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.


Scott said...

Our P/T conference is the week of Thanksgiving. Katie is the 'best reader' in the class and is good at math. But I hope she's challenged at school. I think she is. Perhaps. Maybe. She seems more concerned about the exploits of Zach and Cody, though.

Anonymous said...

I'll be curious how this turns out. I hope that the teacher does the right thing for AJ and not just the easiest thing for her.

Jeanne said...

We have dealt with teachers wanting our gifted kids to be more organized every. single. year. Family policy has evolved to the point where we now discuss it in terms of being polite. There are lots of rules about being polite that gifted kids have to learn early (have you not dealt with telling AJ that he can't correct his teacher when she gets a fact wrong?), and the organization thing is one of the main ones. As you point out, it's way more convenient for the teacher if the gifted kids can organize themselves. So your kid has to find a way to do it, or else he'll be stuck reading the more boring book. This isn't something you can do for him, except to laugh a bit at the school attitude to make the medicine go down easier in the school setting.

Harriet said...

Scott, good luck with your conferences! Cranky, me too. And Jeanne, we've taken a similar approach by pointing out the way his disorganization causes trouble for other people (makes us go back to school to get things, disrupts class time, ruins his belongings, etc.). I wouldn't care so much that he's reading one easy book -- he reads plenty of challenging books outside of school -- if they weren't spending so much time on it. Because of that, I fear that having him read the easier book, would make organization issues worse, not better. Part of the difficulty is due to the large class sizes in the district this year -- there was just a big hearing about this on Thursday, although I haven't heard anything about the results. With 27 kids in the class at widely varying levels, I understand why she feels like they need to work more independently and I think AJ is actually worse at this than many 7-year-olds, although certainly not out of the range of normal. The fact is, they are 7. They need some direction. Expecting AJ and the other kids to be more independent just because they are better readers doesn't really make sense. Likewise, it doesn't make sense to punish them for being 7 by making them do stuff that is likely to bore them to tears.

I don't think the teacher has the grip on the way gifted kids often operate the way his first grade teacher did. But she does many things very well and she's trying hard and doesn't seem to be too threatened by our participation. I'm hopeful this will all work out. And I think it's good that she's talking to us about it, rather than just enacting things in the classroom.

FreshHell said...

This may or may not help, but this is a very typical learning disability. And, I hesitate to use the term because it has, I think, negative connotations. I would look into (with the teacher's help, if possible) techniques for working on this issue by looking at some of the LD literature. Found this link in a quick search: But it just scratches the surface. There is much more out there. This is a separate issue from the book level reading (and I'm going to be writing something similar soon on my blog). If you can find the right techniques for AJ, he can get more organized but it may mean strict discipline in some areas and you're going to need the teacher's help. I'll poke around and see what I can find.

Harriet said...

Thanks for the link, freshhell. I've been reading some of this stuff too and we've been speculating as to whether this is an ADHD problem. I don't think it is, as it tends to be situation specific. But I'm still learning about it. And I have to say that the description at the link of gifted children who are bored sounds like the perfect description of AJ at the moment.

FreshHell said...

My sister and I both suffered various learning disabilities in school. Mine went undiagnosed until college. Only then was I given tests to determine why I couldn't study. I have difficulties with oral information. Listening to directions or a lecture doesn't plant it in my brain. I had to record classes and then transcribe them later - the act of writing everything down helped me learn the content. So, I've been down the LD road and it's not the stigma it used to be. And there are so many ways in which kids have trouble. I think if you can find something that works, AJ will benefit. Even something as simple as a check list taped to his desk of everything he needs to have in his book bag, reminders from the teacher, reminders from you, a list taped to the front door: do you have these items? Even that might help. I don't know.

Jill in Atlanta said...

I commented earlier and my computer lost it. I'm back now to try to remember what all I said this morning.

