Category Archives: Awesome children

Letting Go

This past week, my friend Judy was featured in a video linked to a New York Times education series on autistic children going to college. Judy has 3 sons, all of whom are smart. One is autistic, and in seeking help for him Judy learned that she has autism as well. Of all the mothers I have known, worked with, and admired, Judy is one of the wisest. I remember her telling me how she dealt with the issue of letting go as her boys matured. I hope you find her strategy as amazing as I do.

Judy likens letting go to a yo-yo where she controls the string. When her gifted son was born, she explained, “He looked like a brand new yo-yo with the string wound around and around. When he started moving away from me – crawling, walking, running – I still held the string and controlled the yo-yo. It wasn’t always convenient having a mobile child, but I was in control so it was okay. I knew how to work the string so the yo-yo could go but always come back to me.”

As this son got older and left home more often Judy said, “It was like a yo-yo that has been used for awhile: The string unwinds further and further, and it takes more effort to get the yo-yo back. Then it doesn’t seem to want to come back all the way. But still I hold the string, and the yo-yo for the most part goes and comes at my command.”

When it came time for his first extended trip, Judy explained, “The string wasn’t long enough to extend that far away, so I concluded that I should pack it up and go with him. The following year I decided he could go without me. As he boarded the tour bus I had a mental picture of undoing the string from the end of the yo-yo. It was the first time the string was detached. I took it home, wound it up carefully, and stored it inside me until he returned, at which time I immediately reattached the string.

“But the yo-yo never worked the same after that. Over time it left for increasingly longer periods and with decreasing need for a quick return of the string. I learned to become a keeper of the string, rather than its controller.”

Judy had used this same technique with her older son. As both became more independent she said, “Sometimes I would allow them to untie theirs strings on their own, and sometimes I would do it. After all, I was still better at it.” When they would return from a camp, trip, or other extended stay away she reported, “I was fulfilled, happy, and satisfied because I could see each one tying his string back to his yo-yo. They were not ready to be the keepers of their own strings.”

When her oldest reached adulthood, Judy adjusted her yo-yo principle to this next stage of life. “I gave him his yo-yo string. It was not easy for me. Then one day he needed me and handed it back. Even though we both wanted things to be like they used to be, I no longer matched the string in the old way. I didn’t know what to make of it until I realized I could hold the yo-yo in my arms but I could not hold the string. The yo-yo took up his own string again and said, ‘Thanks mom, love ya always,’ which had been my line – love you always. That,” she concluded, “is how you let go of little yo-yos and teach them to control their own strings.”

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

In December 2010, Royal Society Publishing reported on a study completed by 8- and 9-year old scientists under the tutelage of a neuroscientist from University College, London. This morning, I was talking with a colleague about a mentoring program we ran for middle school students at WCATY. This conversation reminded me of the “Bee Study” and the role of mentors in encouraging young learners to pursue their interests.

In a commentary accompanying the children’s scientific report, a scientist wrote, “The perceptual and decisional abilities of insects [bees] are …  shaped as successful responses to environmental challenges. The same can be said of the children who carried out this research. The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us. The insatiable curiosity that characterizes childhood, combined with … scientific method, provides a powerful tool that allows us to prosper and grow.”

Our WCATY scholars and their mentors made similar observations. One student’s story shows how building on early curiosity ultimately defined his personal and career goals. Sebastien reports, “During middle school, I participated in a program that provided a stipend for me to do a mentor-guided project over the summer. That was my first introduction to hands-on, scientific research. I studied the effects of a virus on chick-embryo development with a biology professor at the local college. In retrospect, I recall almost nothing of my actual research at this young age, but I remember the lab and the excitement of doing research vividly.”

He goes on to say, “The summer before my junior year of high school, I became involved in biological research again, this time studying lighting effects on plants… I received a grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Ph.D. candidates in plant genetics. I had this full-fledged research experience. That’s when I knew for sure that genetics was my life. That is also why I entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition in science. My [lab] partner and I had pages of graphs and scientific results, and the next step was to figure out how to develop a bibliography and put together a scientific paper. From there we became regional finalists, regional winners, and went on to Washington, D.C. to become national semi-finalists against fifteen other teams and six individuals, the best of the best in the nation.

“I was never a person who as a child said, ‘Wow, I’ve got passion,’ but now people tell me I have it, and I guess that’s true. Passion is about things having a greater purpose. For me, a career in clinical genetics will be a way of giving back. It will be a way to honor all the mentors and people who have helped me, starting with my mom. So it’s more than love.”

Postscript: Last time I talked with Sebastien, he was in medical school pursuing his career goal, as determined and happy in his direction as ever.

