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.

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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.

Pile Containment Devices: an organizational alternative

August 15, 2010 8 comments

The two-binder system I described in the previous post is, of course, not for everybody. It works well in situations where there are a lot of routine things going on, stuff happening on a daily or weekly basis in almost every area of study.

However, particularly as we make it into adulthood — and I’m willing to bet that there are some homeschoolers or afterschoolers who would also be in this boat — things are often organized less around routine stuff happening every day or week, and more around discrete projects. For a project, often you’re handling many different pieces or chunks of paper, but the order of them not only doesn’t count, it is often really helpful to be able to move them around, spread them out on the table, mix and match, look at various things at the same time, and so on. Also, sometimes you want to toss a small book or workbook right into the pile (and might be tempted to shove papers into the book in order to corral them. Don’t do it!).

For instance, when I am doing a report on an assessment, I want to be able to grab one or more test protocols, the history, notes I took during the assessment, scoring worksheets and graphs I cooked up, spread them out, leaf through them, and then shove them away easily. For another instance, when I was working on the literature review for my dissertation, there were piles and piles of papers on various topics. And yet another — when my dishwasher had a catastrophic failure and I found myself managing an insurance company and a kitchen remodel while in grad school (I do not recommend this for amusement), there were all sorts of piles of stuff related to that. Moving across country, same thing.

See, some of us have brains that, well, we think best in piles and networks. People who don’t know much about brains like to call this a right-brained processing style, or a visual processing style (sorry, both of those concepts would get me laughed out of the cool neuropsych parties — the current research on the topic is much more complex than any such simple-minded dichotomy would support). The single hardest thing for me to do while writing is to get my thoughts into linear form. So why on earth would I like an organizational system that is linear in structure, like a binder? I literally can’t find anything when I use time as the organizing principle. There are some kinds of situations where I keep track of stuff linearly, sure, but most of the time, nope.

But of course, you linear folks are probably silently freaking out that I’m about to tell your kid that it’s okay to have piles of stuff all over the desk, the floor, the backpack, piling on top of each other, falling over, getting mixed up together, being indistinguishable from each other, oh, man, what a mess. Yes, that’s the potential downfall of living life in the Pile Zone.

Enter the Pile-Containment Devices: letter trays, portable pockets, accordion folders, and the like. Even hanging folders can work as PCDs, when they’re not getting hidden in a file drawer and disappearing from memory. (I long ago gave up filing “that is neat and I might want it someday” stuff in my filing cabinets, because other than the few Really Important Things, I would tend to forget not just what I named the file it got put in, but even that it ever existed at all.)

If you do your work basically at your desk, then try a whole bunch of horizontal letter trays, or a mail sorter (obviously, both of those items can be found in stylish versions, too, but I’m showing cheap-and-ugly options). I like side-loading ones best, because it’s easier to get a glimpse of what’s on the papers. The concept here is that each pile now has a pigeonhole to go into.

If you’re a moveable feast, then you need something portable. When I’m handling one good-sized project with a bunch of different facets to it (e.g., job search), I have a 13-pocket accordion folder, made of durable plastic, like this one. I’ve had the same one for years, because I really cannot manage more than one project of accordion-file magnitude at a time (“knowing your limits” being another important aspect of executive functioning). The printed-out material I’m organizing into the outline for my book (on, perhaps not surprisingly, helping bright-to-gifted folks with executive functioning) is in it right now — each section is a chapter. By the way, I have known some school-age kids to use an accordion file instead of the traveling zip binder, where each section is a class, and there’s one section at the front for hot-folder items. You can do this, and it’s quite an adequate system, if you are really good about keeping dates on pages, and if you are really good about emptying the thing on a very regular basis into the home-based permanent-storage binder, and if you don’t mind that this routine is going to take a little longer because you have to impose order at that point.

But in my life, I’m generally juggling a bunch of different smallish projects at once. If I tried to keep everything in one accordion folder, I’d get sick of carrying it around, and that’s where the danger would happen — I’d take a pile out to take with me somewhere, and it wouldn’t have a Pile Containment Device any more and the uncontrolled piles might escape. Must. not. let. that. happen.

When something outgrows an accordion folder, it’s not really going to be particularly portable anyhow. A small portable hanging-file box (here’s an open one, and here’s a somewhat bigger one with a lid and a handle) is a reasonable alternative (you can at least move it from place to place in the home). My aforementioned dissertation literature review took up a full-sized hanging-file box (actually overflowed it by the end). As I wrote each section, the folder with that pile of papers got sent to the back of the box, providing an encouraging visual of my progress. Somehow, even though open file boxes aren’t all that different from hanging files in a file drawer, the kind normal human beings seem to be able to manage, I don’t lose track of stuff as easily when it’s in open filing like that.

Occasionally, if it’s really only a few pieces of paper and the project is really short term, I do grab one of those awful two-pocket paper folders (see, I despise them so much I’m not even making a link) that seem to spawn in my closet (they are refugees, I think, from Little Bird’s elementary school’s silly ideas about how to teach kids to organize themselves). But most of the time, I use a file pocket. I cannot find a link to the ones I use — I happened to spot these in a dollar store a few years ago, bought a couple, realized how excellent they were, went back and bought some more, and haven’t seen them in any store since. I have about eight of these. They’re thicker plastic than most, and they have elastic on the corners so they close and open easily, none of that mucking about with noisy Velcro or time-consuming string. Here is the closest match I was able to find online. I don’t like flimsy clear-poly pockets — they feel like they’re not going to hold up, and they aren’t stiff enough to protect the papers well. I also don’t like ones that have a rigid gusset — they’re just asking to get crushed, and they take up too much space when they’re not full. Good carry-around pockets are good for about an inch or two of paper, which handles quite a wide variety of projects. They are my go-to PCDs.

If you really only have a few things you need to deal with at any given time, and, again, you’re good about offloading things into long-term storage, think about something like a contractor’s clipboard. I had one just like this one for years while in grad school the first time — I used letter trays on my desk and just used this lovely portable thing to take notes and hold important pieces of paper (hot-folder items) in the storage box (which also can hold a pencil). Look for one that has a cover (like the one I linked) to protect the pad from getting trashed. Sure, you could use a pretty portfolio, and that’s what I use now for walking-around notetaking-with-clients, but there’s some nice urban chic happening with the aluminum thing.

Important Troubleshooting Tip: The biggest potential downfall of the PCD system is that they need to be labeled. Otherwise, you will just have a whole pile of undifferentiated piles, and you will eventually start shoving things in randomly because you aren’t sure what goes where, and you will waste time trying to find the pile you were looking for, so you’re back to piles of piles of messy piles. If you change your pile labels frequently, try taping a pad of small post-it notes to your letter trays so you can write and rewrite. If you don’t change them frequently, stickers or labels will work. Accordion files, of course, have those little divider tabs. If you’re using portable pockets, you might be able to get away with color-coding (I do — I usually have some mnemonic association between the color and the project, and that’s enough for me). But don’t try it if you don’t have to — look for pockets that have someplace to slip a paper label into them.

Another potential pitfall: if your system has portable elements, they can get lost and then you have to waste time tearing up the house and screaming about the missing PCD. At least until some other unfinished project catches your eye and you start doing that instead, procrastinating the crisis (is that a transitive verb?) until some later date, probably long after its deadline. PCDs need homes to live in. If you can get yourself to commit to a consistent location (say, a desk or other workspace, which I’ll have hints for in another post), then the discipline becomes that the PCDs always get returned to that location, not just dropped wherever they happen to be when your brain moves on to another task.

And a third potential pitfall:  when you switch away from that project to another task (as us low-working-memory high-idea-generation types do so often), the pile needs to get swept back into the PCD. That simple behavior is one of those things that organized people think, “How difficult can this be?”  However, if that’s a problem area, then it needs to get explicitly cued and practiced specifically until it becomes part of the PCD-use routine.

Last thing (at least until I think of another one): you need to have a system for offloading the content of the PCD as the project shifts focus.  That is, you need to get rid of obsolete stuff so it doesn’t make the current stuff harder to find in the pile — if the pile has more than about a dozen items, two dozen at the outside, you’re going to waste too much time searching it.  Same thing with what you will do when a project is completed.  Frequently, you can get rid of a lot of the intermediate materials, and then you need some sort of long-term storage for the stuff you want to keep.  I’ve already mentioned the school-year binder, and Jeff mentioned rough-sort systems, but I’ll have more to say about those things later on.

For now, try it… embrace the piles… see how it works for you…

On organization: Do not multiply entities needlessly

August 11, 2010 25 comments

This is my usual starting organizational system for most kids who go to conventional schools.  (I do a lot of adapting to individual situations and styles, of course, and I will make a separate post about an alternative system that I find useful in other situations.)  I’m with William of Ockham here:  do not multiply entities needlessly.  Principles and priorities, then, are simplicity, portability, ease of use, and resilience to not-being-used-quite-correctly.

Start with a simple backpack or tote.  You probably don’t need wheels because you’re not going to carry all that much most of the time.  All you need is one big main pocket (for the binder and any books that have to come with you) and one small pocket (for pencils and such).  Anything else is overcomplexificationisticalesque.

Unless a teacher specifically requires that a textbook come to class, textbooks should live at home all the time.  I don’t believe in using lockers for anything (other than maybe your coat), because (1) most schools don’t provide enough time to go to them (2) they add a layer of complication, a location where things can get left by accident.

You need one (1 (just one (not seven, but one))) 3-ring zip-binder, the kind where you have maybe a 1.5″ ring binder in a cloth cover that zips all the way around (here’s an example).  The magic word is “in the Rings of the Binder.”  Not just In the Binder, but In the Rings.  3 Rings to rule them all…  The zip cover does two things.  First, it protects the binder and the papers in it from getting destroyed when something else is shoved into the backpack.  Second, it corrals any pieces of paper which have not yet made it into the Rings.

Dividers, one for each class, in order through the school day if that’s possible.  Use clear plastic durable slash-folder dividers, like these.  Some classes may require more than one section (English class is famous for this, with “language arts” and “literature” often being separate areas) — for the secondary divisions, ordinary dividers are fine.

Plus, you need one ordinary divider for each kind of extra paper (lined, graph, plain) that will be required — put maybe 10-30 pages of blank paper in each.  There should be no blank paper anywhere in the binder except for those sections.  If you are not forced to do otherwise, you should routinely use pale-lined graph paper filler (something like this) for everything in math and science classes.  My personal preference is for engineering paper, but that’s a topic for another post.

Note that you now already have a “hot folder” system in place.  Nothing separate is needed.  For each subject, one side of the divider holds papers the teacher has handed out which haven’t gotten Into the Rings yet, and the other side holds homework (and permission slips, etc) which is completed and not yet handed in.  Use a Sharpie to mark which is which!  Younger kids, who usually only have one teacher for most subjects which assign homework, can have a single hot-folder in the front of the binder.  If they really prefer, they can have a separate hot-folder, but it must not be one of those cheap paper 2-pocket folders — those are not durable enough.  Get something made of polypropylene, like this.

Also, have available at home a small box of page protectors, preferably matte-finish ones.  These are used for things like course syllabi or assignment sheets, reference sheets for generic assignments (e.g., “requirements for writing up a Problem of the Week”), or other important long-term reference material (a periodic table for chemistry, etc). Those go at the start of the section for the relevant class and stay there as long as they are needed.

The zip-binder usually has a zip pocket that can hold pencils and pens and anything else needed.   If you use it, make sure that it’s not in a location that makes it hard to lay paper flat and write on it.  But it’s probably just as well to put that stuff in the pocket designed for it in the backpack.  Separate pencil cases are just more superfluositicalextracalifragilisticity.

I strongly dislike traditional wood pencils.  They require that you (1) keep a sharpener in the Pencil Pocket (2) notice when the point has gotten too dull for neat handwriting (which most kids with executive functioning problems have a surprisingly hard time with!) (3) stop what you’re doing, sharpen the pencil successfully (which includes not dropping piles of shavings all over the floor when you have to keep opening the thing up to pry yet another broken point out of the razor), remember what it was you were doing, and then get back going again.  Ugh.  No.  I don’t have enough working memory for that.  Mechanical pencils are now widely available in .9mm width, which is thick enough even for most kids who press too hard.  I recommend the thinnest lead you won’t keep breaking, the cheapest bulk version of that pencil you can find (.7mm.5mm).

I actually don’t think that anyone needs pens for school.  Some teachers disagree with me and insist on work being done in pen.  Harrumph.  If they insist, I advise plain old medium-point black stick pens, nothing fancy.

I also don’t think that highlighters have much use during the school day.  Highlighting is almost completely useless as an active reading strategy for most people — it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but what you’re typically doing is a very surface-level syntactic analysis to find the key phrases without actually processing the information.  If you like to use highlighters during tests, to highlight key phrases so that you make sure you answer the whole question, then sure, go ahead.  Try to find highlighters that aren’t fluorescent (= superstimulating).

What I do like to see kids have around is some way of writing in color, whether that be colored pencils or colored pens.  These are a must for physics or any other course involving diagrams, and really useful for a lot of note-taking enterprises.  Colored and sort-of-erasable mechanical pencils do exist, although the leads are generally quite fragile — if you are gentle, use those, otherwise, a few colors of ball-point are fine.  And you can use them for the active test-taking, too, and they don’t glow.

Unless you’re required to include a calculator, I don’t think there’s much need for anything else in the Pencil Pocket. It likes to collect lots of interesting little things (binder clips, staplers, etc), but we’re back to William of Ockham there – if you don’t need it, get rid of it.

You’ll need a planner / assignment book / PDA of some kind, but that’s a long topic, again, best saved for another post.

At home, you need a good-sized D-ring binder, like this, with ordinary paper dividers to mirror the dividers in the traveling binder.  If you overflow during the course of the school year, you can always split into two big binders.

At home, you also need an ordinary stapler and a heavy-duty 3-hole punch (cheaper than you might think, and a worthwhile investment).

When papers get into your hands, ideally, they should go into the Rings of the Binder.  But if they don’t, no worries, put them into the folder for the subject.  That’s a rough sort that will get you through the week.

Put a weekly appointment on the calendar.  You’ll take ten minutes, tops, to go through the binder and the backpack and find all of the papers in those folders plus any stray calves.  Ideally, no paper should ever be loose, but I live on Planet Earth, so I do understand.  No recriminations, just find the stragglers and round ’em up, get ’em in the Rings.   Don’t worry about order within the Rings unless you like to do it — I’d rather see you be consistent about doing a pretty good job than be perfect but never quite get around to it.  Some people like to put new things in the back, others like to put them in the front of each section — either is fine, but pick one and stick to it. At the same time, if you’re running out of filler paper, refill.

Either once a month, or at the end of every multi-week unit, take out everything that is not from the current month/unit or the immediately previous month/unit, and put it in the big D-ring binder at home.  No paper gets thrown out, even if the teacher says you don’t need to keep it or it’s stupid or whatever.  All pieces of paper get saved until the end of the year (actually, for a few years, if you think you might have any interaction with the special education system).

Both of these reviews are almost impossible for most folks who struggle with organization to reliably do by themselves at first. When I’m working with someone, we do them together at the start of every session, and we rely on a cue card or checklist that lives in the binder, too. Then we fade back to having them do it while I watch and cue them when they miss something. Then, if necessary, we teach a parent how to watch and cue them, and they do it before our session, so my weekly check is just to see that it’s been done correctly. Then we fade back to having the parent remind them to do it and check afterwards that it’s done correctly. Eventually, kids can do it on their own, but we wait at each step to see that it’s happening reliably before we fade the support.

I have some alternatives, which I’ll cover in another post.

Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be…

August 5, 2010 54 comments

Here’s an article making the rounds, which is funny because it’s so true.

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2010_07_23/caredit.a1000072

Good morning, children, and welcome. Today’s science demonstration will require a laptop, a printer, and 20 liters of coffee. This experiment is called “Applying for Funding.”   <snip>

Real scientists never enter a lab. We work our whole lives to become, if we’re lucky, managers of sorts. We oversee, we organize, and we teach. We attend meetings and send e-mails. We think, we write, we debate, we format, and we complain. The day-to-day job of a scientist — a real one — isn’t too different from that of, say, an insurance claims adjuster.

The article is mainly about the fact that the public perception of science as a profession is shaped largely by mad-scientist movies and whiz-bang demonstrations.  I’d have to add the constant stream of news stories in which some tiny incremental improvement in the state of our collective knowledge about how some ridiculously complicated natural system works and what we can do about some immense problem of human suffering, some little grain of sand added to the sandcastle of the Global University, is oversimplified and treated as an Amazing Breakthrough.  We seem to forget, in the phrase, “quantum leap,” that a quantum is actually a teeny-tiny itsy-bitsy eeeny-weeny change.  Similarly, in those news stories, the contribution of the Lone Genius Scientist is overplayed, forgetting about the legions of graduate students and postdocs who actually do the work, as well as the centuries of giants upon whose shoulders they all stand.

For those who have read the twisted tale of my life thus far and how I got from being the youngest in my class to being the oldest in my class, finally finishing school (this time for sure!) at the tender age of 42, you’ll know that I started life as a starry-eyed molecular biologist.  I was going to cure cancer.  Because although I knew intellectually that science was a lot of hard work and a very long process, some little part of me still held onto the magical belief that you had a brilliant idea on Monday, did the experiment on Tuesday, got data (cells gotta grow overnight) on Wednesday, published on Thursday, and on Friday were on the plane to Stockholm.

It took literally ten years (four as an undergrad, during which I was involved in bench research almost all the way through, and six as a grad student), before I understood what this article is talking about, and realized that my extraverted novelty-loving big-picture-oriented but not-much-of-a-schmoozing personality was not a good fit for the real life of a scientist.  I’d be a good grantwriter, I suppose, but ugh, not what I want to actually do for a living.

So my point in making this post?  Gifted kids need career guidance.  Early and often.  So many of us are afflicted with “the perils of multipotentiality” — we can go in many different directions, we have many different interests and talents, we have many choices.  Sometimes we foreclose too early, other times we wander without direction.

Very often what a field looks like when we’re kids has very little to do with what it looks like when we’re adult practitioners.  And very often what a talented kid looks like when they’re very young has very little to do with what an eminent and creative practitioner of the field is going to look like in adulthood.  Knowing a lot of facts about science or having precocious math procedural skills (which is what precocious science-y math-y kids often manifest with) is a great potentiator of creative thought later in life, but it isn’t the same thing.  Some kids are just good at piling up facts.

Reading biographies of famous individuals, particularly those written for younger audiences, doesn’t help all that much, I’m afraid.   Those tend to contribute to the same misconceptions about heroism and breakthroughs and such.  Same with having occasional visits in the classroom or one-time shadowing experiences — again, the focus tends to be on the gee-whiz aspects of the career, a sales job more than anything else.

Kids need real information about what those people really do all day, what the life is like, what personality characteristics and working styles are good fits for it (and which are not!).  What I think is most helpful is for those kids to have ongoing mentor relationships with adults in the field, folks who will honestly answer questions and suggest routes by which kids can meaningfully explore and pursue their passions.  They should also volunteer information that fell into a kid’s blind spots, stuff they didn’t even think to ask about.  For example, my Little Bird, who wants to be a veterinarian, found out from her mentor that a huge part of the job is about dealing with humans, keeping the patients’ owners happy, because no cat ever brings themselves to the vet.  Perhaps obvious in retrospect, but not obvious to a caring and empathic tween girl who loves animals and science.  If a kid feels weird or intimidated about asking for a mentor, remind them that most people who are truly passionate about their careers also love to share that passion with others, especially young folks who might want to grow up to be like them.

(side hint/plea — if you love your work, offer to mentor kids who are curious about it!  Not every kid has easy access to a family friend who just happens to be in your field.)

Mentors can also help link a kid up with long-term experiences where they can get their hands dirty and become part of the action, particularly as they move into the teen years.  Trying something out, over a long enough time to get past the “squeeeee!” stage, is terrific.  Worst case?  The kid finds out that it’s not what they thought it was and they’d rather go in a different direction in the same field or pursue other passions entirely.  Not such a bad worst case — better than finding it out six years into graduate school.  Best case?  The kid gets experience that both helps them understand the complexity of a field and, oh, by the way, looks great on applications.

As an adjunct to learning about a career in depth, kids need to learn about themselves. Knowing about your own personal learning and working profile, in its many dimensions (subject for a future post), is important.  There can be many different ways to be good at a profession, of course!  But if you don’t know what your own strengths and weaknesses are, you can neither think about how your current style might match up nor think intelligently about what you might want to develop about yourself in order to become a better match.  Introspection can be a valuable tool for this — books like What Color is Your Parachute? (oh, look, there’s a teen version — I haven’t read it yet, but I’d consider that a good bet as a starting point) can help structure some aspects of the exploration.  It can also be helpful for kids to ask the adults in their lives to share their impressions — chances are good that no one vision of a kid will be perfectly accurate, but when diverse sources start to give convergent data, that’s something to take seriously.  Getting professional help (from a formal assessment, a therapy relationship, a career counselor familiar with gifted kids (i.e., who won’t just say, “Ooh, you’re so wonderful, you can be anything you want to be!”) can provide another helpful outside perspective.

What else do people think would help kids make smart career choices?  Chime in below!

school supplies… a rant

August 4, 2010 35 comments

One of the things that I do a lot of with kids, especially kids in middle school or high school, is help them deal with the paper chase. We work together to develop and troubleshoot systems for corraling all those loose papers, books, notebooks, projects, etc. We’re often doing this in whatever teeny bits of wiggle room we can find within the “systems” imposed upon them by their schools. Usually schools have good intentions in doing these — they’re honestly trying to teach kids organizational skills. And, admittedly sometimes the systems are for the convenience of the teachers — e.g., they want to be able to collect notebooks and take them home to check that kids are doing their work. But usually the actual systems leave much to be desired.

Well, my own beloved Little Bird is about to embark upon middle school (cue the scary music), and the good news is that she is pretty run-of-the-mill in terms of keeping track of stuff — no worse than most kids her age. Which is to say she’s not very good at it.

So when I look at her supply list, I’m, well, a trifle concerned.

  • 2 double-pocket folders (note that these are designated for a specific subject, so they’re not likely to be intended as general “hot folders” (for carrying homework and parent handouts back and forth), which might actually be a use, at least for one of them. But usually, the main purpose of pocket folders is to become overstuffed and to have papers fall out of them into a random and comical heap at inopportune moments. Usually when the kid is late for the bus.)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 1″ thick, flexible, with some unspecified number of page protectors. It’s important to stay flexible.
  • 2 three-ring binders, 1″ thick, (one of which is noted as needing filler paper, the other is not. Was that a typo? Will they be writing only on worksheets? Or is there some very special papyrus to be purchased at a later date?)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 1.5″ thick, with side pockets (because handouts fall out of them so much more easily than out of those pesky pocket folders), 10 tab dividers, 25 sheets of lined paper, and 3 pens or pencils (for Health. Because I might have a heart attack trying to get this stuff organized.)
  • 1 three-ring binder, 2″ thick, with lined paper and reinforcements (I do appreciate the foresight of the tech-ed teacher. With a list like this, we’re definitely going to need to call for reinforcements at some point.)
  • 4 single-subject spiral notebooks that measure 9″x11″ (with, I kid you not, seven (7) reminders, four (4) of which are boldfaced and underlined, one (1) of which also has italics, to make sure you notice that they are requiring you to track down spirals that are actually 9″x11″ rather than 8.5″x11″ or 8.5″x10.5″, despite the fact that these spirals are literally three times the cost of the normal ones and are considerably harder to find (yes, I found them, no need to send me a link)).
  • 1 Bienfang Notesketch 8.5″x11″ Horizontal Lines (now there’s an art teacher who knows what she wants. Okay, I can’t be too mad about that. Hopefully it stays in the art room most of the time.  But heaven forbid she could have asked for a similar item available at, oh, say, a big-box craft or office supply store, instead of requiring a special trip to an art store or paying expensive shipping for an online order)
  • 1 zippered pencil pouch (recommended) (I’m wondering why they aren’t requiring it. Perhaps because no one other than the Health teacher thinks they need writing implements. Or perhaps because backpacks usually have appropriately-sized pockets, so pencil pouches are superfluous.)
  • 1 flash drive (good idea! Let me suggest also a lanyard or other device to permanently attach said flash drive to the kid’s backpack? Otherwise, in the office pool for the lifespan of that object, put me down for “under one week.”)
  • 1 mini stapler (Why? Because teachers aren’t going to hit the “staple” button on the photocopier? Because classrooms can’t have a single shared stapler anymore so kids can learn to take turns? Because the pencil pouch might be lonely without any pencils in it?)
  • 1 glue stick (Ah, now I’m wondering if this is the crucial piece to their cunning plan — those oversized spiral-bounds could easily be chosen so that every we’re-going-green-single-side-printed handout can be meticulously glued in place! If so, we need a case of glue sticks. And some antacid.)
  • <singing> and a partridge in a pear tree.</singing>  Yes, they do note that additional items may be added during the school year as needed.

Note that this is all before we add any textbooks to those backpacks, if you were concerned about weight.

Okay, to be fair, I’m willing to guess that a couple of those binders might be destined to live in classrooms instead of traveling back and forth to lockers and home.

I’m noticing what’s not on the list, too… No mechanical pencils. No colored pens or pencils. No graph paper for either math or science.  No actual hot-folder.

And no planner. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they won’t hand out a paper planner they’re expecting everyone to use. And maybe they’ll be okay letting her use an electronic PDA.

Fortunately, this isn’t a school that has gotten all security-crazed to the point where they don’t allow backpacks or tote bags. No kidding — I’ve had to write into kids’ IEPs and 504 plans that they had to be allowed to use a bag instead of carrying everything loose.

But this list is not giving me all the warm fuzzy back-to-school feeling I’m hoping for. It has too many moving parts. Too much empty air and paper being carried around. Too much labor involved in routine use.

It’s not a plan for success. It’s a plan for lost and crumpled papers, shoved deep into the recesses of the backpack until they turn into petroleum products. It’s a plan for disintegrating or overflowing notebooks which then must be laboriously recreated. It’s a plan for oh-so-many last-minute crises when the eldritch horrors that live in kids’ lockers have mysteriously hidden the items they needed to do their homework so that the kid wasn’t able to rescue them before dashing out to the bus. Oy.

Of course, by sheer random chance, some kids in this school will manage this system okay. And some other kids will have parental or professional support called into play so as to prevent the worst of the failure. But that just gives the illusion that these systems work. Which then is used to justify blaming kids who can’t make them work (“not trying hard enough” or even “lazy”).

See, you can’t teach kids organizational skills just by putting them in a situation where organizational skills would be a Really Good Idea. You also can’t teach organizational skills by imposing a system that is complex and onerous enough that kids need you to direct them every inch of the way. You need to be in the middle ground, where some guidance will help them gradually become able to do it on their own.

Normally, this district actually does a pretty good job with most things, and even a very good job with some things.  Birdie likes school and I think she’s getting a good education.   I’m frankly surprised to see this list, and I hope that I’m wrong about some of my conjectures.  But even if this is actually a well-thought-out system that I’m just totally misconstruing, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who are about to be struggling with a school-imposed organizational nightmare.

In <a href=”https://davincilearning.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/on-organization-do-not-multiply-entities-needlessly/”>another post,</a> I’ll talk about the system I usually start with — it works pretty well for most kids who struggle with organization.

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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