10 Things Ender’s Game Teaches Us About Kids & Education

We went to Ender’s Game over the weekend and during the movie I couldn’t help thinking about how Ender’s Battle School compares to public education in the US. Examinations of morality aside, governments in Ender’s Game made a strategic decision that the survival of the human race depended on gifted children with a superior and specific education. They then heavily invested in a school and a program designed to find and maximize the potential of these children.

Here are 10 lessons about kids and education we can learn from Ender’s Game:

  1. Don’t get bogged down in trying to fully acknowledge that all students are gifted in their own way. Instead, make some hard calls as to what skills and talents will be needed most in the future and pour resources into those areas and those students. Our lack of funding better math and science programs, especially in elementary school and middle school, is appalling.
  2. Start young. Young minds can absorb a great deal of information and we should be giving young kids complex information about all subjects, not dumbing things down to what we think they can handle.
  3. Let kids work at their own pace and accelerate them as they show ability and potential.
  4. Allow kids to fail, to feel the disappointment, and to learn from those failures.
  5. Kids are resilient yet still need someone to confide in, support them, and push them in order for them to fully reach their potential.
  6. Do not underestimate the importance of hardships, including negative social interactions, in shaping determination and character. However, as kids are left alone to work things out themselves, adults should watch from a distance and be ready to step in to prevent irreparable harm.
  7. Book learning isn’t enough. Students must be able to create, build, and interact with things in real life in order to fully internalize and cement learning. We need to increase funding for hands-on classes in science, programming, design, and industrial arts.
  8. Interactive computer games are a powerful tool that cannot be ignored. Advice to limit students’ screen time is antiquated. We should be far more concerned with positive and negative modes of thinking and brain pathways that are reinforced through these games. Instead of merely entertaining, games should be designed to strengthen growing brains in positive ways.
  9. Students that challenge the authority of teachers should not be automatically punished. The defiant student may be an innovative genius in the rough.
  10. If we want superior schools, we need to make a serious investment in them. Educational spending needs to be increased.

The Book on Autism & Education You Need to Read

Temple Grandin’s new book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, is a must read for educators, parents, and anyone concerned about how our society is dealing with the huge increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses. Published this spring it incorporates current research and thinking about autism.

Throughout her life, Temple Grandin has seen and lived through our changing ideas on autism and how to treat those afflicted with it. The medical profession still does not fully have a handle on it as evidenced by the newest version of the Diagnosis Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association which redefines what it means have ASD yet again. This controversial change will in all likelihood, reduce the number of children with clinical diagnoses and may limit their ability to get services.

The book combines extensive information on autistic brains with a plea to the parents and educators of kids with ASD to stop defining them by their disability. A few items that really stood out to me:

  • Based of current neural research, what a neurotypical person feels when someone won’t make eye contact is what a person with autism feels when others do make eye contact and visa versa. Kinda gives a whole new perspective on why kids with ASD don’t like to look you in the eye.
  • Through ever more sophisticated brain scans of younger and younger children, scientists seem to be on the verge of knowing how autistic brains develop differently. Geneticists are also picking apart how different mutations and their combinations may contribute to autism. This is going to be an exciting area to watch over the next 10 years.
  • Historically, we have defined and treated autism by what it looks like from the outside rather than what it feels like on the inside. The result of this is that parents, educators, and the medical profession have downplayed the importance of sensitivities. What if the autistic behavior that we are trying so hard to change is actually a perfectly normal and rational response to how the autistic brain amplifies and processes what neurotypicals experience as benign stimuli? If this is indeed the case, modifying the exterior environment might be the most effective way to change undesirable autistic behavior. As an aside, since many gifted people have sensitivities, Ms. Grandin’s advice on how to deal with them may also be helpful for the gifted community.
  • There are probably 3 types of thinkers and these types manifest themselves differently in neurotypical and ASD brains:
    • Visual Object Thinkers: people who think in pictures.