Urban Prep: A Model for Excellence

I had the opportunity to hear several young men from Urban Prep Academies of Chicago speak this morning of their high school education. Their all-boys inner-city school expects the best from them; slacking off is not an option. The first graduating class experienced a 100% enrollment in college this past year, and it is expected that every graduating class to follow will achieve the same. One of the young men explained, “I wasn’t thinking of being college bound when I started at Urban Prep. But they kept saying, ‘college bound’ along with ‘we believe.’ Now I see why it is they repeat this over and over. They want us to become leaders. And, we’re going to college to graduate.”

Here are a few more words of wisdom shared in the presentation.

From the school leader, “We hear people refer to ‘those’ kids, but they’re really ‘our’ kids.” And, “You cannot demand exceptionality without showing them what it is. The key to our success [in addition to modeling] is passion. We discipline hard, educate harder, and love hardest.”

From the panel of three high school juniors: “Talent without character doesn’t cut it in the world. Urban Prep develops the character as well as the talent.”

“I was unguided and undecided when I arrived as a freshman. At Urban Prep, it all fell into place. I gained confidence in myself because of the resources I was given and the assets I see in the people around me. We all come in as raw materials, but we learn that we can become gemstones.”

“Knowledge is power; education is power; wisdom is power.”

A member of the audience commented, “It shouldn’t be necessary for these articulate young men to tell us this, it should be automatic to us. Excellence should be a way of life.” I agree that it should be a way of life, but unfortunately for the majority, it isn’t. Special services would not be necessary if all children were alike. Our age-grade paradigm might work if all children of the same age were alike. Mentors and corporate sponsors might not be necessary if all families could support their children academically, psychologically, socially, and of course financially. Gifted programs would not be necessary if every child could learn at his or her own pace. But these ‘ifs’ describe an ideal that does not exist in our society. It takes extraordinary commitment, compassion, discipline, and support for a whole school to turn every learner’s story into a success story.

As Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Urban League summed up, with 52% of our black and Latino boys not graduating from high school in Madison, and with only 7% of the very few boys-of-color who even take the ACT demonstrating that they are college ready, we are in crisis mode. Madison Prep, like Urban Prep, will turn these statistics around. We need to do in Madison what it seems to the clear-headed thinker to be common sense. We must put forth the passion that Kaleem models so well. We must rise to the challenge of turning a plan that is well into the making into reality. We must turn the ‘ifs’ of excellence into every day occurrences.  I can’t wait to hear that 100% of our boys from diverse backgrounds are graduating from Madison Prep as they are at Urban Prep, with graduation from college as the next goal for each and every one of them.

Young men from Urban Prep in Chicago

Smart Kids Who Stutter

With the release of “The King’s Speech,” stuttering has become a topic of conversation unlike anytime I’ve known in the past. Two of the WCATY students that I interviewed for my book on parenting smart kids had been stutterers.

The first is Angie, whom I’ve written about in previous columns. She was born a crack baby. She came to my attention when she scored a perfect 36 on the ACT English test as an eighth grader. It was from her father and eventually her that I learned of her challenging beginnings. By the time she first came to a WCATY program following her eighth grade year in school, there was no sign of a language problem – and who would have expected it from someone whose talent was so clearly language related.

Angie reported, “My father read to me from day one, and I received speech therapy to help overcome stuttering and slower-than-normal language acquisition. I didn’t understand the reason for these early language experiences at the time but they probably explain my affinity for reading and writing. As a preschooler, I learned to read by memorizing the words of book after book, and by age eight my speech problems had been conquered…. spelling and reading became second nature to me. Although Angie has now graduated from college and speaks eloquently, she still reports, “Writing is my bridge between my unspoken thoughts and the world.”

I’ve recently written about Rand’s ADHD. Rand’s second difference is his stutter, which was very noticeable when he was a high schooler attending WCATY programs, yet barely perceptible when I was interviewing him as a Ph.D. candidate.  “When I was really young,” he explained, “specialists worked with me. Then my parents were told it was essentially gone, that I no longer needed to work with the speech teacher. My parents believed it and dismissed stuttering as a problem that had been solved. However, occasionally my stutter was still there, and as other students noticed small stuttering and made fun of it, it got worse again. In high school, I again took speech therapy.

“What it comes down to is that I talk too fast. If I consciously slow it down, then I do not stutter. But it takes a very conscious effort, which I really despise because if I’m thinking about slowing down my speech, I’m not thinking about other things (this is the kid whose ADD allows him to process 5 different things at a time – and he loves having this ability). The high school speech therapy did slow down my natural pace, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter to me whether I slow it down or not. I just don’t want to have to think about slowing it down. It seems ridiculous to use developmental energy to slow down my talking when I could be using that energy in better ways. I feel like it makes me think slower to have to consciously talk slower. But if it’s not happening consciously, how fast I’m talking doesn’t affect my thinking.”

Rand no longer worries about his stuttering as long as no one points it out to him, or unless he becomes stuck on a word for more than five seconds. When I mentioned that I could barely detect a stutter as we were talking, but brought it up because of the palpability of the problem earlier, he explained, “It doesn’t happen anywhere near as often now that I have matured and am more confident about what I am saying. I rarely stutter when I am teaching or giving a speech, and I consciously slow down when I am working one to one with a foreign student.” I don’t think he had consciously slowed down his speech with me, but his confidence and maturity were clearly evidenced in his smooth flow of talking. And this was a confidence in himself, not just in mathematics – his area of expertise.

Modeling for Young Learners

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself. —John Dewey

Smart children are evident from the day they are born. You notice it in their eyes. They look at you with an alertness that astounds you. You were told a baby couldn’t focus, but this child seems aware of everything around her. Those eyes are so penetrating that it feels like she has a wisdom a baby just plain can’t have. But she does. You are observing genetic attributes. Genetics is one factor in determining how smart a child is.

As your baby grows, you notice he exhibits natural traits that seem different or more advanced than they appear in other children. Those traits may include:

  • Is alert or keenly observant
  • Is highly curious
  • Is intense
  • Is highly sensitive
  • Sees the funny as well as the serious sides of things
  • Asks questions
  • Makes connections, or puts things together in new ways
  • Learns with ease, or masters new skills quickly
  • Has an extensive vocabulary
  • Thinks abstractly.

But, nature alone will not ensure your child will grow up smart. No matter how smart she is at birth, education (or nurture) is the key to her development. Researchers have found that potential talent cannot be realized unless it is valued in the child’s environment.

The cliche, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” is true when it comes to being smart or talented. Parents and grandparents can nurture the characteristics you started observing on day one. Children learn by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to an infant establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon he will be able to read to you. You can then introduce him to more complex literature by selecting books to read that he can understand and discuss, but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, his personal growth may signal that the oral reading years are coming to an end. When that happens, he can tell you the books he would like you to read independently as he reads them too. Thus you can still discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading “together” for years to come.

If you are curious and ask lots of questions about the world around you, your young child will be encouraged to ask questions too. Don’t feel you always need to have the answers. You don’t want to model knowing it all. The curious child is full of “why…?” and “what if…?” questions. Ask her questions that start with “how might we…?” “what would happen if…?” “suppose…?” or “what are all the ways you can think of…?” to stimulate a variety of thoughts and responses.

If you are posing questions, you are talking with your child. If you are reading with him, you are talking with him. When you talk with your child in these ways, you are modeling the kinds of things that are important to you, and you are building his vocabulary and knowledge base. Studies of  language development in children from birth to age three have demonstrated that the more parents talked with their children, the faster their vocabularies grew and the higher their intelligence scores. Early language acquisition builds the foundation for comprehension upon which all later learning experiences are added.

The modeling experience involves doing many things together—reading, talking, listening, exploring, thinking, wondering, laughing, and even crying together.

I was deeply touched when my friend Nancy sent me photos of her reading to her grandchildren’s classes. Not only does it reinforce for me the importance of the message of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” but it shows Nancy being that model, not only for her own grandchildren, but for their classmates as well. Thank you Nancy for joining me in spreading the word that it is good to read, explore, question, imagine; listen, talk, and wonder. Thank you for joining me in sharing the message, “It’s good to be smart!”

Smart and ADD

I’m on vacation in the Caribbean, but I got to talking with someone about adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I don’t think I’ve written much if anything on ADD or ADHD on this blog, so here goes – the story of Rand.  He was identified with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and struggled in school because he looked at the world in a different way. As an adult, Rand thinks his ADD has made him the creative and productive thinker he is today.

Rand’s Story

Rand’s parents were essentially the only people who recognized his talent when he was little. Because he had trouble paying attention and didn’t perform well when he went to school, Rand remembers, “The teachers didn’t think I was smart. I tested well, but the school chalked it up to being a fluke. My parents recognized that something had to be wrong, so they took me to a psychiatrist who identified ADD. With the help of professional knowledge, treatment, and medication, they were able to get me into more advanced math classes. The teachers didn’t favor this decision but complied with it. A few teachers believed in me, but most viewed my distractibility and my different learning style as signs that I was not as intelligent as others.”

Rand talked with me about his differences at age 25, elaborating on their effects on his life as an adult, and the implications they have for children. He says he doesn’t ordinarily tell people he has ADD until he knows them fairly well. “First, I don’t consider it a disorder. Second, people generally associate ADD with hyperactive adolescents. I recommend the book Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John R. Ratey, M.D., for those who want to understand more about ADD. ADD in adulthood is no different than it was in childhood, except that adults have [often] learned coping mechanisms and thus handle it better.

“I have what is now called ADHD, but without the hyperactivity. I think about that a lot. To say that I have no hyperactivity is actually wrong. If you look closely, you will notice that I am fidgeting. I always fidget, but I am not noticeably hyperactive. This is why at first they didn’t think I had ADD or ADHD, whichever you want to call it. It’s even harder for girls to be identified because they often don’t show the hyperactive signs.

“Calling ADD or ADHD an attention deficit is misleading. Actually I have too much attention. For example, if I am reading a student’s paper, I will be focusing so closely that when someone says something, I’ll jump sky high. It’s called hyperfocusing, which means you can get a lot done because you’re not focusing on anything else. It also makes you impulsive. You can get stubborn about going down a blind alley. So, hyperfocusing is a two-way street. Sometimes it irritates others or blinds you to tasks you should be doing. At other times the focusing works advantageously.

“The flip side of hyperfocusing is distractibility. When this trait is working well it is akin to free association. I can connect A to B when they don’t appear to be related. Because you are thinking about so many things at once, you are able to connect things that no one else sees. I always have about five different threads of thought in my mind; if I am working on a math proof, I’ll have three threads of thought working on the proof itself, one working on what I’m trying to prove, and one finding the problems with what I’m doing. It’s parallel processing. People with ADD understand this, but people without it usually can’t relate at all. This trait has been very helpful to me.

“If somebody told me now that they could take away my ADD, I wouldn’t do it. My medication helps me control the negative effects. I like my ADD as long as it is being controlled. I don’t know anyone else who is able to think about five things simultaneously. I like being able to hyperfocus too. I like being able to control when I do what, and that’s what my medicine helps me to do. ADD has its great sides, as well as its bad. Creativity is one of the largest positives.

“There is a closer relationship between creativity and logic than most people understand. I do a lot of logic. But I follow the chains of logic so far that my conclusions don’t look rational to a lot of people. I put things together that they have not been able to link, because they couldn’t go far enough to discover those links. Logical thinking incorporates creative thinking. My research specialization within computer science has to do with logic.”

Thinking back to childhood, Rand continued, “Throughout my childhood, I had to have the guts to tell everyone, ‘You are wrong! Just go away and leave me alone.’ My parents aren’t included in the ‘everyone.’ If they had been, I don’t know what would have happened to me. If I had listened to ‘everyone,’ I would have been in danger of becoming what they thought I was or should be.

“Now, it’s not everyone that I have to convince of my abilities. People sometimes say, ‘How did you do that! It’s strange, but if it works, okay.’ I have the credentials and confidence to prove that I know what I’m doing, and people believe me.

“What I really like,” he continued, “is finding people who don’t think they are good at something, but they really are. My discussion sections are almost always informal so that students will know they can talk with me individually. I have done my best not to listen to others when they said I was not smart. I knew I was, and I stuck by my convictions regarding my own abilities. In my life, when I believed in myself, good occurred. When I didn’t believe in myself, life was not so good. Recognition and support of ability and accomplishment raises any individual’s self-esteem, and that in turn can change society. Just think of Einstein. He was told as a child that he was not good at math. If Einstein had believed that, there would be no Einstein as we know him, and our world would be different—and not for the better. You can’t tell who is going to have what potential. If you pass any child up, you may be missing an Einstein.”

Rand advises young students who have what may be considered a disability:

  • Accept that you are not like everyone else and be happy about it. Who wants to be like everyone else anyway?
  • Don’t listen to others when they tell you you’re not smart. It doesn’t matter what they think. It just matters what you think.
  • There are going to be difficult days, but you will survive them.

For parents he adds, “When you ask a school for accommodations, don’t take no for an answer.”

Young Learners

I dreamed of influencing new generations of motivated learners when I wrote “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart.” At book signings as well as readings like those with my grandson’s preschool class, I realize that is beginning to happen. This little girl epitomizes what the book is about. She is joyous; she breathes enthusiasm for learning. When I first saw her, her eyes were sparkling with awe as she gazed at all the mechanical devices and aerial fantasies that decorate Ella’s Deli on East Washington Avenue in Madison. Her mother tells me she was excited to meet a real author AND to have me write her name and my name in her own book. This little girl, and my grandson and his friend as I read to them in Lafayette, Colorado two weeks ago, demonstrate the wonders of early learning. Their curiosity, motivation and  awe – for books, the outdoors, meeting people, and exploring the world – delight me.