Headed to the SENG Conference

This weekend SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) is holding their annual conference in Milwaukee. Geared toward educators, parents, gifted kids, and gifted adults, the conference is filled with seminars and activities for and about folks in the gifted world.

Although frequently we don’t think of gifted kids as vulnerable, growing up gifted can be difficult. They see the world differently from their age mates and are not always understood or appreciated by their teachers. Add in the asynchronous development which is so common and you get a population that is at risk.

According to SENG, gifted kids can face a wide range of problems including difficulty with social relationships, difficulty with studying and schoolwork, high levels of anxiety, and depression. The SENG annual conference is an effort to get information and tools for helping gifted kids out to the adults who have a direct and indirect impact on the lives of our gifted population.

One of the really cool things about the conference is their programming for gifted kids. Because being gifted, especially being very highly or profoundly gifted is rare, these smart kids can feel different and isolated in their day-to-day lives. If you are in the top 1% or 1/10th of 1%, chances are good that you don’t get much of a chance to hang out with kids like you. The SENG conference brings gifted kids together with two days of programming designed just for them.

So I get to go to seminars while my 9-year-old and my 11-year-old have fun and hopefully make connections with other gifted kids. Now I just have to decide which of the interesting sounding seminars to attend. Stay tuned.

Kids Don’t “Play” Youth Sports

It you are a parent of elementary school kids as I am, you probably have logged more than a few hours on the sidelines of your child’s baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, or other sport. This is part of being a good parent in the US these days — showing up at the games, supporting the team. Participation in youth sports has been steadily growing over the last 20 years. As more kids have joined teams, more parents have been actively participating on the sidelines.

Next time you are at one of your child’s games do an experiment for me, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the game. Don’t worry, your kid and his or her team will be just fine if you aren’t actively watching the action for a few minutes. Just listen.

I tried this last night at my young son’s soccer game and heard an ongoing chorus of “Get in there!” “Attack the ball!” “Heads up!” “_____ Get Back!”  “Blue, Spread Out!”  “Talk to Each Other”  “_____ Pass to ______, He’s Open!”  “Defense!  Come On Defense!”  “Good Try!  Good Try!”  It was positive, constant, and all the voices were adults. This is a first and second grade soccer team. While there are some stand-out players, most of the kids are just learning the game. Technically, the adults aren’t even supposed to keep score. Parents and coaches work together to make sure playing on the team is a positive, educational experience.

We should not confuse this with play. Kids on organized youth teams do not “play” in the traditional child’s play manner. They exercise, they learn rules from adults, they are told where to go and what to do. They are taught to support their team and be good spectators when on the sidelines.

Now close your eyes and remember a time that your kids were truly playing, without any adult direction or interference. Chances are, especially if there was a decent group of kids with mixed ages (a rarity these days), you remember kids creating and perhaps arguing about a set of rules that defined a game that few adults would want to play. You may even remember kids getting bumped and bruised and the group pulling back and re-evaluating (arguing) over how to make the game more fair. You probably also remember an excess of noise. Screaming, laughing, and yelling at each other are all part and parcel of child play.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if at the same time participation in youth sports has been increasing, old-fashioned playground play, without adults present has all but disappeared. Why should we care that adult-run games are taking over child-directed games and play? Kids learn distinctly different things from play than they do from sports. They learn how to create rules and how to modify them when they aren’t working. They have to deal directly with conflicts and learn how to work through them on their own. Generally, kid directly play is much more active with more kids moving at a given time. Kid directed play makes kids highly motivated to pay attention and stay on top of things so that they don’t let their friends down or fail in other ways. This need to pay attention may be critical for proper brain development. There is even evidence that free-form, rough and tumble, kid-directed play can even reduce ADHD.

Last night on the sidelines, my son and one of his teammates kept dropping back, kicking an extra ball between them and even doing some fake karate moves at one another. The drive to play was strong and they were giving their bodies and brains  what they needed. They weren’t however being good team members and before long the coach had them stop, sit down, and watch the game.

Modern Education Reform

Our current educational system is not doing a great job of preparing students for the 21st century. We are trying a multitude of solutions to address this issue. From No Child Left Behind (which is slowly being gutted) to a re-envisioning of how technology can serve students such as Khan Academy.

One of the main issues is that there is little differentiated teaching or learning. Students are all introduced to material at the same time and taught it at the same speed, regardless of how quickly or slowly they pick up on each individual subject. Even with high achieving students, sometimes they may get stuck and need a bit of extra time to really understand a new concept. Our challenge is to create an educational system where each student is able to learn at their own pace, speeding through subjects that come easily to them and being allowed to slow down, take their time, and get additional help with the subjects that they find less intuitive. It seems we are slowly moving toward this new educational model.

As one education expert put it, in most schools, “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself. . . . Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized.”

This would all give me more hope except for one thing. The above quote was from John Dewey, philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, in his book, The School and Society, published in 1900.


Does Michael Jordan Make You Insecure?

Last week’s TIME magazine, dated July 9, 2012, has a multi-page article on Salman Khan and Khan Academy. Our family has used Khan Academy videos to supplement school work for over a year. As Khan Academy has expanded their offerings to include more subjects, exercises, and tracking we have played with the idea of using Khan Academy as the primary material for some subjects.

The entire idea of letting kids learn at their own pace seems to still be controversial. I’m not sure why this is. We as a nation have a huge hangup about difference in academic potential that we do not have when it comes to sports. In sports we love the stand-out players and eagerly pour extra time and resources into those players that we think have the potential to be great. We never worry about whether by helping one athlete succeed we are forcing another to fail. In fact, we frequently feel that having a star player on a team working to their full potential inspires the other players to work harder and reach a higher level than they would otherwise.

American education however, is treated too often as a zero sum game. We feel that resources are so limited that by helping one group of students succeed, especially if they are exceptionally bright, we short-change another group. The TIME magazine article, when addressing the reluctance of educators to let students learn each at their own pace states that, “In the worst case scenario, high-achieving students race ahead while low performers languish.”

How is this a worst case scenario? The sports equivalent would be, “The best high school players of high school “X” all receive full college sports scholarships while the worst players become fat and unhealthy.”  If that happened we would never view it as a worst case scenario. We would applaud and complement the school on the high achievements of their best players and perhaps investigate how we could better server the lower level players.

The article also states that some educators see a risk in letting kids work at their own pace. The risk is, “that two students will reach graduation with very different skill sets. One may have mastered everything from calculus on down while the other made it only as far as algebra.” What exactly do they think is happening now? What do they think is the real harm in some kids knowing calculus and others only algebra? In college and in life people have different interests and bodies of knowledge. If people love what they do, they can achieve success in nearly any occupation. We all know folks without college degrees that are more financially success than some with college degrees. Our country needs to be concerned with equality and fairness in opportunities and stop feeling so insecure about the fact that some of us are more intellectual than others of us.


Last night, I did the dishes, all the dishes, not just the sharp knives and breakable hand washables, for the first time this summer. So we made it not quite a month with the kids taking on the daily responsibility for the dishes.

The kids were tired, watching a movie, and one of them had a friend over for the night. I didn’t want to push them to work when they were comfortably watching a movie with their friends.

I felt guilty interfering with their evening relaxation and taking time away from their friends.

Hmm, what is wrong with this picture? I fear I have been contributing more to our growing nation of indulged children than I thought. Time to step back again and let them have the kitchen, while I settle on the couch with a good book.

Personal Responsibility

Regular readers will know that I’m pushing the kids this summer to develop some new, powerful, personal habits. This push has dovetailed nicely with my increasing awareness that like many US children, mine are not contributing much to the ongoing running and maintenance of the household and are failing to become self-reliant.

Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, suggests that the current generation of US children are perhaps the most dependent and indulged in the history of the world. This topic fascinates and worries me on both a personal level and a societal level. How effective will our kids be in their 20s, 30s and beyond? Will they be the capable, thinking adults that our country will need to get through the 21st Century? While we are striving hard to provide our children with an easy and worry-free childhood, we are bequeathing them a world with crumbling infrastructure, global warming, economic issues, and food pressures that will be anything but cushy. Our kids need to be ready to take on the adult challenges of their generation.

Well, first steps first. This summer in our house the kids are taking care of themselves, their rooms, and some of the basics around the house.  Each of them has personal, daily chores and there are also daily and weekly family chores. They are not being paid for the chores. They do not receive allowances. I am trying to get the idea across that money does not magically appear because they made their beds or did the dishes. That isn’t the way the real world works. The work that must be done to keep a household running is not work that they, or anyone else in the house, gets paid to do. I am also not assigning the family chores — allowing them the opportunity to step up and do what needs to be done without being told. When they have done a family chore they get to sign their name on the chart. (Anyone whose name does not appear with enough frequency will have consequences.)

So far, with reminders from me, most things are getting done. Hopefully by the end of summer they will be more proactive.





The Importance of Task Commitment

Today’s Venn diagram is Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness:

What Makes Giftedness

Professor Joseph S. Renzulli is the Director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut and is one of the most highly respected experts in the field of gifted education.

I came across his Three-Ring Model in a 1985 edition of Education of the Gifted and Talented by Gary A. Davis and Sylvia B Rimm. The basic premise of the Three-Ring model is that gifted persons that make meaningful contributions to society are not just smart. Creativity is important as is Task Commitment.

Of the three criteria, task commitment stands out to me as the one that is most needed in our young people and most difficult to foster. Task commitment is the time and energy spent learning and perfecting skills within a specific area. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, documents the 10,000 hour rule. Across various fields from sports to music to chess to computers to industry, putting in a cumulative 10,000 hours of study and practice is a necessary component for achieving excellence.

In their studies of Talent Development, Bloom and Sosniak have also documented the importance of strong task commitment. In their research, after age 12, individuals who excelled in their fields as adults were spending as much time per week on their talent field as their peers were spending watching TV. This information was published in 1981 before our many choices existed for teenage entertainment. Now our students can watch their favorite shows at any hour on the Internet. They  are in constant contact with their peers through email, texting, and Twitter. A constant stream of “must see” YouTube videos closely tie them into popular culture in real-time. It is far more difficult today than it was in the 70s and 80s for our youth to proactively find the motivation and discipline necessary to put in the time necessary to reach the highest level of accomplishment in their chosen area of interest.

How much time are our talented students wasting on instant gratification and what will be the long-term consequences for them individually and for our society?


Creating Powerful Habits, part 3

This summer I will be working with my three kids to instill some new, healthy habits that will hopefully last a lifetime. We will be testing out the latest research on habit creation. It suggests that to set a pattern of behavior there needs to be a trigger that simultaneously sparks a desire for a specific reward and starts the action pattern to get to the reward. For example, donuts arriving at the office triggers a mouth-watering craving and before you know it, you are half way through your first donut.

The last three weeks I have attempted to set a new habit for myself of jogging first thing in the morning, three mornings a week. I am not a runner and have not been exercising regularly so this is a challenge. Using what I have learned, I first set the schedule and tried to make the behavior pattern as simple as possible. Running clothes are by the bed, the route is set, the time is set. Variables and choices need to be eliminated as much as possible to create a specific habit. The mere process of making a choice is mentally draining and diminishes the will power I need to get out the door and start my run. Habits in a way are the exact opposite of thoughtful choice. We can make a thoughtful choice to create or change a habit but the habit itself is automated.

In my attempt to set this behavior pattern the challenge is getting out the door. Once I am on the path all I need to do is run the pattern. I’m still working on setting the proper reward. Because scent is such a power trigger, I change-up the shampoo and soap in the shower on days when I run. I am also tracking and documenting the runs in detail so I can visually see the pattern I’m creating.

I am highly motivated to set my new jogging habit. I doubt the kids will be personally motivated to create the habits I choose. That means setting a simple behavior pattern and consistent, high value rewards will be key. Although I won’t finalize my choices for new habits to instill until school is out, my short list for all three kids includes:

  • Daily morning exercise and/or stretching
  • Daily morning face washing and application of sunscreen
  • Morning bed making
  • Evening bedroom straightening

Of course each of the above is just an idea. To make them habits the specific behaviors need to be broken down into detailed actions that can be consistently replicated with valuable, self-reinforcing rewards at the end of each habit.

Now here is where it gets interesting when trying to instill lifelong habits in kids. Frequently adults turn to the easy rewards of treats (usually some form of sugar) or money when trying to encourage kids. Our local public elementary schools consistently use candy to encourage the younger kids and then candy and fake money (that can be spent on donated toys and treats) in the older grades. However, in order for a habit to be internalized, I suspect the reward also needs to be internalized. Rewards for habits that last a lifetime need to be rewards that last a lifetime and work for kids living at home, young adults on their own with limited resources, and older adults. Candy is cheap but we really don’t want another generation growing up fat  because they “deserve” the candy bar. Empty calories are not a good reward. While working hard as an adult might lead to more income, it is not something that easily translates into a reliable reward. For instance, I think my run this morning was a $100 effort but I’m still waiting on that reward.

I need to develop rewards that are highly reinforcing for the kids and will last a lifetime. Any ideas?

Attachment parenting and helicopter parenting

The latest Time Magazine story on attachment parenting is creating some buzz probably due to the controversial and a bit disturbing picture they chose for the cover. The article gives a brief overview of attachment parenting and its major founder, Dr. William Sears.

Most of the time, including in the Time article, when people talk about attachment parenting they focus on how mothers parent infants and toddlers. The principles of attachment parenting are that parents, and especially mothers, should interact with their infants and children positively, consistently, and lovingly at all times of the day and night. Attachment parenting pushes breastfeeding and co-sleeping and having the parents (again, usually the mother) available to feed, sooth and comfort the infant 24×7 as required by the infant. While lip service is given to striving for a balance in personal and family life, the clear message is that once a woman becomes a mother, her life needs to revolve around her baby with the baby calling all the shots. Attachment parenting preaches that if the mother does not respond instantly to her baby’s cries for attention and food, the baby may become damaged and have difficulty forming meaningful and loving relationships later in life.

As the infant grows into a toddler, attachment parenting continues to stress that interactions with the child only be positive. If the child is misbehaving, parents are to distract, redirect and strive to understand what the child is trying to communicate with their negative behavior. Parents are to work out solutions with their children instead of punishing the bad behavior. Parents are not to impose their will on children.

What happens then when the infant and toddler raised in a positivity infused bubble goes out into the real world?  The world does not automatically re-arrange itself around each precious child. Like it or not, expectations will exist for the kids to behave even when they are upset. They may have negative consequences for bad behavior. Rules will be created and enforced without the child being consulted. After such a cushy, positive experience for the first few years of life, the child will be in for a rude awakening.

What is the devoted attachment parent to do to protect the child? My guess is that the attachment parents become helicopter parents. If the infant is damaged permanently by being allowed to “cry it out” after the parents have diligently tried everything else (food, diaper change, a cuddle) and need a break, then obviously the elementary school kid will be irreparably harmed if they can’t acquire enough Easter eggs during a hunt and the college student will not survive if their parent doesn’t step in to chat with their professors about their papers and test scores.

Of course on the surface this is ridiculous. Humans have thrived for generations with children being raised with clear expectations and enough freedom to succeed and fail on their own. The science on attachment parenting is at best a hodgepodge of research combining the rather obvious negative effects of extreme neglect with some studies on parent-child bonding in late elementary school and middle school. Attachment parenting is not the only way to create a parent-child bond and the attachment parenting proponents seem are sensationalizing research and preying on parental guilt.

The ideas of attachment parenting have become ubiquitous in parenting literature since Dr. Sear’s, The Baby Book was first published in 1992. Over the last 20 years there has been a growing social experiment with attachment parenting. Now the first wave of children raised by mothers and fathers practicing this extreme version of parental nurturing are in college and the work force and the picture is no longer quite so positive.

There is growing evidence that children of overly involved parents suffer from insecurity, a lack of independence, anxiety, depression, poor problem-solving skills, low confidence, and poor self-esteem. These are the young workers that can’t think on their own and need enthusiastic praise all the time, even for minor efforts. Since they have never been allowed to discover they can survive failure, they are terrified of it. Scared of disappointing themselves and others they are unable to embrace their lives as independent adults. It is time to start acknowledging the possible negative effects of attachment and helicopter parenting and bring expectations, consequences, and balance back into our family lives.




Creating Powerful Habits, part 2

Knowing we have a responsibility to help our kids develop good habits begs the question, which good habits?

The list of habits we can instill runs the gamut from regular toothbrushing to standing to the side when the elevator first opens. It is impossible for us to foster all good habits so we much choose the most effective ones that will have the greatest impact.

According to Paul O’Neill of Alcoa and others in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, in businesses there are certain keystone habits that can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits can work the same in individuals. So which habits are keystone habits?

Keystone habits that research has shown trigger other good habits include:

  • regular exercise
  • eating dinner together as a family
  • making your bed every morning
  • eating breakfast

The above master habits can help people eat better, become more productive, show more patience, use credit cards less frequently, feel less stressed, have greater emotional control, and more confidence.

I’m betting to the above list we can add a few more such as:

  • wearing sunscreen daily
  • a behavioral pattern for handling and working through frustration and problem solving
  • looking people in eye when talking to them
  • maintaining an organized work area
  • a habitual system for working on and tracking long-term projects as daily or weekly activities

What other important habits should we help our kids develop and how can we do so?