Monday, November 17, 2008

One foot in front of the other

Last Friday was the day I volunteer in the library at AJ's school. It was an unusually quiet day. The librarian was working with her classes in the computer lab down the hall. No one was coming in to check out books. I had plenty of time to check in all the returned books, reshelve them, and scan the shelves for Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa books to pull for the post-Thanksgiving displays. AJ's teacher came in while I was covering some new paperback books.

"Don't worry! I did give him the book! I just was worried about him being able to keep track of his work," she said. This was excellent news. And we proceeded to have a long talk about what's up with AJ.

The fact is, some of what is going on is still a mystery to both of us. I don't think we're talking about a learning disability here, although I'm not ruling it out. Nor am I ignoring research on learning disabilities related to "executive functioning" (thanks for the new term, Fern!), because regardless of the cause, the symptoms need addressing and some of the suggestions freshhell mentioned are excellent and already working well for us. Last year we bought AJ a small chalkboard that we use specifically for his schedule. It used to live in the kitchen where Mr. Spy or I would write out first his morning and then his afternoon schedule along with some silly pictures and jokes so that it was something he wanted to look at as well as something he needed to know. Recently, we've moved the chalkboard to his room and had him write out his schedule and then cross off the activities as he does them. This is both teaching him how to help himself and allowing us to see what he's doing. It's the number one best tool we have for keeping AJ on track at home.

But the reason I suspect it isn't actually a learning disability (and I really think it may be too early to tell) is that a lot of the problems are situational -- they take place in school and to a lesser extent in certain situations at home (usually on tasks he doesn't want to do when there's some other activity he wants to move on to as fast as possible). They are not universal behaviors. I think there are some triggers for the behavior, though, and boredom is definitely one of them. A lack of respect for the activity is another -- writing the assignment is important, putting it away neatly is not. I am sensitive to these issues, because I was the same way when I was in elementary school. Once it was done in my head, it was done. The rest of it didn't matter to me -- writing neatly, putting things in my backpack so they didn't wrinkle, even doing the assignment on paper. It didn't matter. I would willfully fail to show my work in math because I thought it was a waste of time, no matter what anybody else told me. I would fail to answer questions in English class because I got carried away with my answer to the first question and wanted to see where it would take me. It wasn't that I couldn't get organized, it was that I didn't really care. I wanted to do the right thing and I tried when people asked me to, but at a gut level, I didn't get why it was important. It appears to me that AJ is showing signs of a similar attitude problem. And while such an attitude problem is one he needs to know how to solve to get through a lot of real life situations, I think the attitude itself may eventually serve him well when channeled for good instead of evil.

At school, AJ is easily distracted by other children. He's often overstimulated by a lot of activity, even as he's attracted to it, and he always wants to know what else is going on. When he's working, he likes things quiet and still. He doesn't get that at school. And he likes it that way -- he's a very social kid and he wants to interact with others. But at 7, he still doesn't have the self-control needed to be consistent about his in-class work habits. I am not concerned that he doesn't yet know how to do this. I am concerned that he doesn't seem to be understanding that learning how to do this is extremely important. But working on him both from home and from school, I am hoping it will try to sink in.

From the beginning, we've been focused on helping AJ learn how to organize himself. Fern mentioned trying to talk out loud to AJ about how I'm organizing things as I do it. This sounds like an excellent idea. And while I think I've always done some of it, I bet I could do more. He has the ability to organize when he wants to -- woe betide he who messes with the elaborate ordering of his baseball cards! He just doesn't like to take the time to think about it, because, I think, he gets overwhelmed with possibilities. I need to try to help him take that part of his brain that deals with his baseball cards and apply it to other things.

Jill mentioned that her son's teacher had handed out an agenda/planner to each kid to help them keep track of their homework assignments, which had to be initialed in the planner each day. This gave me an idea. I stressed with AJ's teacher how lists seemed to work for AJ at home but that when we tried to have him write lists for school, that he ran into the same problems he did with other assignments -- he often forgot it or didn't do it. I suggested that I could write up a checklist -- one page for a week -- that we could tape to the front of his take-home folder, so he could run through it each day, a list of all the things he needed to remember during class. I told the teacher I'd be happy to make it, but that I needed her help for what to put on it, since I didn't know all the routines of the classroom. She agreed that it sounded like a good thing to try and she's going to think about things to put on it and get them to me. So I feel like we're on the same page about this and that she will try to back some of this stuff up in school.

The other issue that his teacher is worried about is the damage AJ occasionally inflicts through his carelessness -- ripping books by shoving things into his desk without looking to see where they are going, absent-mindedly spearing his pencil at the desk, leaving marks and holes, bending back the covers of a book he's engrossed in. I'm not sure what to do about this beyond drawing his attention to it and asking him to be careful, which we've already done many times over. I did, though, suggest to AJ that he should pull out the stack of things in his desk, put the thing he wants to put away on top, and then put the hole thing back in. Part of his trouble is that there's way too much stuff in his desk. But he can't really do much about that. It's just the way things are when there are 27 kids in a class and there's nowhere to put anything. And I suggested to the teacher that there should be consequences for the damage at school, just as there would be at home -- a missed 10 minutes of recess, for example, which is a standard punishment for misbehavior in the classroom. As Jeanne mentioned, if the behaviors start causing more trouble for him, I think AJ will get it.

So it was a productive conversation all around. Our parent-teacher conference is a week from today, so we will have a chance to follow up quickly. And from there, we'll see how things go. Thank you so much for all of your comments and suggestions. I'll report back next week.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Naughty or Nice?

A few days after we got the results of AJ's latest standardized tests (he missed 3 questions out of 362), his teacher pulled me aside in the school hallway, where I was waiting for my volunteer job to start. "I was hoping to talk to you"

AJ, it turns out, is having some trouble at school. You'd never know it from what comes home. But his teacher is concerned about his lack of organization.

We're concerned about it too, although we didn't know until this moment that it was affecting his work at school. AJ, like many gifted kids, is easily distracted and frequently has trouble completing tasks, instead getting sidetracked into other things. He can't plan his time well. He is sloppy about putting his things away and loses his belongings regularly. Scarcely a week goes by when we're not going back up to school to pick up something he's forgotten. I find it infuriating because the trait seems so intractable. AJ does well with lists. If we write lists, he does things. I gave him a notebook to take to school so he could write down the things he needs to do. It worked beautifully for one day. Then he forgot it at school and I threw up my hands.

His teacher is concerned at this particular moment because she wants the better readers in the class to start a reading group. But since the class has 26 students in it, the members of the reading group will have to do a lot of independent work. She's not sure he's up to it. I know he is up to it when he wants to be. The question is, will he be able to pull it off?

I came home and talked to AJ and looked up the book that most of the class is reading. It is a good book, but painfully easy for AJ, a level he was reading independently four years ago when he was three. My fear is that if she sticks him with that book, he will shut down out of boredom. Not to mention the fact that it would be a colossal waste of his time. The advanced book will still be easy for him, but it looks like a good book with a much more complicated storyline.

So I sat down this evening to write his teacher a letter. This is always an exercise in diplomacy. I don't have the faith in this teacher that I had in AJ's teacher last year, but I do have respect for her. She is good at what she does and she is challenging AJ at school. He loves being in her classroom. But I really think she's wrong about this. At the same time, I really don't have any solutions. I've tried everything I can think of. So my letter kind of lays it all on the line.

Disorganization is extremely common for gifted kids, more common than in the general population. But teaching them how to focus is extremely challenging. And it's doubly challenging in school, where we can't help on a daily basis and where the teacher who wants to help is trying to do so while teaching 25 other kids to do the things they need to do. I mentioned in the letter that written instructions were working for us at home and I hope the teacher will try that. But I am not sure that she'll be as successful. AJ is a master at looking for loopholes and her writing is not always airtight. Last week, for example, AJ missed a question on a social studies test on the unit on maps they've been working on. The test question read, "Name the four directions. AJ wrote "North South East West," which was a perfect answer to the question asked. But that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted him to draw a compass rose and label the points. Now I have no way of knowing whether she asked for the compass rose in class. She very well may have and AJ may not have been listening or may have been too literal minded about the written question. But I'll probably never know for sure. I want to ask but I don't want to come across as a grade-grubbing freak. After all, this is a second grade test and AJ got a 97. Why quibble? Still, I was seething at the injustice. AJ, however, took it all in stride.

Teacher conferences are coming up in two weeks and we'll talk in person then. But I didn't think this could wait. Assigning AJ the easier book would be like asking his teacher to spend a month studying a book for fourth graders. Maybe diverting at first, but ultimately unsatisfying and tedious. Ultimately, the solution is the teacher's decision. I hope she makes the right choice.