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Strategy, Assessment, and Tactics
by Valorie J. King (vjking@erols.com)

"If you don't know where you're going it doesn't matter what you do."
-- The Cheshire Cat (Louis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland)

The beginning of a new school year is a good time to think about what direction you want your child's education to take. Before that first parent-teacher conference, before the first IEP meeting, before the first call from the principal, plan your strategy, assess the situation and your child's abilities, and learn some new tactics for obtaining what your intellectually gifted child needs for a successful school year.

Strategy

Planning an educational strategy requires that you look into the future. What are your goals for your child? What are your child's goals? Even young children formulate goals for themselves. Take the time to ask your child about his interests. Find out what excites him about learning. What does he see himself doing in the future? Does he have a career or two already picked out?

Next, consider what types of educational and learning experiences are necessary in order for your child to reach these goals. College is likely to be high on the list. Are the "usual" K-12 classroom experiences sufficient to meet your child's psychosocial and intellectual needs? Is there a gifted and talented program available? Will that meet your child's needs? What about outside enrichment or tutoring?

Strategy consists of figuring out what you're going to do BEFORE the battle starts.

Assessment

Participation in school based gifted and talented programs requires successful navigation of the school's assessment process. The school's testing and assessment procedures function as gatekeepers by directing the allocation of scarce teaching and classroom resources. Testing may also be a scarce resource so don't be surprised if the school prefers to use informal assessments, teacher nominations, and standardized achievement testing in lieu of an IQ test administered by a school psychologist.

Many families have found that outside testing is beneficial and worth the cost. An IQ test with formal report and conference will cost between $150 and $500 depending upon where you are and the qualifications of the test administrator. Don't overlook the possibility of having the testing done by a reading or learning disabilities clinic. The most important thing to remember is that the test administrator's attitude and responses to the gifted child can adversely affect the test results. If you're going to pursue outside testing -- make sure the test administrator has training and experience with gifted children! At the post-test conference, take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions. Find out what the test results indicate with regards to your child's abilities and learning styles.

Assessment is more than just a screening process for a gifted and talented program at school. Parents should take the time to critically consider the "fit" between child and classroom. Is the teacher a good fit? How well are the child's needs being met in the classroom? Is there friction between the child and classmates? What does the child think about the situation? What suggestions for improvement or change does the child offer? Assess the curriculum, the classroom, the school policies, and the teacher's attitudes. It all adds up to the BIG picture.

Assessment consists of figuring out where you are, what the situation is around you, and how strong your opponent is.

Tactics

There are several good books available which list "tactics" for coping with your intellectually gifted child's needs. These books will probably have information that you find useful:

The Gifted Kids' Survival Guide: for ages 10 & under
by Judy Galbraith. ISBN 0-915793-00-8
The Gifted Kid's Survival Guide II: for ages 11 - 18
by James Delisle and Judy Galbraith. ISBN 0-915793-09-1
Keys To Parenting The Gifted Child
by Sylvia B. Rimm, Ph.D. ISBN 0-8120-1820-6

These two books give parents and teachers information about children's temperamental styles. Both have excellent sections on how to evaluate the classroom environment and its effects upon the child. If I ever teach a class on parenting the gifted child, these will be required reading.

The Difficult Child ISBN 0-553-34446-3
by Stanley Turecki, M.D. Forward by Stella Chess, M.D.
Normal Children Have Problems Too: How Parents Can Understand and Help.
by Stanley Turecki, M.D. ISBN 0-553-37438-9

What can I say to convince you to go order copies of both books right now, right this minute? The information in both is derived from the landmark study of temperament in children, The New York Longitudinal Study, which was headed up by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess. Unlike many "how to parent" books -- these are backed up by thirty years of research in what worked and what didn't work.

Personally, I have found the principles of Zen philosophy helpful in determining my options and best course of action. The principles of the martial arts have also been helpful. You may find that your best tactics for negotiating and fighting to win come from some other philosophy or discipline. The important part is that you learn the tactices for negotiating and fighting before you need them. Reading Machiavelli's "The Prince" while standing in the middle of the battle field is like saying, "Here I am, shoot me!"

This list of principles, from "The Book of Five Rings," is posted above my desk. Reading through them helps me figure out a beneficial course of action. And, if not a beneficial course ... at least it keeps me from "rushing in where angels fear to tread" without at least thinking first.

  1. Think of what is right and true.
  2. Practice and cultivate the science.
  3. Become acquainted with the arts.
  4. Know the principles of the crafts.
  5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything.
  6. Learn to see everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious.
  8. Be careful even in small matters.
  9. Do not do anything useless.

Tactics are plans made ahead of time for courses of action to be taken in the thick of battle. Changing tactics can be either good or bad. But, if you don't have a battle plan before the battle -- you'd better be able to shoot straight, fast and have a large stockpile of ammunition.


Problem Solving 101: Teaching Social Skills
by Valorie King (vjking@erols.com)

Intellectually gifted children are often denied an appropriate placement in school due to concerns over their social skills. Parents are told "there's more to learn in school besides the academics; your child needs to learn to get along with others his own age."

There is truth to the argument "he needs to learn to get along with other children." Learning to interact with others, regardless of age, ability, gender, ethnicity, etc., is an important part of success in life. There is also more than a hint of truth in the oft heard complaint about gifted adults, "he may be smart but he sure doesn't know anything about getting along with people." The concerns are valid.

Oftentimes, the school will advise having the current classroom teacher provide additional cooperative learning activies or other instructional activities geared towards helping the child improve his social skills. This approach is reasonable but may not work for reasons which will be explained later in this article. If the plan is to have the child learn to interact with age-mates simply by being present in the same classroom, parents need to step in and take control of the situation. "More of the same" is not going to correct the problem. Besides, teaching good manners (social skills) is a job that belongs in the family.

The process of learning "Good manners" provides the child with the life experience that encourages the development of social and emotional maturity. For the intellectually gifted child, there's no reason why this developmental process cannot be "encouraged" and accelerated by loving parents. Please note that encouragement does not mean by force or intimidation. A little time, some well chosen life experiences, and a little direct instruction may be all it takes to help the child "grow."

The Process

Teaching social skills involves a four step process. Each of the four steps is necessary but not sufficient by itself. In other words, if you want the learning to "stick" you must use all four steps, in sequence. If you find that it's "not working" -- check to make sure that you're actually doing each step, each time.


Step 1 -- Modeling
Step 2 -- Role Playing (also called "rehearsing" or "practicing")
Step 3 -- Feedback (encouragement and suggestions)
Step 4 -- Transfer (use in the real world)

Modeling

A role model demonstrates the desired behavior in front of the child under conditions that are as close to "real world" as possible. Correct behaviors must be modeled. What the child "sees" is what you will "get" during the rehearsal stage.

Finding an appropriate model, so that the child will imitate the desired behaviors, is probably the hardest part of the entire process. Schools get into trouble because they think that the gifted child is like all the other children -- and will imitate the other children. Not so.

Imitation requires these four conditions to be met:

   1) the model is more expert or more powerful;
   2) the model is pleasant (appealing);
   3) the child identifies with the model because the model is similar in
      a) gender,
      b) intellectual ability,
      c) status or ethnicity,
      d) approximate age;
   4) the model is rewarded for the behavior and the reward is something 
      the child wants or desires (food, approval, etc.).

In classroom situations where the gifted child has no intellectual peers, it is highly probable that the "model" will be the teacher rather than the other children. This creates problems when the other children object to having "another teacher" telling them what to do or correcting their behavior. A far more effective method for ensuring that the required identification and imitation occur is to place the gifted child with a "buddy" in an older group. (This is why grade advancement often results in dramatic improvements in behavior. The gifted child accepts the other students as role models and quickly learns to imitate their prosocial behaviors.)

At home, children usually identify with one or both parents or an older brother or sister. Neighbors and relatives may also serve as role models.

The largest problem, by far, is that "modeling's" effects are short term. The next three steps must occur if we are to insure that the new behaviors replace the old.

Rehearsal or Role Playing

Rehearsal means practicing appropriate responses to social situations. In the classroom, teachers have the children "pretend" and role play situations as group learning activities. You can do this at home as well. Practice and reinforcement must occur together, regularly, in order for stable learning to take place. Without sufficient practice, the old behaviors will tend to recur, more and more frequently.

Rehearsal works best under the following conditions or ground rules:

  1. participation is voluntary;
  2. it's done in front of others so that the child cannot "disown" the behavior being rehearsed;
  3. child is allowed to improvise or improve upon the model's performance;
  4. child receives reward or reinforcement ("good job!", clapping, etc.) for rehearsing or practicing the behavior.

Rehearsing the desired behaviors is a necessary step, but in and of itself is not sufficient to replace the old behaviors with the new, desirable behaviors.

Feedback (Encouragement and Reinforcement)

Praise the attempt. Suggestions for improvement should not take the form of "yes, but ..." Model the behavior again if necessary. Encouragement and reinforcement increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. At first, material reinforcements may be necessary (food, stickers, money). Over time, reinforcements should gradually move towards "social" reinforcers, e.g. verbal praise and finally "self-reinforcement" ("I did a good job").

Anything that the child perceives as a reward or reinforcement will do. Be very careful that the chosen reward is actually seen as a reward by the child. Classroom teachers often trip on this one. Gifted kids don't always place high values on the trinkets or rewards that other children "would die for." Opinions vary on how often to give out rewards. After the desired behavior is established (recurs reliably), material rewards should occur less frequently and less predictably.

Social reinforcements, i.e. verbal praise or recognition, are more likely to occur in real life than material rewards. That is why it is important to move away from using material rewards. It is just as important, however, to help the child recognize that many, if not most, "good" behaviors will go unnoticed and unappreciated. Some schools institute a "catch them in the act of being good" program but most do not. Self-reinforcement is extremely important for this reason. The child should be encouraged to say "I did a good job" and to think of herself as successful each and everytime the desirable behaviors occur.

Reinforcement ensures that the child is motivated to maintain the newly learned behaviors and to use them. Without motivation, it is highly unlikely that the child will practice the new behaviors sufficiently to replace the old behaviors.

Transfer -- Out Into The Real World

The first three steps, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback teach the desired behaviors and then check to insure that learning has taken place. The fourth step, transfer, is necessary to ensure that the newly learned behavior will be used, especially if it is replacing a socially undesirable behavior.

The following techniques will improve the child's ability to use the newly learned behaviors in real world situations:

1) General principles -- rules, strategies, and organizing principles help the child to generalize the behavior to new situations which do not exactly match the "rehearsed" situation.

2) Overlearning -- practice makes permanent. The more the desired behaviors are practiced the more likely it is that the new behavior will replace the old behavior. Under stress, especially, the most frequently used response (past) is the one that is most likely to occur (future). It is important to remember that is is "practice of perfect" that is of most benefit to the overlearning or conditioning process. Extending the learning process, i.e. continuing beyond what is necessary to learn the new behavior initially, is what makes overlearning work.

3) Change things around -- do things a little differently for some of the practice sessions. Use a variety of role-playing situations to keep things from getting boring. Vary the emotional tone as well as the actual words used.

4) Keep things the same -- the greater the similarity between practice and real world, the more likely the practiced behaviors will occur in the real world.

5) Show the child how to keep her own records of how well she's doing at using the new behaviors in real life situations. Teach her to use self-talk and self-praise, e.g. "It's OK, everything is going to be OK. I'm doing OK. Yeah! I did it!"

6) Praise the child regularly for any and all attempts at using the new behaviors. After the behavior is firmly established, go to unpredictable or erratic reinforcement. Always acknowledge the child's successes when asked for praise and let her know that it's OK to ask for reinforcement. ("Yes, dear, that was a good way to handle the situation.")

Summary

Learning how to act in socially acceptable ways requires that the child get enough "life experience." Once a child is old enough to remember to say "please and thank-you" without prompting, she's old enough to start practicing more advanced social skills. In "Problem Solving 102" we'll talk about specific situations and the types of social skills which gifted children need to learn in order to "get along" with age-mates as well as older children and adults.


Problem Solving 102: "What Do You Say, Dear?"
by Valorie King (vjking@erols.com)

In the previous article, Problem Solving 101, we talked about a four step process for teaching social skills. The assumption is that, for whatever reason, the child may never have learned the desirable, prosocial behaviors that are required by the teacher or the classroom environment. It is also possible that the gifted child has developed undesirable behaviors in response to an ill-fitting or inappropriate environment either at school or at home. These behaviors may cause the child to be labeled "emotionally immature" or "socially backwards."

Many gifted children find themselves isolated from their age-mates early in their school careers (pre-K or K) due to communications problems, i.e. differences in speech patterns or vocabulary. This can result in the gifted child not having gained sufficient "group" experience. Unlike the other children, the socially isolated child does not experience the day-to-day give and take which results in the unconscious acquisition of desirable and socially appropriate behaviors. The socially isolated child sees herself as "different" from the others and thus does not imitate the prosocial behaviors of the other children. The socially isolated child may identify with the teacher or older children and thus imitate their behaviors. The gifted child is often misunderstood in such situations and her behavior is interpreted as aloofness ("I'm better than you"), bossiness, or possibly even prejudice.

Whatever the cause, it is possible to teach desirable behaviors and responses to real-life situations. We've done it in my household and found that it's kind of fun! The previous article was a lengthy explanation of the process. Here it is in a saying that my son, the Boy Scout, likes to use:

          See one, do one, teach one.

This doesn't exactly match the four step process but, it's a little easier to remember. You see the skill. You practice the skill and receive feedback and praise (steps 2 and 3 together). You teach someone else which forces you to generalize and take the skill into the real world.

It is important to remember to practice social skills in situations where the other person is:

1) younger
2) same age
3) a recognized peer
4) an older child
5) an adult

and, the situation is either

1) formal or
2) informal

and, the individuals involved are either

1) calm or
2) angry (upset).

Beginning Social Skills:

  1. Starting or entering a conversation
  2. Listening
  3. Ending or leaving a conversation
  4. Asking for help or assistance
  5. Following instructions
  6. Giving and receiving compliments
  7. Saying "thank you"
  8. Apologizing
  9. Taking turns or "sharing"

Dealing With Feelings Skills:

  1. Expressing your own feelings
  2. Understanding another's feelings
  3. Preparing for a stressful conversation
  4. Reacting to failure

Assertiveness Skills:

  1. Standing up for your rights
  2. Giving assistance or responding to requests
  3. Giving directions or instructions
  4. Making a complaint or giving criticism
  5. Answering a complaint or receiving criticism
  6. Negotiation (especially in regards to conflict or disagreements)
  7. Persuasion (also, knowing when to stop)
  8. Responding to persuasion
  9. Handling pressure from a group

Finding Good and Bad Examples To Learn From

Sometimes, it helps if we have a variety of possible responses to model for the kids. Sometimes, we adults really don't know what the "kid" style of prosocial behavior looks like for a given situation. The public library has wonderful books for children regarding how to act in social situations. We must have read "What do you say, dear?" hundreds of times to our children when they were younger. In the young adult and adult sections there are books about coping with a variety of social situations which include sample dialogs. If you look around you'll find a wide variety of source material from which to pull both good and bad examples of social behavior. Just remember to practice, evaluate, and reward. Reading books or watching movies is not enough.

One word of warning: if you decide to people watch, make sure that others do not hear your comments regarding the behaviors you've observed and make sure that your children know not to announce to the world every time they catch someone else in an inappropriate behavior. A silly warning, perhaps ... but the one time we forgot to remind the kids to whisper ... it was VERY embarrassing. But, it was also a learning experience. The kids learned how to handle situations where you've inadvertently offended a stranger.

Adult Places and Kid Places

From a very young age, we have made it a point to let our children know that behavior standards are different in different places. So many times I see gifted children who get into trouble with other children because they use "adult-style" manners on the playground or in other "kid" places. It is very important that adults teach gifted children that it is OK, in fact that it is very desirable, to use "kid-style" manners around other children.

Summary

An important part of growing-up is learning to modify your speech and your behavior to fit the situation. Good etiquette is just that -- modifying your behavior so that others feel welcome and accepted.

Resources:

Miss Manners' Guide To Rearing Perfect Children by Judith Martin.

An absolutely hilarious book with more truth than humor. You may not agree with her point of view but she does cover the bases when it comes to social skills that children need.

Social Skills for Mental Health: A Structured Learning Approach by Robert P. Sprakfin, N. Jane Gershaw, and Arnold P. Goldstein.

No, you don't need to go find a copy of this to read. This was the reference book used in writing both Problem Solving 101 and Problem Solving 102 for this issue of MonTAGe.

Instructor Magazine's "Caring Classroom" Column. Published 8 times yearly by Scholastic, Inc. (http://www.scholastic.com)


Problem Solving 103: The Roles of the School Principal
by Valorie King (vjking@erols.com)

The role of the school principal has changed dramatically in the last decade. Legislative mandates fueled by the school restructuring and reform movements now require greater accountability for student outcomes at the local school level. With the increases in accountability and responsibility has come the granting of greater autonomy, authority, and power. Site based management empowers the school staff to make changes and solve problems. The principal is the focal point for this empowerment. The job of school principal encompasses the following functions:

  1. curriculum development and selection
  2. instructional improvement
  3. student services
  4. financial and facility management
  5. community relations

The principal is both leader and manager. In the leadership role, the principal sets the pace for student and staff productivity and creativity. The principal is responsible for seeing that both students and staff have adequate opportunities and motivation to achieve the developmental goals set for them as individuals and as members of the school organization. In the managerial role, the principal acts to obtain, allocate, distribute, and evaluate the use of resources in support of the school's educational mission and those other tasks assigned to the school by the society of which it is a part and for which it acts as a change agent.

As leader and manager, the principal is the local "expert" when it comes to the education of children. The principal receives regular updates with regards to changes in federal, state, and local policies, regulations, and legislation both through internal school district communications and via professional journals and meetings. The current legislative climate strongly influences the organizational structures in public schools through funding of programs promoting site based management and the strengthening of the principalship. Principals today find themselves with greater autonomy, greater responsibility, and greater public scrutiny of their actions than was true thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago.

Knowing the "other side's" argument as well or better is an important negotiating principle. In order to present an effective counter argument you must be able to understand the issues facing the school principal. This doesn't mean that you must agree with the principal's point of view, professional judgement, or personal opinion. It does, however, mean that you must understand the issues and how they affect the entire organization, teachers, staff, parents, and students.

Common Issues:

1. Equity. Equal access to educational resources for all children. No one group of children receives more than another group of children unless there is a specific legal basis for the provision of additional services. This is mandated by law and is the subject of numerous "training" programs designed to instill in educators a belief that all children deserve a good education. Unfortunately, many "training" programs have distilled this down to the phrase "all children have gifts and talents" which, while true, results in incredible misunderstandings and the denial of appropriate educational services for intellectually gifted children.

2. Policy. The principal must insure that any and all exceptions to policy do not result in situations where the decision is open to either legal challenge or places the school in a position where the "exception" becomes the rule due to demands for "equal treatment" by parents and/or pressure groups.

3. Money. Special education is taking a larger chunk out of school budgets than was originally anticipated. The Congress and local jurisdictions are unwilling to fund these programs at the levels mandated by law. Schools are forced to apply the most stringent eligibility criteria legally allowed in order to keep their budgets balanced.

4. Bias. Everyone has their own personal biases and expectations. For many professionals in the field of education these prejudices are augmented by coursework, inservice training, and a body of research literature fraught with errors and misconceptions. Many educators are totally unaware of the problems with educational "research" and are unable to accept the criticisms leveled by "outsiders."

"Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done, and why. Then do it." -- Robert A. Heinlein, "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long"

If you can get the principal to tell you WHY something cannot be done, openly and honestly, then you stand a good chance of being able to find a way to overcome the objections and achieve a workable solution. Finding out the true source of the objections is an extremely difficult task since, in many cases, the principal and/or school staff is unaware of their own personal biases and prejudices and how those are affecting their judgement.

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