Pook's school distributes spiral bound agenda planners to all kids 2nd grade and up. (Actually a school supply we have to buy.) Anyway, each day the kids copy down the assignments and take the planner to the teacher to initial. At home he checks off the items he's done and I initial it too. I often find whole pages ignored, several problems just "not noticed" etc. so I gave up on "independent" homework and took a step back last year figuring that the organization might just be more important than the work itself (which he could do easily). I now sit with him/near him and try to keep him focused. I remind him to get the materials first, to check off the items complete, to put it all in the backpack when he's done. Again, he's only seven. If the organization comes, the rest will be a breeze. So, for now, I worry less about the actual academics than I do the working skills.

Does AJ have sloppy writing? Pook learned to write so beautifully at two, and now his writing is so hard to read that his teacher just marks it wrong if she can't tell the answer. He isn't learning the lesson from that. He figures that if the answer was right and he knows the material that that's all that matters.

Harriet said...

Jill, we've taken a similar approach, but I"m not sure if it's the best one, because he's not learning independence. We've now started a points system at home where he earns points when he does his work (chores, schoolwork) without being asked and accurately. I really think that he just doesn't think neatness is important, nor accuracy on things thinks are easy. And I think this, because this is exactly the same way I was at his age. While I'm happy to help him, I really want him to learn how to help himself. I think the school agenda sounds great and very much like what I tried to implement for him. But without backup at school, it's just not going to happen. I plan to bring it up at his conference to see if his teacher would be willing to help. As for the handwriting, yes, yes and a thousand times yes. AJ has beautiful handwriting when he wants to. He does well on his handwriting pages. But you'll never see it on an assignment or test, which are often barely legible. Of course, I have the worst handwriting on the planet, so I'm not sure my attempts to correct him have much weight.

My Kids' Mom said...

I wonder if the teacher wouldn't have success implementing an agenda planner for the whole class. Seems like a good tool to teach them all.

My word verification, below, is "redunflu". I hope I don't catch it.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, this makes my stomach hurt. I think school is like pantyhose. One size fits most, i.e., no one.

My oldest is definitely the gifted/ADHD type. My youngest is not so disorganized, but lacks confidence and gets overwhelmed. She's the dyslexic kid who would have been humiliated at having to read the easy book, so humiliated that even that would have been hard.

Which is all neither here nor there, but just thinking of all the advocating they required (and, I'm sure, the certainty on the part of the teachers that I was some kind of lunatic, and the terrible feeling on my part that I might have been as well) makes me queasy.

You're not a nut. AJ did answer the question correctly. (If she'd wanted a compass rose she should have said so.) It would be really stupid of that teacher to make him read the easy book. Maybe she can look at the whole thing as an exercise in doing independent work for him -- maybe that can be the thing he's working on! That's a point she might go for --

Ugh. I sympathize.

Katie said...

Is there a way to make AJ's lack of organisation a problem for him? Sure, it's a problem for everyone else, but if it's not hurting him directly, maybe the problem isn't getting through to him. There are studies that go both ways regarding empathy in kids under 10, but I kind of think that, ultimately, most kids are out for self-preservation. AJ may not actively be that way, especially since it doesn't sound like he lies or hides things, but some kind of instant disappointment might kick start him solving the problem himself.

What I remember from second grade was being given a task, completing the task in a quarter of the time given, and then finding something else to do while everyone else finished. Is AJ maybe skipping the boring task part and doing something else instead, thinking he'll have time to go back and do the task later and then forgetting? If it's that sort of Tortise and Hare thing, I think it might be a question of working with him to establish his priorities, rather than finding a Remembrall.

I was the same way, though. Middle school was a terror because it was nothing but three years of organisation methods. "We don't care if you know the information, as long as the green paper is in the green folder and the holes are punched on the right side." It wasn't for any purpose other than to be organised, and it drove me nuts. Now, I organise the stuff that matters to me, and things sort themselves out. Luckily, the stuff that matters is the stuff that needs doing now, but I seem terribly disorganised to the planner and list maker set.

As far as the reading, I guess I don't see in what way his lack of organisation poses a problem from as much as you've said about it. Is it a group project, or are the students reading the book and completing the work in class individually and then discussing it with the teacher as a group?

Jeanne said...

What Katie said about making AJ's lack of organization a problem for him is what I meant about either he gets organized as a matter of politeness to the teacher, or he gets stuck reading the easy book. My kids would hurry up and do the stupid organization things if the reward was having to do less of the stupid slow work.
This is not to say that kids who work slower are stupid, but that, to my kids, being penalized for lack of organization was always connected to even more boredom.

Anonymous said...

I don't know AJ personally, but from what I hear, he's pretty eager to please. I would think that if he's disorganized, it's not on purpose. Rather, I would suspect, organization is a skill he just hasn't acquired yet. He's only 7. He's a boy. These things can take time. I'd suspect it's something he just hasn't grown into.

Fern said...

A buzz word you may want check out is "executive functioning." This term covers not just organization, but planning, initiating, the ability to sustain effort. I don't actually think, from your descriptions, that AJ has an executive functioning issue, but the strategies for managing EF challenges transfer to kids with difficulty with organization.

In terms of building independence, remember that he's seven. By creating checklists and helping use a planner, you are giving him strategies that he will, eventually, internalize and use on his own. You do, as you mention, need the teacher to work with you on this. Given that she has come to you with concerns about his organization, she should be willing to work with you on a solution. I agree that reading the easier book doesn't make sense. It does nothing to build the skills about which she's concerned. If he can get into the habit of using a planner now, with yours and the teachers support, it will be a huge help as he goes through school.

Another thought is to model the ways in which you keep yourself organized. Talk aloud about what you do. I make lists all the time and talk about how I need them to remember tasks. When I want to remember to bring an item to work or class, I leave it at the top of the stairs so that when I head downstairs in the morning, I can't not see it. I do this with notes of reminder too. My son has been using this strategy as well. Not the most sophisticated way of staying on top of things, but it works.

Unfocused Me said...

Unfocused Girl has similar problems, particularly in her math class, which is where she is least confident. In math, her homework is the work she doesn't complete in class. One day last week, she came home with just a handful of problems left out of 20, until we realized that halfway through the section, she had suddenly flipped back 15 pages in her book and done 10 problems from an earlier section, so she had to redo all of those, in addition to the for or five problems we thought she had left.
She got all but the last two done before it was so late that we had to let her go to bed (she's perfectly good at math concepts, but she isn't fast with the actual operations). I emailed the teacher, explained what happened, and said that we would make sure she got the remaining problems done the next night.
The next morning, I picked up the teacher's response. It seems that she had told UG to do 10 problems out of the set of questions, just to show that she had mastered the concepts. Apparently, UG just forgot, and ended up having to do twice as much work as needed.
Sorry for the rambling. This certainly seems to be a common problem for G&T kids; we'll find out next week at conferences what UG's teachers think about how she's doing. Good luck with AJ's teacher.

Unfocused Me said...

And another thing, be firm about the reading group. Last year, Unfocused Girl's first grade teacher put her in a completely inappropriate reading group -- she said it was the most advanced group of first graders, but she couldn't put UG in with the second or third graders (even though they were in the same class) because the schedule was different and UG would have had to miss something else that the other first graders were doing. Unfocused Girl was MISERABLE. She kept referring to the books she was reading in group as "baby books," and at times got sulky about it (unusual for her). It was something she should have loved, and instead it was torture. Stand your ground!

Harriet said...

Thank you all for your insightful, thoughtful comments. You've given me so much to talk about that I think I'm going to bump it to a new post. Stay tuned!

harriet M. Welsch said...

I responded to most of your comments in the new post, but Mr. Unfocused, yours didn't quite seem to fit in with where I was going. But I wanted to mention that the thing that happened with Unfocused Girl and math is EXACTLY what I'm talking about. That is totally something AJ would have -- and has --done. A lot of the time, it seems like it's not so much that he forgot what he was supposed to do but that he didn't hear or understand what it was in the first place so he makes up something. And accidentally flipping pages would be something right up his alley as well. Getting him organized and keeping him focused enough to stay organized through a task is a definite challenge. He wants so much to do the right thing and gets extremely frustrated when things like that happen. It's heartbreaking to watch. I wish I knew a way to make it easier for them.