Category Archives: Parenting for academic success

Visual-Spatial and Twice-Exceptional Learners

In Color Me Purple, in the text box about “Art Smart and More,” I mention that visual-spatial learners may be late bloomers, may not pay attention or follow step-by-step rules, and may not conform to the definition of smart that most people in our society believe in. In other words, they see the world in a different way.

So what does visual-spatial learner mean and who do you know who learns in this way? This question has become very personal to me. When I wrote the book, it was based on children I had worked with through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY), and not about my family. But this year, one of my grandsons has been identified as a visual-spatial learner, and as twice exceptional. It was time for me to delve a little deeper.

First I wanted to read and discuss Color Me Purple with him, one-on-one. My purpose in writing the book was for children from all different backgrounds and with all different kinds of interests and skills to know that smartness or intelligence was not limited to the kids who were identified as gifted because of their reading or math abilities. This was especially important now, because this grandson’s little brother had been so identified in kindergarten and was thriving in school. Yet, year by year the older boy was becoming less and less self-confident and more and more emotional when he thought he was less than “the best” (or whatever his definition of acceptable was) in anything. It helped that he’d now been tested and told by an authority (the psychologist) that he was gifted, yet ongoing reinforcement of what that meant was going to be important.

I also sent his parents to the best authority and book I know on the topic: Upside Down Brilliance by Linda Kreger Silverman. Here is some of what they learned.

Visual-spatial learners think in images or pictures. They “are excellent observers, comprehend holistically—may have sudden ‘Aha’ understanding that leaps over steps—may need translation time to put their ideas into words, and sometimes have word retrieval problems. Their thinking and emotions are intertwined.”

Two things about that definition really struck me in relation to our situation. I already knew about thinking in pictures and many of the other characteristics, but one of my grandson’s increasing problems in school was his need for time to get his very complex thoughts into words, i.e., more time for testing. Another was how his emotional needs were growing exponentially as his thinking he was not smart was spiraling him into turmoil.

What does twice-exceptional mean? I had taught twice-exceptional learners in schools and at WCATY, but now my own grandson was, in a sense, crying out for help. I’d thought he was underachieving, but I hadn’t thought of twice-exceptionality, which Linda Silverman says means gifted with learning disabilities. These are kids who fall through the cracks in school because they perform at or a bit above the norm in school and thus do not qualify for special education support. As we’ve’ve already established, they also don’t qualify for the gifted programs because their high intelligence is right-brained (visual) versus left-brained (auditory) based.

Like Linda Silverman, and I am guessing many if not most of my readers, I am a left-brained learner. I wrote Color Me Purple because I know not all children learn like me, and I want them to have a fair chance to grow up loving who they are and becoming all they can and wish to be. In the fall of 2017 my twice-exceptional grandson will be entering high school. I hope he will be appreciated for his exceptional abilities and that those abilities will be developed as his weaknesses are also being strengthened.

Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

Special Offer for National Parenting Gifted Children Week

National Parenting Gifted Children Week is hosted by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).

 Follow their Blog Tour

Download SENG’s free NPGC Week ebook, The Joy and the Challenge: Parenting Gifted Children.

On June 24, The New York Times reviewed Alexandra Robbins’ “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” in which she states that although adults are proudly admitting their earlier nerd status now that they have achieved success, “there have been surprisingly few trickle-down effects… bullying and exclusion are rampant” (in our schools). She elaborates, “many of the traits that correlate with ‘outsider’ status among high school students — originality, self-awareness, courage, resilience, integrity and passion — reveal themselves as assets later in life.”

The review is less than an endorsement of Robbins’ writing style or message, and I do not agree with the concept of overachievement, the topic and title of her previous book. However, as the reviewer – Jessica Bruder – points out, “None of this dampens the urgency of her broader message. Adults tell students that it gets better, that the world changes after school, that being ‘different’ will pay off sometime after graduation. But no one explains to them why.”

The article concludes that Robbins is “dead on: teenagers need to hear that adolescence ends. And more than that, they need to believe it.”

The point of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” is that for many gifted kids, the teenage years are too late for this message. That is why they don’t believe it. Grandma says start telling them that it’s good/cool to be smart early on. Starting in infancy and toddlerhood, smart and gifted children need to feel good about their abilities and have that message reinforced every time an unfortunate incident of name-calling, bullying, or negative peer pressure to hide who they are and what they know occurs.

In honor of SENG’s National Parenting Gifted Children Week, I am offering a special price for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart.” Start your little ones on a path to believing in themselves and their talents at an early age. Go to the “Contact Ellie Books” page of for details on how to order.

Early Learning: Not a Fast Track to Kindergarten or College

On May 13, one month to the day after psychologist Sharyl Kato and I did a presentation for our 500-member Rotary Club on early learning in honor of “Week of the Young Child,” The New York Times printed an article entitled, “Fast-tracking to Kindergarten?” I certainly hope, and believe, that our audience knew that Sharyl and I were suggesting no such thing. To say this article is disturbing to me is putting it lightly. From this blog, it is clear that I am someone who believes in the importance of early childhood learning, so why am I loathing what I read? Because it tells the story of a 3-year old child being reprimanded by a teacher for sloppy writing. Because the children in these preschools are being forced to learn, sitting with workbooks, and being given homework. “Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said a leader of one of these organizations that tutor small children. He continues, “If they’re out of a diaper and can sit still … for 15 minutes, we will take them.”

I’m glad my point of view was expressed in the article by  Kathy Hirsh- Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and the author of “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.” Kathy states, “When you’re putting blocks together, you’re learning how to be a physicist.” When you’re learning how to balance things and calculate how tall you can make your building, you’re learning how to be a physicist. Having your kid drill and kill and fill in worksheets at 2 and 3 and 4 to the best of our knowledge so far does not give your child a leg up on anything.”

Some people, thankfully not too many that I personally know, get the wrong idea that because I wrote a picture book entitled, Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart, I am promoting ‘pushing’ young children to learn. If you look at the illustrations in the book and listen carefully to the message, it’s clear that I am in Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s camp. Early learning is about talking, exploring, experimenting, imagining, asking questions, and doing all the things that just come naturally. A child in the book dances with her imaginary friend. A boy builds with his erector-set-like blocks. He hangs upside down from a tree. She imagines horses flying through the sky. Grandma asks them what if.. and other open-ended questions.

Early learning is about reading with your children, and sharing a love of books. It’s about catching young children in the act of noticing something they love and encouraging their curiosity about the world around them. It is encouraging their questioning with more questions as well as a search for answers. It’s helping them to dream about all the things they can be when they grow up and knowing that they can follow those dreams.

Early learning is not a fast-track to kindergarten or college. It’s about establishing a life-long love of learning. I’m not against early admission to kindergarten or college if it’s right for the  individual child. But early learning is good for all children. Learning to value their talents and abilities is good for all children. Realizing that learning is fun is good for all children. Fast-tracking is good for some. Negative feedback, dull workbooks, and sitting still for inappropriate lengths of time is good for none.

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.

Establishing the Habit of Reading

Did you know that 1 in 4 adults did not read a book in the past year? Worse yet, 50% of adults are unable to read an 8th grade level book. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders cannot read at a basic level. Reading statistics are grim.

Children learn to read by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to infants establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon, they will be able to read to you. They can then be introduced to more complex literature if someone simply helps in selecting books they can understand and discuss but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, students’ growth should start signaling that the oral reading years are coming to an end. As a parent, when that happened I independently read books that my sons recommended to me. Thus we continued to discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading ‘together’ until they left the nest. In fact, we still share titles, give each other books as gifts, and discuss mutually-read books today.

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

An interest in books may be encouraged through regular visits to the public library. Some smart children have an inherent respect for books from infancy on. Others need to learn this respect through careful instruction on how to treat a book. You will recognize your child’s natural tendencies and thus be able to guide him or her according to individual needs. Little children develop responsibility, as well as awe for storytelling and knowledge acquisition, by picking out their own books, taking them home, reading them (with and without you), learning to treat them with care, and returning them for another set of tales and experiences.

Although books may be attained at no cost through the library, it is good for the blossoming reader to start developing a personal library as well. Children’s books vary in expense. Books can be purchased at garage sales, book swaps, and used bookstores at a very small cost compared to the value of the investment. The possession of some books that can be called  ‘all mine’  brings deep pride and satisfaction.

However, the National Institute for Literacy points out that many children do not have access to books except through their classroom and school libraries. This is why they encourage caregivers to take on this important role. To summarize, reading with young children as the parent or caregiver is important because it:

  • gives children information on a variety of subjects
  • promotes language development and literacy skills
  • helps increase attention spans
  • raises reading levels
  • promotes relationships.

Parents and students ask questions as we read together

Autistic and Gifted

Every parent of an autistic child should read the books of Temple Grandin and see the movie about her life. While downplaying the autistic child’s need for personal relationships, Grandin  emphasizes their need to be identified as smart. She writes, “Autistic children will remain in their own little worlds if left to their own devices…. People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in. Where they really need help is in selling themselves.” She goes on to explain that it is now thought that Einstein might have had Asperger’s. He didn’t speak until he was three, he silently repeated words to himself, and he didn’t interact with his peers. He did poorly in school until he was sent to a school that allowed him to use his visualization skills. Later in life he told a psychologist friend, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterwards.”

One of the smart, autistic children I worked with is Terra, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in 2nd grade and who is now a graduate student living independently of her family. Terra’s mom, a special education teacher, admits that she wanted only to see Terra’s strengths and not her weaknesses when she was little. She says, “I didn’t want her labeled for her deficits in school. Kids with the learning-disability label are categorized based on their weaknesses. But Terra’s social and sensory deficits became more and more apparent as she approached middle-school age. I knew I needed to get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] with Asperger’s listed. By pretending the issues don’t exist, you are denying the child her full development. You must work on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.”

When Terra was in 7th grade, she took the ACT through Talent Search. She had a phobia against math, and those scores were low, but her English and reading scores were high, a 28 and 27 respectively, compared to a mean of 20 and 21 for college-bound seniors. Her mom sent her to me at WCATY. “My goal in sending Terra,” she reported, “was for her to see herself in relation to smart kids, rather than only in terms of her disability. I wanted to expand her world intellectually and build her confidence, and I hoped that maybe she would find a friend.”

Terra concentrated on the areas she excelled in – art and writing. She did grow intellectually, gained confidence, and made a friend – a close friend.

Her mother advises, “Do not push thoughts of the future on your children with multiple exceptionalities when they are not ready for thinking that far ahead. But do help them to develop their gifts. At the same time, don’t deny their limits. They must know and understand both their weaknesses and their strengths if they are to become all they can be.”

Like all mothers, Terra’s most wanted her child to be happy. “So much is heavy in her life,” she said, “But I can’t make her happy. The best I can do is to keep making connections and hope to get her in the right environment. She sees herself as being from another planet, an alien. Once we get her through high school, maybe the connections in the academic world will work. She is a little professor.”

The connections worked, and this little professor is succeeding in her academic world today!