Friday, November 16, 2012

All Mixed Up: Our Journey Through Sensory Processing Disorder

Having three gifted children, I think we have seen all that gifted has to offer - the good and the bad. The latest waters we are rafting are Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD. This condition disproportionately affects highly and profoundly gifted children, and all three of my children deal with it to some extent. SPD can be summed up best with the words - mixed messages. This condition is when the brain doesn't quite get the messages from the five senses correct. SPD is a whole system condition that isn't accurately diagnosed until you step back and look at the big picture. It presents itself with a lot of "little" things that seem more annoyance that disability. For instance, when messages from the sense of touch get mixed up, this is when we see the often found issue with profoundly gifted children - the clothing wars! Jeans are a no no, socks are a struggle, and tags are simply too painful to even consider. Going to the store to buy clothing with a gifted child affected by SPD isn't a joyful experience; it's akin to picking out a cast or a brace! It is choosing the least horrible torture device. A tap feels like a shove, or they don't realize how close they are to other people. They like to touch walls and surfaces and jump and bounce - they need big reminders of where their body is in space because they can't trust what their senses are telling them about their bodies position.
SPD and the sense of taste comes in with severe food preferences, my eldest prefers bland foods like rice, bread, and pasta. I had to become a "creative" home chef, sneaking in more variety whenever I can. I am constantly throwing jars of baby food into pasta sauces and cooking extreme rice blends to improve his nutritional intake (who knew there were so many different varieties of rice!). For my daughter, texture - she is only five but can tell you with one bite if something is "smooth and creamy" versus "soft and mushy". She isn't being rude or mean, "soft and mushy" feels to her the equivalent of someone forcing you to eat live, squirming worms - it just feels so wrong.
SPD and the sense of sight I have blogged about quite a bit. We have been in vision therapy for over a year. They have made amazing progress, but it was a process just finding out what was wrong with their eyes. Their first eye exams were when the twins were just 2 years old. They were "20/20 and just fine", or so we were told. It wasn't until we found a developmental optometrist that we got the real story - sure they saw "20/20", but they also saw an independent picture in each eye, had poor tracking and convergence, almost no periphery vision, and their eyes often jumped around when trying to focus. Yes, those messages to the brain were getting all mixed up!
SPD and the sense of hearing has been as much trouble as the eyes to us. The children all hear so accutely the register off the charts in standard hearing test. They can hear as good as some animals! Unfortunately, they hear at different levels in each ear and they have limited ability to filter out background noise. This makes birthday parties with screaming children, lots of sounds, and flashing lights absolute misery for my children - especially the twins. I often tell people it's like someone taking 5 radios, tuning them to different stations, turning them each up to full volume - then trying to have a conversation with you! All you would want is for the noise to stop! This is how my children experience the world around them - a jumbled mess of too much noise.
SPD and smell is another fun one - I don't think people realize just how many smells there are in the world! My children smell it all, intensely. For the good smells, it is wonderful. I remember my 5 year old son telling me that he loved flowers because they smelled so beautiful - wow. But, life stops when you get to an absolutely repulsive smell. Most people can just ignore a bad smell, but my kids don't just "smell it", they "feel" the smell.
This overwhelming of the senses leads to emotional intensity as well - everything is "felt" on so many levels they just need a break from the world. If they don't get their break from the world, well - it's not pretty. The number one recommended educational interventions for children with SPD is: computer based learning and home schooling. This explains why half of all profoundly gifted children are home schooled. Often times the best "therapy" for SPD is environmental control, and you get that the most with home schooling. You also limit the things that would send children into absolute overdrive - like too much noise, too many smells, too much touching.
My children are also doing Sensory Integration Therapy - an intensive therapy where the senses are "shocked" in a controlled environment to try to rewire some of those crossed connections. We have had great results, but it isn't a "cure". Environmental control is still important, so is buying clothing with no tags and allowing them to have their emotions do what they need to do - release.
There is more to SPD, but the big thing is that when I speak with parents of gifted kids and talk about SPD, they shake their heads. Not everyone knew a name for it, but I haven't met one parent of a profoundly gifted child that didn't also have a story about socks or jeans, or the child covering their ears in loud places - even as a small child, or even them "needing" to jump and bounce to figure out where their body really is in space.
When you look into SPD, it makes sense that it affects gifted children more. They make so many connections so fast, there is bound to be some cross wiring. The big thing is finding others that know and understand. My friends have a few other gifted friends and watching them play together is so refreshing. They "get" each other, they experience the world in a similar way - they are more gentle with each other, but also more patient. Less than 10% of the population of gifted; less than 20% of gifted children are "highly" gifted, and less than 10% of gifted children are profoundly gifted. We hear a lot about the "1%" when it comes to socioeconomic status in this country, no one talks about the 2% in the area of "intelligence". These kids are rare, but so are their issues. So many people think having a gifted child is about their ability to recite the alphabet at 2 years old, or do multiplication at 6, or Algebra at 7. People rarely see the many disabilities that come with profoundly gifted children. I understand and that is why I blog - so others like our family can find they are not alone. Also, so those that haven't interacted with highly and profoundly gifted children can have a bit more understanding. Yes, most of our time our world is a beautiful as the smell of a flower; yet there are times when we deal with the thorns of a disability. So yes, I do consider parenting gifted children the blessing of a thousand roses - beautiful to see, wonderful to smell, gentle to touch; but that doesn't mean there are no thorns. There are thorns, a lot of them.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Just Being Kids

I am sad. Not for me, not for my kids, but for childhood in general. Our chemistry class has wrapped up for the semester and many of the kids were sad we wouldn't be having class again until February. I didn't at all get a bloated ego and think it was because I was such a wonderful teacher, I know its because the kids play outside with each other after each class. And when I say "play", I mean full force, go for it, running and being a kid without adult intervention play. I sat back and thought about it and that was the first time I have seen kids just playing together outside of my three in almost ten years. That is no exaggeration.
My husband and I play with our kids all the time. We swing with them on the swings, play soccer and football in the yard, and even have family races. However, in a neighborhood full of families with kids, we never see other families out playing together. I think most of the reason is because kids are too darn busy. Yes, not parents, but kids. After school there is soccer or gymnastics or football or cheerleading or some other organized activity. Even home schoolers are guilty of have amazingly over organized children.
For several years now one child or another had to decline a birthday party invitation because they "had" to go to practice or play a game or do some other really grown up stuff to do. It's sad because birthday parties are the only time they see some of their friends. It seems you have get on the "schedule" of other children today and "just to play" isn't a good enough reason to get penciled in. "Just playing" isn't seen as important and can always be interrupted at a moments notice if a coach calls an extra practice (for whatever reason he sees fit), or there is dress rehearsal for a dance recital (no matter how far away the recital might be) - being friends, being kids, having unorganized fun has been put on the back burner in an effort to teach kids "responsibility". However, what is more responsible than being a friend? What is more important than teaching kids to control their own life and not get bogged down in meetings and schedules and "stuff" and neglect the development of health relationships with PEOPLE instead of teams or clubs or organizations. By the way, we aren't talking about teenagers, we are talking about children between the ages of 4 and 8 years old.
What are we really teaching children? Are we teaching children that being an individual is less important then being part of a team? Are we teaching children that other people get to control their time and tell them where they need to be, when they need to be there, and what they need to be doing when they get there? Isn't that the part of "your" life that you hate so much now? I don't know one person that enjoys meetings. I don't know one person who likes it when the boss changes the schedule, or cancels your vacation because something "important" came up. I see adults absolutely hate all the weddings, retirement parties, banquets, and galas they "have" to attend, when they would really rather be home enjoying the house they worked so hard to buy, or smelling the roses they wished they had time to plant. Why do this to our children? Why take away the few precious years of freedom you get and force them into the roles we despise ourselves.
Many people say their kids "want" to play sports or be involved in drama and dance or any of the other myriad of things that are finding their way onto the schedule of children. The truth is, you child does want to play soccer - just play soccer. They don't have to go to the Olympics or even the state championship. They want to join that league soccer team because all the other kids have parents that will only respect a good soccer game if it is league (adult) sponsored. Admit it - would you interrupt your child playing basketball in the driveway with their friends for them to wash the dishes? Now, would you pull them out of basketball practice at school (with a coach and uniforms) to wash dishes? What changed? Isn't it just basketball? Why have more respect for a basketball game organized by adults - where children are forced to play a certain position and get pegged by "talent" but not respect a game where kids are looking at each other as equals and anyone with the ball can try and make the shot and the teams were picked by kids who value people for who they are, not just what they can do? Your son probably picked Little Johnny to be on his team because Little Johnny is a nice guy while at school he may be "teammates" with Big John - the school bully.Yet the message they are getting at this young and tender age is that liking people just for being people isn't enough, that spending time with friends and family isn't important, that doing what you like in the moment isn't a priority. What is important is having a boss (coach), hanging out with the people you are assigned to (co-workers) and your "real" friends, the ones who you chose on your own should be put on the back burner while you go out and win a trophy.
Another issue this lack of free time has brought about is children that don't have the capacity to self direct. They don't know what to do unless they are being told what to do. This is why children appear so wild and out of control when adults aren't around - they never learned how to self direct. If a child has had their entire day mapped out for them since they were three years old, never having an opportunity to play with no adult intervention - when do they learn how to be free, independent people? I am not saying adults shouldn't be there watching, observing, and making sure everyone is safe - but let them make up their own games, with their own rules, and their own teams. Why not give them a few hours each day (yes, multiple hours every day) to find their way.
Finding their way leads me to yet another big thing children miss out on when they are over scheduled - alone time. Yes, I started this post about kids playing together and that is important. But sometimes there is no one to play with, what do you do then? If children are always scheduled and organized - they are always together. No time for being alone with ones own thoughts and ideas, no time learning how to entertain oneself, no time to appreciate the differences of playing alone versus playing in a group. Both are fun, both are important, both are necessary.
I understand - there is so much available for children to do today. My children are involved in multiple activities. However, they also get multiple hours each day for self directed, self managed play. I noticed an amazing thing happening in their behavior - the more self directed time they had, the more their behavior improved overall. Self direction and self management are therapeutic and some of the best learning a child can do. I fear greatly for children that have every hour of their day mapped out for them, what happens when the map maker is no longer there? What happens to children who have been taught to value organized interactions over personal relationship development? What happens when the team is gone and they have no deep friendships to carry over into adult life? How does an adult child value an aging parent who simply contracted out every learning experience to someone else? How do they value siblings they never got a chance to know - because they were always assigned to different teams or clubs, or scout troops because they were different ages? Being young is a temporary thing, but family isn't and friends don't have to be. Why are as parents putting so much emphasis and value on temporary teams, clubs, and organizations instead of encouraging our children to develop relationships that can last a lifetime? Think back on your childhood. What are the memories that matter to you? Sure, I won some trophies when I was little, but that isn't what I look back on and cherish. What I remember in the core of my being is my time playing with my sisters and my friends. I can remember playing double dutch, riding bikes, playing kickball, have slumber parties, making up dances to songs, having singing contest, and even "playing the dozens". It all happened outside of school and while we had adult supervision, there was little to no adult intervention.
I am not saying organized activities are bad, but think about how much of your child's day is scheduled. If they don't have at least a few hours every day where they can just be a kid, maybe think about easing up a bit. There is just a short window of time. My mom is now 71, I can still remember her teaching us cheers they used to do when she was little. I still remember her building a huge white boat out of Legos with us. I still remember playing cards together. No pictures or videos to spark the memories - those experiences are a part of me. I am 37 years old and I remember those times like it was yesterday. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Birthday Suprise - Role Changes

We have reached a new milestone in our home – we have a seven year old! While every birthday is special, I know in my heart that this one is different. I can see it in his eyes, in his smile, in his deeper thinking. My “snuggle bunny” is no longer a little boy. He no longer needs me for everything; he understands that momma is good for some things, many things, but not everything. I always knew he was what this world would categorize as a “genius”; I just didn’t realize his internal knowledge would even allow him to peg me correctly.
We have finally reached the point in our relationship where I know I can’t be his everything. It is time for me to step aside and let my husband step into his role as primary parent. Don’t get me wrong, I am still very much necessary in the life of my son. I love him and he loves me. He needs me and will need me for a very long time. I am still the primary home schooling parent and there is much I still need to teach him, even in terms of life.
However, I can also admit he has reached some places where the area is too gray for me to be a good guide. I know, inside and out, all there is to growing into a woman; I don’t have the knowledge necessary to help him become a man. This road is too important to be left to chance; I could only impart “book knowledge” and that is not nearly enough. Add to that my son being a Black man, with all the nuance and rules and baggage I just don’t quite fully understand. I look at my son now and I start to see the shadows of my husband in his eyes, he is very much his daddy’s son. His dad can tell him about being a “nerd” and loving it, being who you are and not falling into traps of what society tells you to be, being quiet and kind – but still knowing how to put a bully down and his back. My husband is the absolute perfect embodiment of being meek and mild, yet strong and capable. He is like Professor X without the wheelchair, or maybe the Hulk without the emotional problems – just a kind, gentle,  brilliant man who can pull out a good can of “whoop ass” if he needs to protect his family. He can teach the balance that I am not required to have in a way that has our “family seal” if you will.
My job isn’t done in the least, but it has changed. I, however, don’t at all feel the push to pawn him off on society and turn him over to “friends” for “socialization”. He still needs two parents in his life; my husband and I are just switching roles a bit. For over seven years (yes, I include my time being pregnant) I was everything to my son. I rubbed my belly and spoke soft words to him as he grew; I nursed him exclusively for six months, and then continued to nurse him for a year. I monitored his time with the nanny like a hawk and was the absolute helicopter parent for his one year in private school. I swooped in like a momma eagle when we knew it was time to home school and I thrived in my job as “everything”. Now, I move from being “everything” to being essential. I see “essential” like the essential vitamins and minerals our bodies need to live. We need 20 vitamins and minerals, but the body produces only 11; we have to get the other 9 from the food we eat. What my son needs from me he can’t get anywhere else in the world. There are some essential things that only a momma can impart and to not give him what he needs from me will leave him under nourished in his development. It’s time for me to concentrate on those things. If I tried to continue to be everything, I would flounder in those things that can only exclusively come from mom. I guess my role hasn’t really diminished, but shifted.
It’s still hard, leaving the role of everything. But, there is no time to shed tears or long for that baby in my arms once again. There are those essential things I need to start to focus on, to impart, and to give. These seven years have been great, but I guess it’s time for the both of us to grow a bit.  
Here are those 9 Essential’s that will be coming from me:
1.       A healthy dose of cynicism/skepticism. I know, you were probably thinking I would start with something about being loving, sweet, and kind. That will come, but the best thing I can impart in my son is being a skeptic and having the drive to find out for himself what is true.
2.       Moving toward perfection. My son can be a perfectionist and that is hard. I used to tell him that it was okay, that what he did was good enough. However, “good enough” isn’t good enough anymore, he is older and ready for challenge. I need to teach him that good work takes time.  I need to teach him that sometimes you try and fail and need to try again, sometimes what you have is good, but you can do better. Sometimes we start with a draft, but we keep tweaking until we get ever closer to that picture in our mind.
3.       Fun is necessary. What is the point of life if you aren’t enjoying it? Having fun should be a part of everyday. Enjoy being human. Being human is about having emotions, thoughts, desires, ambitions, dreams, highs and lows, and everything else in between. You are not an animal that has to rely on instinct; you are an individual with freewill. With freewill comes a consequence (both good and bad) from your decisions – so choose wisely. However, enjoy and embrace even the lows.
4.       Family matters. I will continue to foster and encourage good, healthy, and strong sibling relationships. I am amazed at how children are encouraged to abandon their siblings and cling to friends. However, as people grow – that sibling relationship stays constant. Anyone with older parents knows that siblings often times have to come together to make some pretty big decisions (like whether or not to pull the plug on a parent). You need a good, healthy, strong relationship for the road ahead that life offers. Your siblings can be lifelong friends, lifelong enemies, or turn into casual acquaintances. I want to encourage my eldest to look at his siblings as potential best friends he can have for the rest of his life. People that loved him before he could do anything great. His brother and sister have looked up to and admired him from the day they were born, they were his fans before anyone knew he was a genius – they will be there the when the world becomes unimpressed that he took an “anatomy of the human brain” course at four years old.  Of course, Mom and Dad will always be there for you, always love you, and always do what we think is best for you. However, we are not perfect. We have and will continue to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge those mistakes or question our decisions. We can handle it and no one should be followed blindly. You needed to trust as completely as a baby; you are no longer a baby. We want you to be better than we are, and the one way for you to do better is to not only take on what we have done well and do it for yourself, but to learn from any mistakes we make and not duplicate them.
5.       Un-school on purpose. Learn those things you want to know. Follow your passion, find your flow. The people that become great are the ones who dug deeply into the things that ignited their fire. It’s easy to learn the things you “have” to know in life and when all else fails – pay someone to do those things for you. It’s amazing how much other stuff you learn while trying to unlock the keys to the things that make you feel alive. The world has enough cogs and people that simply do what is required of them. Society had enough pegs that are fine with being banged on the head with the hammer of life until they fit neatly into the slot predesignated for them. Embrace this unique opportunity you have of blazing your own trail. You have everything anyone with a passion could have ever desired – an amazing mind, a family to support you emotionally and financially, an opportunity to find a dream worth following and to pursue it, an environment where mistakes are allowed, and most importantly – time. Many people find out much too late that life unfulfilled is barely worth living and many people regret the risks not taken in the safety of youth. Einstein, Picasso, Da Vinci or Steve Jobs couldn’t have hoped for a better environment than what you have available to you right now. Take this opportunity and run with it.  
6.       To thyself be true. Know who you are, what you enjoy, what you desire, what makes you happy, what you do well, and what you need to work on. The person you will spend the most time with is yourself – learn you and love you first. There is no box he needs to fit into, no mold he needs to be pressed into, and no preset path he needs to walk, job, or run. Embrace being unique and an individual. Everything society will tell you to do will try to get you to conform, resist it with everything you have. It is what makes you human – free will and uniqueness. Don’t ever give it up. However, you can be true to a person you don’t know. Invest the time and energy of getting to know you – even as you change, develop, and grow.
7.       You don’t have to “believe” you can “know”.  This is akin to number one, except this will deal with his own set of truths. One need not rely on faith or belief; he should know what is true and search until he is satisfied with the answer. We are not going to pass on “faith” to you, but knowledge. Knowledge that should be checked, questioned, and checked again. Love requires a choice and you have been given the amazing gift of freewill – use it. Relationship is 100% you own decision.
8.       Health before wealth. Being healthy matters a lot. Wealth is easier to get when you are healthy and it is easier to enjoy when you are healthy. No use making a lot of money only to have to sit around sick watching other people spend it.
9.       Love on purpose. Don’t fall in love; jump into it with both eyes open understanding everything involved. Give your time, energy, and heart only to people that first show they are worthy of it. Appreciate those that care about who you are as an individual, with no sign of reward from their efforts. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Too Close to Home

Some things just hit too close to home and this is one of them.  A teacher at the private school my children attended for one year was arrested on sodomy charges. The charges were levied by a former student. Whether or not this teacher is innocent or guilty is beyond the scope of this posting at the moment. What is important is my frantic search to understand the timeline of events, and my being appalled at the reaction of the adults in charge.
This is one of those stories where context is important. The teacher involved is the son of the owner/administrator of the school. This isn’t his first brush was “allegations”. In 2007 he had a jury trial regarding harassment of a student. He was found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers. However, here is what I found out about the incident: 1. The incident was caught on tape by the student. 2. The student had done poorly on a spelling test and the teacher read her wrong answers aloud to the class. 3. The teacher poked the student in the arm (and the student alleges in the stomach as well) as he “ribbed” her about her test. 4. The student testified to being “devastated” while the other students testified she smiled during the incident. 5. The teacher alleges he was just trying to make her feel better. Those are the known facts. While I don’t quite know why the jury believed this teacher wasn’t guilty of harassment, I am sure this is a least a form of bullying. What makes this most disturbing is that this behavior is completely outside of the Reggio foundation of the school. Reggio schools are supposed to be places where students are respected, empowered, given a voice, and the wholeness of the child is put above the pursuit of grades. This philosophy isn’t for every family, but the families that place their children in such environments want that environment for their children. You can have your child ridiculed for bad grades for free, no need to pay a school $10,000 a year to make that happen. Now it isn’t just “innocent ribbing” that is being alleged, but charges of sodomy.
When we became a part of the school in 2010, we were looking for a Reggio environment and this school reported to us that this was in fact what they provided. We were never informed that there was this “one time” when things didn’t work out so well. Our time at the school was nothing short of a duel universe. The teachers that were great, were great (the kids Mandarin teacher for instance), however, there were those absolutely mediocre to unacceptable experiences as well. We met with the owner and administrative staff on several occasions about our concerns. First there was my eldest, who we believed had reading issues. I was sat down and spoken to like a child, not like a woman with a Master’s degree in Education and told he was perfectly age appropriate. Thankfully we aren’t stupid and took my son for testing. Not only was he dyslexic, he had severe eye teaming, tracking, and convergence issues. Had I succumbed to the belittling and believed someone simply because they had years upon years in the field my child might still be suffering today. But, what really got us into gear concerned one of my three year old’s being bullied not by a student, but in our minds a teacher. We were led to believe this was all in our head. Of course, my husband and I knew something wasn’t quite right. Plans were in place for us to do what needed to be done, home school.
Looking back, everyone always whispered about the “other hall”. See, this private school is one of the most beautiful schools I have ever seen. The most spectacular natural light, acres for children to run and play, a library most schools would kill for, it is how I would design a school. But there was something not quite right with one hall, the “big kids” hall. There is a sharp decline in enrollment as people get closer to the “big kids” hall. What starts as a preschool with 30 – 40 children becomes a 6 – 8th grade combined class with eight or less kids. What the heck happens when they turn the hall? That hall has “this” teacher. Most people start to vocally make plans about leaving the school as soon as their children reach “that hall”. In fact, they opened a new 3rd grade class in the “little kids” hall because the 3rd grade parents threatened to leave the school if their kids were sent to “that hall”. There was some secret, something that everyone knew, but no one would say. This brings us to the arrest this week.
The schools “official response” was that this was stemming from an old issue that had been investigated in the past and shown not to have merit. Really? You get arrested from an “old issue” that was found to have no merit? Then came all the claims that some kid was just lying, this was old stuff, this teacher is so great. All I could hear in my head was the parade of Sandusky apologist who vowed he was innocent all the way until the parade of victims took the stand. Now, I absolutely know that teachers have been falsely accused of molestation; I am not saying this isn’t possible. This teacher should have a fair trial in a court of law. This isn’t about courts, but about classrooms. How much information are parents allowed to have to make decisions about who gets access to their children? I argued constantly with people about the Sandusky/Penn State issue that even if Sandusky never went to trial, parents should have been made aware that a molestation charge was leveled against Sandusky back in the 90’s, even if it was investigated and no action was taken. Parents should have the option to decide for themselves if the “where there is smoke, there is fire” adage applies. I had no idea at the time I was arguing for myself, for my voice, for my rights. I had no idea that down “that hall” was a teacher who had allegations levied against him before my eldest was even born. I sat there, looking in the eyes of school administrators, owners, teachers, expecting everyone to be straight up and honest with me about the atmosphere my young, innocent children would be going in to. I expected to be given an opportunity to make an informed choice about where my children went to school. The thing about a Reggio environment is that is requires teachers to have impeccable integrity. There is a laid back atmosphere and the iron clad walls and chains of command found in traditional schools are replaced with large windows, comfortable relaxed seating, as well as age mingling. Teachers giving hugs, parents roaming the halls, kids having freedom and choice – this happens in an environment filled with trust. I am angry that while my husband and I held up our end of the bargain, this school and staff reneged from the beginning by choosing not to disclose this very real issue.
So now I am going over in my mind every contact I remember with my children having with this teacher. Did I miss something? The chances are almost 100% that my children were completely safe. However, isn’t that what every parent feels? No one sends their child off with a pedophile, suspected pedophile, or accused pedophile when they “think” something might happen. Pedophiles are smarter than that, better than that. I never thought our one year experiment is a somewhat traditional school setting would put us so close to what every parent fears. It’s hard knowing the dread you felt every time you dropped your kids off was justified. People like to call it irrational parental fear or being a helicopter parent, until you get this close. Until you know there were secrets no one chose to disclose, choices taken away from you as a parent, situations your child was put into that you never wanted them in. I could have gone another 10 years without having to discuss “sodomy” with my children and been a happier person for it. That was taken away from me not by a stranger, but by a group of people whom I thought we had a mutual agreement of respect and trust between us. Well world, that swishing sound you hear every time you see my children will be my propellers going full speed, this “helicopter parent” will be coming in for a landing each and every time now. However, before you judge a "helicopter parent", know we didn’t all start this way.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The eyes, again!

Now that our eldest is finish with his formal vision therapy, it was time to get the twins more fully tested. They recently turned five, so we knew they were ready for testing. Wow, all I can say is all three of the kids are mine! It seems the twins are quite similar in their vision issues, they still have a lot of trouble with tracking, but even more trouble with convergence (the eyes working together). Because of this, we really have to make sure they are not trying to favor one eye (which was starting to happen with each of them).
We also found out they have very little field of vision, almost no periphery vision at all. They just can't see enough to even look at an entire word on a page.
Thankfully we work with a great vision development husband/wife team who are also familiar with homeschooling. I was encouraged to completely take the twins off of all close work (including workbooks and reading from books). We need to focus on using the white board and having them watch videos on the large wide screen television. We can also do work on the computer, but at a distance that has them sitting all the way back in their chairs (not leaning forward). They will also start intensive sensory integration therapy in October. My eldest when through it this summer and honestly, the results were nothing short of amazing. It is expensive, I won't lie; but the results speak for themselves. My eldest is now so into reading and learning that he asked for nothing but books for his birthday! He could have asked for anything, but all he requested was books - wow! He also likes playing catch with a football now. It is a much easier process when you can actually see the ball! His emotions have stabilized a bit and he is just a happier child overall.
I need to allow the twins to have a chance to grow into their own as well. It wouldn't be fair to leave them in this condition with their eyes. Also, the earlier the process is done, the better the results. The twins will be a year and a half younger than my eldest when they go through therapy, I hope to save them a year and a half of frustration and pain.
So, we are order another four foot white board and doing our Singapore Math and phonics at the board. I am also allowing all three children much more free time and play. They are naturally gravitating towards educational activities, doing many more arts and crafts projects, and exercising their bodies as well as their brains. They are thriving in learning their instruments (although I do have to enforce daily practice, the little bit of "tiger mom" still in me).
I wonder what the twins will gravitate towards once their eyes are better. My eldest took to geography. He carries at least an atlas and often times a globe as well where ever he goes - literally. He is enthralled with learning about countries and regions and even languages. I hope each of the twins finds their own passion following this process and my goal is simply give them the skills and resources they need to fully embrace whatever their heart desires.
Whoever said "the eyes have it" was almost fully correct. The eyes certainly have such a huge impact on who we are. When they work well, work together, and open up for us to see as much of the world as we can take in, there is really no limit to what a gifted child can see and therefore do.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Our Mini United Nations

One comment I often hear from people in regards to home schooling is that children don't often get exposed to children "different" from themselves if they are home all the time. I always smile a bit when I hear this. Mostly because anyone that actually meets my children have meet people "different" from themselves. We don't belong to one of the major religions (or any religion for that matter, but we do follow a Torah based life), we are overall quirky, and not very "typical". However, I have yet to meet a "typical" family anyway. Everyone we know is quirky in their own way - even when they belong to various majority based groups.

I do a chemistry class for young home schoolers. The children are all between K and 3rd in terms of grade level. In this group of roughly eleven children (including younger siblings observing) - the differences are amazing. There is one set of twins, one child with English as a second language, at least 5 children  are mixed race, four children with parents born outside of the United States, three families with a language other than English spoken in the home - either as a primary or secondary language, at least two families that do not belong to any of the major religions. Some of the children have older siblings, some have younger siblings, and one child is being raised and home schooled by a grandparent. Two families travel from different cities to join us for class - so much for being confined to people that live in your neighborhood!

Our mini UN is filled with diversity; diversity that can be appreciated because it is genuine. It isn't found in a book or a movie; it's just their friends - each one unique in their own way. What makes this such a wonderful group of children is the fact that their differences go almost unnoticed. They know "J" and "K" speak Mandarin in the home, but it isn't a big deal. What makes it cool is that "J" and "K" and their mommy is teaching everyone a little Mandarin. The children that speak Spanish in the home blended easily with the native English speakers as they all counted to 10 and beyond in Spanish. They didn't do it as an assignment, or to point out differences; they just did it because the kids all wanted to do it and found it to be fun.

While the other children might find it weird that my kids don't celebrate Christmas, Halloween, or Easter - it isn't a big deal. I am sure they may find it kind of interesting when they come over during Sukkot and we are having class out in our temporary shelter (most likely an RV rented from a vendor). My kids rejoice and do a happy dance when one of their friends gets a visit from the Tooth Fairy, even though she doesn't visit our home. That is what diversity is really all about - being able to appreciate the culture of others without feeling the need to change the core of who you are. We don't proselytize our friends, and they return the favor. We embrace our differences as well as in the wealth of things we have in common. In fact, we are more common than we are different. I have found in my own journey through life that I am more like most people than I am different - irregardless of where in the world I am standing. This is the gift that homeschooling allows me to give to my children as well - they are experiencing the truth that we are all more alike than we are different. They are learning you don't have to look the same, believe the same, or live the same in order to be the best of friends.

Some of my children's friends are vegetarians - even though we eat meat, we don't offer it as a meal choice when their vegetarian friends join us for play. That's also a big part of embracing and understanding diversity. Understanding that you compromise where you can, when you can, and it's all okay.

I don't know if my kids would have these type of experiences in a traditional school setting. Maybe they would, but I know "I" wouldn't. While the kids enjoying playing with their friends, I am getting an opportunity to get to know some really awesome and amazing parents! I love that I can converse with others that don't home school exactly like we do, but still get just as amazing results. I love talking recipes with people who have a different diet than we do. I love hearing about the spiritual experiences of other families, even though we don't engage like they do. It's also nice to meet other families that do many things in a similar way - like knowing other families that choose not to spank (and yes, some of our friends spank as well).

Genuine interest and respect of others while still being true to yourself - that is the best thing I can teach my children. And that is what they are learning. Well, I take that back - they aren't learning it at all. Children naturally function this way without the interference of closed minded adults. What I and the other parents have provided is an atmosphere for the children to continue to function in the kind and inclusive manner they are born with. Many people say children are cruel, but that isn't true at all. Children unencumbered with bigotry, hate, and self righteousness from adults are actually quite kind and enjoyable individuals. What is so amazing about our mini UN is that all of the children are just naturally kind. No, they aren't perfect. They get a bit loud and rowdy and I did think they would come to blows as they tried to hoard Lego's! But not one person made fun of "P" even though he stutters. Not one person laughed at one of my little ones that had a meltdown and cried a bit. No one mentions that "C" is a little over weight while "M" is a bit skinny. None of that registers at all - they just don't ever talk about it, they don't dwell on those things. In fact, I shouldn't even call them a UN - they function so much better than the UN. They don't group themselves by language, race, socioeconomic status, or gender. It doesn't matter who their parents will be voting for, if they choose to vote at all. They are so comfortable in their own skin that I am a bit jealous. What they have can't actually be taught, it has to simply be nurtured. I and the other parents have vowed to do just that, provide an environment that is as close to uncorrupted as possible. We won't be perfect; we are adults and that puts us at a disadvantage. But for as long as we can, we commit to just letting them be and enjoy each other. We will continue to do a happy dance if the Tooth Fairy visits a friend, bop our heads as someone sings a Christmas song, and giggle as we have class outside during Sukkot. We will sit back while the kids count in Spanish, English, Mandarin, and any other language they choose, and smile at the rainbow of children playing freeze tag out in the yard.

I grew up in a world that was simply Black and White, rich or poor - that was it. My heart if filled with joy that my kids have a world so much bigger, so much more colorful, so much more authentic than I could have imagined at their age. For this experience alone, home schooling has been well worth the effort.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Running His Own Race

Since starting our home school journey two years ago, I am amazed at just how good of a decision this was. One of the reasons I love this decision so much is because I know, in my head, there is no other way to educate my children. I get that other people have choices, and I rejoice with them in their choices. I get that the absolute right decision for other people is a more traditional school setting - that is wonderful. But for us, for this house, there is no other way.

One of those "no other way" moments hit me when working with my younger son today. We were doing some addition problems. It started off rough and the first four answers he really had to struggle to find. But, once he hit his stride - he did them all perfectly. I spoke with my husband about this and I labeled him my "long distance" learner. Like track and field - if you judge a marathon runner by their pace at the 100 meters  mark - you completely miss the boat. No, they aren't fast at 100 meters, they aren't fast at 200 meters, they aren't even fast at 1600 meters. But at mile 26, when most other humans on the planet would have given up, if not had a hard attack a died, here they come. They aren't just jogging, they are now sprinting. They aren't just sprinting, they are smiling! They cross the tape and for many of them, they could probably run a little while longer. They have seen more scenery than most 100 meters  runners will ever see, they have passed more people, they have had an opportunity to think - think and run. What didn't look fast at 100 meters  looks amazingly fast at 26 miles. This year's Olympic winner ran just over 26 miles in just 2 hours. 8 minutes, and 2 seconds. That is less than 5 minutes per mile!

That is my son, who in addition to holding the labels "gifted" and "dyslexic", also has extremely slow processing speed. When people look at him on the surface, he doesn't look as fast mentally as his brother or sister. Heck, he didn't look as fast as the other kids in his preschool class 2 years ago. His "teachers" were looking for sprinters and they would tell us how he just "wasn't ready". Well, he isn't going to go out of the blocks like a sprinter. But when everyone else has bored of the task and put their pencils or crayons away - he is still going. Not limping, not lollygagging, not struggling, but running - fast. In a traditional school setting - with bells and time limits and tight schedules, there is no room for marathon runners. If you are not a sprinter - you aren't "gifted". And if you come in last place at the 100 meter tape, you are downright "slow". No one cares if you are just hitting your stride and you can go on for another 26 miles while everyone else was just in it for the short burst.

My daughter is a sprinter, like me. She "gets" it fast and even finishes her work fast. But, there is just something marathon runners have that sprinters don't. For instance, today the twins both built structures with wood blocks. My daughter, the sprinter, did a good structure quickly. I mean, you could call it a house. It had a floor, 4 walls, and even a facade. Sure, it was quite clear that this was a house, and a fine house that was well built with lots of character. But her brother, the marathon runner - boy oh boy did he build a "house". It took him at least twice as long, if not three times as long. But when he told me about his structure I was floored. There was a weather gauge to check for tornadoes (we lived through a F5 - so tornado surveillance is important to him), there were windows that rotated to give the home owner optimum views, there were doors that opened with ramps leading up to each door. This was a house where every piece was laid down with purpose, there was a story behind every block he chose to include. He even talked about a modification he had to make because his sister had used two pieces he was originally going to use. If I had yelled "time" after his sprinter sister finished - there would have been very little of his house built. In fact, it may not have looked like a house at all.

Imagine if someone yelled "time" when the marathon runners were halfway finished with the race. Some might have tried to dash for the finish line - and most likely hurt themselves by pulling muscles, tripping over obstacles or other hazards along the way, or they may have just fainted from exhaustion and despair. Others would have stopped - frustrated that all their hard work was for nothing since they were never given the opportunity to finish. I imagine some may have chosen to never run a marathon again.

As a sprinter myself - I have to constantly remind myself to not yell "time" when he is still in the middle of his race. I have to remind myself that he isn't an astonishingly slow sprinter, he is an extremely fast marathon runner. He is working at a different pace, but running his race quite well. We need marathon runners. Marathon runners are the researchers around us, those with the aptitude to sit, watch, and wait for the results. I barely had the patience to wait for the results from a pregnancy test and those things only take ten minutes! My son can work on a painting, a book, a story for hours. When he is given the time, the results are amazing. He may just be the brightest child that I have, but most in the world won't see it. Millions upon millions tuned in to watch Usain Bolt run 100 meters in just 9.63 seconds. Not too many people were waiting in breathless anticipation as Stephen Kiprotich won his gold. The marathon record is 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 38 seconds. There are just over 1600 meters in a mile. That puts the fastest marathon runner at around 17 seconds in the 100 yard dash. While that sounds quite slow for a 100 meters dash, consider that a person running a marathon is like Usain Bolt running almost 400 separate -  100 meter dashes in a row. Could he keep up his world record pace? We call Usain Bolt that fastest man in the world, but I would think Patrick Makau Masyoki would disagree. And that is how it is with knowledge as well. A gifted sprinter may look like the smartest person in the world - they might be amazingly quick with math facts, geography facts, or even naming presidents in order of their birth. It makes good television and people like to see that kind of mental speed. It is amazing, and I take nothing away from the mental Usain Bolt's of the world - I have one! But I have seen my son, the mental marathon runner in action. His depth of knowledge far outpaces anything I have ever seen. All he really needs to shine is a long enough track and someone  to let them finish the race and not yell "time" before the finish line.

Oh yea, don't hold me to the math in this - I sprinted and just didn't have the heart to go back and check the numbers!

Our Home School "style"

One question many people want to know is what is our homeschooling "style", or how would we classify our home school approach. An easy way would be to identify ourselves as eclectic, or an approach that draws from a variety of different sources. However, that really doesn't help to identify exactly what we do.

I have always been a fan of unschooling or child led learning and we do use a bit of this approach. It's just that "I" need structure, even if my kids don't. So, I incorporate unschooling by allowing my children to have some freedom in when they choose their assignments as well as some of the topics that we tackle (like my eldest choosing to study world geography and my daughter choosing to learn about weather).

Our need for structure isn't just a personal preference, there are some choices that the children have made that require a more firm routine. For instance, all three of my children are learning at least one instrument, with two of the three learning two instruments. Instruments require practice at least five days a week - there is just no getting around that. If you love an instrument, you either learn to love to practice or you give up on the instrument. My children are still young and while they always have a choice in whether or not they will continue to play their instruments, they don't get a choice when it comes to practice - they must practice every weekday. We are also doing remediation in the areas of vision, auditory processing,  and dyslexia. While it isn't always fun, doing the hard work now means they won't have disabilities holding them back when the real learning and adventure starts as they get older and more independent.

We tend to do math everyday - although we do it in a variety of ways. Sometimes it's working through a math textbook or workbook, other times hands on games and activities, math videos, and even math story books. We do something with reading/phonics daily as well - but this is also done utilizing variety. Sometimes the kids are reading aloud, sometimes they are doing a CD-ROM based program, sometimes doing a hands on phonics exercise, and sometimes even watching a phonics or reading based video. Variety allows us to not get into a rut and allows for depth of learning as well.

We incorporate creative expression and outlet as a part of our weekly home school routine. So arts and crafts, music appreciation, dramatic and role playing are all a part of things we do. Arts and crafts can be anything from painting to clay work to beading crafts or craft kits. In music appreciation we may learn about various instruments, learn about artist, or learn about a music genre. Drama and role playing comes from the kids acting out scenes they seen in their favorite videos or simply role playing life situations. Just having an outlet for expression with no hard and fast rules is an important thing in our home.

We also combine science and art through things like snap circuits, zometools, legos, K'Nex and other building mediums. We can explore them using physics, engineering, and chemistry to learn, grow, and explore. I am constantly amazed by what the children are able to do. They generally start with the guide provided in the kit, but quickly master the basics and go off building on their own. It is beautiful to watch their minds come up with new ways of thinking about objects.

The kids also do unit based "specials". There are topics they choose that I simply provide a lot of materials so they can go as deep or as wide as their passion takes them. A passion for geography brings out a globe, various different atlas books to view maps, learning to read maps, learning to draw maps, doing map puzzles, mapping out various routes, or just learning interesting facts about various countries. We dug deep on a number of topics including the human body where we even put together medical grade models, ferrets where we learned how to take care of them, set up habitats, and even went to visit and hold them at a local pet store. The big thing is the children pick the topic and I gather the supplies. This has been the most interesting part of our home schooling journey as the children have chosen to learn about things well before I would have scheduled them or even chose to learn about things that I wouldn't have come up with. The big thing for me is that they enjoy the learning process.

Physical activities are also a part of our weekly routine. In addition to them taking gymnastics, we also make sure to move our bodies as much as we can. From doing yoga to running laps at the track - we understanding the exercise is not only fun, but an important part of life as well.

So, our style is quite broad. I use what I call the "label" system to determine our daily schedule. Basically, I add 7 labels to their boxes each day. The labels might say a standard - like vision therapy or Singapore Math. They also have labels title "build/create" where they pick the medium or "logic" which can be a game, a book, or us getting together to solve some pressing problem. They also have free choice labels. Once they have finished their 7 mandatory labels, they can pick as many free labels as they chose. These might say "build a bridge", "make a story up about a sibling", "write a letter to grandma", "build an animal habitat", or "run a lap". They get rewarded in various ways be finishing their labels - kind of like adults earning a paycheck for the work that they do. The system has been working quite well and it keeps the kids' interested in what we are doing. It provides us the structure we need while still allowing for lots of freedom and personal responsibility.

So - that's our "style" and there just isn't one or two words to describe it. All I can say is that it works for us and it definitely isn't for everyone. There is a lot of planning on my part that goes into making this work and the kids are probably working harder than most children their age. But, they are thriving, having fun, and constantly asking for more work. I think we found our happy medium!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why I Use the Term "Gifted"

In the world of education, there aren’t many terms more controversial than “gifted”. Gifted is used to define children who fall on the higher ends of an IQ scale – often times starting with those over the 90th percentile. But, gifted is more than that – gifted individuals often learn quite differently than their peers. Statistically speaking, most people need at least 7 repetitions of information to learn something new; the average gifted child needs just one to two repetitions. Gifted children tend to be emotionally intense, and highly asynchronous in their development.  In fact, this asynchronous development is the most common reason for needing gifted education. The education system in the U.S. and for much of the world is an age based system.  Learning is based on year of birth and it geared towards the statistical average for any age range. Individuals that fall outside of that range suffer. Gifted children don’t just fall outside the range; they often cross several different ranges depending on subject and social, emotional, and learning factors.
Let’s take for instance learning disability. Many gifted children have learning disabilities, but they often go undetected and even if suspected, they go untreated. Why? Let’s take a look at my eldest son to discover this answer. My eldest was diagnosed with dyslexia. He wasn’t diagnosed in an educational institution, but by a private psychologist who specializes in working with gifted children. Upon her advice, we had his eyes tested by a developmental ophthalmologist. During this testing it was discovered my son had severe deficiencies in his vision. His field of vision was extremely compromised – he couldn’t read words on a page because his field of vision was so small, he couldn’t see an entire word at one time. His eye tracking and eye teaming were so poor he was seeing a completely independent picture in each eye. He still had his Moro Reflex, which should have disappeared before his first birthday. This severely affected his gross and fine motor skills making writing difficult and it also heightened his emotional and physical intensity to such levels that even wearing a pair of socks or a shirt with a tag on the collar painful. Why is this significant? My son was in a traditional education setting at the time of his diagnosis.  When we first discussed with his teacher and the school administrator that we thought there might be some issues with his reading – they looked at my husband and I as if we had two heads. “He is the best reader in the class!” was the answer we were given. This was significant for them because they had grade skipped him into a Kindergarten classroom, were we not in a private school he would have been in a preschool classroom, unable to start Kindergarten for another year. To their credit, he was reading a year and a half above the K grade level when he was formally tested. However, this was the reading level for a statistically average child, a “normal” child. The school took the “all kids are gifted” approach and didn’t take seriously the plight of nuisance faced by gifted children.  My child didn’t just have a learning disability; he had a disability that was severely affecting his everyday life. However, his disability was also very correctable.  Had my husband and I not had our child officially identified as “gifted” when he was just 15 months old, we might have missed the signs we were picking up when he was four and five years old. Had we not devoured as much information we could have about gifted children – how they learn, how they function, how they are “different”, we may not have been able to press against the crowd and seek help. Seek help even when the educational professionals said we were making a big deal out of a “normal” childhood issue as he began to reverse even more letters.
We are now in the home stretch of his therapy. His emotional intensity has lessened; he can wear anything in his closet – including socks and shirts with tags, all without pain. His Moro Reflex is gone and he learned to swim in just two weeks – now brave enough to ask about jumping off the diving board at our local pool. When he still had his Moro Reflex he couldn’t get his arms and legs to work properly enough to learn to swim – a life skill all children should master. His field of vision has opened up and he can now read signs on buildings, street signs, and billboards, for the first time in his life he has a big picture of the world around him. He can also now read with ease and he now loves to read. He isn’t afraid of books and reading aloud doesn’t cause him to burst into tears like it used to. We are a reading based society, without the ability to read well one is severely limited in what they can learn. His eyes not working together were keeping him back from learning many of the things he had a desire to know. While his dyslexia may not be completely resolved, if we never did another thing where he is today wouldn’t hold him back in life, this wasn’t the case at all 12 months ago.
I use the term “gifted” because it is needed to help the people and places we have to navigate understand my children. No, it’s not the best word to describe the attributes that make up these children, but many words are never quite right. We are considered “Black” or “African American”. Both of these are ridiculous in trying to adequately describe ourselves to the world. No human on earth is the color black, my family is more a range from creamy caramel to sophisticated mocha and we haven’t set foot on the continent of Africa in our lives – nor has anyone in our family that we know of for the last 100 years. However, “creamy caramel” or “United States citizen of the darker hue” weren’t options on our last census form. We had to use the words that were commonly accepted to describe our condition as it was. And I am sure a “White” person born and raised in South Africa that emigrates to the United States and becomes a citizen might not be happy about not being expected to define themselves as “African American”. But, as silly as these words and rules might be, they are the best we have right now to describe our reality. Such is the case with gifted. I am sure parents of children that have painted in the likes of Picasso since they were four years old, or opened on the cello for Yo-Yo Ma when they were six would like to describe their child as “gifted” regardless of their IQ and whether they have any of the qualities that often describe a gifted child. They are right; it is a silly word to isolate to one group when it could easily apply to others. However, they are forced to use the word “prodigy”, even if gifted describes them more aptly. I get it, I understand. However, if we had refused to embrace the term “gifted” and go with it, I shudder to think about how my son would be suffering today. Our family embracing the gifted title saved my son from many more years of anguish and struggle. Gifted made our home school transition easy and welcome. Gifted allowed us to find the right psychologist, the right ophthalmologist, and the right path to a healthy life that would have been denied my son if he were allowed to sit and suffer in silence because he was the “best reader in the class” as being defined by rules created for the statistical average. He doesn’t have the luxury to navigate an education system designed for people that fit nicely into the box. Being gifted isn’t easy, it is a constant struggle of finding what works for you. Imagine if someone wore a size 1 in slacks, but a size 12 in tops. It’s first of all hard to find a size 1 on a regular basis. Often times clothing designed for a size 1 are not compatible with clothing designed for a size 12. They would never, ever find an outfit all together in that size. Forget buying a dress or suit – it just won’t happen. The world of fashion wasn’t designed for an individual that out of proportion for the rest of society. It would be understood they would always be limited in their “off the shelf” choices and most would encourage them to just get their clothing custom made. In fact, they would probably have to learn to sew and make their own clothing if they ever wanted an entire wardrobe. If nothing else, they would need a good tailor that could alter everything they purchased. This is the life of a gifted child when it comes to education. There is never something “off the rack” that fits just right. If they do sit in a traditional classroom, their assignments often have to be altered significantly to fit their educational needs. And at this point, half of all profoundly gifted children are home schooled – designing their own curriculum with their family as this was the only option available for them to have a full education to fit their needs.
So, the next time you hear about a child being labeled “gifted”, don’t think about Thomas Horn being a 13 year old Jeopardy whiz kid turned super star actor. Think of that frustrated person ready to break down into tears in the mall as they agonize over not being able to find a single thing that “fits them”. They look around and see absolutely nothing available was made with them in mind. When the world thought of clothing, that person didn’t enter into the thoughts of one designer. That is what being gifted means. When you look out over an entire field of education and realize that with this entire multibillion dollar industry – not one person really and truly thought about you. That everything you get your going to have to work for and you will probably end up having to pull it all together yourself. Sure, you might find a science program here and a language program there; but for the most part – gifted families are on their own.