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Unexpected Journey

Today's post is a first-person account from an anonymous mom of a gifted child. I met her this summer at one of the gifted education conferences at which I presented and attended. She shared her daughter's story during a panel discussion that included experts in the field and parents of gifted kids. I offered her the opportunity to share her story with a wider audience because I felt it exemplified the roller coaster on which parents and gifted children sometimes (oftentimes?) find themselves. This is one parent's perspective, but it speaks to the obstacles and joys they experience raising a gifted child, it speaks of the teachers who "get it" and those who don't... and the effects on the child of each, and it speaks on some level about the advocacy struggle for many parents of gifted youngsters everywhere.

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It is early in the morning, a week before school starts; I am up, unable to sleep. Next week my oldest daughter starts third grade at her fourth school in three years. It will be another year of new friends, new rules, a new location, and new routines. My daughter is anxious as well; she did not want to leave her last school. Truthfully, neither did I. Unfortunately, we learned the last week of school we had lost our spot for the next year. I worry about the choice for this year. Is there a better option?

Six years ago we bought a new house in a dream location. My daughter was two. The bus stop for the elementary school was our mailbox. The middle school was a half mile away and we could see the high school from our second story window.

My daughter went to two years of preschool and then the local public elementary school. She had a wonderful Kindergarten teacher who differentiated in the classroom. Her report card said, "She is the model Kindergarten student." Her teacher challenged her and by the end of the year she was studying the 7th set of "100 Words." She loved school, we had kids over every day to play, and I was a Room Mom. It was a magical year that felt like a scene from a parenting magazine. It was how I'd dreamed of the school years.

Our world changed in First Grade. From the first day of school, it went downhill. My happy child started crying every morning, became moody, and did not want to go to school. So I volunteered - and saw that it was the complete opposite of Kindergarten. My daughter was tested on the 1st "100 Words." I mentioned to the teacher that my daughter knew those words and could she test ahead? The teacher responded, "No." The homework and class activities were easier than the differentiated work my daughter had successfully handled and thrived on in Kindergarten. The teacher insisted she would have to stay at the pace of the class. She thought my daughter was fine, and she would not do any differentiation in class (beyond the reading groups).

At this point, I talked with my mother-in-law who taught Gifted Education for twenty years in a different state. The last few years, she was the District Coordinator for Gifted. She recommended contacting the local advocacy group. She also came up with options to present to the teacher.

First, I talked with the teacher again, but nothing was done. Then I talked with the school counselor about my daughter's issues with school. Again nothing happened. I even talked with the principal about my daughter's education, her lack of challenge, and her deep unhappiness. I asked if we could switch to a different teacher. The principal said, "No."

I chatted with other moms both at the school and in my monthly Bunco group. One mom said, "My daughter had that teacher. You just have to wait it out, but I can tell you who to get for 2nd grade."

At Bunco, I discovered another mom who'd had the same issues with her daughter at a different school in the district. She had withdrawn her daughter from our local school district and open-enrolled in another district's full-time gifted program. She said our home school district treated her the same way, but she had found a way to send her daughter where she blossomed.

Finally, I contacted the local gifted parent support group coordinator. She believed my daughter was gifted and needed testing. The test results would allow us to enroll her in the neighboring district which offers three levels of gifted services: pull-out, full-time, and highly gifted. The testing in this district started in Kindergarten and a full-time classroom started in first grade. Unfortunately, the school district we live in does not test until second grade. We would pay for the testing. We were referred to a psychologist who would do the first test, and then, if she scored high enough, would do the second test required for admittance to gifted programs. She took the first test in late October. I told my daughter she was going to talk to a new friend about why she did not like school anymore and how to make it better.

The next week I attended our parent-teacher conference by myself. The principal decided to attend since I had been a "problem parent." We looked at the reading scores where my daughter was off the class curve. The teacher showed her writing book. The principal said that my daughter was not that bright because she had bad handwriting. [But the truth is, poor penmanship is actually common with gifted children.] She also said that intelligence tests are invalid for children under 7 (my daughter was 6 at the time). [Had she said "under age 5" there might have been some possible truth to her statement. But more and more tests are getting better at showing valid results for young school-aged children. And the factors that can make these tests invalid for young children (inability to focus for extended periods of time, for example), are often not as big of factors for gifted children.] The teacher said my daughter was not motivated because she did not bring her own books to class to read. The principal completely supported the teacher. Since my daughter was not acting out at school, she said it must be something at home. Finally I said, "We have to agree to disagree and I am leaving."

Two weeks later I received a call from the psychologist. My daughter had scored in the gifted range. But that was not her concern. She had given another test that showed my daughter had "Clinical Anxiety" from school. Her suggestion was that I needed to pull her out of school and homeschool. I said, "I can just pull her out?" "Yes." I was at a loss for words and thoughts. We talked for several minutes and finally she said, "If it was my kid, I would pull her today."

[Note what is happening in the child here... Clinical Anxiety caused by an inadequate, stifling, conformist, not-challenging-in-hardly-any-way school experience. Contrast this with how the very same child was happy and thriving the previous school year when she was adequately challenged in a flexible, differentiated environment. You have the power - and obligation! - to create this difference for such children in your classroom!]

