When Your Child Doesn’t Fit Inside the Box …

I'm heartened by the overwhelming response to my earlier post about my friend's gifted son who was suspended twice from kindergarten. I'm also saddened, though not at all surprised, by how many similar stories were shared in the comments – of bright and energetic kids being suspended, punished, medicated, and shamed because the schools didn't know what to do with them. These are not isolated incidents. This is a systemic and growing problem that isn't going away in the foreseeable future. Therefore, if your child falls in any way outside the narrow band of school's accepted norms, you'll need to educate yourself and step into becoming "that" parent – the one who settles for nothing less than a positive and empowering educational experience for your child. If moving your child to an alternative school or homeschooling aren't viable options at the moment, there are still ways of improving your child's public school experience.

I'll share some tips on how to do that today. But first …

Why is it a systemic problem?

The structure of our public school system was based on a factory model of education. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, this served us well. It goes without saying that we've moved beyond the need to churn out thousands of factory workers trained to follow orders and punch time clocks. I think it goes without saying that the idea of cramming an exponentially growing body of knowledge into the minds of our children is ludicrous at this point in history.

However, the conversation continues to revolve around what children need to KNOW, and what SKILLS they need to master, rather than how children learn, and which environments promote the kinds of social, emotional, intellectual, and physical capabilities that will make for competent, creative, and compassionate adults who are able to roll with whatever the next few decades will bring.

As long as the public debate on education continues to focus on test scores and standardized curriculum instead of childhood development, current learning theory, and the latest brain research, we're still going to see the majority of schools trying to fit all kids onto that assembly line belt that someone in Washington or Houghton Mifflin decided was the right belt. Those who don't fit on that narrow belt will cause a "line failure" and the system will reject them in one way or another. They'll be stamped "Problem Child," "Learning Disabled," or "ADHD," and shunted off to the special services assembly line, where they're medicated, remediated, separated. Along the way, parents are blamed and shamed for causing this gross deviation from the norm.

If I sound a little overly-dramatic, well … that's just how I get when it comes to this topic. I've been IN THIS SYSTEM as a teacher and I've seen how it works … or rather, how it doesn't.

But it worked for me!

I hear this a lot from people who want to protect the sanctity of our existing public school model. We've all been through school ourselves, so we all have an opinion on what it should and shouldn't be. Generally speaking, if you had a great public school experience as a youngster, you'll see the public school system in a positive light and want to perpetuate it. If you had a negative experience, you'll have a different opinion. Regardless of your own experience as a child, if you're a parent now, we have to assume that your school experience was A WHILE AGO.

Things have changed.

The best thing you can do is let go of all of your remembered notions of what school was, and educate yourself on what it is now. Then, with a clear perspective on the current reality, ask yourself, "Is this working for my child?"

Why is it so hard to ask for what we want?

If your answer to the question, "Is this working for my child?" is "No, not really," then it's time to put on your advocate hat. You're the only one who has your child's best interests as your top priority, and so it's up to you to ensure that school doesn't permanently damage your child. Yeah, that's right – permanently damage your child. Your child's self-concept, confidence, ability to experience success, and a whole host of other bits that make up how we see ourselves as adults are all dramatically influenced by the school experience. It's a big enough deal that you might have to risk not being liked by your child's teacher or principal.

This isn't an easy role to step into. I'm guessing just about all of us were raised to respect or even fear authority, and we were imprinted since childhood to see teachers as authority figures. We still carry this with us, and it's easy to forget that we're no longer kids when we get "called into the principal's office." To turn this around, it may help to remember that the teachers and principals are, in effect, your employees. Your tax dollars pay them to do a service for you and your children. You have every right to evaluate them and make suggestions and requests. You also have the right to "fire them" – by switching schools.

It's also difficult to ask for something when you aren't exactly sure what it is you should be asking for. To help you in that arena, here's an initial list of ideas for you. I hope you'll add to it.

So … what do we ask for?

  • A GATE-certified teacher - Most schools don't have GATE (Gifted and Talented Education)
    classrooms until 3rd or 4th grade, if at all, but you're not necessarily asking for your child to be placed in a GATE classroom. You're asking for your child to be placed with a teacher who has had training in this area, regardless of the grade he or she currently teaches. The training is very illuminating and provides a huge support for teachers in understanding the many ways giftedness exhibits itself in children, as well as how to handle the interesting behaviors that accompany giftedness.
  • If no one there is GATE-certified, you can request that you get a teacher who is willing to attend GATE training in the beginning of the year. Seriously, (before I received my GATE certification) I would have done this for a student if a parent requested it! You absolutely deserve to ask.
  • More physical activity, if that's one of the ways your child's energy needs to be expressed. The younger they are, the more frequently they need movement. Ideas: Ask for a wobbly chair or exercise ball to sit on so they can move even while sitting. Ask for them to be the gopher for the teacher, and ask the teacher to come up with errands the child can run (and I mean RUN) every 15 minutes or so. Ask for more time outside for the entire class. Just five minutes of running around can refresh everyone.
  • More choice in how and when they do their work. Though most public schools are pretty tightly scheduled, a gifted child will thrive when given more time to delve deeply into work that is satisfying for them, as well as being given the opportunity to move on to new work if they've finished something quickly.
  • More depth, complexity and relevance in their work. A gifted child has no patience for busy work, and I absolutely don't blame them. Ask for your child to pursue independent studies on topics of interest to them. The same concepts and skills being doled out through the canned curriculum can be learned through self-directed projects if the teacher is willing to work with your child.
  • Respect for your child. Above all, this is key! Every child is gifted in different ways. No one deserves to be labeled, ridiculed, humiliated or ostracized. Spend time developing a relationship with your child's teacher. Help them see your child the way you see them, through loving eyes. Help them see your child as a beautiful individual expression of humanity, with valid desires, needs, and preferences. A child who feels respected will respect themselves and others. The converse is true.

There is so much more to share on this topic, but for now, I'll turn it over to you, my capable and wise readers, to add to this list. What have you asked for that has helped your child? What is holding you back, if anything, from advocating for your child? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!


Lisa July 8, 2010 at 12:08 PM  

With only one in public school so far, I don't have a ton of experience with this yet, but I do already relate to the role as advocate of our children. One of the things that I do really value in our current school is the high parent participation - in the classroom, not just 'committees' for fundraising, special events, etc.. Every class has a parent volunteer slot every morning for 3-4 hours, and they are almost always filled. Many parents re-arrange their work schedules to be able to take these slots regularly.

I feel like it totally changes the dynamic of the school from others I have heard about. There are always dozens of parents on campus, the parents know all the kids in each class, and the teachers know all the parents. It humanizes things - no one is simply a 'problem child' to the other parents. It also changes the dynamic to one more of partnership between parents and teachers.

We had several bumps in the road this year, maybe some day I will go into them with you, but in each case what saved the day was that I did feel comfortable speaking to my daughter's teacher about it, and she was willing to arrange discussions with other parents when necessary. So I think this is SO important. I wish more schools had this kind of openness, instead of maintaining the 'teacher is boss, teacher has final word' kind of mentality. I am sure it a pain for teachers, dealing with the extra parental observations of their role. And of course in some places, it would be very hard to get that kind of parent participation. But it seems like it's been shown over and over again to be such an important success factor.

I don't know yet if this school is going to work for all my children, and I certainly have my issues with some aspects of it, but this was one that worked, IMHO.

Another helpful and insightful post!

Alexis Ahrens July 9, 2010 at 10:20 AM  

Thanks, Lisa. Parent participation IS so important in schools, and it's rare to find a school that actually walks that talk. How great for your that you've found one. When I was teaching, I felt much more connected to my students when I was connected to the families, too. That way, I could see the children through their parents' eyes and it made me love them all the more. Like you said, it "humanizes things."

Kudos to you for doing the hard work of advocating for your daughter. Would you say that your background in Buddhist practices is a big support for you? It seems to me that the more clear we are on who we are and what we stand for, the more inner strength we have to stand up and ask for what we want.


Anonymous August 19, 2012 at 9:14 PM  

We have been playing "musical schools" with our ADHD son. He's 4th grade this year and a week and a half in, we're already thinking this new school won't work either. UGh. I did k12.com at home for 2nd grade year which was WONDERFUL but now I am back to work and can't homeschool again. I may have to quit my job before the year is over in order to go back to k12, as it's the only thing that has worked (it's a free online charter school and they send you all the supplies you could need - all new and wonderful stuff. Amazing curriculum.)

LippyMama September 23, 2012 at 1:19 AM  

Thanks for this article! I don't feel alone anymore!
In kindergarten my son's teacher told me "Your son is not just smart he is intelligent, he doesn't just ask questions he questions answers". That was the beginning of the end! EVERY teacher since has said there was something wrong with him! Last year his teacher told me he "Wasn't Normal" because when he was doing some writing she "caught" him talking aloud to himself. I was outraged! So we took him to a child psychologist who gave him the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children to get an IQ for him. He tested 135 for verbal and 129 overall IQ. She said he would have scored higher but he wanted to talk during the timed section so he wasted time but he knew what he was doing. She also told the teacher that the student in his class were not his peers she said "Kyler has trouble relating to kids his age because while they are contemplating what Lego's are best he is worried about whether soldiers should be making more money than NFL Stars". I took these results to the school and they basically said well he didn't score high enough on the TOMAGS so nothing we can do! He is in 5th grade now reading at a 7th grade level and he told me his teacher acknowledged that he is "very smart" I am hoping for a better year. I live VERY close to the school and am a stay at home mom so I am there every chance I get to help in any way. I would love to be homeschooling him but he has said he is not interested because our state doesn't allow homeschoolers to be involved in anything the public school does so he would miss his friends. Next year it's middle school and I am hoping the wider range of classes and the larger school will have more to offer him!

Again thank you for writing this, it just feels good to know I am not the only mom trying to do right by her smarty kid!!

Thank You
Nicole in Wiconsin

Alexis Ahrens April 2, 2013 at 12:41 PM  

Anonymous and Nicole, I've been away from this blog for the past year getting the new school up and running. I'm sorry to have left you hanging!

Anonymous ~ Did you end up going back to homeschooling? How did that go for you? I'm more and more convinced that our schools need to change to meet the new needs of our sensitive kiddos. Even with appropriate changes, it's still tough. 70% of the kids in my 3rd grade class right now pretty much fall within that sensitive category. I won't lie and say it's easy as a teacher. It's supremely challenging, even when I have the insights into what is behind the behaviors. However, I am constantly reflecting on what they are showing me with their behaviors. We focus on building a supportive community so that everyone's quirks are accepted and every child is respected for the unique strengths they bring. Sure, some behaviors are annoying, and then the kids bring the issues up in our class meetings to solve with support. The class keeps me on track, too, reminding me when I'd be better off "just ignoring it" so I don't lose my cool. It's challenging enough with a supportive environment. If you don't have that kind of classroom environment, the challenges can quickly outweigh the benefits. I think homeschooling can be a really great option if you can swing it. Let me know what's transpired!

Nicole ~ Your son is so lucky that you aren't buying into the BS his teachers are trying to sell you. Good for you for continuing to advocate for him and for being involved. He knows you're supporting him for who he is, and that makes a world of difference for him. I'm sure of this. How has the rest of this year gone for him? Has he found some like-minded friends? I'm wondering if there are any homeschool coalitions in your area that would offer some of the same extracurricular activities and social interactions that are available in the public schools. Sometimes, getting together with other homeschooled kids (I'm thinking those who are homeschooled for similar reasons) can help kids find their "tribe" - other kids who don't necessarily fit the mainstream mold, but who are forging their own new normal together. Keep me posted!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts