Creating Powerful Habits, part 1

As a psych major, I’ve always been interested in how our brains work. As a mom this interest has become focused on, for lack of a better description, best common practices. How can we best help our kids to grow up as secure, compassionate, effective, happy, and successful adults? How will the experiences and thoughts of our young children shape them into the types of adults they will be when they are 20? 30? 60? How much has already been pre-determined by genetics and how much can we realistically influence?

Over the weekend I started reading a fascinating book that appears to offer a relative straightforward answer to the above questions. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg was just published on February 28, 2012 and encompasses the latest research on habit formation. The bestselling book is fascinating and is getting a great deal of positive press.

According to Mr. Duhigg, scientists have been able to show that once a habit is formed, we work on autopilot conserving our energy and brain cells for more involved pursuits. They have also shown that habits never disappear. They can be covered over by new habits but the old habits remain in our brains, ready to spring into action when triggered by just the right cue. While Mr. Duhigg focuses more on the habits of individuals, organizations and societies, I find the potential for parents far more compelling.

The habit formation loop is simple: Cue -> Routine -> Reward. While it can be difficult to change our own poor habits as adults (although if you are interested, Mr. Duhigg’s site has a How to Change a Habit flowchart) creating good habits for our kids might be easier. We manipulate their worlds already. We are in charge of many of their rewards. A little bit of planning, dedication, and finesse on our parts and we can equip our kids with a solid set of ingrained actions and thought processes that will help them live happy and fulfilling lives.

The importance of actively helping our kids create positive habits is brought home by another recently published book that is in the news, The End of Illness by David B. Agus, MD. Dr. Agus, a leading oncologist, is calling for a complete change in the way we approach health. One of the items he lays out as critical to optimal, long-term health is daily routine.

If we accept that part of our parenting duties is to help our kids create habits and daily routines that will serve them well as adults, our jobs just got both more complicated and much, much more interesting. Check back to follow our progress as I go through the book and work with the kids to create powerful new habits.

Getting bumped back

Today the 7-year-old is in tears again, or is it still? Aleks and Khan Academy are bumping him back because he hasn’t fully learned the latest subjects and concepts. His angst is wearing on me. I’m learning that the most important thing I have to teach him is how to struggle. How to work when he is confused and not the confident expert.

He is bright enough that he easily understands many things effortlessly. He is used to feeling smart and in control. Feeling stupid takes a huge emotional toil on him.

I am convinced that being able to feel comfortable and be okay with the gnawing feeling of stupidity is essential for all real progress in the world, both individual progress and institutional progress. If we already know all the answers, we aren’t really moving forward. In order to move forward we must first start by understanding where our knowledge ends and our lack of knowledge (or stupidity) begins. All great mathematicians encounter difficult problems where they may not even know how to begin to solve the problem. Feeling stupid in scientific research fields is common enough that it can carry with it something called impostor syndrome where a person is unable to believe the external evidence of their own competence and accomplishments.

So how do we make it okay to feel stupid?  How do we make the feeling of stupidity something that inspires us to dig deeper for answers and solutions rather than something that makes us quit and walk away? It is our lack of self-confidence and self-esteem makes us want to quit (or cry) when we feel stupid. We don’t think we can work through the difficult problem and we don’t want to bruise our fragile egos by trying and possibly failing.

Much has been written on the importance of self-esteem in kids and how to build it. Much of it has been wrong. When I was growing up, I Am Loveable and Capable was used in both Sunday school and my public school as a way to build community and feelings of self-esteem. Even as a 4th grader I saw its stupidity. It taught that our egos are and should be damaged by the random and not so random acts of others. That our feeling of self worth can only be controlled by what happens to us, not by our own thoughts and actions.

New research is starting to show that self-esteem needs to be tempered by self-control, self-regulation, and yes, the ability to confidently keep struggling and working even when success isn’t immediate. We develop self-confidence not from avoiding failure but from learning that we are capable of surviving failure. We need to bring back scoring of pee wee soccer games and letter grades in elementary schools. We need to eliminate the stupid practice of giving all kids awards and trophies just for being on a team for an entire season. We parents need to back off and let our kids fail. When we act as helicopter parents and work with the coaches and teachers to prevent our kids from feeling the sting of failure, we give our kids the not so subtile message that we lack confidence in them. That we don’t think they can handle failure. Instead we need to let them realize that perhaps they weren’t quite as good as the other kid. That maybe they didn’t know quite as much as was expected for the class or test. And as they are feeling the let down of that failure we need to help them understand that failing isn’t the end of the world. That how they react to the failure will have a longer lasting effect than the failure itself. That they can and should work harder to do better and move through and beyond feeling stupid. Our kids need to learn that in feeling stupid and in failing they have great company.

Science Museum Mississippi Class

SMM Conservation Ideas
Conservation Ideas

Nathaniel recently check out one of the classes offered at the Science Museum of Minnesota for homeschoolers. It was on the Mighty Mississippi. He learned about the Mississippi and factors that affect the health of the river. Together the students built a model aquatic habitat. Then they brainstormed on what can be done to help the environment and slow global warming. My favorite ideas are algae art that can also clean the house and self-powered, bioluminescent lights.

The Mississippi supports a vast variety of species. In order to demonstrate this and emphasize the interrelatedness of different species, they created a food web.

Finally they were able to observe live macro invertebrates.

Food Web

The class was paced nicely and gave the students time to ask questions and show their knowledge without the instructor worrying about lost time. Nathaniel came away from the experience feeling that he had a real opportunity to delve into biology and environmental conservation. Biology is one of his passions and he has been reading complex biology books for years. I am impressed that the Science Museum was able to design a class that worked for a student his age with his higher than average scientific background.

Finding a Free Online History Course

The options for quality, free courses and course materials are growing daily, seemingly exponentially. I’ve been on a quest over the last couple weeks to find not just quality materials but full courses that will challenge, captivate and not frustrate my gifted 10-year-old.

I’m looking for complete courses because I know I’m not organized enough and really have no interest in creating my own syllabus, assignments, quizzes, and exams. Luckily there are good options out there. One of the best places to start is the (Free) Online High School Courses & Curriculum Materials page on Hoagies’ Gifted website. Hoagies’ is an excellent place to start when researching most anything concerning gifted kids. Through their site I found the history class my son is currently using.

The history class is a high school AP History class, one of the University of California College Prep Open Access courses. It uses The American Pageant by Thomas Andrew Bailey, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen and America: Past and Present by Divine as its primary texts. Both are available on Amazon (new or used). We already had a copy of The American Pageant that he had been working his way through and this early in the course not having America: Past and Present has not been an issue. I doubt he will need a hard copy at all since much of the text is online and included in the course materials.

Why do I really like this course? It has a great mix of videos, online text, pictures, and original documents. Activities and writing assignments are directly tied to all of the above in a way that encourages the student to keep learning. The videos are relatively short, very engaging and stand well on their own, even for younger students who aren’t ready for a full AP History course. Topics covered in the course are laid out by units, lessons, and subject matter and it is easy to jump to a specific time in history, watch the videos, and work though the materials. This feature makes the course work well not just as a stand-alone AP class but also as an easy way to supplement other history courses and materials.

The only thing I do not like about the course is that it requires Flash so it cannot be used on an iPad. Perhaps in the future they will rewrite it as an iTune U class.

Although I don’t know if my 10-year-old will really be ready to take an AP History exam at the end of the class, it doesn’t matter. He is learning far more than he would in a regular elementary school or middle school history class. He is enjoying the depth and the detail and I am enjoying the fact that all this enrichment comes with little effort on my part. Shhhh 😉


Recently I switched my seven-year-old from a regular elementary school first grade class to homeschooling. We are using a combination of online learning, textbooks, regular books, videos, and museum visits for course materials.

For now the main online material he is using is the math program ALEKS. My older children also use ALEKS and have for the last 3 years. It offers a fairly comprehensive set of K-12 math courses. Students are fed problems and given assessments at their own pace. Their ability to progress is entirely dependent on how well they perform. At times they have completed an entire year’s lesson in just a couple days. Other times, when the math level contained concepts they had not previously encountered, their progress slowed to covering one grade level over the course of a calendar year.

How a student approaches ALEKS gives some interesting insights into their comfort and ability with basic problem solving. Not math problem solving, life problem solving. What do you do when you don’t know the answer, when you aren’t even sure how to find the answer? Do you stare at it? Look for additional resources? Ask someone? Bang your head against a wall? Take notes and write down detailed steps? Quit?

When ALEKS introduces a new topic it starts by showing a problem. If the student knows the answer to the problem they have the ability to answer that problem, answer a few more similar problems correctly and then move on to the next topic. This prevents students from spending endless hours working problems within their current level of knowledge.

Where it gets interesting is if a student does not already understand a topic. They have the option of clicking ‘Explain’ which brings up a text and diagram description of the problem and its solution. Some students do not even want to click on ‘Explain’ because they don’t want to fail the problem or they are uncomfortable showing their ignorance, even to a computer. If they do click ‘Explain’ they may not understand the explanation. While sometime the explanation is confusing, other times it seems that the students are just not very good at walking themselves through the explanation, step-by-step.

Working with my young student today it became clear that he is not used to taking the time to work through explanations and untangle problems on his own. He doesn’t like to click ‘Explain’ and when he does, he has a tendency to skim read the explanation and then declare, “I don’t get it. I can’t do it.”

Thus far in his education he has had the luxury of having subjects and concepts clearly explained to him by his teachers. He has been given clear and detailed directions. He has been able to easily and correctly complete assignments by just going through the motions. He has not had to puzzle over concepts. He has been given problems with distinct answers: true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blanks from the above lists of words. If it became difficult or he didn’t understand he could always ask for help or just quit. His ability to easily understand teachers’ explanations combined with the “one right answer” syndrome has made him into a lazy learner. I don’t think he is alone in this. The current test mania environment within the public schools emphasizes knowing the right answer, not knowing how to think and problem solve. Hopefully homeschooling will help him become more comfortable in the space between knowing and not yet knowing. Especially in the 21st century, knowing how to find answers and all their nuances is at least as important as knowing today’s correct answer. Explain.


Gifted Kids and Online Learning

Today Ann Treacy with the Blandin Foundation wrote about an update to S. F. 1528: Teachers 21st Century Tools. This bill explicitly encourages students to take online courses and would change the Minnesota Graduation Requirements to include one digital learning course credit.

The bill lays out that the enrolling district must apply the same graduation requirements to all students whether they are traditional classroom students or online learners and must continue to provide nonacademic services to online learning students. The bill also explicitly states that while a licensed Minnesota teacher must supervise the delivery of the instruction to the online learning student, the instruction may include curriculum developed by persons other than a teacher holding a Minnesota license.

This bill seems to open the door for schools and teachers to become far more flexible in meeting the needs of gifted students. Under the bill 50% of the student’s schedule can be online courses and they can be different from the student’s current grade level. In theory, this could give gifted students who are ready to work above grade level in some subjects the opportunity to work at their ability level in all subjects. Students could work with their physical classmates at grade level for some subjects and with their virtual, online classmates and instructors above grade level for other subjects.

The availability of quality online educational programs is skyrocketing and because many of them are self-paced, they can be excellent for gifted students. Ones we have used for homeschooling our gifted kids include Khan Academy, ALEKS, and iTunes U.

All three kids use Aleks for their main math course, supplemented by parent and teachers when they get stuck. Aleks has enabled them to work at their natural pace, frequently completing 2 or 3 grade levels in a single academic year. This type of individualized pacing is virtual impossible in a regular classroom with 25 to 35 kids.

My 10-year-old is taking a biology course through iTunes U. iTunes U courses can include audio, video, textbooks, syllabi, handouts, and quizzes — providing very comprehensive treatments of course subjects. iTunes U courses have been developed by Stanford, Yale, Oxford, UC Berkeley, and the NY Public Library among others. My student finds the iTunes U course more interesting and fulfilling than science at his STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) elementary school. iTunes U lets him work at his own pace and the materials are much more detailed than those typically found in 5th grade classrooms. Even in his STEM school, the need to teach to the entire class prevented the teachers from covering subjects with the depth he hungered for.

Online learning can be one of the most effective and economical tools to help all students to reach their full potential.   As funding of gifted education programs continues to far fall below what is needed, it is a positive step for the state to explicitly recognize the value of online learning.

Pottery Painting Art

The kids and I took and impromptu trip to Color Me Mine today to choose and paint some pottery. This trip counted as an art project for the two boys who are currently homeschooled and a fun diversion for my daughter. She is enrolled in an alternative school for gifted kids. The school is not in session most Fridays which gives us a great deal of  flexibility to go on field trips and take advantage of other learning opportunities. (More on the kids and what I’ve learned about various school options in later posts.)

Color Me Mine is a pottery painting and glazing shop. You pick your piece of pottery and then grab a table and paint glaze on your piece using their supplies. The cost is the price of the pottery you selected plus a studio fee for the paint and the use of the brushes, stamps etc.

It took us about 20 minutes to select the perfect pieces of potter. Natalie selected a flower-shaped box, Nicolas went with a rabbit storage container, Nathaniel chose a frog mug, and I choose a dog mug. We then settled down to painting. The staff was great about stepping in with ideas and help, especially for Nicolas who really wanted his rabbit to be perfect. The glazes are all watercolor so it is fairly easy to use a sponge and water to wipe off mistakes and start again.

We were there around three hours. Long enough to see another family come, paint, and go. The kids really didn’t want to leave. Watching the kids paint it was obvious why some typical elementary art projects frustrate them. Clearly they wanted to take their time. Elementary schools rarely have a full hour to devote to an art project, much less three hours. This can cause stress for gifted kids that may naturally have longer attention spans. Add in their desire to have the finished product flaw free and professional-looking and you have a perfect recipe for “transition problems” and emotional meltdowns.

They wanted their creations to fully reflect their visions. If they were told how each piece should look when done it would have greatly diminished their creative spirits and enjoyment of the project. Walk through any elementary school and look at the art on the walls, especially for the younger grades. Notice the similarity of the pieces. Because art is used to teach everything from colors to cutting skills to how to follow directions, kids are told exactly how to do most projects and what they should look like when finished. For kids with strong, internal, artistic sensibilities and drives, typical elementary art projects must feel stifling.

Today the kids got to take their time and act in accordance with their own creative visions. Of course, they won’t really know how close they came to the images in their heads for another week. Our pieces need to dry, get dipped in clear glaze, dry again, and finally get fired in the kiln for a day. Once the pieces cool we will be able to to take them home. Stay tuned to see the end results.