Thursday, January 17, 2013

Long-awaited Decisions

A couple of weeks after writing my introductory blog post, I started feeling the pressure for a follow-up.  No, you won't find one anywhere.  I wrote a few - even a nice, cohesive explanation of what we were going through in mid-November.  But, ultimately I felt like I was airing dirty laundry.  It has never been my intention to ridicule or lay blame on the education system, administrators, or teachers - but that's what anything I could have said would have sounded like.  So I've been on hiatus.  Here's what happened in the interim, in a nutshell (or the closest my wordy self can come to a nutshell).

My daughter started the second grade with a bang.  She enjoyed school, her classmates, the gifted program - all around it was good.  On November 1, she gave up.  Seriously.  From November 1-28, she had "problems" every day.  Most were small behavior issues, a few were more serious.  She spat on a kid and got sent to the Principal's office.  She refused to do her work.  After a week or so of this degradation of behavior and lack of participation, her teacher started calling me, sometimes multiple times a day.  One day she called me THREE times while the class was completing the assignment - draw a robot and write a story about it.  The first time she called was to say Cecelia wouldn't write her story - she had been sitting there for twenty minutes doing nothing.  The second time she called, my daughter was crying in the background and I asked to speak to her.  When I asked her why she was not completing the assignment, she immediately told me she couldn't think of a name for her robot.  Since my daughter was in the middle of her re-run through all the Roald Dahl books, the first thing that came to mind was to call him Roald.  So I gave her the name.  The teacher called me a third time about an hour later to say that Cecelia had completed her assignment, but had lost her computer and recess time as a punishment.  Whatever.

What really bothered me was the conversation that came later that afternoon.  The one in which Cecelia divulged that she did not feel comfortable asking her teacher for help because her teacher did not listen to her.  She tried to tell the teacher she couldn't think of a name for the robot, but the teacher couldn't even give her 10 seconds of attention to come up with a silly name.  Instead it was more appropriate to call Mom in hopes I would threaten some kind of punishment as a motivation.

Throughout the terrible month of November it became increasingly obvious that there was a horrible miss-match between my daughter and her classroom.  Her weekly folder that had previously been filled with quality work and good grades became routinely stacked with skipped problems and ridiculousness like bubbled patterns on the Scantron and oodles of drawings of Pokemon.  She called school "a waste of her day" and came to hate it.  We took away prized possessions until she had none, and she had her first spanking since she was six.  We tried to get her to comply, but eventually realized it wasn't going to happen.  All of this was going on while she was perfect - I kid you not - at home.  This was increasingly difficult to deal with day by day because we personally experienced none of it.

The funny part is...what turned her behavior at school around.
My daughter spent her last three weeks in public school with almost all E's in conduct.   She completed her work and the phone calls ceased.  Around Thanksgiving, we made the decision to pull her out of public school at the semester break and begin homeschool.  This was something we had often considered throughout the 2.5 yrs she spent in public school - but it was not yet necessary.  Our plan was to keep her there until the problems outweighed the benefits - and we had reached that point.  Once Cecelia knew her personal hell would come to an end, she again gave her best effort until the final day when we walked out the school building for the last time.  There were no tears, at least not from my child.  Her best friend buried her face in her mother's coat.  The children lined up to hug her goodbye.  But Cecelia skipped out of the building with a giant grin on her face.

We ultimately chose the online K12 Advanced Learning Program because, for us, homeschooling is an intervention.  We need a program that will keep her "on track" for returning to a public or private school.  We need accountability built-in so that grade skips and subject accelerations can be recognized and converted.  We cannot put her through this again.  Aside from appropriate academic challenges, she needs the support of a true gifted program, which K12 provides.  I could have just pulled her out and let her play all day for two or three years and then let her go back to school.  But that's not what she needs.  One of my immediate goals was to re-engage my child in the learning process; she literally learned nothing at school.  So our first task was testing and more testing for placement in the program.  Immediately she was put up a grade - and in our first phone conversation her teacher said "unfortunately we can only put her up one grade at a time," with other adjustments in specific subjects.  The curriculum includes subjects that her school did not provide (actual history, can you believe it?) and is based on the national it's much more conceptual than the skills-based state standardized curricula.  You can find very mixed reviews of K12 on the internet, but like all things - it's what you make of it.  The curriculum and online classrooms are phenomenal.  The teachers are kind (think - they don't have to deal with classroom management!) and supportive, something my daughter talks about every day.   For us, it has been a Godsend.

Does she miss school? Not nearly like I thought she would.  She has yet to ask to call her friends or visit her class at school.  The few things she liked about school (gifted programs, art, music) she gets to do every day instead of once a week.  Personally I think she's a little too young to really think about the friends she left behind.  After finishing a challenging week long writing portfolio assignment, today I asked her if she still liked homeschool.  Her immediate response, "Of course, Mom. I just needed more challenges and more time and now I have it."

Which brings us back to the darned robot assignment she wouldn't complete.  I'm well aware that she's a dreamer - naive, friendly, sensitive, creative...inside and out I know every one of her eccentricities.   I know how to bend her slowly and steadily so she's always making progress, but never reaching her breaking point.  I know she's a brilliant, open-hearted person that really just wants to freely be herself.  I know if you put her in any kind of box she will kick and thrash until she shreds it to pieces.  The robot assignment is forever engrained in my memory because the entire incident was stopped by a thought that required only a fraction of a second: Roald.  That day I realized just how much my daughter needed me.  Yes, she needed an academic challenge.  Yes, she needed out of the routine and cramped big-box school system.  But most importantly she needs to feel valued, be allowed to participate fully, and be supported when she needs assistance.

Sometimes only Mom will do.  Over the last seven years I've come to learn that Moms really are magic. We reached a point where something had to be done and I realized how easily only I could fix this problem.   No one else was going to make her a priority.  No one else was going to help her.  No one else was going to listen.  No one else was going to care about all the little things that had piled into a formidable mountain in front of her, much less why all those little things were so important.  All too soon she will outgrow her need for Mom - but for now I'm proud to walk alongside her.  I'm still learning how to own this role of magnificence; when I have doubts, I turn to her.  There's a twinkle in her eye we came so close to losing, a bound in her step that was, for a while, indeed lost.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

No Limits

I've been promising myself that I would start this blog for over two years but kept putting it off mainly because of the stigma associated with talking about "gifted"children.  It's hard enough just to have a conversation about my child without people looking at me sideways! I was once shunned from a local parent group just for being part of the Hoagie's Gifted parent group online - which is one of the most valuable resources I have found for the parents of gifted children.  If you have a gifted child or think you may have a gifted child, prepare yourself.  It is not easy.

But this week is *the* week, the week to tell the world how important it is to stand up for your gifted child, to continuously fight for their right to an appropriate education, to be your child's advocate, to share with others what growing up gifted is really like, and - most importantly - to understand your child and be there for them when everyone else pushes them aside.  A lot of people assume that a gifted child is an "easy" child - because if they are so smart, then they should be able to do everything with ease and without complaint.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Giftedness comes in many forms, and giftedness can be extreme.  Maybe your child is gifted in only one subject and average in others, or maybe your child is creatively gifted with normal academic abilities.  The star athlete is also gifted.  For the most part, this blog is about academic and creative giftedness, because this is what I have experienced first hand every day of my life.  Once upon a time I grew up gifted, too.

Before I get too far into what being gifted really means, I'll share with you a story about my daughter that exemplifies many traits of gifted children and how important it is to understand your child and be their advocate.  My daughter is currently 7 years old, highly gifted in both academics and creative arts - but very sensitive.  In Kindergarten, she started talking about wanting to play soccer, but was adamant that she did NOT want to play on a team.  In first grade, we registered her to play but there were not enough players on the team, so we bypassed that year, too.  This year, she is playing recreational soccer on a grade 1-2 team for a local church.  She was lucky (? still not sure about this) to be placed on a team with excellent, experienced players.  One player has even attended competitive soccer camps.  In other words, she has teammates from whom she can learn a lot.  The first couple of practices and the first game went okay.  It was clear to me (and everyone else) that my daughter was the worst player on the team, but she tried and contributed and that's what matters, right?

My husband and I had discussed the potential hurdles she might encounter while playing team sports, and we started out very pleased that the other girls were nice to her and she was able to contribute to the team.  But at the third practice, everything changed.  Her teammates called her names, stole the ball from her, and left her crying alone on the field.  This is something that you are going to have to come to terms with if you have a child on the middle to upper end of the gifted spectrum.  They are sensitive, so very sensitive in ways you cannot begin to imagine until you experience it yourself.  I'll take a little aside here and explain this, because it's very important.  Giftedness is not confined to being able to do academics, art, sports, or whatever - it is a difference in cognitive processing ability and/or speed that ultimately affects how the gifted child interprets everything around them.  They can be sensitive simply because they are more aware of things or because their brains will naturally respond to less stimuli.  Gifted children commonly respond negatively to things like loud noises, visual chaos - in other words sensory input is processed differently, and often more acutely.

At the end of her third soccer practice with tears streaming down her face, she screamed at the top of her lungs "I JUST DON"T KNOW WHERE TO GO!" I am going to tell you what I believe to be the "secret" of raising a gifted child - to meet their needs you absolutely must get to know them inside and out and always, always, always listen to them.  My frustrated, alienated child had tried to tell the coach, had tried to tell me (whose heart was breaking sitting on the bench trying to stay "out of it") and she decided it was time to tell the whole darn world what her problem was.  While all the other players and parents went to their cars, I bent down and wrapped my arms tight around her in the middle of the field and told her, "I hear you.  I understand."

She is not a kinesthetic learner.  She has no experience on the soccer field.  In that moment, half angry at her for the outburst, half broken-hearted for her frustration, I realized I had forgotten who she is - a profoundly gifted visual learner with slight fine-motor delays (also common in gifted children).  We had practiced kicking and throwing the ball, but I had dropped her in the middle of a soccer team with experienced players whereas she had no idea what was going on.  I had assumed she would learn at practice and improve with time.  This is not to say that she doesn't benefit from practice, of course she does.  But she was never, ever going to understand or enjoy the game by simply playing it.

The next day I pulled out a white board and colored markers and taught her how to play soccer.  This may seem odd to you, for how could a little girl learn how to play a team sport on paper?  This is how: she is a visual-spatial learner capable of higher-order thinking, constantly forming links between information and experience.  She needed to SEE what the defensive and offensive lines look like in relation to each other to understand how the players move about the field.  We drew her team mates in one color, the opposing team in another.  She got to be red - her favorite, and the ball was green.  Within a few minutes she was eagerly drawing where she should be in every scenario I gave her.  After fifteen minutes or so of discussing defensive plays, she said to me "When I play defender, sometimes it seems like the right thing to do is to kick the ball out.  I mean, out of bounds." If you have ever played soccer you know this is a defensive action that allows both teams to reposition and have better control of the ball.  The day before she had no idea where to go or what to do - and in just a few minutes of accommodating her learning style, she had become an insightful soccer player.

The real test was the game today, the first game since our white-board activity.  I'll be honest and say my heart was in my throat the first few minutes because I wanted so badly for her to do well...She was the only player on the team to play three out of four quarters, because she was playing so much better than ever before. She was never, not once, out of position.  She stole the ball, she threw it in, she did a goal kick - she even made a line drive for the goal after a steal.  She was a whole new soccer player, and no longer the worst player on the team.  That's not to say the game went without a hitch - as she made her line drive to the goal, one of her team mates actually stole the ball from her.  I can only assume the little girl thought she could do better, but I was glad her dad was furious with her for taking the ball from my daughter.  My child was angry, and again I wrapped my arms around her and told her I saw what happened, and most importantly, I understood that she was hurting.

The truth is, gifted children spend most of their time being misunderstood.  Teachers, classmates, friends, everyone around them sees them as "just a kid" and expects them to conform like everyone else.  You will probably find that your gifted child refuses to conform - mine certainly marches to the beat of her own drum, and always has.  It is only fair to allow them to be themselves - because their perspective, while not superior to their age peers, is far different than their age peers.  They see details that average children may not experience until they reach the formal operational stage in adolescence - and, get this: almost half of the population NEVER develops formal operational (abstract) thought.  To put it plainly, the gifted child experiences and thinks about things that half the adult population may never think about.

Let that sink in for a minute.

My goal for this blog is to share our experiences, both good and bad, and hopefully it will help other people who are dealing with the process of growing up gifted.  I read and respond to posts from parents often through Hoagie's Gifted Facebook page, and we desperately need to support each other.  We live in an educational and cultural climate that shuns our children, pushing them aside to focus on improving the test scores of underachieving students.  The truth is, our children are nobody's priority but our own.  We must rise to the occasion and stand by their side when no one else will, or when everyone else is clustered far to the rear.  They deserve to keep moving, even if they are light years ahead.  You're not just a parent, you're the parent of a gifted child.  You will teach your child when no teacher will accommodate them, you will coach your child when the coach can't get through to them, you will advocate until your face turns blue.  You will find additional obstacles where you expect to find help, and just when you think things are going well, your child will again soar so far beyond anyone's expectations that everything in her life changes again.

Parenting a gifted child is not for the faint of heart.  But it will make your heart stronger.  You will love the quirks that irritate, the sensitivity that alienates, and the insight that astounds.  You will see how all these things come together to create a unique, radiant personality that - with a lot of help from you - has no limits.

That's my girl making for the goal!!

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