Picture thinkers like hands-on painting, cooking, and woodworking type activities and they are being horribly let down by our schools as curriculum changes emphasize reading and writing at the expense of classes like drafting and shop.

    • Visual Spacial Thinkers: people who think in patterns.

Pattern thinkers think about the way things fit together and can picture objects in their minds and imagine manipulating them in space. these people are frequently musicians and mathematicians. They may be behind in reading but way ahead in math. Schools must allow them to work ahead in math to improve their school success and confidence.

    • Verbal Thinkers: people who think in words and facts.

Verbal thinkers are easy to spot and, except in math, may have a big advantage in our reading and writing oriented public school system.

  • Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success

It is vitally important that we start defining kids by their strengths instead of their disabilities. Ms. Grandin laments the fact that the current generation of kids diagnosed with ASD are too quick to talk about their limitations. Sadly she feels that today’s gifted kids on the autism spectrum will not reach the same career heights as the Silicon Valley innovators. This is because we have diagnosed them with a disability and then let that disability define them instead of discovering, calling attention to, and nurturing their strengths.

Temple Grandin’s job advice for kids on the spectrum:

  1. Don’t make excuses
  2. Play well with others
  3. Manage your emotions
  4. Mind your manners
  5. Sell your work, not yourself
  6. Use mentors

Our society greatly benefits when people with complementary ways of thinking design our products and systems. Autistic minds have strengths not seen in neurotypical minds and the collaboration between different types of thinkers creates an end product that is greater than what any one type of brain can imagine.

Forget Potential, Nurture Passions

Today as Twitter goes public, it seems right to take a step back and reflect on how a company like Twitter reaches this level. Despite their lack of profits, they are the most anticipated IPO since Facebook began trading last year.

Many companies have great potential, yet only a few become common household names with worldwide recognition. While luck and timing undoubtably play a role, perhaps a more important factor is passion. Having a vision, believing in your ideas, and feeling strongly enough about your goal that you are willing to put in the time and effort to work through setbacks and adversity, is a necessary component for achieving great success.

Too often in business we focus on the bottom line and the day-to-day. While mission statements try to define a purpose, they cannot by themselves create a zealousness for putting in the extra effort needed to take a company to the next level. That type of energy bordering on fanaticism must come from within. People put time and energy into their passions in a way that is unsustainable in an ordinary job. Frequently this enthusiastic effort doesn’t even feel like work.

Our country and our economy needs passionate entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators. We need our best and our brightest to discover what fascinates them and run with it. Too often though our educational system does just the opposite. In gifted education and literature we focus on making sure students are meeting their potential. We design gifted services to provide identified students a chance to work at a higher level in adult-defined academic subjects. We expect our gifted students to excel in math, reading, and science and we teach them and test them to ensure they are living up to their potential.

Yet, ability and potential does not automatically equate to success in the business world. Yes, being smart can help you pick up on new concepts, but gumption, knowledge, and experience are far more important over the long haul. Instead of merely worrying about whether students’ grades and test scores properly reflect their IQ tests, we should support their unique interests. Instead of just signing them up for yet another enrichment class, we should take the time to listen to what is important to them and find opportunities for them to pour energy and effort into what moves them.

If we want to create enthusiastic innovators, we need to stop worrying so much about whether gifted students are working to their potential and instead help them discover and nurture passions.


Critical Chain Project Management for Gifted Education

I’ve been reading up on formal project management methodologies and I’m starting to view many things through the project management lens. This has led me to wonder if perhaps some of the problems we see in public education could be addressed by using a different method of managing the project of education.

Like all projects, cost, resources, time, quality, risk, and scope constrain public education.

As we have added more and more educational requirements and standards to the teaching load, we have increased the scope Project Constraintsof public education.This scope increase has occurred during a time of budget cuts so the cost and resources available have gone down and the time spent in school has stayed the same. Predictably, this has decreased public education quality while increasing the risk that our student are unable to compete globally. Because public polices and checks on education have focused exclusively at the risk to students below average, the gifted students have suffered the most. If we define a successful education as one where students learn at their maximum ability level, our highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, and profoundly gifted students have a very high risk of not being successfully educated.

While obvious solutions include increasing funding and lengthen the school year, political constraints make those ideas virtually impossible to implement. Besides, by themselves they won’t solve the problems with public education. Instead we need to look at how we are managing the project of public education. To the extent that we are managing it at all, we seem to use a traditional critical path management method.

In public education, students begin in kindergarten and steadily learn their education tasks in a rigidly defined sequential order until high school graduation. In critical path project management methodology, if a task in the critical path is delayed, the entire project is delayed by the same amount of time. Unfortunately in our public education system, we do not have a good way of delaying the entire educational project. When a student fails to complete an educational task in the allotted time, they end up with permanent gaps in their education, become discouraged, graduate with a GPA that is below their innate potential, or even fail to graduate at all.

The problems with critical path management for the project of public education include:

  1. Grade level educational requirements are based on projected average “optimal” learning and fail to account for resource availability. By setting a learning schedule and then trying to fit all students into that schedule from the beginning, we fail to account for the vast differences in resource availability between the students. These resources can vary with each student throughout their education and include family support, financial stability, educational support, emotional/social security, existing subject knowledge, innate learning ability (giftedness), and available study time.
  2. Student Syndrome. Teachers and students know they have a set period of time to teach specific subjects and concepts.  If the actual learning task will take 5 days of study for the student but the teacher has allocated 10 days, the student will slack off for the first 5 days and only put in effort for the second 5 days. This creates two issues. First, many of our students, especially our gifted students, waste a significant amount of their potential learning time because they are unable to work at their natural pace. Second, if the student guessed wrong and it will actually take them a bit longer to learn a concept, they fall behind.
  3. Bad Multitasking. In critical path management students and teachers work on several ideas and subjects in short periods of time. Teachers must constantly show all students making progress across a wide spectrum of knowledge areas. This leads to the school day being split into multiple, short chunks of subject time which negatively impacts deep learning  — especially during the elementary school years. It can also lead to time being wasted on non-critical learning tasks.
  4. Parkinson’s Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Regardless of the time it may actually take for a class to learn a concept or body of knowledge, the class will work on the subject matter for the length of time the teacher or the school district have blocked out for it on the schedule.

As opposed to critical path, critical chain project management directly addresses many of the above issues. It takes into account that fact that some tasks will take longer than anticipated and others will go faster. It allows any unused “buffer” time to accumulate. The fast tasks balance out the slow tasks enabling the project of educating our students to a certain level to finish on time or early. Switching to critical chain project management for gifted education will allow our top students to excel and if we implement it across the board it has the potential to improve outcomes for all students, without increasing costs or lengthening the school year.

Critical chain public education will enable students to work at their own pace, move ahead when they personally are ready, and focusing in detail on one subject at a time. This will virtually eliminate student syndrome, bad multitasking, and Parkinson’s Law. It also may push us to flip our classrooms. Many computerized educational programs from Aleks to the Khan Academy already are using a critical chain approach to education. In these, students work at their own pace on one educational task at a time until mastery, without regard to a set calendar learning schedule or the mastery level of other students in their class.

We should change how we write educational standards. Instead of stating when students will learn a specific topic, the standards should define the critical chain order of subject mastery. We need to become comfortable with the idea that not all kids learn at the same pace and that there will be wide differences in knowledge. In reality, these wide differences already exist but they are hidden from us in most public schools. We rarely explore the depths of individual student knowledge, we only focus on the specific bits of information in the standards. Critical path education will allow all students, gifted and average, to dive deeply into subjects and even indulge their passions. Within a classroom, one student may spend a year immersed in American history and fulfill multiple “years” worth of requirements in just one year while their classmate may spend the same year focused on math. Similar to college undergraduate degrees, students will know what they must learn for each say, 4-year chunk of education. They will need to show progress each year through standardized testing, papers, and presentations. However, what they learn at any given time and how fast they learn it, is in their control. They can slow down for subjects that are personally confusing and speed up for topics that come to them naturally.

Yes, our gifted students may finish standard materials early, perhaps even years early than other students. This isn’t a negative. Our schools should maximize the potential of all students, not just educate everyone to the same, generic level each school year. By defining a critical chain of educational requirements, letting students know what those requirements are, and letting students work at their own pace through those requirements, we will improve educational outcomes for all our students.



Crack for Lunch: Tricking Our Brain with the American Diet

We all know Americans have a weight problem. For years we have blamed fat people for their inability to “exercise more and eat less.”  We need to rethink that attitude. Research is now showing that much of the food in the typical American diet does not play fair with our body’s natural mechanisms for signaling satiety. The more we eat, the hungrier we feel.

Scientists are seeing evidence that our processed food, especially the food that is deliciously high in sugar and fat, affects the pleasure centers of our brain in much the same way cocaine does. The food gives us a nice hit of happy endorphins that override our appetite-regulating hormones. Complicating matters is the caloric density of our convenience foods. Normally, as we eat our stomach recognizes both the physical sensation of becoming filled and the more chemical knowledge that calories have refueled us. Our modern, processed food lets us meet and exceed our caloric needs long before our stomachs are physically filled. For example, compare the physical space needed for 500 calories of fresh vegetables vs 500 calories of french fries. Thus craveable processed food pack an obesity encouraging double punch — decreasing our satiety signals while giving our pleasure centers a delightful ping.

Packaged foods, convenience foods, fast food, and school lunches are the top culprits. They leave us paradoxically both hungry and full. They contribute to sluggish afternoons. They decrease productivity at work and learning in our schools.

A quick look at the school lunch menu for my kids’ first week of school shows a highly processed diet of  pizza, popcorn (breaded & deep-fried) chicken, fried french toast sticks with fried tater tots, and pasta. Yes, there are vegetables served as well but they are frequently unappetizing and uneaten. Now I know school lunches are horribly underfunded and they feel they need to fix what kids will eat. However, the inexpensive foods served in school lunches reflect our agricultural policies and the heavy lobbying of the meat and dairy industries, not the nutritional needs of our students. The Department of Agriculture sets our official nutritional policies, not an independent, health and science based entity. Given the emerging science about processed food, this needs to change.

Compelling evidence shows higher levels of meat consumption associated with increased cancer risk and links excess iron to Alzheimer’s disease. According to the documentary Forks over Knives, in the early part of the 20th century, Americans ate 120 pounds of meat (beef, pork and chicken combined), 40 pounds of processed sugar, and 295 pounds of dairy each year. All these numbers have more than doubled and along with them cancers, heart disease, and obesity.

We have known for years that we should eat more vegetable and we as a nation have struggled to do so. Now that we are starting to understand some of the body chemistry involved, perhaps it is no wonder that despite all the obvious health benefits, we can’t eat just one.

Refusing to Trust Our Good Teachers

This week NPR ran a story on Maryland teachers attending summer school academies to learn best practices for teaching to the new Common Core standards. The story focused on a couple basic concepts that are now being emphasized that have the potential to make classrooms in general, more dynamic and interesting for gifted learners. The number of books and stories the students will read each year has dropped. Instead, teachers will push students to delve deeply into longer, extended texts. Instead of explaining upfront the context, influence, and importance of a novel, teachers will hold back and let students discover and work through the text on their own. Then teachers will fill in the gaps after the student have had a chance to think about and struggle with the concepts presented. Complex ideas and themes will be introduced at a younger age.

All of this seems like a great way to teach. Gifted students in particular will enjoy digging in to challenging literature and struggling to define, discuss, and defend themes and meanings within stories. Unfortunately, two glaring problems with the way the Common Core standards are being enacted may doom this latest education reform.

First, we are still treating our students as all equally academically capable. One of our nation’s hallmarks is the idea that anyone can achieve anything. Everyone should have the same opportunities but that does not mean that everyone has the same ability. Each of us knows that vast individual differences exist. No matter how good a school is, no matter how effective the teachers, not all students are capable of the same academic achievements. We ignore this in our setting of academic standards and policies. We have artificially devalued important knowledge, abilities and skill sets that are necessary for our country to grow and thrive and overvalued cerebral labor. Our singular focus on college as the only worthwhile path after high school has blinded us to the needs of students who are not college bound but still require a solid education that will help them succeed in other areas. New standards and rigorous testing will not fix this. Solid manufacturing and blue-collar jobs were a critical component of the successful middle class that strengthened our nation in the mid part of the last century. By honestly recognizing that not every student can or should go to college, we free ourselves to examine how we are preparing all students for the future. We then must confront the insanely warped distribution of income that has evolved over the last 20 years in the US, but that is not for this post.

Second, while I love the idea of encouraging more in-depth examination of subjects, high-stakes standardized testing eliminates most of the intellectual benefit. Learning does not occur in a straight line. Good teachers know that even bright students can struggle at times and there is value in the struggle. Not understanding something right away and being given the space to work through it leads to a better grasp of the material once it “clicks.” Our best teachers know this and will challenge students to try a bit harder, to re-examine their initial conclusions, to think at a deeper level and eventually, to learn more. Much of learning comes from the process of failing and re-trying. We used to give students and teachers the time and space for this to occur but no longer. We are impatient and we want the security of a test that objectively tells us that the teachers are doing their jobs and that the students are learning. The funny thing is that students don’t need to see test results to know if a teacher is exceptional. It is usually obvious during the first hour of the first day. Good teachers have an energy, thoughtfulness, and engagement that is obvious to anyone in their classrooms. Sadly, I feel we have fewer of these teachers than we did when I was a student. Low pay and less respect has pushed potentially excellent teachers into other careers. Dedicated teachers who earn higher levels of education such as masters degrees frequently find themselves priced out of the K-12 market.

Despite all this, there are still excellent teachers in our schools. Teachers driven by a passion that, for now at least, is sustaining them in the face of ever-increasing bureaucracy and unrealistic expectations. Testing is not teaching and our educational policies need to start doing a better job of supporting and trusting our good teachers.



Managing Childhood ADHD Without Drugs: Coursera ADHD Class Week 11

The last couple weeks of the Coursera class on ADHD focused on how to live with and manage ADHD symptoms without drugs. “Pills don’t teach skills” and whether parents of children with ADHD or adults with ADHD embrace the idea of medical therapy, drugs are not the only treatment approach for helping someone with ADHD thrive.

Students with ADHD need support both at home and within their school environment. In fact, the US Department of Education has put together a fairly comprehensive brochure on how to teach children with ADHD. After giving teachers some guidance on how to identify children with ADHD, it has three separate sections on how to help a child with ADHD be successful in the classroom. Although rumors abound about teachers that, subtly or not so subtly,  have told parents to put their kids on ADHD drugs, that isn’t one of the teaching strategies. Instead the pamphlet focuses on instruction techniques, effective behavioral interventions, and classroom accommodations. It suggests a student with ADHD should sit closer to the teacher and farther from distracting kids. Wow, who would have thought? I know some elementary school teachers are resistant to “special” seating “privileges” for students with ADHD, perhaps referencing this official brochure will help parents get the seemingly minor accommodations their children need. Multiple times the brochure makes the point that children without ADHD also thrive in classrooms that are structured to help children with ADHD. Basically, these are strategies that can help any teacher be more effective regardless of the makeup of their classroom in any given year.

At home, one of the most effective treatments for children with ADHD is teaching their parents better behavior management strategies. By acknowledging that their child has below age-level-norm organizational, self-control,  and coping skills, parents can structure the home environment with scaffolding supports to help the child succeed despite their ADHD symptoms. There are several different training programs for parents. Most have similar elements: stay calm and don’t get emotional, analyze what is working and what isn’t, rely on planning and praise to gain compliance, go to the child to give instructions — use eye contact and touch to get child’s attention before giving instructions, break large tasks into smaller ones, use labels, file cards, and other visual cues and organizers to make tasks less daunting, reduce time delays for consequences (positive and negative), and use warnings, “when-then”, token economies and time outs to guide behavior. Work with the child to create better habits and more effective behaviors. If the child is encouraged to help evaluate the results of the program, it can increase their commitment and desire to change.

One comprehensive parent behavioral training program covered in some detail was one developed by Russell Barkley. Dr. Barkley has written extensively about executive function, defiant children, and how to take charge of ADHD. Putting the effort into learning how to be a better parent for a child with ADHD is very worthwhile. Studies show that not only do children do better with more effective parenting, parental stress is also decreased and satisfaction is increased under these programs.

Adults with ADHD face slightly different challenges than kids with ADHD. Some of these challenges stem from the bad habits and/or negative thought patterns that can develop over a lifetime of living with ADHD. My next post, and the last in this series, will cover psychosocial treatments for adults with ADHD.

The Grown-Up Gifted Child

Recently I have been re-reading one of my favorite books on living with and raising gifted children, the award-winning, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children. Early in the book there is a table that lists, “Problems Associated with the Characteristic Strengths in Gifted Children.” As I was reading this list again I realized, I know these people. The funny thing is, they aren’t kids anymore.

When gifted kids grow up they don’t usually age-out of their gifted passions, strengths, intensities, and quirks. They may learn to act in a more socially acceptable manner and they, hopefully, gain a measure of perspective and self-discipline that they lacked as children. However, the essence of who they are and how they are different stays intact. One of the big arguments in favor of programs exclusively for gifted students is that they aren’t just bright. Their brains are wired differently and while, yes, they can complete typical school work at an accelerated pace, that isn’t what defines them. They are more passionate, sensitive, and intense. Merely completing the lesson plan isn’t enough. They want to go beyond the lesson plan, or alternatively, question its basic worth. They are more driven by deeper meanings and philosophical questions than other students their age. This can make them an under-achieving, dejected, argumentative, moody pain in the wrong classroom environment or the engaged, high-performing, thoughtful student in the right classroom environment.

The same is true once they grow up. Just look at the a few of the strengths and associated issues they can create as detailed in the book.

Strength Possible Problem
Acquires and retains information quickly Impatient with slowness of others; dislikes routine and drill; may resist mastering foundation skills; may make concepts unduly complex
Ability to conceptualize, abstract, synthesize; enjoys problem-solving and intellectual activity Rejects or omits details; resists practice or drill; questions teaching procedures
Enjoys organizing things and people into structure and order, seeks to systematize Constructs complicated rules or systems; may be seen as bossy, rude, or domineering
Thinks critically; has high expectations; is self-critical and evaluates others Critical or intolerant toward others; may become discouraged or depresses; perfectionistic
Creative and innovative; likes new ways of doing things May disrupt plans or reject what is already known; seen by others as different and out-of-step
Intense concentration; long attention span in areas of interest; goal-directed behavior; persistent Resists interruption; neglects duties or people during periods of focused interest; seen as stubborn
Sensitivity, empathy for others; desire to be accepted by others Sensitivity to criticism or peer rejection; expects others to have similar values; need for success and recognition; may feel different and alienated
High energy, alertness, eagerness, periods of intense efforts Frustrated with inactivity; eagerness may disrupt others’ schedules; needs continual stimulation; may be seen as hyperactive
Diverse interests and abilities; versatile May appear scattered and disorganized; becomes frustrated over lack of time; others may expect continual competence

In the work environment these possible problems can limit opportunities, cause issues with HR, and possibly lead to terminations. Perhaps this is why many gifted individuals become entrepreneurs. As their own boss they can find the best way to work with their strengths.

In relationships, when the innate characteristics of gifted boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses go unrecognized, unrealistic expectations from both parties can poison the partnership.

Gifted individuals need to understand themselves and how they may differ from others at home and in the workplace. Self-knowledge of natural strengths and how they can become liabilities is essential to long-term happiness and fulfillment. This information guides the grown-up gifted child in working through misunderstandings and frustrations with their significant others, at home. At work, it enables them to increase their productivity, improve relationships, and perhaps even realize when their current work place is just a bad fit and it is time to move on.

Developing self-awareness in gifted students is one of the primary goals of quality programs for the gifted. It is also one that is virtually impossible to reach when gifted “programs” consist primarily of accelerated, in-classroom, differentiation. The farther away from the mean a student is, the more likely it is that her strengths will cause her issues at some point in her life. Gifted educators need to mentor their students on how to live in and thrive in the regular world as a highly, profoundly, or exceptionally gifted individuals.

Is it really ADHD? Coursera ADHD Class Week 8 – Assessment

More and more kids in the US have ADHD. This has led many to feel that we are over-diagnosing kids that have other issues, or are just a bit slower to mature, with a psychiatric disorder where none exists. Others argue that we are diagnosing and then medicating students whose only “disorder” is being anti-authority. It reminds me a bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In his ADHD Coursera course, Dr. Rostain makes a strong point that the diagnosis criteria are solid and if applied correctly, will not over-diagnose ADHD. A complete evaluation for a child that shows signs of ADHD involves many steps, checks, and a full case history. Unfortunately, in most cases, this complete workup is not done because it is too time-consuming and expensive. Instead, a couple quick surveys filled out by frustrated parents and teachers and your child too can get a prescription for ADHD “study” drugs.

A complete ADHD assessment includes interviewing both the parents and the child and looking at:

  • Identifying key symptoms
  • Tracking the developmental course of those symptoms and the corresponding concerns
  • Conducting clinic-based psychological tests
  • Complete review of prior school and medical records
  • Complete physical and possibly neurodevelopment screening to rule out other causes of disruptive/distracted behavior
  • Vision, hearing, and formal speech and language assessments
  • Individually administered IQ tests, educational achievement tests, and screening for learning disabilities
  • Differentiating ADHD from other disorders
  • Clarifying the developmental “inappropriateness” of those symptoms and concerns
  • Look for other causes of the symptoms including changes or stressful situations at school and/or home
  • Checking on sleep patterns. Lack of sleep mimics ADHD.
  • Evaluating co-morbid conditions
  • Determining the degree of impairment
  • Assessing the family situation and how they are adjusting and accommodating the child’s behavior
  • Identifying strengths and resources of the child and the family
  • Eliciting priorities for change
  • Identifying community resources

Most of the time all of the above is not done. Having gone through the diagnosis process in our family, I know it was much more straightforward. I just noted that I thought ADHD might be an issue, filled out a couple of surveys that were highly subjective, and presto, we had Ritalin. Since then we have let the prescription lapse. It seems that being in a better educational environment is more effective than drugs for producing happy, productive kids. There are many reasons why a child has high-energy and is easily distracted. If a highly gifted student is in a classroom that is moving too slowly, of course she may be distracted and not paying attention. If a profoundly gifted boy has a third grade teacher that is only covering science at the third grade level and he “corrects” her by pointing out inaccuracies in her explanations, is that a psychiatric disorder?

One of the most used surveys to assess ADHD impairment is the Vanderbilt Assessment Scale. Almost all the questions from the teacher survey can be answered positively when a child is highly or profoundly gifted and is in an inappropriate school environment, but does not have ADHD. If independent IQ testing isn’t part of the screening process, a child could be incorrectly diagnosed and medicated when all he or she needs is a more challenging class. Yes, the teacher survey does include questions about whether the child is above average or not in reading, math, and writing but again, if the gifted, bored child isn’t doing the classroom work, the teacher will probably not rank his “academic performance” as above average. This is one of the reasons SENG has started to heavily publicize the issue of misdiagnosis of gifted kids. Two of the top misdiagnoses of gifted and talented children are ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). ODD is frequently co-morbid with ADHD and these misdiagnosis are due to a basic level of ignorance among health professionals and teachers about normal social and emotional characteristics of gifted kids. The medical profession pathologizes that which is uncommon, even if it is just a different normal.

Refocus on High-Stakes Educating, Not Testing

This morning in Minnesota, participating McDonalds offered a free breakfast to students in grades 3-11. Today is the first day of the high-stakes Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) and McDonalds was doing their part by trying to ensure students weren’t testing with the added distraction of empty stomachs.

In New York, students, parents, and teachers are especially stressed about testing this spring because their public schools have decided to test students on the new Common Core Standards, even though the standards have not yet made it into the curriculum. New York students will be tested on material they have not yet learned in class. This has led to after school and weekend test cram sessions which include test drills and the teaching of anxiety relief techniques. Formal test cram schools are thriving.

The Common Core Standards are specifically designed to make US students more competitive in the global economy. Especially when compared to other countries, we are still a nation at risk, ranking just 17th in the developed world for education. By testing students on the standards before they are incorporated into the curriculum, New York will know the weaknesses within their public education system. Hopefully they will use the information wisely.

Over the last several years, policy initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, have tried to improve US education and have widely missed the mark. We now have a competition between schools and school districts. We have allowed the results of high-stakes testing to determine distribution of the very limited resources allocated to education. We have rewarded schools and their administrators when their students performed well on the tests and punished them when the students performed poorly. This predictably has led to disturbing test cheating scandals and not much, if any, improvement in the actual education of US students.

We need to go back to the beginning to remember why we even have a public education system in the US. It is there to make us a better, more effective, more economically successful country. Your school, school district, and state is not, or should not be competing against my school, school district, and state for limited federal education dollars and resources. We, all of us, are competing against the world. Our students need to hold their own against students from Finland, South Korea, and Japan. We need testing to keep us honest about how we are doing compared to schooling around the world, not to pit schools against each other. The tests are more an indication of what is going on with our students, not our schools. Several factors influence results on standardized achievement tests including what is taught in school, a student’s innate intelligence, and a student’s out-of-school learning. Only one of these is under the control of teachers and schools.

In order to truly improve our schools globally we need to refocus on educating, not testing and:

  • Replace locally chosen tests with national standardized tests — ensuring that all students across the country are taking the same tests at the same time. Similar to administration of the Explore, ACT, and SAT tests. We must recognize that testing is not teaching and also limit the number of test and test prep days in a school year to less than 3.
  • Sever the ties between test scores and school funding, teacher salaries, and administrator salaries.
  • Recognize that hunger, poverty, stressful environments, and lack of upward mobility in the US contributes to poor educational outcomes. If we want to do better as a country, we need to stop viewing schools in isolation.
  • Attract better students to the teaching profession by making teaching a higher paid, more intellectually challenging and respected profession. Teaching colleges should be tougher to get into and classes in them more challenging.
  • Create national investigative teams to study schools and communities to determine how to improve educational outcomes. The national test score results will show which communities to study because their students score either significantly above or below the norm.
  • Study what has worked in the top global educational systems and then copy them.

There is no quick fix for the US education system. Nations whose students out perform US students have cultures that value education and teachers in a way that perhaps we do not in the US. We can change this though. The more we understand about student success and effective teaching techniques, the better chance we have to develop globally competitive students.