Tag Archives: raising smart children

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!

 

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.”

Can Your Child Read a Menu?

Recently the Madison Urban League shared the trailer for an upcoming film, “TEACHED: A Film about Education in America.” Howard Fuller begins the 3 1/2 minute trailer by pointing out that students of color can now “sit at a lunch counter where they are welcomed, but they can’t read the menu.” To add to the appalling statistics we already know about the achievement gap/the numbers of poor children who end up in prison rather than college, the trailer states: “Of the students [of color] who do graduate it is estimated that 1 in 5 is still functionally illiterate despite the diplomas in their hands.”

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart is currently being reprinted. Having sold 800 copies in the first year, some of them to community centers that serve poor families and provide educational resources to the children, my goal for this third printing is to reach more poor children in Madison, Milwaukee, and other communities. Talking about the text and the whimsical illustrations will encourage not only reading, but also questioning, imagining, and dreaming as well as vocabulary building. Talking is a skill not discussed in the book but one that precedes reading in the developmental process. For poor children, a structured reading setting will introduce vocabulary that they otherwise might not hear at this critical stage of learning. Statistics demonstrate that by age 3, children talk as much, but only as much, as their parents. These same studies point out that while professionals talk an average of 3,000 words per hour with their children, welfare families talk an average of 500 words per hour, with most of those words being in the form of commands.

Michelle Rhee states in the film that 3 good teachers in a row can change the trajectory of development for a poor child. I agree that excellent teachers can have a profound impact. That is what WCATY was all about from day one – 20 years ago! But, starting in kindergarten or first grade is too late and too little. The earlier they talk, the earlier they read, and the earlier they come to realize that there are high expectations for their achievement, the better our children’s chances for success. Let’s join Howard Fuller in addressing the issue of not only welcoming the children to the lunch counter, but assuring they can read the menu.

Link to the trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0k5TF7PJbo