Monday, August 17, 2015

What was the best class your gifted child had in school?

What would you select as your gifted child's "best" class in school? What would go into your decision? Would you base it on the teacher's skills, the quality of the classroom material, the level of innovation, or the amount of engagement among students? What would your child pick and what would influence the choice?

I have thought about this a lot over the years. Certainly my children have had their favorites, often based on several amazing teachers, the level of classroom engagement, or sometimes just due to the number of friends who were in the class. If I asked my kids, they might come up with a variety of choices, ranging from AP Calculus to phys. ed.  But if I could vote, I would choose a particularly innovative class one of them had in sixth grade. He might not agree, but as a parent and gifted advocate, the mere existence of this class in a district that shunned ability grouping was a monumental achievement.

A group of about 25 students were selected from a student body of over 350 for an advanced Language Arts and Reading class. Most, if not all, were already identified as gifted; if not, they were clearly exceptional writers, avid readers, and deep thinkers. Students were selected by the GT and other language arts teachers; parents and the students themselves had little knowledge of the class ahead of time.

What ensued was a remarkable classroom experience where gifted students (finally!) were challenged. For the first time in six years, my son read books that corresponded with his abilities, and discussed them with a classroom full of peers.  He was no longer expected to quietly read on his own. He engaged in debates requiring higher-level thinking each day, and was given assignments that were more complex and demanding than anything he had received in the past. And most importantly, he didn't have to hide who he was - he shared the classroom with peers, so there were no expectations to keep his thoughts to himself, dull his enthusiasm for learning or dumb himself down to fit in.

The class itself was not exceptional on its own merit, but it was quite different from what the school typically offered. In fact, it was so unique that it was kept hidden from most other parents. In an era when ability grouped classes were falling out of favor, when administrators feared parents might complain that their child was excluded, it was a bold move to permit this class to even exist at all. Gifted advocates and parents quipped about the "super secret, double accelerated language arts program," hoping the success of this class would spark a renaissance of ability grouped options (but all the while counting the days until it might be disbanded).

Why should gifted children have to wait six years to participate in a challenging class that addresses their educational needs? And what about the rest of their day? As beneficial as it was, this language arts class was only one  subject, one class period a day. While he also, thankfully, had access to a "double accelerated" math class, taught by a brilliant teacher, the nature of the material did not permit the same degree of collaborative class participation. All other classes during the day were heterogeneously grouped. Social studies, science, health, and foreign language were designed to accommodate the needs of all children, i.e., set at a slower, more tedious pace.

When GT teachers are asked to compensate for an absence of challenging classes, when hardworking teachers are expected to differentiate instruction, an almost impossible task in most classrooms, when gifted children's needs are minimized, discounted, or discussed in hushed tones, due to fear of other parents' reactions, there will be casualties. Gifted children become bored, disenchanted, and disengaged, if they even make it to sixth grade without completely losing interest.

This particular innovative language arts class was disbanded a few years later. Despite its success, the concept of a "double accelerated" class created too much controversy, too much cognitive dissonance for the district to bear. Better to adhere to philosophical trends in education promoting heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction. Better to support the appearance of equity over the importance of meeting each child's unique educational needs. Better to eliminate a successful, cost-effective and minimally disruptive program (i.e., it was only one class out of an entire roster) than risk accusations of favoritism toward those gifted kids.

My son probably remembers little about the class now that he's in college. I'm sure it was neither his favorite nor most memorable class. He was fortunate to have had some nurturing elementary school teachers. The double accelerated sixth grade math class also was challenging and meaningful. And a few stand-out high school honors and AP classes taught by some exceptional teachers provided a welcome relief from the desperate boredom of middle school. But this sixth grade language arts class seemed remarkable to me... a rare gem that briefly flourished and raised the bar, before it was extinguished.

Did you or your child have a class that made a difference?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Self-advocacy for gifted teens and tweens: How to help gifted teens take control of their classroom experience

I am pleased to offer a guest post from blogger Ilana Teitelman, focusing on how adolescent and pre-teen students can advocate for themselves. This is a much-needed skill, especially relevant as the school year approaches. Enjoy!

As students start to reach fifth and sixth grade, and enter into the world of middle and high school, they become more and more responsible for their own emotional and academic well-being. It is around this time that special needs students begin attending their own IEP meetings and being asked to listen and comment on their strengths, weaknesses, and accommodations. The ability to advocate for yourself can benefit all students, though, especially those gifted students who may have special needs or concerns in the classroom but do not have written plans and regular reviews.  

Why should gifted students self-advocate? First and foremost, the ability to speak up for yourself is an important social skill that all students, but especially gifted students, can benefit from learning. There are a variety of benefits to older students learning to communicate their own needs, rather than allowing their parents to be their sole advocates.

  • Gifted students who speak for themselves may get help and resources sooner.  Students have regular access to teachers and administrators in a way that parents don’t.  Especially for smaller, more immediate issues with simpler solutions, students may get what they need faster if they can ask for it themselves.
  • Gifted students who self-advocate don’t have the same stigma as parents who advocate for their students.  It may not be fair, but many parents who speak up on behalf of their child’s needs are labelled “helicopter parents” or may be seen as pushing their own agenda. This is especially true as students get older and are more able to speak for themselves.
  • Gifted students are often great problem solvers. Why not let them put those skills to use helping solve the problems they’re encountering in school?  While it is never solely the student’s responsibility to solve school problems, they often have unique insight into what solutions could help them. Even if their idea isn’t feasible (I had a student who wanted to install a pull-up bar in the hallway ceiling), it might lead to ideas that are workable (pull-up breaks on the playground instead?).
  • Self-advocating is a good outlet for the creative energy and passion for justice that many gifted students possess. Writing up a proposal to a teacher, making posters, or preparing a presentation on a school issue (in a respectful, professional manner) are real-life tasks that prepare students for the outside world. They also require hard work and academic energy. This work can help adolescents “own” their giftedness and hone academic skills in an authentic way.
  • Self-advocating is “cooler” than having your parents advocate for you. Gifted students in middle and high school are highly cognizant of peer perception. “Standing up” to a teacher (again, respectfully) can get you respect as a teen and tween (Wow! You got Ms. Gold to change her mind on the test policy?). Having your parents get those results does not garner the same respect, and may even be embarrassing for students (Wow! You had to have your mom call Ms. Gold?). This is not to say that you shouldn’t advocate for your older students- often they very much need you to. But it can be worth it to let them try to solve certain problems on their own, at least at first.

Self-advocating for gifted students can be a source of pride and an outlet for their intelligence and creativity. It also helps them learn important social skills that will help them beyond school.  And it empowers them to find solutions to make school more of a productive and positive place. These results carry over to other problems that may arise, in school and out.

So how can students self-advocate effectively? Here are my top four tips. Share these strategies with your child for a more successful negotiation with their teacher(s):

  1. Pick the right time.
Most teachers don’t appreciate being interrupted in the middle of class, or bombarded in front of a group of students. While your points may be accurate (and your tone respectful), if you call out in class or when there’s an audience present, you may seem disrespectful. Try to find a time when the teacher is available to talk privately. After all, you want her/him to really listen and respond thoughtfully, right? The start of class may be good, or during a time when the class is engaged in seatwork independently. Even better, ask if you can have lunch, meet them after school, or schedule a meeting during your study hall!  

And if you’re worried about approaching the teacher, or they never seem available, try writing a letter. It gives your teacher time to think about and respond to your concerns on her/his own time, and it gives you the chance to organize your thoughts and express what you want to express.

  1. Know the classroom/school systems.
Think about how your school and class are set-up and how you could make that work for you. Think of it as a big logic puzzle. If the first five minutes is always spent checking in and getting homework out, maybe you could arrange to be three minutes late to do push-ups in the hall before a big test. You can promise to come in silently, put your homework right down on the pile, and sit without interrupting. Or maybe Fridays are always spelling tests, and you’ve been acing them all year.  Maybe you could arrange to instead spend Fridays in the library doing an independent research project. As long as you’re willing to make project contract with your teacher, and have a way to show your work (a paper or presentation, maybe?), your teacher may be fine with it.

  1. Identify Your Problem Areas (before you meet).
This one is two-fold: you want to be able to say what the specific problem is, and you also need to be able to admit if there are problems you’re responsible or partially responsible for. In terms of the first part, make sure that you can point out the exact things that you’re having trouble with. This can be hard!  But if you come in and say, “I’m bored,” your teacher may have no idea what you’re talking about. It even may seem like you’re just criticizing his/her teaching.  

If you can instead say, “I already know all my spelling words every week,” or “I can’t get my ideas out fast enough writing by hand,” or “the readings are a lot like what I did last year for my research project,” then the teacher can see a specific problem that she/he may be able to solve. It also shows that you’re being thoughtful and not just complaining.

In terms of admitting your own problems, this can be tricky, especially if you know you have good reasons for what you’re doing. You may be ignoring your partners during group work because they don’t understand any of your ideas! Or maybe you’re calling out because you’re so frustrated that no one else has the answer and the teacher won’t call on you when you raise your hand! But being able to admit when you’ve been doing something that may be causing a problem shows that you’re really realistic about what’s happening in the classroom. It will make your complaints and ideas seem more realistic and legitimate.  

If you can say, “I know I’ve been having a problem calling out,” or “I need help not ignoring my partner during group projects,” you’re showing that you want to be a partner in solving classroom problems. Besides which, your teacher will really appreciate you taking responsibility, which will probably make her/him more willing to work with you and go the extra mile to help. Yes, it’s the teacher’s job to help, but they’re humans too, and most humans are more willing to do extra work if it’s for someone who’s kind and helpful. So use that to your advantage if you can!  

  1. Come with (Realistic) Solutions Ready, but Keep an Open Mind.
You’re a problem solver and you know how to look at something and make connections that other people may not see. You are also the closest person to the problem, so you have a unique perspective to share. It’s great if you have ideas about what might help!  In fact, by thinking about the school and classroom systems, you may already have come up with some ideas. Just take a minute to make sure that they’re realistic.  

Not having to take math anymore probably isn’t an option, even if you feel your time would be better spent with extra writing class instead. And, unfortunately, schools have tight budgets, so asking for lots of special equipment or your own daily tutor might not be possible either. But there are often already resources at your school that you might be able to take advantage of. The library is often a good place to start. Or maybe there’s a teacher who could help you start a club? Or your study hall teacher could supervise a project with you twice a week?

Separately, there may be small things that you could do on your own to make things better. Maybe moving your seat would help you tune out the person next to you who always sings under her breathe? Maybe you would be more willing to raise your hand from the back of the room, where you’re not front and center. Or maybe tests are stressful and you could bring a card to them that reminds you of breathing exercises or positive affirmations. Most teachers are happy to accommodate you when they can, especially if you’re not asking for them to do a lot of extra work!

That all being said, make sure you keep an open mind. You have the right to expect to be listened to, especially if you’ve followed these strategies and stayed respectful. But make sure you take the time to listen as well.  You teacher may have reasons why your ideas aren’t as do-able as you thought they were, or may need to talk with someone else for approval. She/he might also have some changes to make to your ideas to improve them. This is good! It means that you’re being taken seriously, and may result in a better end solution. Keep an open mind and you may be surprised what can happen.

Of course, you may try all of these things and it still may just not work out. That’s unfortunate, but it happens. If you’re willing, try to go through the process again with a different person, like a guidance counselor or principal. At this point, you may want to ask your parents for help too. Often they can back you up and bring a stronger authority to your ideas.  

In addition to all these strategies, try to find at least one adult at school who you can talk to. Even if they can’t help you with this specific problem, having connections at school can give you important insight and support.

These strategies have worked for my students when they’ve needed to negotiate or communicate a problem with other school staff (or with me!), and I hope they work for you, as well.  If you need specific advice or help coming up with solutions, feel free to contact me directly at my website, Guiding Your Gift. I love to hear from parents, students, and educators!

-Ms. Teitelman

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Tips for parents of gifted children: What most parents wish they had known

In my clinical psychology practice, I have listened to many parents of gifted children express regrets over the path not taken. They bemoan not having spoken up sooner. They wish they had demanded more intensive educational services. They regret not having planned more strategically for their child's future. Often isolated and confused, they feel depleted after weathering years of mixed messages, criticism, and downright bad advice.

As a parent, I also experienced the challenge of raising gifted children, and faced constraints (as well as opportunities) within their particular school community. Even though trained as a clinical psychologist, I was unprepared for the "parent of a gifted child" role, and had to quickly learn how to advocate within the schools.

What are some general guidelines many parents of gifted children wish they had known?

The following are some tips that may help you maintain your resolve, perspective and focus as you navigate this journey:

1. Get as educated as possible
Learn as much as you can about giftedness. Read, attend conferences, meet with other parents of gifted children. Great sites include NAGC, SENGifted, and Hoagiesgifted. The more you understand about gifted children, gifted education, and the social, emotional and intellectual needs of the gifted, the better prepared you will be when you need to advocate for your child.

2. Your child is different
You assumed that your child would have different learning needs. But what may come as a surprise is how much your child differs from her peers in terms of social skills, emotional reactivity and development. Whether it is asynchronous development, where social/emotional maturity may lag far behind intellectual skills, or intense sensitivity and a preoccupation with fairness and justice, your child is often out of sync with peers her age. Even on the playground. Even at family reunions. Even on the soccer field. So get ready to help her cope with these differences. 
(For more on helping your child cope, see previous blog posts such as: what to say to your child about being gifted, finding like-minded friends, coping with middle school, adolescent distress, dreading high school, and adjusting to college.)

3. You will have your own reactions
Most parents are flooded with emotional reactions when they realize their child is gifted, ranging from pride and excitement, to guilt and fear. Even after you adjust to the reality, you may struggle with anxiety or frustration related to your child's social and academic adjustment, or a lack of resources in the schools. You may feel isolated if there are few parents in your community who understand, and end up downplaying your child's accomplishments to avoid the appearance of bragging. Finding sources of understanding and support within your family, community, school or even online is essential for your own well-being, and will also help with parenting.

4. Assume you will have to get involved
As much as you might like to rely on the "experts," you will have to be involved with your child's education. This does not mean you get to control everything. It does mean, though, that you need to be alert to what your child is and isn't getting out of school, and take steps to advocate for appropriate accommodations when needed. It is a rare school that readily meets the needs of gifted students. And "gifted programs" may not necessarily offer your child what he requires in particular. You may have to request IQ testing, search for extracurricular opportunities, and work collaboratively with your child's teacher. So get ready to get involved.

5. There is no ideal school
No school setting is perfect. There are no public, private, charter, boarding or even homeschool settings that will meet all of your child's needs. Most teachers mean well, but have no training in gifted education. That's not their fault; it's just not a big part of their training. Recognize that any school you choose is a compromise (as it is for all children) and try to accept that you will need to work with whatever decision you have made for your child. 

6. Prepare to be an ambassador for gifted children
Most people don't understand giftedness. You will hear comments like "every child is gifted," or "all it takes is effort," or "those gifted kids are a product of privilege and hot-housing." You will face ignorance from family, neighbors, friends, and the schools. Much of this is due to lack of understanding; sometimes, though it's the result of envy and plain old nastiness. Either way, it falls on you to consistently, tactfully and clearly explain what giftedness is and is not, how gifted people have unique learning differences as a result of their "wiring," and that giftedness and achievement are completely separate entities. Prepare an elevator speech and a more in-depth explanation for those who care to know more. But get ready to be an ambassador for giftedness.

7. Assume all schools have competing agendas
Your gifted child's needs are not your school's highest priority. While most schools claim that they support the learning needs of all children (and many flaunt the awards and achievements of their most accomplished students), gifted children are frequently overlooked due to competing financial concerns, policy goals, or just plain ignorance. Even cost-effective solutions, such as ability grouping or compacting, are often dismissed because they conflict with philosophical views about education. And don't assume that private schools are a panacea. Some discount the need for gifted education completely, as they promise a high level of academic instruction, and assume that your child won't need anything beyond this. Accept that it will seem like an uphill battle at times.

8. No teacher knows as much about your child as you do
You know your child best. You can tell when she grasps material much sooner than other children, when it comes way too easily, or when it is truly a struggle. If the feedback you receive from school differs from your own impressions, gather more information. Ask for further evaluation, testing or observation. Share your impressions in a respectful, collaborative manner. If you cannot reach a consensus, you may need to pursue other options (e.g., advocacy with school administration, transferring schools, homeschooling), or you might decide to just wait it out until she has a different teacher next year.

9. Consider your child's emotional needs as much as the intellectual ones
Your child will not excel in school if he is unhappy. Any decisions regarding school choice, acceleration, programmatic decisions and extracurriculars need to consider whether he will thrive emotionally as well as academically. This might even mean foregoing full-grade acceleration if your child is not developmentally ready, or eliminating an extracurricular that creates too much stress. It means ensuring that your child can find a like-minded peer group. It also includes recognizing if your child is becoming bored and apathetic in an academic setting that is much too easy, since this may set the stage for underachievement. 

10. Pick your battles and don't sweat the small stuff
Determine what is most important and assert your concerns. Ignore the unimportant. Your gifted child probably will be bored at some point and may not get all of the opportunities you think he deserves. If the concerns are minor, let them go. Many parents withhold complaints because they don't want to be labeled "one of those parents." While it is important to remain actively involved, voicing concerns over every problem will not win favor with most teachers, and probably won't work anyway.

11. Be strategic: Plan well in advance for college
Forget the stereotypes about hovering parents who shepherd their overachieving children into elite colleges. Gifted children have plenty of options for getting into great colleges on their own merit. But it does take some vigilance and planning. It means that you will need to pay attention to what colleges expect, and investigate a variety of informational resources, not just one source of advice. There is an astonishing amount of misleading advice online about college, from what is takes to get into elite universities to financial aid expectations. And don't assume that your child's guidance counselor will be of much help. So get educated about what is required... and do it early.

12. Keep it in perspective 
Recognize that you are doing your best. The fact that you are even reading this blog suggests that you are searching for answers. And even if you don't find them here, elsewhere online, or through books, workshops, conversations with other parents of gifted children, or through professionals in your community, your efforts show your dedication to helping your gifted child. Imperfect as it may be, any attempt to enhance her options will serve her well in the future. 

What do you wish you had known sooner?

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted 101. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: