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Parenting Gifted Children: Free Materials, Alternate Course Design Part 2

Reversing unchallenging educational programs.

Many parents of gifted children wonder if you can reverse the effects of under-challenging educational programs their child is exposed to-perhaps daily?  In Part 2 of this series we will explore some ways you can try to do that.  We will look at strategies for putting together a creative and high interest academic program for your child and presenting it to administrators and teachers in your child's school. We will look at the early warning signs that intervention is necessary, a few strategies parents can use in approaching and speaking with school administrators and teachers and ome great books that can help you (parents, et. al.) in creating alternate programs that can be customizes to your child's needs and interests. My concern is in helping carve a smooth road on which parents, their children, and teachers can journey together in their attempt to nurture and enjoy the gift of giftedness.

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I recommend that you read my first post, Parenting Gifted Children: Is the New School Year Okay? Part 1, before or after reading this article, as it will contain context and discussion that may help you better implement some of the ideas presented here. 

Let's start with a situation that recently came my way. 

Lynn is a seven-year-old, second grade, high ability learner who has started demonstrating some early warning signs that she is not feeling challenged enough at school.  These details are important to note because the way they manifest, they may overlap with other issues such as behavioral issues, ADHD, etc. and sometimes it is hard to tell which issue is the real.  The problem with that is that parents, teachers, and other support systems may wind up "addressing" a non-issue, while the real problem goes unattended and, in some cases, worsens. So it's good to keep one's eye on this feeling of being under-challenged.  

In this situation, Lynn's mother had noticed her daughter's trying to find ways- on her own - to spike the challenge of some of her homework assignments. And this worked to hold her interest to some extent, but in her mother's estimation, and her own, not enough.

So mom did a Goggle search and located the William and Mary (school of education) Center for Gifted Education.  You can find it at:  http://education.wm.edu/centers/cfge/

This is where she came across a tremendously helpful book for language development titled, Journeys and Destinations (Kendal Hunt Publishing).  This is a book I highly recommend to any parent of a high ability learner.  It is chock full of curriculum design models, materials and suggestions on how to use them, and a teacher's guide. It was exactly what mom was looking for to get her started, trying to recuperate her daughter's interests in language arts. 

But the book gave her another idea as well; perhaps she could use it as a launching pad for developing alternate assignments for Lynn at school.  She decided to give it a whirl.  She ordered the book.  To her pleasure, she found it easy to use. 

She began with something short:  The Wolf and the Lion, a fable by Aesop (included in the text). Lynn's sensitivities to "justice" and "injustice" were immediately sparked and challenged by the fable. So far so good, mom thought, and took a Journey's and Destinations suggestion to vault interest and challenge even further by bringing in yet another text. 

She decided to bring into play a poem she had used herself in a literature class she teaches at her local college.  The poem was no light weight.  It was "The Heaven of Animals" by James Dickey.  It was also an opportunity to address experiential questions Lynn had been bringing up regarding some of the behaviors of her own pets, 2 cats and a dog as well as bigger questions she had posed about life and death and spirituality (nondenominational, as her mother refered to it).   Mom said that she and her daughter then happened to find a PBS special dealing with the continued problem of radiation at Chernobyl.  The special dealt with animal life, now twenty-five years after the nuclear catastrophe.  Interestingly the mother was thinking that the show was above Lynn's capacity, but the child wanted to watch it and was comfortable with the context.  The clip focused on a wolf, which required food, and a bison which had died, and other bison which were present to mourn its death.  So the group of bison chased the wolf away.  They mourned.  Then they went away - because they could not stay any longer.

Lynn surprisingly in a way (yet not) responded with comments making associations to all three scenarios presented (fable, poem, television show), building on her interests and, perhaps more importantly, deepening her understanding of the life-cycle, as well as - and significantly - the concept of grieving.

Mom continued to work with her, checking her comprehension, opinions, values, and arguments as they gently explored various aspects of the life-cycle together. Both mother and daughter enjoyed the results and mom is now attempting to layer other of Lynn's readings (from JD) in a similar way.  She has begun to notice positive changes in Lynn's behaviors elsewhere in their relationship.  "She felt challenged," mom said.  "She became calmer, happier, and her self-confidence and motivation increased."

Now mom has made a call to Lynn's school.  She has been discussing with them the possibilities of implementing an "alternative" program for her daughter for language arts, math, and science. So far, everyone is not only interested, but cooperative and facilitating.  Mom is doing a lot of the leg-work, but nonetheless is pleased with results so far, in particular that the alternate program is being treated as just that - not an add-on - but as an alternate: assignments, grading and all.  This was mom's immediate goal. With the school's and teacher's cooperation, she hopes to see her daughter's gifts grow their natural potential over the remainder of the year. Everyone is off to a good start.

This, however, is just one family's story.  What else can be done? At school?  At home?  What other materials and strategies might be available. Let's take a look.

I recently contacted Shannon Harrison, the Young Scholar Program Manager, from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development and asked her to chime in on a few talking points such as:  early warning signs that intervention is necessary, some strategies parents can use in approaching and speaking with school administrators and teachers, some great books that can help (parents, et. al.) in creating alternate programs that can be customized to your child's needs and interests.

At the Davidson Institute, says Harrison, "we work closely with parents and offer information, resources, research and support as they consider educational advocacy for their students. Since every student, family and schooling situation is unique, we focus on identifying potential educational options rather than giving advice."

Harrison recommends "that parents approach advocating as preparing for a journey. Before beginning the journey," she says that parents should ask themselves:

  • What is the goal of advocating?
  • What needs to change?
  • When will you know it's working?
  • Where to start?

The Davidson Institute provides a free Advocacy Guidebook at http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Resources_id_14781.aspx.

I asked Harrison if she might cite some texts that Davidson uses in their program or any other texts that could help a parent generate an alternate program for their child.  Some books she recommends for parents are:

  • Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds

           Davidson, Davidson & Vanderkam, 2004) http://www.geniusdenied.com/

  • A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students

          (Colangelo, Assouline & Gross, 2004) http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/nation_deceived/

I would personally like to add to this list another great book that comes out of the William and Mary Center for Gifted Education.  It is titled Spatial Reasoning (Prufrock Press), which lays the foundation for science courses and higher level mathematics requiring spatial reasoning. 

Harrison also recommends visiting The Davidson Gifted Database http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/. Here you will find plenty of articles on all aspects of gifted education for all.  You can also find a State Policy Map that identifies each state's policy on gifted education, mandates and funding -which by the way, your author has used and found quite effective and informative.

In terms talking to administrators in your school system Harrison says, "There are some very simple things to keep in mind that can help keep the advocacy process positive. Parents should follow the Golden Rule of treating others the way they want to be treated and be respectful of the teachers, counselors and administrators in the meeting.  Losing your temper will not help anyone and can cause unnecessary friction. Thus, stay calm and remember that everyone there has the child's best interest at heart, even if they have different ideas of what that means. Simply being polite and saying 'Thank you very much' can make the difference between a positive and negative outcome."

She recommends parents come prepared to advocacy meetings: "Bring copies of your child's assessments, including IQ test scores, achievement and aptitude test results, and work samples. In addition, it can benefit parents to read as much as possible and not just about gifted education. Educate yourself about persuasion and mediation to improve your advocacy skills. If your student is twice exceptional, for example, or could benefit from assistance building social skills, research those topics before the meeting."

As for "early warning signs" that suggest parental intervention is necessary, she says that many times when students are under-challenged, they start acting out at school, whether daydreaming, talking during class, or disrupting other students. At home, they may begin to complain about school, stop doing assignments or make excuses to stay home from school."  She goes on to say that "if the issue is not addressed, it can lead students to deliberately underachieve or even drop out.  In some cases students may even experience depression."

Harrison encourages parents to "approach advocacy as working in partnership with the school rather than Us vs. Them. With this approach in mind, parents should keep the lines of communication open with key contacts at the school, such as teachers, counselors and administrators. Parents can also network with other parents of gifted students in their area. Talking to someone who has 'been there, done that' can be invaluable, even if only to make parents feel less alone."

As a final word, she says that "Parents should not be the only ones advocating for their child's education - the student should be involved in the process and learn how to advocate on their own behalf. The Gifted Teen Survival Guide: Smart, Sharp, and Ready for (Almost) Anything www.freespirit.com/catalog/item_detail.cfm?ITEM_ID=247 is a great resource to help students get involved in their own educations.

Again, most of us parents have heard a lot about the pitfalls of trying to make our child's classroom experiences work out for the best. I want to, however, encourage parents of gifted children reading this post; however, to share on my comments page any good strategies and the successes you have personally had in helping make your child's education better, more meaningful, and happy. When did you intercede? How? What made your intervention work? What were the results? I am looking primarily for a discussion of successful and personal measures taken, in the spirit of sharing these with everyone to help them on their own way. Surely, we are all in need of more good ideas.

Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., is the author of Can I Have Your Attention? How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration.

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