  The problem I have with this system is that it’s usually hard for kids to write in these, just because they’re not in the kitchen when most of the information they need to write down is given to them.  So they need to capture those ideas — essentially, creating an assignment for themselves to write the information into the family calendar.  Again, I tend to be skeptical of two-step systems, but they’re better than an implied system where one of the steps is inevitably going to be, “Forget to enter the information where it actually needs to go.”  If you have a system like this, consider also implementing a regular adult task that involves sitting down with the kid and extracting the relevant information from the kid’s planner.  (Yeah, I’m not enthusiastic about that, either.)

For whichever version, teach kids to write down all of the pulls on their time.  Sports, music, arts, classes, practice times, religious services, family dinners, parties, company, hang-out-with-friends, TV shows you can’t bear to miss, whatever it is that you spend time on, if you’re going to want to spend time on it and you’re not going to want to do homework during that time, it’s a good idea to put it in the calendar.  Obviously, some things might have to get moved or deleted if there is too much homework.  But the goal is to avoid those last-minute crises where the Science Fair project and the cousin’s wedding come into sharp conflict.

A word about school-based online systems: These are nice things to have, as a backup for when some information escapes the best efforts to corral it, and as a way for adults who are helping a kid to know the answer to the question, “What do you have for homework tonight?” before they ask it.  Having them is better than not having them.  But they cannot substitute for having your own planner, for several reasons.

  • Teachers are, um, not always entirely reliable about writing in them.  If I had a buck every time one of my slippery-fish kiddos with ADHD said, “Oh, I didn’t think we really had to do that assignment, because she didn’t put it up on the website,” or, “I can’t do it because I didn’t write down what the teacher said because I thought they were supposed to put it up on the website so now I don’t quite know what it is I have to do,” I’d be rich.  Kids need to know the rule:  It is your job to get the assignment written down, even if your teacher screws up and doesn’t write it on the website.  You will be marked down, and it will be your fault, and I will have no sympathy.  (Personally, I have a comic-villain evil laugh that I reserve for such situations.)
  • Using them requires that you check in several different places in order to find out what you have to do.
  • They don’t include the information for anything not related to school.

Task focus vs. time focus: This is complicated.  To-do lists are good for managing tasks, while calendars are good for managing time.  The two aren’t the same thing, but they’re intertwined.  In fact, I think this is the single most tricky and dangerous aspect of system design, and one on which I have the fewest specific suggestions.  Think about what information you need to have available to you, and under what circumstances you need to have it, what you want it to do to tell you about it.

Most kids are not appointment-driven; rather, they are project-driven (for adults, it depends a lot on the type of job you have).  Now think about most appointment books: they show you your day in terms of half-hour blocks.  Is that the information kids need?  Nope.  In fact, the only nice thing I can say about most planner books provided by the school is that they tend to be organized by subject, rather than by time.  You can mimic one, sans the huge amounts of chartjunk usually found in kid-oriented ones, and with enough lines for the different “subjects” in kids’ real lives, if you buy a teachers’ planner, except that teachers are often assumed not to need to plan anything on the weekends.  Sigh.  You can design and print your own pages pretty easily in any word-processing software, if you prefer.

You want it when? Most folks never even think about this issue… On which day in the planner do you write your homework?

  • The day it was assigned? That’s what most teachers tell kids to do, but it’s probably the least useful time to write something — it’s going to vanish into the “this-already-happened” ether much too quickly.
  • The day it’s due? That’s what most grownups tend to do with major projects.  The danger point here is that you aren’t going to be reminded of the task until the last minute.  This practice tends to support procrastination.  Not that you shouldn’t include a note on the day something is due (after all, it will help you remember to hand it in!), but that’s rarely sufficient.  I recommend also writing tasks on…
  • The day you’re going to work on it. Interesting idea, eh?  Plan a time to work on it, so that when you sit down to work on any given day, you have an agenda in front of you.  Good for avoiding collisions and encouraging kids to work on things before the last minute.

Planning work time also requires kids to predict how long they think a task or subtask will take… and thus provides a good opportunity for them to also track how long something actually took, so that they can become more accurate predictors in the future.  I suggest that kids plan in liberal amounts of “slush time,” planning a set of benchmarks that keeps them comfortably ahead of schedule, to deal with the inevitable complexities and delays that arise.

Of course, sometimes that planning is itself a nontrivial task — in fact, it’s the first task in the assignment, and should probably be done as soon as possible.  So teach them to write an assignment for, e.g.,  “Schedule time to work on book report,” the day the book report is assigned.  Kids are likely to need a lot of guidance in the process of breaking down tasks, keeping track of subtasks, redoing the schedule when things don’t work out the way they planned, and generally keeping any complex project on track (beyond the scope of this already-very-long post).