The day the psychologist talked to me was Thanksgiving lunch at school. So, holding back tears, I went and ate lunch with my daughter. We headed out of town for the holiday. The following week, I called the school to say I'd be withdrawing her from class. I went to the school, the secretary handed me a stack of papers, and I signed a form. The secretary then said, "You should go to the cafeteria and see if you have any credit." And that was it.

When I told my daughter she was not returning to school, she was not emotional -- she was relieved. She completed the second test. My in-laws came for Christmas and we met with the psychologist for the results. It was enlightening to read about my daughter and really understand her. We talked about her difficulty with handwriting, her learning styles, and school choices. The report suggested either homeschooling or enrolling in the full-time gifted program in the neighboring school district.

After the holidays, we researched options and went with a free public online education to complete first grade. We had a contact teacher to guide us and offer support. The school offered gifted services and they selected curriculum based on my daughter's needs. The curriculum was challenging and interesting. The school offered monthly field trips, presentations, social activities, and a library.

My daughter saw a different psychologist for about month. I learned about bullying and teasing that occurred in her classroom by other students. She relayed a story about asking for help with math and being told by the teacher, "You should know that I'm not going to help you." Once we started homeschooling, her anxiety issues disappeared. She no longer feared for her safety.

During the spring, we applied with the neighboring school district for the full-time gifted program for second grade. We waited all summer, re-enrolling in the online school. One week before school started, we got the call. My daughter would be in the full-time class.

Through the local Gifted Parent Advocacy group, I was able to connect with other parents commuting to the other district. We were able to set-up a carpool for the 30 minutes one way drive to the school. In fact, of the 18 kids in her class, four were from out-of-district.

My daughter thrived in the full-time classroom. She returned to the happy, school-loving child I remembered. Her reading increased, she worked hard at school, and she made friends with the other kids. Her teacher was wonderful and encouraging, and she differentiated within the classroom. She recommended books for parents to read about gifted kids. She dealt with both the intellectual and emotional needs of gifted kids.

My daughter, during her own time, competed in a state invention competition where she placed second in her category. Her self-confidence grew in all areas, including basketball. Even other parents commented to me about her increase in self-esteem and confidence.

In March of second grade, we heard rumors from other parents that the third/fourth grade classroom was over in numbers. This meant out-of-district students would lose their spot to an in-district student. The principal called a week before school was out to let me know they did not have room for my daughter next year in the full-time classroom. In fact, she was number four on the waiting list. The principal told me about another school in the district with openings in their full-time program. He would contact that school's principal and I would hear something the next week. I cried and called my carpool buddy. I did not want to tell my daughter, but the teacher said two other students lost their spots, too. It was one of the hardest conversations we have ever had. She cried and I cried. She said she wanted to homeschool again. We talked about our options: homeschooling, enrolling in our home district that offered full-time gifted in third grade, or enrolling in a different full-time gifted room in another school. The next day at school, the counselor met with the three students over lunch to talk about the changes.

We visited two other schools in the neighboring district that offered a full-time program. Based on our observations, we selected a school that is an additional 10 minutes from our house. The school and teacher seem like the best fit for my daughter.

My husband and I talk about our choices. Each of us attended the same school for all of elementary school. Why is it so hard to find a school for my daughter? Is this the best choice? As it gets closer to the start of school and third grade I question our choice. Should I put her back in our home district for the convenience, even though the full-time gifted program class size is big? Should we sell our house and move so she will be an in-district student at the school where she thrived? Where will she end up for fourth grade if this uncertain pattern continues?

***********

I imagine the skeptics out there are thinking, "suck it up," "back in my day...," "some parents...," "life is rough; deal with it," ...

But look what happened... A happy, thriving, remarkably-progressing learner became a clinically anxious, deeply sad, stagnating child in the wrong environment.

Should we really be doing that to six-year-olds?!? Are our policies and procedures and what's-convenient-for-the-teacher so important that we can't give a child the 8th set of "100 Words" for which she's clearly ready? It wasn't "the parent's ego" that prompted the request; it was the child's learning needs!

WE have the power to be the difference here! Make a list of all the reasons we "can't" make accommodations for these kids and then ask yourself if it's okay to sacrifice a child's mental health and intellectual growth for those things.

Seriously...!

This is not an isolated example. All over our country, children who WANT to learn, who CAN learn, who are MOTIVATED to learn, who are CRAVING challenge, who can THRIVE, are being stifled and oppressed by rigid, frigid educational settings that treat all children the same. How ironic that the children who are most able to race to the top are the ones that we knowingly, lazily, misguidedly, unknowingly, regretfully, mean-spiritedly, helplessly, forcedly put roadblocks in front of...

Thank you to this courageous mom for sharing her daughter's story. What will you do to maintain the mental health and intellectual growth of the children in your classroom? For the very brightest, it might mean breaking yourself out of a box... so they can break out of a box and thrive at the level they need.

"Confine plant forms to a container and you will know exactly the dimensions they shall reach. Confine your teachers to your restricting curricula and your paperwork and you will know exactly the dimensions they shall reach. And each budding branch and each extending child shall not extend far beyond the perimeters of their confinement. Space determines the shape of all living things." ~ Bob Stanish ~

GROW. So they can grow :o)

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