Monday, June 29, 2009

On parenting a gifted child

When I was pregnant with AJ, I worked until the day before I went into labor – several days past my due date. I lived a block and a half from my office. I didn’t see the point in sitting around waiting for something to happen. My boss let me stay on, even though I was officially quitting my job when I left (a situation forced by working in a very small office and the coincidence of pregnancies of GreenEyedSiren and myself, who were the two most senior employees at the time). I loved the structure work provided in those days before AJ’s birth when I was at once excited and terrified by the knowledge that the world as I knew it was about to be blown to pieces to be reassembled in an entirely different way.

But with all the work time, what I really relished was any chance to talk about the baby, something that wasn’t part of my everyday life. An ultrasound appointment, lunch with GreenEyedSiren, even an appointment to pee in a cup. Knowing that you weren’t alone, that there were other people who understood what you were going through became really important.

I’m finding the same thing is true of parenting a gifted child. There are so many challenging things, so many occasions when you feel like you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and so few occasions when you can sit down and honestly talk about what you are going through. You don’t want to just start chatting about your problems with other parents in the PTA. They might not understand. They might think you were just bragging about your smart kid. Again. When really, sometimes you just need another opinion. Or an ear. I’m so grateful for GreenEyedSiren’s ear and also for the comments of readers of this site. Half the battle of parenting is acquiring some sense that you are doing the right thing.

We had a long phone meeting with the psychologist who gave AJ his IQ evaluation a few weeks ago, the official follow-up appointment. It was an interesting conversation, but more than anything, it was a relief to converse about it at all, to be able to talk about some of the things I worry about all the time, but can’t usually discuss with anyone.

The psychologist, who specializes in work with gifted children, started out explaining the components of the test (WISC-IV) and the reason for the Dumont-Willis Index (discrepancy between IQ-important verbal and performance/perceptive reasoning scores and less-related processing speed/working memory scores). Most of this I’d figured out on my own. I know that the WISC-IV weights the processing speed and working memory higher than previous versions of the test and that the weighting was problematic in determination of IQ because it is not correlated with giftedness in the same way the other categories are. We learned that AJ is very strong in both left brain and right brain activities, but especially so in left brain (language center, crystallized knowledge, computation). As she started to describe what this meant, I had my first, “Yes! This is AJ!” moment. It was the first of many.

I don’t have a lot of “This is just like AJ” moments when talking to other parents. As parents of an only child, we wonder a lot about what’s “normal” and what’s not. How do you know when to worry? We have no basis for comparison. My best guide has been my memories of my own childhood as a gifted kid. Mostly that seems to guide me well with AJ, although I worry about revisiting my past on him. He’s his own person. And while there are many similarities, there are many differences. He cares a lot more about what other people think of him than I did, for one. He’s got better social skills in general.

After going over the test results, we asked for some advice – in working with the school, in evaluating the decision to stay in public school vs. sending him to a school for gifted kids, for dealing with some of the behavior issues we’ve encountered in school and also at home.

The first thing she pointed out was that AJ’s IQ is more than two standard deviations above the norm. Curriculum is targeted for IQs of roughly 85-115 – norm (100) and one standard deviation above and below. An IQ of 85 is considered learning disabled. An IQ of 70, two standard deviations below the norm, is considered mentally retarded. There are state mandated special services for them both. Why not for a child functioning at an equivalent amount above the norm? They are “special needs” children too. They have different behaviors, their intellectual development doesn’t gel with the rest of the class and their emotional development is often delayed. The psychologist used the word “asynchrony” to describe the difference between intellectual and emotional development in gifted children. She said they’re not sure why this asynchrony is so often found in gifted children, but that it may be because they seldom have peers.

The behavior issues often stemming from asynchrony mean that gifted children are frequently misdiagnosed or too soon diagnosed with a variety of psychological disorders, especially ADHD. (For more information on this, see this article) When we asked about AJ’s difficulty focusing in class, she cautioned against medicating too soon (something we had no intention of doing, but still, it’s nice to hear that encouraged). Then she proceeded to describe a child that sounded very much like AJ – one who is easily distracted, who likes to move around when he works, who fails to complete tasks and often ignores instructions or balks at classroom rigidity.

We asked about what benefits we might be missing out on by not sending AJ to a gifted school. She said that if the schools were $4000-$5000 a year, she’d recommend them to everybody. They offer a chance to go to school with intellectual peers. They often have more behavior flexibility – for example, allowing students to stand or move around while they are working. And they usually teach a grade level ahead. But, she added, there are advantages to being in a neighborhood school too – friends nearby, more like the real world, integration into the community he lives in, less commuting, which can take a toll. Especially if there is a gifted program at the school, it can be better to keep him there and maybe put some money toward extracurricular programs for gifted kids. This was nice to hear, because it’s exactly what we’ve been doing. She was particularly partial to the program we’ve signed AJ up for this summer (the same one he did last year) because the teachers tend to not just be certified to work with gifted children but to actually be gifted themselves. She thinks gifted kids respond better to teachers like that. And based on my experience with my own teachers and with AJ’s, I know she’s right.

Finally, we asked about helping AJ to function better in a typical classroom, to learn focus and discipline – is there anything that works better with gifted kids? She didn’t quite answer this question the way we had intended it, but she recommended two parenting books as being particularly useful for parents of gifted children (both with some qualifications – neither is perfect). The first was The Self-Esteem Trap by Polly Young-Eisendrath. The second was Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. A quick glance through reviews on @m@zon suggest both might be useful to us, but I’m particularly intrigued by the first one, which seems to be focused on our precise concerns about AJ right now. Also, the second one sounds more or less like the approach we take already, one, incidentally, that was espoused by Dr. Haim Genott may years ago in Between Parent and Child, a book my own parents consulted regularly.

We didn’t really learn anything new today, but somehow it is different hearing these things from a person than reading them in a psychological journal or a website devoted to gifted ed. I came out of the conversation that it is in AJ’s best interest that I, as a parent, do my best to find some other people I can talk to about this stuff as it comes up. It makes me a better, more assured, more relaxed parent. And I’m less likely to get quite so frustrated with some of AJ’s behaviors, which, as the psychologist reminded me today, are perfectly normal for a kid like him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review: Stories told by toys

Book Review

Kate DiCamillo: The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, 2007)

Rachel Field: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (Aladdin, 1998; orig. published 1929; Newbery Medal winner)

Margery Williams: The Velveteen Rabbit (there are too many editions to count; orig. published in 1922)

Mariana: Miss Flora McFlimsey’s Christmas Eve (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1949)

I am the last one in our house to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane. My mother gave it to AJ for Christmas and he’d read it immediately on his own and then moved on to other things. Recently, when Mr. Spy was looking for something to read out loud with AJ, I happened upon it on the bookshelf and suggested it. They both loved it, although Mr. Spy had been worried that it was too sad or dark for AJ. AJ liked that it was a little dangerous. They both thought the ending was perfect.

Last night, after I tucked AJ in, I slipped the book off his table and sat up to read it. It is a beautifully written story about an elegant China rabbit, Edward Tulane, who begins as the favored toy of a young girl who loves him. But Edward does not appreciate what he has. He is arrogant and he is irritated when he is not treated in just the right way. Each night the little girl tucks him into his own bed next to hers and tells her she loves him. But he does not love her. He doesn’t love anyone.

The girl takes Edward on a boat to England. On the trip, some boys grab him from her and throw him overboard. He sinks to the bottom of the ocean. It is then that his trials begin. Many terrible things happen to Edward and often also to the people he takes up with. This is not an easy book. There is death and abuse and violence. The illustrations, which are beautiful, only accentuate this – a picture of Edward nailed up as a scarecrow looks for all the world like a crucifixion. But in the end, there is also redemption through love. The ending is, perfect, too perfect for me to want to give it away. Suffice it to say that Edward’s adventures changed him for the better and he was ultimately rewarded.

A number of reviews I’ve read of this book question whether it is suitable for children. It is indeed very dark and as such may not be for all children. But many children, my son included and myself when I was his age, like darkness. I know I always thought it seemed more interesting and somehow more trustworthy. I obsessively read the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen when I was young. And it doesn’t get much darker than that.

The book put me in mind of a number of other books told from a toy’s point of view. The first, and the one with the greatest similarity, is Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. I first picked up Hitty at my grandmother’s house when I was probably about AJ’s age, or maybe a little younger. And I loved it. It is the memoir of a doll who was carved by a peddler for a little girl. Like Edward, Hitty has many adventures, some of which are similar to Edward’s – both, for instance, have run-ins with birds. But Hitty’s adventures are not all sad, nor are they meant to teacher her anything, but rather to showcase her optimism and willingness to make the best of situations that she is powerless to control.

Margery William’s classic tale, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which you can read in its entirety here, always struck me as unspeakably sad as a child. The Velveteen Rabbit, a Christmas present to a small boy, becomes his favorite. The Rabbit loves being the boy’s favorite, but he longs to be Real (with a capital “R”). The part that always disturbed me was when the boy contracts scarlet fever and the rabbit is tossed in a trash pile, along with all the boy’s sheets and clothes, to be burned, in order to kill the germs. It seemed so heartless. The Velveteen Rabbit is rescued in an unexpected way and has a happy ending. But the adults in the story came off as careless and unobservant.

It is this separation of adult and toy world view in all three of these stories that also makes them appeal to children. The toys have hard lives. By the ends of these tales they are battered and broken and they have transformed into something beyond mere object. The adults, however, are mostly thoughtless, selfish, mean and careless with something that has feelings and little or no control over its own circumstances. Frequently, the adults don’t even notice the toys, much as children feel ignored or overlooked or misunderstood by adults.

The fourth book on my list is much slighter than the others, but is similarly wistful. It’s a picture book I adored as a child, and the pictures are a very large part of this book’s appeal. Flora McFlimsey is a doll who, when she was new, was given as a Christmas present to a little girl, who loved her. But now she is stuck in the attic on Christmas Eve with all the other unwanted things and a mouse named Timothy. But Flora McFlimsey has a wish: she wants to see a Christmas tree again. And she has another wish too: to be loved by a little girl again. And because it is Christmas, sometimes wishes come true. Even this book, though, is not all sweetness and light. There is the sadness of Flora’s abandonment in the attic. And once she makes it down to the Christmas tree, as a replacement for a doll that is missing from Santa’s bag, she is taunted to two brand-new and fashionable dolls. But in the end, the three sisters who come down on Christmas morning all like Flora best. She is old fashioned and not in fashion, but she is lovable.

In all of these books, the toys’ lack of agency is placed front and center. In three of them, the toys gain some amount of visible agency. In Hitty’s case, it is through writing her memoirs. In the case of the Velveteen Rabbit and Flora McFlimsey, there is a magical intervention that allows the toys to gain movement and thus control. Edward’s case is different. He gains control not of his surroundings, but of himself.

The difficulties the toys go through are exactly why we should let children read these books, why we should read them with our children, why writers should keep tackling difficult topics for children’s books. As parents, we tend to want to protect our children from the darker side of life. But children’s lives are often darker than we know. Like the toys in these books, they have little control over their lives. They are told where to go and when to go there. Things are taken away from them, and they often don’t understand why. Other children are sometimes cruel. Adults, even those who love them, don’t always listen to them as well as they should. Children will find familiar ground here, whether parents wish to admit it or not. None of these stories are depressing or hopeless. Quite the opposite. For a child who feels trapped and frustrated by his status in the world, the message of resolution may be a welcome one.

Edward Tulane may be an even more important figure for children than the rest. His character flaw is selfishness, and it brings about his downfall. Learning to connect with others redeems him. He is punished, repents and is forgiven. There is no magic. It is his own internal journey, a lesson taught by hardship, that transforms him. These are all issues that young children wrestle with but often cannot articulate. And as a parent, I worry that punishment looms larger than the forgiveness. Edward Tulane ends with forgiveness and reward.

Have any of you read The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane? What did you think? What do you think of it as a book for children? Do you have any other books about toys to add to the discussion? I thought also of the Lonely Doll books, but I don’t remember them very well. I’d love to hear of more.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Second Grade wrap-up

Yesterday was AJ's last day of second grade. I think we were all ready for it. The last month or so has been tough on all of us.

AJ came home with a pile of old projects and a report card stuffed with test scores. The report card was...not great. Many of his marks slipped from the last report card, mostly in the category of "learning/social characteristics," which is the non-academic stuff. AJ has definitely struggled this year with his classroom behavior. He has had a particularly hard time keeping himself focused in the face of the many distractions of a small classroom crammed with 26 kids. But he also, apparently, has had motivation issues. We've seen it at home too. A lot of it is, I think, boredom. But he's also balking at more challenging work, not wanting to work too hard. In the past, such reticence has often been based on a sense of social isolation, wanting to do the same thing everyone else is doing. But this time, it seems to be more about fear of failure or sometimes just plain laziness. It's a behavior we'll need to watch carefully. At the moment, we're addressing it by reiterating our expectations that he try his best.

The distraction issue is something I'd like to work on over the summer, to find ways of keeping him more focused. One of the things I've notice about AJ, and about many kids his age, especially boys, is that he concentrates better when he is moving. When he works on his homework, he is often moving around or fidgeting with something and he does well. He can't do this in the classroom. We need to help him channel his energy.

The test scores were another matter. We finally got the official notice of the OLSAT. We also got the report on the ISEL, the individually administered state standard test. The results of both were a little puzzling. For the ISEL, which is an achievement test, AJ was in the 100th percentile in most areas. But his lowest area -- noticeably lower -- was verbal comprehension. This was the same area that had given AJ the most trouble on the OLSAT, an aptitude test, where it was also the only percentile below the 90s. AJ took the ISEL last year too and the score was more than 10 percentage points lower than the last time he took the test -- a significant difference. But that isn't the weird part. The weird part is that verbal comprehension was his highest score on the WISC, at the very top of the range at 99.9th percentile. What accounts for this drastic difference between tests? I know it's probably not fair to compare the tests in this way. But still, what is the reason for a nearly 20 percentage point difference between his scores in the same area? I wish I knew.

Has anyone else experienced such anomalies?

We still have one more round of test results, for the ITBS, due in sometime this month. Then we're off the hook for a while.

In addition to all his projects, he brought home a book of letters to him, one from each member of his class, his teacher and her aid. They've been working on these letters for months. Each child got the chance to be the "Star Student" for the day and got to make a poster and get up in front of the class and talk about their favorite things. Then the rest of the class wrote letters in response. The letters from the students were wonderful and sweet. But the one from his teacher made my day because she wrote it in a code for him to decipher. I was thinking about how hard they both struggled to understand each other at the beginning of the year. The code was perfect and AJ loved it. She's done a good job of trying to figure him out.

Over the next few weeks, AJ will be busy with sports and piano lessons and camps, including two weeks at the camp for gifted kids he attended last summer. I was, unfortunately, too late to sign him up to get the fabulous physics teacher he had last summer, who this year is teaching their most popular computer gaming course. But he'll be taking art, science and geometry, and he's very excited about it all.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Testing roundup

Today AJ finished what I believe is the last standardized testing for the year. Since this time last year, AJ has taken the KTEA-I (Kaufman Test of Eductaional Achievement, 2nd edition, brief form), KBIT-2 (Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test Second Edition), CTD Inventory (Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University), the Gates-McGintie Reading Test, the Darrell Morris Developmental Spelling Test, the ISEL (Illinois Snapshots of Early Literacy), the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School AbilityTest), WISC-IV (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fourth Edition), and ITBS (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills). Hard to believe at this point that I was, not all that long ago, testing averse.

Why am I no longer testing averse? It comes down to circumstances. I don’t see the point in intelligence testing for children unless you are trying to accomplish something – get into a program, get services needed at school, etc. And while I hate seeing schools teaching to the test, as a teacher, I also know the value of good student evaluation. It helps a lot to know what your students are getting and not getting. I love giving tests because it gives me a ton of information (I still hate writing and grading them, though. Well, not hate, exactly. More like resent the time they take.)

Of the tests above the first three (KTEA-I, KBIT-II & CTD) were administered in a single one-hour session. We elected and paid for that one to get AJ into a summer program that, ironically, we ended up not doing because of the test – we discovered just how awful the commute would be when driving there. The WISC-IV was the only other one that we elected, and that was to get AJ into the gifted program after a subpar showing on the OLSAT. All the rest of the tests were administered by AJ’s school. I’m thinking his file is going to need its own cabinet by the time he graduates.

But tests are designed to accomplish something. If you are just fishing for information, I don’t think you’ll get your money’s worth. You need to know what you need to know.

Then there’s the issue of the IQ number. We’ve deliberated about this. My feeling is that no one should know his own IQ. It can limit you or intimidate you when really, the number is a description (and not a very nuanced one at that) of a moment in time. It’s not a solution to anything.

AJ wants to know what his IQ is. I can understand the frustration of having someone know something about you that you don’t know. It’s why I wanted to know, when I was pregnant with AJ, whether he was a boy or a girl. I didn’t like the idea of my doctor having information that I didn’t. But in this case, I can’t see anything good that can come out of him knowing the number. He could brag about it. He could feel like he’s not living up to it. He could even be disappointed by it. Right now, it could be anything. And moreover, since he hit the test ceiling, we don’t even know for sure what that number is. We could sign him up for more testing, but what is the point? We know what we need to know.

But I didn’t like the idea of holding out on AJ. So I told him that I’d tell him what it is on the day he graduates from college. I plan to stick to my side of the bargain. But only if he remembers to ask me.

We are all looking forward to a break from testing for the summer. Now we just have to wait for the rest of the scores to come in.

What about you? What are your thoughts on testing? Where do you stand?