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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.

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!

my dissertation is available!

September 20, 2010 5 comments

Okay, so it was already available, for those of you who looked in the ProQuest / UMI database.  But I’m making it easier for people to find, at the same lovely price:  free.  I want it to be read, especially by people who think that doing therapy with gifted clients is just like doing therapy with anyone else and therefore they wouldn’t bother paying for access to something so silly.

However, since many folk have asked if they could pay what they felt was a fair price for the work, and one good friend (you know who you are!) was therapist enough herself to confront me quite pointedly on the topic, I have put it up on my own website with a PayPal donate button.  If it brought value to your life, or if you would like to place a value on what you think it has brought to the world, if you’ve suddenly become heir to a vast fortune you’d like to share with me, or if you’d just like to buy me a cup of coffee, pay what you will, or pay nothing at all and enjoy it without guilt (okay, maybe with a little tiny bit of guilt (grin)).

I’ve also split out the chunk at the end with the provisional clinical guidelines for therapists who work with gifted clients as a separate file, for those who don’t feel like plowing through the whole thing.  I’ll probably post excerpts, or articles based upon chunks of the thing, on this blog.

Whether you’ve read it already but would like to donate, or whether you haven’t yet seen my magnificent octopus (apologies to Blackadder), come on over and take a look!

out-of-schooling

August 28, 2010 8 comments

I wrote the notes for this post this while hanging out at the Middlesex County 4-H Fair this past weekend. Little Bird has been active in 4-H for several years, and Laughing Boy has been an enthusiastic hanger-on and will be a Cloverbud this coming year. I have to say, I really like 4-H (or at least its local instantiation) as a program for gifted kids… Hence the topic of this post. Not all extracurriculars (cocurriculars?  paracurriculars?  intracurriculars? activities?  afterschooling?  outofschooling?  homeschooling?) are created equal, so it’s worth thinking about what would characterize good ones.  There’s a lot that I see being done well here.

Why care specifically about this topic for gifted and twice-exceptional kids? Certainly, all kids benefit from high-quality activities. But it’s particularly important for GT and 2E kids, because they all too often don’t get enough of the self-efficacy and empathic mirroring / accreditation experiences that most kids get in school. (Yes, I’ll explain that more at some point. Short version: it’s a normal and important human need to accomplish tasks you perceive to be difficult, and to experience people you look up to seeing you do it.) So the activities aren’t just for fun and games — we’re creating the opportunity for a developmental need to be met.

4-H is a very flexible program, which can definitely be bewildering at times, but the flexibility is great for gifted and 2E kids.

  • There are clubs focused on a broad range of topics — kids choose a club (or multiple clubs) based on shared interests.
  • Age doesn’t restrict what you can do, how you can do it, or who you can do it with.  A single club might have kids from ages 5 to 18.
  • The club (or other voluntary subgrouping) might do things together, but kids do lots of things on their own.  That’s normal and accepted.  Groups, when they exist for a specific purpose, are formed by mutual consensus.
  • Kids choose projects they’re interested in, rather than being told what they have to work on or being provided with a narrow menu of acceptable choices.  Almost any topic is fair game for the projects they work on during the year (it’s not just chickens and zucchini!) and their Visual Presentations (more on those below).  For the fair itself, there’s quite a range of things kids can make and exhibit, and there are departments at our local fair which permit written or display entries on virtually any topic (our county had a passionate GT kid and supportive parent who established a Writing department about a decade ago).
  • They can approach the projects at any level of sophistication they like.  This is a perfect example of what I call “silent differentiation,” which will be the topic of another post.

(Note that for some kids with Asperger’s or ADHD, programs which have more structure are sometimes a better fit.  Or else, they need more adult direction.  But the fact is, all kids need some adult direction early in any process, and that direction needs to be faded gradually over time.  Don’t back off all at once, or they will have no idea where to go or what they could or should expect from themselves.  Again, a topic for another post.)

Another thing that 4-H does very well is to encourage kids to improve over time and meet meaningful quality standards.

  • They are encouraged to try new things (the official slogan is “Learn by doing.“).  They don’t have to show any particular talent for anything; in general, any time someone says, “I’m interested in maybe doing X,” the response will be, “That’s cool!  Here, let me  show you / hook you up with the following person / resource / class / book / website so you can learn how.”
  • At the same time, they are also constantly encouraged to “Make the best better.” (that’s the official motto, not to be confused with the official slogan).  They get real feedback that is supportive but honest and specific.  None of that false feel-good “self-esteem” nonsense that pervades a lot of kids’ activities these days, where, as the Dodo Bird says, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”  Judges in all events are explicitly told to give clear and understandable feedback on which aspects of the entry were done well and how the entry could be improved, and to measure kids against developmentally-appropriate but meaningfully high standards.  (Even the judges for the Cloverbuds (kids ages 5-7) are told not to just say, “Nice job!”)  If you’re not there yet, that’s fine, no one will sneer at you, but they also won’t tell you it’s good when it’s not.  If what you do is terrific, they’ll tell you, but they’ll still tell you how to make it even better.
  • I’m sure there are many different flavors of how this is done in many different places, but what I see around here is a nice balance between competition against the self and competition against others.  In the fair, first, everything is judged on an arbitrary standard.  If everything is blue-ribbon quality, everything can get a blue ribbon.  If nothing is, then nothing gets a blue ribbon and no prizes are awarded, as per previous bullet.  (This really does happen.  Judges are not pressured to make anyone “not feel bad.”)  The blue-ribbon items then compete against each other for first, second, and third place.  So it matters who else shows up, but there’s a way for you to realize that someone else’s work having been better doesn’t mean that what you did stinks.
  • The culture of the group honestly celebrates hard work and achievement, regardless of the personal characteristics of the achiever.  I’m pretty tuned in to such things (having had a fairly typical GT-kid childhood, I’m actually more like “hypervigilant about such things”), and I haven’t heard any of the typical “catty” comments about how someone is too young, or taking too many prizes, or making other kids feel bad, or should let someone else have a turn at winning, or must have gotten inappropriate help from a grownup, or whatever.  People certainly notice a particular person earning a lot of awards, but it’s generally with a sense of frank admiration for the effort and skill they know the kid put in.

Speaking of the culture of the group, this is one that tends to attract a crowd marked by curiosity and passion, highly enriched for bright-to-gifted folks.  And everyone is encouraged to get into the game.

  • It’s not designed as a place you drop your kids off and go do the shopping.  Club leaders are told to encourage parents (even dads!) and siblings (even annoying little ones!) to stick around and participate.  It’s a whole-family intergenerational activity.
  • That makes it possible for adults to model their own process as lifelong learners.  Gifted kids tend to have gifted parents, which can be really tough for them.  They see us being wonderful at everything, and then try to hold themselves to those impossibly high standards.  But the culture here encourages parents to learn new things and be klutzy beginners (and to get corrective feedback and survive the experience!) together with their kids.  Asking for and receiving help are seen as good things.
  • I mentioned above that people love to teach what they know.  People who are passionate and geeky about things tend to love to share with others.  The openness of the structure allows for more of that to happen.  Because this structure doesn’t have a lot of rules around age or status, anyone who knows something can be a valid teacher.

Although some bumbling is inevitable in any volunteer effort, this doesn’t have to create a blind-leading-the-blind race to the bottom.  In any domain, there are likely to be quite a lot of skills which can be meaningfully taught at an appropriate level by someone who is further along the path, such that both teacher and learner are able to meaningfully increase their understanding and skill, and to derive self-efficacy from doing so.  (That’s very different from an overwhelmed teacher assigning a GT kid to tutor a struggling student in school, which has all sorts of rotten social and emotional consequences and is not educationally all that useful for either kid, and which probably should be the topic of another post.)

Another thing I think 4-H does really well is, tied in with the high-standards thing, encouraging kids to build transferable life skills.  Although the program in MA goes way beyond its agricultural roots, it is still fundamentally a program to train young people to run small businesses.

  • Kids are encouraged to keep careful records of their projects, tracking time, costs, income, and suchlike.  They are also encouraged to track people helped and lessons learned, and to include personal-development things that aren’t necessarily officially part of a project.  Kids whose records are clear, understandable, and comprehensive get recognized for those efforts, even if the projects were not all that elaborate or impressive.  Similarly, kids who enter a lot of exhibits in the fair (and many kids enter several dozen items) have to handle the organizational overhead (paperwork, entry slips, explanatory cards, etc) themselves.  (Yeah, I know, I hate paperwork, too.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worth being good at it.  There are times when the person the paperwork is helping is yourself, especially when you’re running a small business.)  As the kids get older, the records start to look very much like resumes.  (Yes, the recordkeeping requirements can be difficult for dysgraphic kids… but at least in my state, they’re voluntary, there’s a long time to get things done, and because of that “silent differentiation” effect, they can actually serve as a forum for the kids to build skills over time.)
  • There is a strong emphasis on public speaking, both formal and informal.  There is a nice public speaking program — kids prepare 3-10-minute talks on any topic they like, with posters and 3-D objects, kind of like Show and Tell on steroids.  It’s highly competitive.  Plus, kids are encouraged to do various forms of demonstration for the public.  I have to say that every time I talk with a 4-H kid, even those 5-7-year-old Cloverbuds, I am astounded at how well they can have those conversations with an unfamiliar kid, older kid, or adult.  Almost without fail, I see kids who speak politely and intelligently, with appropriate social pragmatics, responding thoroughly to questions, and showing their enthusiasm for their work.  (Another nice thing about that, by the way, is that when they get random-people-from-the-public to see how well they’ve done and how well they can present themselves, it becomes another opportunity for them to see that others respect their work.)
  • Parents are encouraged to participate, but they are expected to keep their own hands off the kids’ work.  Better to let it be unfinished or imperfect and to create a learning opportunity for the kid.  When I’ve had those lovely conversations with quite young kids, their parents are typically not hovering around.  The focus is on building independence.
  • Kids are also encouraged to participate in leadership and community service projects, again often taking on organizational roles that one might assume are only for older kids.  (Little Bird was helping run kids’ activities for a community group that needed supervision for their own kids while parents were in a seminar… when she was 8 years old.)  Kids who show promise in these areas get noticed and encouraged to take on more responsibility.

This all reads practically like a recipe for “how to design an out-of-school activity that helps kids develop real skills and real self-esteem.”  Since our GT and 2E kids are so often not well-matched to the in-school activities, and because there are so many choices for out-of-school stuff, many of which simply replicate the problems with the typical in-school activities, it becomes crucial for us to think about how we can recognize the subtexts in an activity that will support the kids’ growth.

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.

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.