Extensive assignment sheets (for major projects) usually belong in page protectors (each page in its own, please, so that you can read them easily, don’t stuff a multi-page stapled thing into something that will require you to take it out to read the inside pages!), placed in the rings at the beginning of the relevant section of the binder.  Personally, since I type rapidly, I often take the time to simply retype those sheets into my computer (or get an electronic copy from the teacher or the website), which eliminates concerns about losing them.  Teach kids the habit of rechecking the assignment sheet as they go, rather than trying to remember what the teacher expected and when any intermediate due dates might have been.

Routine Maintenance: You need to create structures and routines for when you look at the planner and what you do with it — every night before bed to preview the next day?  Every day before you leave school to make sure you’ve gotten the right items from your locker?  Every single time someone asks you to commit to doing something on a specific date?  Every week to check the status of ongoing projects?  Every month to offload old pages and make sure you have new blank ones?  Do you need to create “ticklers” to remind you of things that you’ve put off far into the future?

If you have an electronic system, think about how you are going to use reminders intelligently.   What will you need to be reminded about?  When will you need to be reminded about it?  How you would like that reminder to happen?  Alarms may be useful, but not if you’re just going to snooze them or ignore them — think about what moment you’d like a reminder to come such that you will actually do the thing before forgetting about it (we call these “point-of-performance” reminders).

Whoof!  That’s a lot of stuff to think about and chew on.  Partly because both technology and paper products change so quickly, it’s easy to get mired into trying to design a single best system, or to invest a lot of money and effort setting up something that seems cool only to have it collapse under its own weight.  The key is to get something that you can get all of your information into (so that you can trust that everything you need to know is in there), and get all of your information out of… reliably and simply.   Don’t overcomplexificate things.  See what works and where the bugs are, solve the problems and improve the system over time.


Clues on finding a therapist for a gifted client

August 20, 2010 71 comments

This is another topic I get asked about a lot… “My kid is really struggling to adjust, to make sense of himself in a world that doesn’t quite understand him. I think therapy would help, but how do I find someone who really “gets” the whole gifted thing?”

This is a huge problem.   A recent publication from my esteemed mentor, Jean Peterson, showed that most accredited counselor training programs offer zero training in understanding giftedness, and those that do have only very tiny amounts of time spent on the topic.  And I worry, frankly, about what is actually being taught when anything’s being taught… whether they are just continuing to promulgate the same typical myths about how gifted kids “will be just fine on their own.”  There aren’t any studies yet looking at training programs for psychologists, but my sense of it is that, if anything, the situation is worse, since “gifted education” exists as a distinct field, while “gifted psychology” kinda basically doesn’t.  Basically, giftedness is not considered a relevant dimension of human difference or cultural experience.  Gifted folks are just like everyone else except that we got As in school and we’re all just fine.  Aren’t we?  <cough, cough…>

And it’s not just a problem for kids, either.  Gifted adults also struggle to make sense of ourselves in a world that often isn’t even remotely a good fit.  Giftedness isn’t just a school-bound phenomenon, and it doesn’t expire upon graduation — we are who we are across domains and throughout the lifespan.

I wish I had some easy answers.  My dissertation research, on the therapeutic working alliance between gifted clients and their therapists, was useful in that it showed where some of the major pitfalls were.  But it didn’t help with the basic problem that most therapists think they do get it (an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the lack of knowledge and metacognitive skills in a domain interferes with accurate self-assessment of skill in a domain — basically, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know that you don’t know it).  So it’s like in education: if you ask someone if they understand giftedness, they’ll all tell you they do, but that doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot.

Plus, a lot of providers seem to think that “gifted” means “fiscally gifted,” and they see us as high-functioning clients who are likely to provide a nice revenue stream (as Tom Lehrer said, they think they’re specializing in “diseases of the rich“), so they advertise claiming this as a specialty area.  We know that gifted folk are found in every social, ethnic, racial, and economic group, but, well, like I said, a lot of folks don’t know what they don’t know.

So what we need is a way to interview prospective providers to find out what they actually know, rather than what they’ll tell you they know.

I know, we’re all afraid to talk about it (I should really put up a rant about gifties as a closeted minority), but we have to.  If we don’t, they won’t either — remember, they think it’s not relevant.

So, I would advise specifically bringing up the topic of giftedness and multiple exceptionality with any prospective therapist in a nonthreatening but clear way, one which focuses on observable behavior — “What experience do you have working with folks who are highly intelligent?  What do you see as the major risk and resilience factors in this population?   Have you found it necessary to adapt your approach in working with gifted folks?  If so, how, and what is your rationale for that?”

Pay attention not just to the content of the responses, but also to the nonverbal signals and your gut feeling about how they’re responding to the notion. If you feel like you’re getting a dismissive or hostile reaction, go somewhere else and don’t feel bad about it.  Really.  You’re not crazy (okay, you might be, but I’m not going to diagnose you via a blog).  You might be a bit hypersensitive, sure (I see that a lot, especially from adult GT folks who had educationally or socially traumatic experiences in childhood), but in the shrink biz, they teach us to pay attention to those feelings.

Ideally, I would want to hear someone spontaneously identify issues of social isolation, intense imaginations and emotions, and asynchrony between cognitive and emotional development, as all being relevant things to think about when working with gifted folks.  Look up one of the many lists of myths and realities about giftedness (try this one, or this one, or this one), and if they start spouting any of these, try disagreeing gently.  If you get push-back instead of thoughtful dialogue, just thank them nicely and walk.

Second choice would be someone who can at least spontaneously admit that they are not knowledgeable in the area but would be interested in self-educating.  If they want to self-educate, the (btw, I would recommend the Models of Counseling Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults book, edited by Jean Peterson and Sal Medaglio, for a professional to self-educate on the topic).  There are some very good materials available on the SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website, too.  Or they could call me for a short-term professional consultation — I’m thrilled to be able to spread the knowledge here.

Anyone who frames giftedness as being part of the problem, anyone who defines the intensity and drive and perceptiveness and differentness and postformal reasoning as “the thing that’s wrong with you,” leave and don’t look back.  The goal is not to get our kids (or us!) to act like everyone else.  The goal is to help us figure out who we are and how to act like ourselves, just in an adaptive way.

I hate to have to say it, but I really do think that therapists who work with smart folks probably should be at least reasonably smart themselves, if for no other reason than so they can follow the logic and metaphor, quick thinking, intuitive leaps, and so on.   Also, I would want someone who in your initial interview seems to have some level of personal empathy with those experiences — they don’t necessarily have to have had them themselves, but it helps if they’re close enough that they didn’t experience their own intelligence as always a positive thing.  Both of these showed up in my research as a very common theme in terms of what distinguished successful from unsuccessful alliances.  Someone who is at least moderately bright and who is a good listener is okay for a client who is looking mainly for symptom relief, but for a client who needs a long-term mentor relationship, the respondents in my study were pretty clear on the topic… they need to be pretty smart.  When you’re trying to figure out who you are and how you’re going to exist in the world, you don’t want to have to wait around for the therapist to catch up, or to feel like you’re doing all the work yourself.

Note, however, that the therapist who happens to be gifted needs to have done their own work and come to some level of acceptance and understanding of their own intelligence. If they’ve got unmetabolized “stuff,” it’s going to play out in the relationship.  Some of the nastiest and most invalidating responses I’ve personally experienced or heard about in my research came from professionals who were themselves very likely to be highly intelligent. I’m not saying “contrary,” I’m saying “downright nasty.” (in the biz, we’d call those countertransference reactions).

Another reason why it helps to have someone reasonably smart so that the kid will have a harder time snowing them if they try.  The research on client honesty is pretty solid across the board — therapists tend not to know what clients hide from them.   I’ve heard consistent reports from GT clients that if they weren’t able to leave therapy (many child or adolescent clients don’t feel they have much choice in the matter), they were highly successful not just in stonewalling, but in outright snowing therapists who they felt didn’t empathize with them effectively (my favorite was the tweenaged client who structured her play so as to make her therapist come to certain interpretations).

In general, gifted folk don’t do as well in rigidly manualized treatments (which are, sadly, becoming extremely popular).  Cognitive-behavioral techniques can be really useful as tools, but a flexible and collaborative approach is going to be key. Don’t believe the press about “evidence-based treatments.” All forms of therapy have evidence to support them, and some forms are better than others for some clients for some kinds of situations — it’s all very individual. And what the main body of evidence shows is that, as James Carville might have said, it’s the relationship, stupid.

Before you ask, no, I don’t have a giant network of people I can recommend.  You can try asking me privately if I know anyone in your geographical area, and I’ll try, but no guarantees.

Oh, no, my kid might be gifted! Where do I start?

August 3, 2010 23 comments

This is perhaps the most common reason people call me.  Maybe they always assumed that their kids would be gifted, but had also assumed that there would be clear and easy guidance and help available from the school system.  Or maybe giftedness just wasn’t on their radar, but a pediatrician or teacher or relative or someone else said something.  Either way, they started web-searching, and quickly found themselves confused and overwhelmed — there is so much information, so much jargon, all the information is contradictory, and so much of it is, well, highly opinionated.

[Okay, so I’m probably no exception to the “highly opinionated” thing, but I try not to go off the, “Your kid is a super-special superior being,” or the, “If you don’t do this One Right Thing and you don’t do it Right Now, you’re not taking proper care of your child,” deep ends.  If I do, please don’t hesitate to call me on it.]

But let me give you a few simple things to do.

First, breathe.  Your kid is wonderful and terrific and you are feeling the same awesome responsibility as the custodian of a young life as all good parents do.  But, as I tell my own kids, unless something is bleeding or on fire, chances are good that this isn’t an emergency.  I do get some emergency-type calls (school is in the process of throwing a kid out, kid is emotionally falling apart on a regular basis, etc.), and if that’s the kind of situation you’re in, absolutely send me a note or give me a call and I’ll talk you through.

But otherwise, relax.  Your kid is the same kid they were yesterday and is the same kid they’re going to be tomorrow.  A day or a week or a month here or there isn’t going to make the difference between a fulfilling life of scholarship, career, and love, and a kid who crashes and burns and ends up on Skid Row.  It’s okay to take the time to get your bearings.  And few decisions are truly permanent — you can usually change course later.

Okay.  There are a lot of books written about gifted kids and how to parent them.  I frankly don’t think that parents (who are probably pretty smart themselves!) need to read every book out there — there’s not going to be that much new information once you’ve read one.  My current go-to book — it’s comprehensive, realistic, calm, not worshipful or overblown or dismissive — is Webb, J.T., Gore, J.L., Amend, E.R., & DeVries, A.R. (2007).  A parent’s guide to gifted children.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

If you’re looking for some specific suggestions for curricula, toys, books, contests, local groups, you name it, go to Hoagies.  Carolyn K curates probably the largest single pile of links to All Things Gifted.  You name it, it’s probably already there.  If it’s not, tell Carolyn, and she’ll add it.  It’s not the easiest site to browse through, just because there’s so much of it — use the search tool liberally.  Hoagies also has a wealth of articles with every possible opinion on every possible topic, but chances are good that’s what got you overwhelmed in the first place (grin).

One very strong theme in the research literature on giftedness is the idea of social isolation, both for kids and for parents.  Yeah, you.  Giftedness is treated with a lot of ambivalence in the USA and similar cultures — you’re supposed to have brilliant kids, but whatever you do, Don’t Talk About Them.  The single best thing parents can do for themselves is to break the isolation.  If you go to Hoagies (of course), there is a list of mailing lists and ways to get in contact with other parents: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/on-line_support.htm.  What I usually recommend is to subscribe to GT-Families and TAGFAM, two general-interest mailing lists.  Volume can be high at times — try using your mail program to sort messages into a folder, and if you get behind by a week or more, don’t feel bad about deleting.  There are also related lists for parents of kids who are twice-exceptional, homeschooling, radically accelerated, etc.  The lists are *very* helpful for parents to get advice and feedback from each other, and even just to have a place to talk about what they’re going through without being assumed to be bragging.

The GT universe is also moving into social media — many of the major players have Facebook pages (you can find mine here), blogs, Twitter accounts, etc.  Hoagies again is a great one to follow, and allow yourself to bop around and enjoy the variety of viewpoints.  I don’t have favorites yet in this realm — it’s changing too fast.

Another great organization is Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted:  Besides having some very good articles on the social-emotional experience of giftedness, they train facilitators to run local parent support groups.  Very helpful for breaking the isolation and processing one’s own experiences of growing up gifted.  Hint: the kid didn’t just fall out of the sky that way…

There is a National Association of Gifted Children, and every state has an association.  Associations vary widely in terms of what they actually provide — my experience has been that they are more focused around political advocacy than around direct service to parents or kids.  You can find a list of the state associations on that same Hoagies page.

Many parents who call me are looking to find out about what their school districts are obligated to do.  You can find a complete listing of state laws affecting gifted kids at Genius Denied.  The title might lead you to think that it’s a pretty depressing listing, and you’d be right.  Sigh.

Along with that, by the way, if you think your child might be twice-exceptional, or if you live in a state where gifted education is handled through the special education process, the place to go is Wrightslaw.

There are many state and regional talent searches; find the ones serving your location on the Hoagies Talent Search page. All offer low-cost methods for kids to take out-of-level achievement tests (because they’d hit the ceilings of grade-level achievement tests, of course!), qualifying them to take courses designed for gifted kids.  Courses can be expensive but financial aid is available.  The courses are generally terrific, and the chance to be with other gifted kids is one that many kids treasure.  If nothing else, having a qualifying score on these is a cheap-and-easy way to get something objective in hand that you can share with your child’s district when they say, “Oh, we have lots of kids just like that.”

To learn about what the research actually says about the various different forms of academic acceleration, you can download the A Nation Deceived and A Nation Empowered reports for free.  They’re from three of the leading researchers in gifted education, and, as the title might suggest, most of what educators think they know just isn’t so.  They typically get zero training in gifted issues while in teacher school, and what they do get typically just perpetuates the myths.  And don’t worry about that “social-emotional” thing, or the one story they can tell you about the kid who accelerated and was miserable — the most important social-emotional need for gifted kids is appropriate academic challenge and real peers.

The best single book to share with teachers is: Winebrenner, S., & Brulles, D. (2012). Teaching gifted kids in today’s classroom: Strategies and techniques every teacher can use (3rd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.  She talks about how to actually implement techniques like curriculum compacting (test out of what you already know), tiered or differentiated lesson plans (have different kids do different things on the same topic), and independent projects, without spending lots of money or putting forth enormous effort.  There’s even a companion CD with customizable forms for the teachers to use.

Because we need to break the social isolation of the kids, too, I also strongly recommend sharing with administrators if they’ll let you:  Winebrenner, S., & Brulles, D. (2008).  The cluster grouping handbook: A schoolwide model: How to challenge gifted students and improve achievement for all. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.  In cluster grouping, instead of spreading the gifted kids out among all classes in a grade (which seems “fair” to the teachers, but makes it very hard for the gifted kids to find each other), they get put in groups of about 5-6 kids within a few classrooms.  This costs nothing to implement, and not only does the book tell a principal how and why, it even includes sample letters to help manage the political stuff around it.

If you are considering a whole-grade acceleration (grade skip), check out the Iowa Acceleration Scales, 3rd edition.  It’s a research-based measure designed to help parents and administrators talk in a holistic fashion about a kid when making placement decisions.  If you’re talking with administrators about district-wide acceleration policy (hey, a girl can dream, eh?) the Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration has guidelines.  Both of these are from the same folks as Nation Deceived.

If a kid has IQ and achievement scores both above 145, there are some great opportunities available through the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.  Consultation, financial support, classes for kids and parents, all sorts of nice stuff.  Even if the child is not eligible (I always have to remind people who come to me for testing that by the math of the normal curve, 96% of kids above 130 are *not* above 145), DITD has some public-access bulletin boards with useful information and discussions as well, and a database of articles on specific topics.

That should get you started.  If you need more help, ask me, ask on the mailing lists, ask on the bboards, ask wherever, and you’ll get lots of help.  Typically, folks introduce their questions with, “I don’t know if anyone has ever had this happen, but…” and everyone says, “Oh, no, we’ve all had that happen, here’s the different ways we dealt with it.”  Sure, you’ll probably end up with way too many ideas, and you’ll hear all sorts of, er, very strong opinions.  Remember that I’m here giving you permission to relax, take a breath, work with the school, don’t give up, accept that you don’t have to find a perfect solution right away, and that there’s no one right way to do anything.

This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop on Gifted 101.

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Hello, world!

July 25, 2010 13 comments

Well, now that I’ve finally graduated and don’t have papers and a dissertation to write, I’m ready to start actually writing more for the general public.  I tend to have opinions on giftedness, learning disabilities, education, psychology, and the interface between all of those.  I have particular expertise in cognitive, academic, and psychological assessment, the psychological and social effects of high intelligence, theories of intelligence and personality, and the real world of various educational strategies.  I believe that most questions are far more complex and nuanced than most people give them credit for, and that it’s important to think in a rigorous way about the ramifications of various ideas.  So I tend to be in the mode of Blaise Pascal’s famous quote (often attributed to Mark Twain), “I wrote you a long letter, because I didn’t have time to write you a short letter.”

Some readers might be new to the whole giftedness thing, and might be overwhelmed.  I get a lot of phone calls and emails that amount to, “Help!  How do I get started?”  I’ll try to tag things in terms of whether something is a general-interest post (or even a GT 101 FAQ), or whether I think it’s mostly going to be of interest to the folks who are as geeky as I am.

I love to hear suggestions from people about specific topics or questions they’d like me to address, so feel free to comment here or to send me a private email (aimee@davincilearning.org).  I also like suggestions on how I can more effectively use this or other online forums — despite having been on the net for over 25 years (!), I tend not to be a particularly rapid adopter of the new and shiny.

Categories: getting started Tags: