I have always thought of myself as an “outside the box” kind of teacher. When I taught within the constrains and confines of the public school system I enjoyed the reputation I had as a “renegade” and have fond memories of heated discussions, (including some fist pounding), while sitting on the other side of the principal’s desk. Suffice it to say, I am passionate about education. But more than that, I am passionate about educating.
When I began the journey of homeschooling my own children I felt certain that I could do a great job. I didn’t need to spend tons of money on “how to” books and boxed curricula because I had lots of supplies from my days of teaching elementary school, and so I set out with enthusiasm and confidence. I had experience with all types of learners, experience meeting their needs, and the accolades to prove it. What more could I need?
Enter, my first-born.
I have two gifted daughters but my eldest by far is my greatest teacher. There was a time when I would have phrased that differently. I would have said she was my greatest challenge, or my hard-to-please child. Today, I see things a bit differently though. This story is about her.
When my daughter was younger, she was easy to teach, interested, and motivated to learn, as most young children are. She was also highly verbal and an early reader and early writer. Around age 6 though, her needs changed and it became clear that I wasn’t meeting them. All along, I suspected she was a gifted child and so I had her tested.
My reasons for testing? First of all, I wanted to be sure that I was seeing things correctly. I had identified plenty of ESE students in my career, however, I wanted some validation that I wasn’t looking at her ability through my “mommy glasses”.
I was relieved when I received the test results. The relief was not because my daughter was now officially labeled, but because I now had a reason to explain her often outlandish behavior. You see, it is not uncommon for gifted kids to act out and display all kinds of negative behaviors. My daughter was displaying them all. If one didn’t know better she might have been seen as a kid with ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or even ODD. I am certain that those who might have been witness to her behaviors such as tantruming and throwing herself on the ground in public places, (at an age where this was no longer remotely appropriate), could have concluded that she was a downright disobedient child, and I an indulgent parent; none of which would have been accurate.
This behavior worried me but it took me some time to see the link between it, and the fact that I was not meeting her intellectual needs. You see, intellectual needs of the gifted often go hand in hand with their emotional needs. If a child is being challenged intellectually and feels good about that, then that might translate to them being emotionally even-keeled. And vice versa; if a gifted child is not being nourished at an intellectual level, their emotional life can suffer, as in the case of my daughter.
But let’s backtrack a bit. For several months prior to meeting with the psychologist to have my daughter tested, my husband and I made the decision to curtail all the conceptual information she was receiving. Up until this point we explained every little thing she was interested in, such as how a rainbow is made, to how to keep safe during a lightning storm and everything in between. We realized that we all needed to slow down a bit and help her “get out of her head” and more grounded, and into her body.
We developed a plan based on the Enki Education curriculum that focused on integrating her senses by lots of movement and Brain Gym type activities. I read a lot of fairy tales aloud via Waldorf style and we really enjoyed this time together. This approach seemed to help her immensely, and I am very grateful for having found that program. However, it only seemed to nourish her for a time. Once again she became unsettled.
It was actually a relief to me to realize that my daughter’s behaviors really did have something to do with her feeling intellectually malnourished. At least I could do something about that, right? As much as I was feeling like I had an answer, I was also feeling terrified because now I had to meet her needs, not the needs of a clone of several hundred students I had taught in my past.
To say that I obsessed about meeting this child’s needs would be an understatement. These questions constantly plagued me: What could I do? What resources could I provide? Who could I talk to? What support group could I join? What group of friends would be best for her? Mostly I wondered why meeting the needs of my own daughter seemed to be so difficult for me. After all, I should know how to do this. I work as a homeschool consultant and help parents on a regular basis find effective ways to reach their children. Yet, I was stuck. The advice I was given was to remember that emotionally she is her chronological age. Intellectually, she is about 5 years older. How in the world would I teach middle school material to a first-grader?
I then began to read everything I could find about gifted children and a whole new world opened up to me. I contacted David H. Albert and asked for his advice. My conversation with David was extremely enlightening, and very enjoyable, even if it was a bit embarrassing. He is the one who suggested I dismantle my own “inner school.” See his book Dismantling the Inner School (link below). When I finished talking with David, I realized that I needed to stop making this all about me and my abilities (or lack thereof), but to listen to what my daughter is saying and to help her find resources for her current interests (and obsessions!) Mostly though, what I took away from my conversation with David was that I have spent way too much time thinking about myself, my teaching, and what I can or can’t do, and not enough time noticing what my daughter is trying to tell me. Okay, so David didn’t say it exactly that way, but that’s what I came away from our conversation with (and I think he’d be very happy about that).
Another thing I realized after looking over the previous years is that I had indeed listened to my daughter and acted upon what she was telling me at the time. I backed off the intellectual stimuli when she needed me to; I gave her more when she asked for it, but most importantly I am learning that these needs are in constant flux. They are ever-changing, and sometimes daily.
I am learning, with the help of my daughter, that if I simply observe her and listen to her, she will provide me with all the answers I need. These answers do not come from me, they come from her, and she is not shy about sharing these things with me which is a blessing for the both of us! The trick for me is to notice everything. I can’t rely solely on what she will say. I have to observe her body language too, what she does during play, and what she draws or writes. We did this type of observation of students when I was in graduate school and it was very enlightening and helpful. I’ve read John Holt talk about the benefits of observation as well. I think there is nothing more helpful for learning about your child than simply observing.
Simply sit and observe your child while they are playing or engaged in something they enjoy. It is important that the child does not know that you are observing them. Jot down notes about what your child is doing and how he is doing it. Write down things your child says and the way they are said. Take note of body language. It’s amazing what you will see and notice! Your child can and does speak volumes, sometimes silently. Sometimes, too, your child may simply walk up to you and tell you how you should be facilitating their learning.
I’ll give you a recent example of how my daughter told me point-blank, exactly what she needed. I use the program All About Spelling (AAS). I enjoy this program and even though I know my daughter doesn’t, I was continuing to have her participate anyway. As a public school teacher I despised handing out spelling lists and giving spelling tests on Fridays (but in some schools I had to do it), and I would argue against it, citing scores of research about how this type of learning does not teach a child to spell. Therefore, with my own daughters I use AAS which is similar to the way I taught spelling in my public school classroom, using a multi-sensory approach. To my great surprise, my daughter told me that she would learn to spell better with a list. She went on to remind me that she is really good at memorizing, and if only she had words to memorize it would be much better for her. After my initial shock I realized that she is, (of course), 100% correct. I would not have come to this conclusion on my own because I was still so caught up in my old mantra, “this is way is best because the research says so.”
I am still not going to give her a list of spelling words to be tested on each Friday, but I will incorporate some vocabulary words from whatever topic she’s interested in at the time and let her write her own list if she still wants to.
If you are a parent of a gifted child, just remember that the only thing you can do to continually reach a gifted student (and really any student for that matter), is to ask them, trust what they have to say, and follow through. Never assume that because what they said they were interested in and wanted to do this week will be true next week. Just keep on observing and asking for input.
Today, I no longer call myself an “outside the box” kind of thinker. Today I try not to place myself either “in” or “out of” the box. Instead, I try to be open enough and flexible enough, to follow both of my daughters wherever they may lead me; whether that be inside the box or outside the box, or under the box or somewhere, (hopefully,) where boxes are not even part of the vernacular.
I hope you will join me on this journey of humbling ourselves and learning to listen to our children; for ironically, sometimes the smaller we become, the bigger and better our parenting becomes.