Wrestling With Authority

Every day, I tell my kids what to do. Get in the shower. Pick up your dishes/clothes/books/shoes. Remember your English homework. Get ready for bed. Many of those requests begin with a “please,” but let’s face it. For most of us, “Please brush your teeth,” isn’t offering choice but rather a veneer of manners we hope helps our children that there are polite ways to tell someone what needs to be done when. “I’d appreciate it if you’d pick your dirty clothes up off the floor and put them in the hamper so they can be washed,” is just a sanitized, “Pick up your clothes.” It’s not an invitation to debate or discussion, and both child and parent know it.

But that’s not the kind of parenting I prefer. In the parenting world in my mind, we all do what we should because, well, we just should. We pick up our things and put them away because it is then easier to find them later. We do our respective jobs because they are simply our jobs to do or because they make our life as family better. We all brush our teeth because that’s good for our teeth. I pay the bills because it keeps the heat on and the keys to the house in our hands. We all take up the tasks of keeping that house intact, each to ability and time of life. And we never run out of ice cream or dark chocolate because that’s just not how we roll.

Yes, I have a rich fantasy life. It sustains me when I’m again reminding children to finish math, pick up socks, and place their own dishes in the dishwasher. I’ve pleaded my case for collaborative living and personal responsibility on numerous occasions, often being met with blank stares or, sometimes from my older, a ducked head, indicating a bit of remorse but no real idea what his crazy mom is requesting.

I’ve been known to struggle with authority. Not with appropriate authority — the kind that is given with respect, but not just the verbal trappings of respect. “Please” means nothing if paired with a useless, unreasonable, or impossible request. Where I’ve struggled with authority is where the authority is simply there for the sake of being authority. Authority should have purpose, and a person with authority should have wisdom and vision that those following the authority do not. 

Parents, theoretically, have that wisdom and vision. We are the first authority in our children’s lives, and most of feel ill-equipped as we wield use it. If we’re thinking as we parent, we wonder daily about when to exert authority and when to let go. Aside from the obvious health, safety, and legal points, knowing when to hold fast and when to let a child lead is largely a matter of opinion swayed by our own upbringing and our peers.  We’re charged with keeping our children alive until eighteen when, theoretically, they’ve gathered the knowledge and vision to move into the world with less parental prodding. How we interpret the vagaries of that job is up to us.

When I look back, the authority issues those first few years were simple, revolving around sleep, safety, and nutrition. The sleep issues bogged me down. My children weren’t big on naps. One just needed far less sleep that it seems a small child should, and one just found leaving mom’s moving arms too risky to chance. But I needed their naps. As an introverted mom, finding time to recharge alone was a priority for my own mental health. At many a nap time, I wondered who needed the naps more, me or the small child. But while you can lead a child to bed (or other comfy nap spot), you cannot make a child sleep. Not one to let my child cry it out for purpose or principle, I did what many moms do. I took to the car. Ah. Quiet for me. Rest for the little one.

Authority issues expanded as they grew. I found myself locked in ridiculous power struggles, which any thinking person would recognize as unmistakable signs of authority gone awry. Debating clothing color choices with a four-year-old is a sign of insanity, and yet, I found myself explaining the lifetime woe my older would experience if his idea of matching was to wear a red shirt with an almost-red pair of pants. Yes, I learned. Clothing — and hair length — aren’t areas where my wisdom or vision help one whit. I learned a bit about when to let go.

As the boys grew, I continued sometimes to explode into unneeded authority tantrums, bids for power, really, which is the not-so-virtuous cousin of authority. I say with minimal embarrassment that one pleasure I take in my professional life as a physician assistant is that people actually at least pretend to listen to my wisdom. Yeah, I know they don’t all go home to exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, and quit smoking, but they often say they will. Shallow? Perhaps. But some days, I just want some recognition that have wisdom and vision in something.

Homeschooling added another arena for the authority question to flourish and, in some ways, raised the stakes to the authority game. While I live in a state with no reporting and no regulation, I have always been acutely aware of the level of responsibility I have educating my sons. What to teach, how to teach it, when to start and stop, how to assure their competence — how to decide what competence means — and much more is firmly in my hands. It’s daunting. Heck, it’s often overwhelming. As my older reaches the end of high school, it’s no less daunting to count credits and wonder where to balance his passions with what he’s not so passionate about. And it’s daunting to know when to let him lead and when to exert authority about his schedule.

So where’s the line? I don’t know. I think it’s different for every parent and every moment in time. While I appreciate the adage that a parent is the one who best knows his or her own child, it’s not that comforting when the parent knows perfectly well that skills ignored today are going to still be required in college in a few years. And just as I’d have been remiss for failing to remind my children at four to brush their teeth or to give another child a chance at the swings, I’d be equally remiss if I did not insist on balance to their education. Computer programming is not a sufficient curriculum for my older. He must learn to read with comprehension and write in a way that transmits information and is readable. My younger must ingest more than literature and history — some math and science are necessary for a well-rounded education.

Of course authority extends beyond academics when parenting older children. Curfew is just as much about respecting the needs of the rest of the family and your obligations the next day as it is drawing a line of “late enough”. Talking back, while mostly just annoying at home, is the possible precursor to disrespect to professors, bosses, and partners in years to come. And nothing about parenting teens excludes reminders about basic hygiene.

So I continue to wrestle with appropriate authority. I wonder when to let a child walk away from an activity and when to insist he try at least a few more months. I ponder whether to legislate bedtimes and waking times for those who find themselves with too few hours in a day for homework. I wrestle with choice — how much to give about coursework and free-time choices. All the while, I yearn to step down from the role of authoritarian, or at least to step back into a more supportive and collaborative role. It’s work, figuring out how to let children grow up and finding your place as they continually grow and change. It’s hard work, the sort that haunt a mom in the night, wondering to which side she’s erred the previous day. It leaves me wanting an authority of my own, an instruction manual, specific for each age and stage of my children.

But there’s nothing, of course. So I make my own way, blundering daily, stepping on their toes one moment and letting them wander too far the next, always wondering if they’ll be ready when it’s their time to leave the proverbial nest.  Wondering what they’ll think once firmly ensconced in their adulthood about the level of authority they experienced at home. Wondering and just wanting them to be okay.


What Anxiety Looks Like

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 9.22.23 PMDespite a fantastic first day of his afternoon Montessori class, my older son, age four, grew quieter the morning of the second day of class. He dawdled through lunch and, tears appeared each day as the time to leave approached. I’d reassured him, reminding of him how happy he came out each day, a day he’d walked in with confidence, eyes dry. I asked what was wrong.

Eyes full, face tight with emotion, he confessed: “I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?” I probed.

“I’m worried that I’m going to get worried while I’m there,” came his reply.

If metacognition is thinking about thinking, this must be meta-anxiety. We talked and continued our daily treks to school, where his teacher reassured me that his anxious expression faded within the first half hour each day, at which point he fell into the rhythm of the prepared environment and stimulation of the Montessori classroom.  That was vaguely reassuring, although I couldn’t shake the sting I felt when looking on his anxious face every day for three weeks, at which point, it seems, worrying about worrying wasn’t necessary.

Twelve years later, that expression is still all too familiar in our house. As an intermittently anxious mom who parents two anxious kids, I’ve watched anxiety in all forms. Too often anxious feelings go unspoken. They can get lost in the frustration feeling tied by one’s emotion.  It can come out upside down, inside out, and sideways, presentations that require a mental contortionist with a sharp eye to recognize.  It can cry and scream and hide and even vomit. It never fails to break my heart.

Anxiety looks like physical illness. It can be the recurring stomach ache or headache that drives a child to bed due to severity. It can look like an approaching cold or flu or case of food poisoning, and separating out what is what can press a mom’s skills of detection. This is not feigned illness. The headache of anxiety is as painful as one from sinus pressure or severe muscle tension. The stomach distress can keep one tied to a bathroom much like the aftereffects of an aged burrito from a street vendor. The chest pain and palpitations drive many an adult, certain death is imminent, to the emergency room. Anxiety and its sibling, panic attacks are as debilitating as the organic diseases they mimic. Classes are missed. Play dates are cancelled. Sleep is lost. More confusing yet, the symptoms can begin after the bout of anxiety ends. Adrenaline may help us outrun the saber tooth tiger, but we pay a price for its untimely release that so often occurs with anxiety.

Anxiety looks like resistance and noncompliance. Anxious children can be avoidant children. Avoiding what is causing anxiety — a difficult piano piece or a math assignment that just might be challenging — doesn’t help, of course. The dreaded assignment reaches gargantuan proportions with avoidance, and delay generally means the work, when finally done, is done under pressure of time, thus producing more anxiety. The piano piece never practiced because it might be too hard causes anxiety at each practice, anxiety that builds as the next lesson approaches. Quiet avoiders may fly under the radar until the next lesson or the day of a test, when anxiety then flairs. More overt avoiders may find themselves in constant (anxiety-provoking) conflict with a parent or instructor.

Anxiety looks like anger. Anxious children can tantrum — screaming, crying, arguing, and even physically lashing out when faced with the powerless feeling that anxiety can bring. Being loud and mad can bring a semblance of control that is, of course, not control at all but often complete lack of it. With the focus moved from the source of anxiety to the misdeeds of all those around the child : mom, who said I had to do it, my brother, who just happens to be in the way, him or self, because being angry seems better than being scared. The wake of the anger can become the focus for all involved, with consequences meted out to children without control of their flood of emotions.

Anxiety looks like sadness. Anxiety can walk with depression. It’s hard to be anxious all the time. Anxiety is exhausting. Anxiety can take a child away from new experiences, because anxious children will avoid what might be fun if the risk appears too great. When anxiety about a new experience – joining a club, attending a sleepover, riding the roller coaster – pride and confidence may develop. But for some anxious children, brave attempts to try something new are met with anxiety that makes enjoyment impossible. It’s easy to feel like a failure, and that can lead to sadness.

And sometimes, anxiety look like anxiety. The keyed-up child who keeps asking if he is safe during each thunderstorm, checking forecasts and windows. The child who, before vaccinations, asks for weeks what day the dreaded shot is, losing sleep the nights before and breaking down in hysterical tears before the actual event. The preschooler who cries each morning before preschool starts, because he saw someone else cry on the first day, so there must be something to worry about.  And sometimes, kids can give it voice.

“I’m feeling anxious, Mom.”

Those words bring me hope and relief. Not for the anxiety itself. I’m sorry my kids worry about what worrying won’t help, and I’m sorry anxiety keeps them from doing all they’d like to do. But that they can express it — identify it and share it — makes me hopeful that they’re learning to cope with what for each of them has been at times a debilitating condition.  And that makes me just a bit less anxious about them.

For more posts about life with twice exceptional (2e) kids, visit this month’s Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum Blog Hop list. 

Parental Control(s)

Like most parents, I have a love/hate relationship with the internet and my children’s relationships with it. The internet has brought us access to amazing online classes, like those offered through Online G3, Khan Academy, Code Academy, and Coursera. These educational portals enrich every day of our homeschooling. It’s brought us Google Hangout, my platform for teaching, and Google Drive, the most sensible way to share documents from computer to computer and, for my boys, from our home to their home at their Dad’s. The internet brings us instant access to answers to almost any question while allowing us to talk about the quality and content of those answers. The online offerings available for homeschooling families have increased dramatically since I started this journey 9 years ago, and I really don’t know what our homeschooling would look like without it or whether we would still even be home.

And then there’s the hate side, or at least the more complicated side. There are all the sorts of sites I don’t want them to face. Porn. Malware. Scams. Hate speech.  Gambling. Phishing.  And then there are the sites they adore and find so compelling that time seems to stop for when they go to them: YouTube. Facebook. Minecraft. Reddit. Tumblr. Skype. Meme sites of every and any kind. And lately, CNN and the New York Times. 

I didn’t want to use parental controls.  I kept our computers in busy places where privacy was assuredly not available. I wanted to think that open dialogue between parent and children paired with of a good dollop of self-control and a cup of desire to follow the rules would keep my highly inquisitive children from searching for the stuff for which they should not search via internet. That’s mostly been true. But I didn’t count on an eight year old who would search for images of kittens and come up with scantily clad adult humans. Call me naive. Self control or not, something had to be done.

So for several years, the parental controls were about keeping disturbing material out. I had no more need to come across images of the wrong kind of kittens than my boys, and I’m all for avoiding what could be a scam, so I set controls that worked for all of us. K9, a free program that works with iOS and Microsoft machines, became my assistant in keeping the internet a place that worked for us.

Until it didn’t. While I admit that Scrabble and Facebook can distract me from work I should be doing, I generally manage to get done what needs to get done. My children are, ahem, less task-oriented. My twelve-year-old’s vice is YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft (I don’t get it, but I know he’s not alone.) and, while less objectionable but no less distracting, the New York Times and CNN websites.  My sixteen-year-old is partial to aggregated readers and Skype (audio only), carrying on conversations with friends while playing games, reading other sites, and computer programming. Neither distraction is managed with moderation. My children, it seems, are unfamiliar with moderation.

So what to do? My preferred method of parenting is to present my thoughts (computer entertainment is getting in the way of education and Experiences with Real People and Things), explain the value I espouse (moderation in all things and regular contact with books, outside, and Real Human Beings), listen to their thoughts and plans for change (this part can get dicey), and wait for change to actually happen (and apart it falls). Something between steps three and four goes wrong, and my collaborative process of guidance fails to deliver.

So I’ve had to resort to what I really don’t want to resort to: tightening the controls. I hate doing that. I want people to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. So up go the blocks on the sites my younger loves the most, only to be unlocked by me. (Given we share computers, moving between two all day long, there is little else practical. We’ve tried having separate accounts, but the bouncing back and forth is a pain.)  Ugh. It’s a hate-hate situation, but it is, for now, our answer.

Parental controls for a sixteen-year-old who built his own computer is another issue altogether. I’ve wrestled with this question and found no reasonable answer. Products like OpenDNS that protect an entire home network don’t easily work with our internet provider’s technology, and I can’t put parental controls on a computer where he has all the, well, control. I’m running on trust when it comes to objectionable material, trust and the hope that he truly has the values he seems to have. That will have to do when it comes to content.

As far as time management, I’ve largely taken the stance that, at sixteen, he needs to learn to manage the lure of technology. He needs to learn to budget his time. It’s too early in the semester to know how that’s going, but I’m optimistic. And a bit freaked. This parent is not in control of a major source of distraction for one easily distracted not-so-much-a-child. It’s taking a good deal of deep breathing and no small amount of trust to stay this course.

So I try to exercise some parental (self) control, realizing that I’ve raised him well, and while that’s no guarantee he won’t make bad choices, in less than two years, he’s an adult. My younger son chafes at the relative freedom his older brother has regarding the computer, and aside from reminding him that his brother had limits at twelve, I don’t know what to say. I’m still figuring this out, parenting a teen, and I don’t have it all down.  I still remind my older than interacting with live people is part of becoming a healthy human being and insist on a live presence for all meals and the mandated fresh air exposure that comes with yard care. And I ponder what is right and what is good and what just is different from what I knew growing up. So it’s another deep breath as I regain my parental control and watch two boys grow up in the age of technology.



Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

DSCN0301I realize that after three years of blogging about my twice exceptional boys, I’ve never written about what twice exceptional means. The conventional definition of twice exceptional, or 2e, is gifted with learning differences. Parents would tell you that it’s a life of contradictions and contrasts, often pulling against each other resulting in a child who looks, well, average, whatever that is. They’d also tell you stories of advocacy twice failed, kids who work twice as hard with half the results, and twice the concerns about where a child will fit in the world. And the kids? Some might tell about wondering who they were, wondering at why life seems so hard, and perhaps about just feeling not so smart.

Until my older son struggled in school with handwriting tasks, I didn’t know a child could be learning disabled and gifted. Since he was my first child, I took much of his way of being in the world as normal kid stuff. Well, I knew he was ahead in areas, largely in the academic realm, but I also knew he lagged in fine motor skills, from writing to tying shoes to buttering bread. The diagnoses of his level of giftedness and dysgraphia, a disorder of written expression, arrived in tandem, making sense out of what we’d noticed while making the job of finding an appropriate educational setting that much harder. The poor fit of school was made no easier with those pieces of information.

So eventually we came home from school. Three years later, the ADHD diagnosis came along for the ride, with a trail of question marks still following, challenges undefined and unexplained. And three years after that, my younger was formally diagnosed with Aspergers, changing everything and nothing in a few sentences that were too long in coming.

That’s what those second exceptionalities do. They change everything. And nothing.

Ideally, they how we frame our children’s challenges. What was once seemed stubborn is now likely anxiety about what just doesn’t come with effort alone. What looked lazy is avoidance of what just feels bad or is simply beyond one’s skill set. What appeared to be neglect is a brain that struggles to make sense out of time and space. When I knew that my older son’s refusal to write more than the briefest phrase was because holding the pencil hurt and that making each letter took intense concentration that made it impossible to focus on content, I stopped thinking of his resistance as stubborn or lazy. It was a reasonable reaction to facing a Herculean task. When I found out that his trouble following a list of tasks, never mind create his own, came from a frontal lobe that was taking its time maturing, I stopped seeing his day as strewn with neglect.

Or at least I mostly did. Truthfully, it’s hard to look at a kid who started to add at three and explore the details of earth science at four and understand why the trajectory of learning that came so easily when no product was demanded comes screeching to a halt when it seems to be time to write a simple sentence about the moon. It’s not much easier at 15, when detailed monologues about computer guts dominate conversations but writing a list of tasks and following it still requires Mom.

Parenting a gifted kid often means parenting a child who was somewhat like you. Even if time and thousands of questions without answers seem to have beaten the giftedness out of us, apples don’t fall far from trees, as my father would say. For many of us, there is something familiar about the intensity of our gifted children, if only in shadowy images as we remember our childhoods.

But if you are not also learning disabled — and my children’s father and I are not — the dichotomy of the 2e kid is frankly mysterious. I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to write  with ease, to be unable take notes during a lecture, to look for my homework that I’m sure I did only to find that I never did it, or be stymied by the social norms of conversation. I just don’t know. It’s an unfamiliar way of being in the world.

Now, that’s expected to some degree. I don’t expect my kids to like what I like or see the world the way I see it. They are individuals. But when their operating systems seems so foreign, it’s sometimes hard to parent effectively and respectfully. In a fit of frustration, I once asked my older if the world in his head was as chaotic as it appeared from the outside. “It’s much worse,” he replied, without hesitation or, thankfully, frustration with his stymied, frantic mother.

Having a child who is twice exceptional means school will never be a sure fit. Or at least not a simple and comfortable fit. Mid-second grade, when my older came home, I was exhausted by meetings where I tried to explain what seemed like impossible partners, my son’s disparate needs for more information and challenge with less written output (although a keyboard would have been welcome). Having mercy on my son, myself, and even the school, I took the challenge home. That doesn’t make any exceptions vanish, but it does return your child to being your child, free of as many comparison points and evaluations. The dissonance with the world persists when field trips are missed (too loud, too many people, too many places to go in a day, or just too something else) and when reading through boards for parents of gifted kids, but being at home is a respite from the expectations of the world, where “gifted” and “learning disabled” mean different classrooms, methodologies, and outcomes. And as I’ve returned one to school (dual high school and college enrollment), I’ve been reminded that the differences persist, causing different challenges than eight years back, but still making fit difficult.

And for the kids? It’s even harder. For my older, having learning disabilities has caused him to question his intelligence. How can being smart and a quick learner coincide with forgetting to do assignments and struggling still to write a legible sentence? It seemed a more likely explanation that he wasn’t very smart at all, I suppose, and at an age where being “normal” is valued above being oneself, it seems reasonable to want to wish both away. Having both his giftedness and other challenges negated by school didn’t help, either, although by now I thought time would erase those feelings fo poor fit. Thankfully, college experiences in schools with strong disability resource offices have somewhat ameliorated of those feelings. (See Accommodating Disability, College Style for more on that adventure.)

My younger, at least on the surface, has an easier time. At home and in online classes, his difference doesn’t often interfere. After all, a preference for no eye contact, fewer bodies in the house, and a tight routine all mesh well with homeschooling. He’s also comfortable in his own skin, embracing his difference. (Don’t you dare call it a disability, Mom!) But I worry. The accommodations for him are largely invisible to him — careful scheduling, plenty of time for transitions, and adequate downtime happen without him realizing it. And while he’d likely be eaten alive in a live middle school classroom, he’s just one of the pack in his online classes. I’d not say it’s been easier to parent him over the years (oh, it’s not been), but out of school, the social issues just don’t cause as much difficulty day-to-day. He sees himself as smart and capable and enjoys the friendship of some wonderful children and adults who accept him as is. I’m grateful for his comfort within his own skin.

There is no ending. Twice exceptional kids become twice exceptional adults, and with guidance, support, and a bit of luck, they enter adulthood confident in their talents and equipped to seek and use supports for their disabilities.  I keep my fingers crossed, admittedly, but mostly I just keep guiding and supporting. And loving.

If you want to know more about supporting 2e learners, follow the links below. 

Accommodating Disability, College Style

I was a lousy grade school advocate. I tried my hand at speaking up for my oh-so bored (but don’t use that word) older son during his first grade year, asking for assignments that took bigger bites with less repetition. I didn’t get very far, and even when we handed over the testing they requested to prove that he really didn’t need that, the testing that showed that he very much did, nothing happened. We were welcome to keep him in the school, but with the understanding that they had nothing to offer him.

Thinking that getting little for nothing was a better deal than getting nothing for 10K a year, we tried a public gifted program. Now we had more information. In addition to a quick mind, my older had a writing disability. Intervention via a scribe or keyboard wasn’t available for a gifted kid, it seemed, so while free, he was stuck with education that was boring and unaccommodating to his disability.

So eight years ago, we went home.

Last spring, it was with great trepidation and a good amount of encouragement from a psychologist who “gets” twice exceptional (gifted and learning disabled) kids that I made the call to Madonna University  a small private college just minutes away from home. With my son just months from 15,  called their designated admissions advisor for dual-enrolled students (a good sign of an open-minded institution). I spouted a few scores and what we were seeking — Calculus I and Sign Language and Society (a liberal arts intro class with no signing). Yes, they’d be glad to have him. Then I asked for what I’d not asked for in the previous seven years — accommodations for dysgraphia and ADHD (and assorted executive function disorders.

I held my breath.

“Of course we can accommodate him,” she began before spouting off a list of accommodations I’d not known was even possible. I exhaled, thanked her profusely, and nearly cried on the line.

A few weeks later, after scheduling his classes, we were walked down to the Office of Disability Resources (ODR) to meet his advisor. This would be a first for the university, a dual-enrolled student using the ODR, we were told, with a smile and not a small amount of enthusiasm. I could hardly believe it. Two grade schools had met him with doubt of the validity of his gifts and his disabilities, despite reason, pleading, paperwork, and repeated meetings. This place — this college — was ready to help as soon as we presented ourselves.

Well, not only ourselves. We’d brought the latest evaluation from his psychologist, complete with diagnoses and specific recommendations. We had ACT scores and more, hoping that the high scores on those measures wouldn’t negate the very real challenges my son faces. My son and I were both nervous. Me because I’d failed every previous attempt to advocate for him. Him because he was sitting in a college advisor’s office and was not yet 15, plus he felt that somehow his disabilities negated his intelligence. Being twice-exceptional is quite the head game.

The rest was easy. The advisor chatted with both of us, getting a feel for what worked and didn’t work for my son. Note taking was the biggest concern. Dysgraphia affects the ability to write by hand but also the ability to organize thoughts. Note taking in college classes require a rapid hand and an ease with sorting out what is relevant and noteworthy from what is just interesting. It requires constant focus, which in these classes, meant attending for up to three hours at a time. Note taking is his greatest nemesis.

And the box was checked for a note taker. A paid — by the university– note taker chosen by the ODR was available. This service could be done anonymously or more openly, with carbon copy notes either handed over after class, sent via email, or placed in a numbered box in the office.  If the first one didn’t work out, a replacement would be provided. Either way, a student already in the class would provide him with notes. I exhaled again.

What else did he need? Quiet testing? Okay. Time-and-a-half for testing? Just in case. Keyboard for testing anything longer than a single-word answer? Definitely. Permission to use a laptop during class for in-class writing assignments? Yes.  We were handed the list of possible accommodations to consider, encouraged to take what might be needed. It was overwhelming. And encouraging.

College accommodations come with a caveat: it is up to the student to enact them. The student needs to approach the professor with the paperwork for scheduling a test in the testing center then file the paperwork with the ODR secretary. The student needs to ask to use a keyboard for an assignment in class instead of writing it out. No teacher or advisor will come after the student, meaning that it all can be in place on paper but go unused in reality. For a student with executive function issues (difficulty planning and organizing), this seemed a daunting task.

Fast forward to fall, with nine credits on the schedule, a nervous mom, and plenty of adrenaline for my son. Only the note taking accommodation was used, and without that, he’d have been lost. Thanks to long class times, extended test-taking time wasn’t needed. While offered a reader and a scribe for tests, he decided to use neither, and thankfully his Calculus teacher assured him she’d dealt with far worse handwriting than his (somehow his numbers are legible where his letters aren’t). He was sure that telling someone what to write down for math would be far more challenging than just showing the work himself, and he was likely right. But just like most security blankets, knowing the accommodations were there for the taking was a comfort.

Accommodations even when enacted, don’t solve all the problems of the learning disabled student. Poor executive function — the skills of planning, organization, and impulse control — isn’t easily accommodated for. I’ve served as his frontal lobe for a good long time, and I’ve had to continue that role as he moved some learning to the college classroom. While we’ve worked on ways to keep schedules and lists, these skills still aren’t used to anything close to their full potential. Additionally, a few tests went bad — or at least weren’t that great — mostly due to poor self-monitoring and a tendency to be overly optimistic about what he knew. An assignment was missed (miraculously just one), likely due to wishful thinking that he’d already done it paired with a lack of follow-up to assure that was true. In short, the  usual problems persisted.

So this semester, he’s taking three classes, carrying eleven credits between two colleges. I hold my breath again and again, wince regularly, and cheer whenever appropriate. The second school offered similar supports, including audiobooks, preferential seating, advance copies of in-class reading and writing assignments, and speech-to-text software for writing assignments and tests. None of those are necessary in the PC Troubleshooting and Repair class he’s taking, but it’s good to know they are there. For a reading and writing heavy class, he’d need it all.

Accommodations are readily available at the college level, even for dual enrolled students. While they can help with some of the challenges of the child with disabilities they can’t touch the underlying executive function issues many kids with learning disabilities experience. Twice exceptional kids who need the intellectual stimulation of the college environment will still need support at home to meet deadlines, hone studying skills, and provide organizational support. It’s a continual balance between those disparate needs.  Disability resource offices offer some substantial support, but parent will end up offering a good amount, too. At least for me, that job doesn’t seem likely to end soon.


Cautiously Optimistic

Depending on how I count it, we’re either in our ninth week, fifth week, or third week of school. Since it only really all came together in the past few weeks, I’ll pick the latter.

I’d been dreading this school year since at least May. Okay, maybe even April. The previous two years were a downward spiral, with my older son and I finding our way ever more deeply into a black hole of discouragement, despair, and daily battles. Okay, perhaps that’s a bit strong, but neither of us were happy with each other or ourselves. And Instead of working together, we both seemed bent on proving to each other that things could indeed get worse. So they did.

As August approached, my dread increased. I certainly wasn’t helping my older grow into more responsibility. If anything, I was hurting the process. In acute distress one day, I went so far as to call our local public high school two weeks before it was to start, ready to demolish our plans in hopes that school could help him more than I could. The act of calling calmed me down and absolutely convinced my son that immediate change was required. Besides, it reminded me why we’d left school almost eight years earlier. Asking for accommodations for an exceptionally gifted kid who needed significant support for his dysgraphia wasn’t going to be easier at 15 than it had been at seven. Anyway, the promised returned calls after the initial talk with the counselor went unanswered. Surely that was a sign to continue as we had planned.

And so continue we did. He’d begun his Coursera literature class in July and his physics course in August (the only class with me at the helm but with the benefit of a friend in attendance as well). After Labor Day, two classes at Madonna University promised a new way of learning independent of Mom but requiring a far higher degree of autonomy and responsibility than previously experienced or exhibited.

Yes, I had my doubts. And instead of remaining upbeat, positive, and generally supportive, I was sitting in a place of fear tinged with not a small amount of resentment and anger. Boy, did it show. But there he was, excited about university classes and tolerating the accommodations offered given his learning differences. Somehow, despite my negativity, he was still quite sure he’d be fine. As his first day of school approached, his excitement built. Mine did, too, although I continued to worry.

Then I stopped. His university classes were days away from beginning. He was more excited about those than any other academic endeavor in the past two years. Perhaps he’d be fine. And if he wasn’t, perhaps that would be the nudge he needed to work harder on the organizational piece that’s always plagued him.

Was I comfortable with the idea of letting him fail, or even letting him flounder and swallow some poor grades? Not really. Even at a reduced rate for dual enrollment, the tab for eight credits is significant. Beyond the financial investment was my concern about his ability to manage the deadlines and dates that school requires. He’d struggled mightily with that at home, and how much was teenage rebellion and how much was executive function challenges was unknown. But my deepest concern was that a failure at school would confirm his growing sense of identity as someone who couldn’t succeed.

He, however, was all confidence and enthusiasm, and that was contagious. And hopeful. So I relaxed.

He returned from the first class, Calculus I, ebullient. He’d attended with another 15-year-old friend, and together, it seems they took the class by storm. The professor asked questions, but the other (traditionally aged) students didn’t answer. Some would mumble, my son reported, but only after much prompting by the professor. So he and his buddy started answering questions. After suggesting he make sure others have a chance to answer, I let out a mental exhalation. In those few hours, he’d been reminded of what he’d forgotten for years or perhaps what he never actually believed:  he was smart.

Yes, I know that plenty of college (and high school) kids zone out in class, knowing plenty but saying nothing. But participating successfully in that setting (yes, I asked if his answers were correct) reminded him that he wasn’t stupid. Nothing I’d been able to say had changed that perception of himself, as for years he’d only seen the learning disabilities and not his own giftedness.

That bit of confirmation of his own abilities along with the desire to do well in the college setting seems –so far — to be enough to help him summon some basic organizational skills. While his binder and backpack were scary when we looked through them today (first check), I could see that he’d received excellent grades on all his assignments. Heck, I was thrilled he’d remembered to do them and to turn them in, but the grades on them confirmed to him and to me that we’d made the right choice this year. Today, three weeks in, we spent some time on Basic Backpack and Binder Organization 101, and while I’m sure paper chaos will return to that black maw, I’m seeing some light at the end of what’s seemed like a very long tunnel, and I doubt it’s an oncoming train.

So here I am, cautiously optimistic with a son who’s happier, more independent, and more confident than he’s been in years. It’s early to say how the semester will go, but I think there’s every reason to believe it will be fine. His improved organization and planning have spread to his Coursera class, where he’s taking more ownership over his work and no longer asking for assistance on essays. Honestly, this independence is taking some getting used to. I’m accustomed to butting in more, and those habits persist. Being rebuffed because of growing ability, however, is fabulous.

May the “No, thanks, Mom. I’ve got this,” that I’ve heard so often these three weeks continue. Those words are warming my heart.

Is growth happening in your house? Share away!


And We’re Off!

We’re back to school. No, we’re not year-round homeschoolers. Or at least we weren’t until now. My older son’s summer vacation ended three weeks ago when he began a class through Coursera (to be reviewed soon). He’s been working on half a high school English credit with the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, thus freeing up some time this fall for other pursuits. It’s a fine class, but he’d likely admit he’s struggling with school in summer.

Me, too.  I wasn’t ready to remind, prod, and schedule. Since our (or for the rest of the summer, his) travel schedule continues class or no class, finding time to get the assignments and readings done while we’re at home proves a challenge. I was hoping that having only one class to plan for would encourage my older, now 15, to take time management seriously. Let’s just stay that remains a work in progress and organization issues remain a chronic stressor in this house.

This week marks the start of physics with a class of four teens, including my older. I’ve been planning on and off during break but still have some anxiety about this undertaking. We’ll be meeting three hours a week for a bit of lecture, problem review, and lab, with extra monthly labs from a friend who speaks fluent physics and has enthusiasm to spare. His presence reassures me that this will be fine and even fun. To follow along with the syllabus, visit Don’t Touch the Photons (plans will pop up here a bit later). The rest or my older’s schedule starts after Labor Day, with classes at the University first then personal finance with a small group a few weeks later. By the time that last class begins, his literature class will end, a fortuitous coincidence.

Next week, my younger joins in with his Online G3 courses. He adores these classes, and he’s more than ready to return some routine to his life. He’s also firm that no other course work can start until after Labor Day (tradition trumps all for him). At that point, he’ll start the rest, aside from Coursera’s offering, A History of the World Since 1300, and NaNoWriMo will capture much of his time in November. He’s a bundle of emotion now, definitely ready for the structure the school year provides yet anxious about how he’ll get it all done. The gradual start helps allay some of the fears about keeping up (and he’s quite able to do so), yet doing so forces repeated routine changes (which he doesn’t do so well). It’s all a bit Goldilocks-like without the baby bear’s contribution. Just right is elusive.

We’ve always had a staggered start, although never nearly one this early and staggered over so much time. Amidst keeping track of all these start times, I’m starting my own venture, coaching a handful of kids as they work to write with more ease and ability. This week’s tasks are largely logistical — opening an LLC, creating record-keeping systems, and reading writing samples. My mixed emotions are similar to my younger’s: I’m excited to start (and it will be a staggered start) yet anxious about meeting families’ expectations and keeping up to my standards. Apples don’t fall far from their tree, it seems.

So ready or not, here we go. I know my anxiety about the year will fade as I sink into my routine and the boys into theirs. I know my younger will struggle as we make this move from summer to fall, despite his inborn need for a predictable schedule. I hope my older will embrace (or at least accept) scheduling and planning, seeing it as a tool that can help him decrease the chaotic feeling he often has. I’m certain we’ll all learn and grow this school year, as we have all the ones before it.

May your start to school, if you have a formal one, be met with peace and optimism. Best wishes!



Preliminary Planning for 2012/13: My Older (10th grade)

A few weeks back, I posted preliminary plans for fall for my younger son, A.B. My older son’s plans still have some holes, but here’s what I have so far.  As always, plans are subject to change. For past plans for both boys, see the tab above, “What We Say We’re Doing.”

A.D. (15, 10th grade)

Math: This one is easy, at least for me. My older will be enrolled in a local homeschool-friendly university for Calculus I and II this year. Math is his strongest subject, and his biggest challenges will be showing his work and writing legibly. The math part should be no problem, especially since he’s spent the past month working through my college calculus text with the help of Khan Academy videos. Yes, he’s excited, albeit in that somewhat cool, detached way teenage boys often have.

Language Arts:  The goals for this year are to continually build his writing skills, with a focus on the essay and academic writing, and doing more formal literary study and analysis. For the writing, we’ll selectively work through Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition, adding in a few research papers throughout the year.  He’ll also complete a Hewitt Lightning Literature course, likely American Mid to Late 19th Century, although that’s under debate.  I’d like to add some formal vocabulary study, since that fell by the wayside midway through Word Within the Word II. What we’ll use remains unknown (suggestions welcome).

History: This one’s a mystery. This summer, he’s watching and discussing The World Was Never the Same: Events that Changed History (Teaching Company) with a group of homeschoolers.  I’m adding some readings to round out the subjects as well. A friend is musing about creating a course on the history of the English language, but this is still in the maybe stage. Last year was American history, so this year won’t be. Beyond that, I’m uncertain (and again, open to suggestions).

Science: Ack! It’s physics time! Somehow, I found myself volunteering to teach (algebra-based) physics to a handful of local homeschoolers. Then, I promptly lost a night of sleep in sheer panic. I’ve found my ground and some good resources. We’ll likely be using Singapore’s Physics Matters for the text, with additions for the material it’s lacking (parabolic motion, centripetal and centrifugal force, and quantum physics, just to name a few). A friend’s husband, who will be doing labs for my younger son and his own son, volunteered to run labs for the high school kids one day a month. I’ll teach the material, likely working some smaller labs and demos during our weekly meeting, and turn over the true excitement to him. Lesson plans will appear on this blog as they develop.

Foreign Language: Latin didn’t work. Spanish with Rosetta Stone (assigned to give the flavor of the language only) yielded less than 20 vocabulary words, per my son’s estimate. So this fall, we’re trying something different. So this September, my older will start the American Sign Language  sequence at our local homeschooling-friendly university. A kinesthetic language for a kinesthetic learner seems appropriate. Will colleges accept it? Many do, and he understands the limits this choice may place on his options later.

The Rest:  He’ll continue with piano through the summer and next year. His negotiations with him piano teacher did yield a happier student and a generally satisfied teacher, and he’s pleased enough to stay put.  While he spent some time at tennis lessons this winter, he’s not interested in our local Y’s current configuration of classes (teens were moved from  classes with adults to classes for age 8 and up). He needs exercise, and finding what will work for him is one of our summer quests.

I’d like to teach a class using David White’s The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids, although not first semester when I’m settling into physics. Both my boys enjoyed White’s Philosophy For Kids: 40 Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything, but I’d rather run this second one with a larger group than my own two children (and I think only my older is ready for this much more challenging tome).  I’m also waiting to hear from my older. It is, after all, his education.

Suggestions are always appreciated, as are links to your plans.

We Have a Transcript!

This week, I registered my homeschooling high schooler at a local university for fall classes: Calculus I and Sign Language and Society. Those choices reflect the peaks and valleys of my older’s homeschooling over the years. His strong mathematical ability was a substantial part of what brought him home to learn and an arena in which he’s always thrived. He’s more than ready for Calculus come fall. His decision to take American Sign Language to fulfill the foreign language requirement of many colleges is a response to his struggles with first Latin and then Spanish. Some mix of poor language-learning genes (my contribution), dysgraphia, and lagging study skills have made foreign language acquisition quite painful and unrewarding. ASL, we hope, will mesh better with his strengths.

But this moment is more than a move toward his future and a return to classroom learning. This event means I finally created his transcript.

For a host of rather neurotic reasons mixed with avoidance and sloth, I’ve obsessed about creating a transcript for him since he started seventh grade but done nothing. What should go on it? What shouldn’t? How should I structure it? Should I give him grades? How should it be organized? Over and over, I’d search out templates or create my own only to freeze when actually attempting to fill one in.

For dual enrollment, however, he needed a transcript. Nothing elaborate, assured the admissions officer, only something to show the Calculus teacher he belonged in that class. Thus charged with a specific task and imminent deadline, I set to work. A few days before our meeting with Admissions, an email group’s discussion serendipitously turned to transcript creation. I exchanged emails with a few kind, patient women who had done what I wished to do: create a transcript with no “mommy grades” that still relayed the depth and breadth of my older son’s work. Reassurance that these transcripts could be used effectively in the college acceptance game that lays in our not-too-distant future relaxed me. One parent even sent me a portion of her daughter’s transcript (a daughter accepted at a selective university), which was very similar to what I’d begun. I started to breathe with more ease as I polished my work.

So what did I do? On the first page, I listed his courses by subject and given each a number of credits based on Carnegie Units (120 hours = 1 credit).  After seven months of worrying that we hadn’t done enough, I was delighted to see so much had actually been accomplished. This process took a bit of shuffling, since most of reading and writing experience was scattered through his other studies. His research papers were written on psychology subjects, and due to my initial design of his Earth Science studies, much of his literature/nonfiction reading work was of a scientific bent. After some sorting and reorganizing, I found he’d indeed completed a year of composition and literature while still maintaining enough hours to list Psychology and Earth Science separately. More work had been accomplished than I’d originally thought.

The following page and a half gave a brief description of each class, including the resources he’d used and the method of evaluating his learning. If he took tests (math only), I mentioned that. If a course was largely based on discussion, debate, analysis, and conversation, I indicated that. Where formal papers and essays were required, I indicated such. I don’t know if anyone will bother much with those brief descriptions, but creating them assured me he was learning in many areas of study. Whew.

Aside from his ACT scores, however, his transcript lacks grades or scores. All the templates I’d found, all the advice on the websites and books, furnished a prominent spot for a GPA. I don’t have any idea how to objectively grade my child at home. We work for mastery, meaning we don’t stop learning material simply because the test or assignment has come and gone. Most of the time, we stay with a topic until it’s well understood. Otherwise, what’s the point? After all, homeschooling is largely about getting a carefully tailored education. It’s about learning (and numerous intangibles that don’t make it onto transcripts). All the transcript samples I’ve seen from friends and online sources are filled with ‘A’s. Hopefully, the ‘A’ means a child has worked to mastery on a subject. But since that’s not what an ‘A’ means from a school, a parent-given ‘A’ gives the reader little with which to compare the student to others.

Sure, grades might work for math. Test scores divided by the number of tests equals a grade. Except it doesn’t. In school, homework counts. So does participation, writing one’s name and date in the correct corner, and turning in work on time. Grading other subjects is, in my opinion a subjective pile of quicksand. I’ve never given an essay or set short essay-type questions a numerical or letter grade, and I don’t plan to start now. No, escaping grades and the stress they induce was a big part of the draw of homeschooling. We homeschool to learn. Period.

And that’s what I think (and hope) his transcript reflects. Once I freed myself from concocting grades, I could relax and just describe what we did. Will anyone read those descriptions? I don’t know. They were reassuring to me that work had been accomplished. Living in a state with no paperwork requirements for homeschoolers encouraged my laxity in record-keeping, and producing a transcript forced me to find the underlying order of our last year.  It also reassured me he’s done a good deal more learning than I’d thought. I came away from the process confident he is well-prepared for the journey ahead. What’s more important, he felt the same while reading it through. We’ve had a rough year for many reasons, and both often felt like we were in a deep educational valley,  but this document assured my son as well that he’d accomplished a significant amount of learning. That well-earned confidence is truly a peak of our homeschooling year.

Review: Jacobs Elementary Algebra

I wrote recently about options for math after Singapore 6B that we’ve tried or at least considered. While some of those resources found their way into my older son’s schedule while he was finishing Singapore, he felt strongly about immediately moving on to  “real” algebra. He was nine and sick of arithmetic. He was also fascinated with the algebra I used to solve some of the more perplexing parts of Challenging Word Problems 6, Singapore’s last book in their honestly named supplement series. When I couldn’t make those bar diagrams work, I’d resort to methods more familiar to me. He wanted in on those methods.

After a moderate amount of research and consideration, I went with an old-standby, Elementary Algebra by Harold R. Jacobs (ISBN 0-7167-1047-1). Written in 1979, this black-and-white text is written with humor and interest without the distracting color splashes and sidebars that grace more modern textbooks. Perhaps those brighter, busier features and are a draw for some learners, but for my son (with ADHD), the less chaos on the page, the better. The cartoon at the start of most lessons held up well over those decades and grabbed my distractable child onto the page while giving us both a chuckle. A bit of a laugh is a fine way to start a math lesson.

There’s plenty of substance after that laugh. In seventeen chapters with four to nine lessons each, Jacobs takes a learner directly into the use of variables while teaching order of operations, graphing, exponents, radicals, and other pre-algebra topics not covered in Singapore’s first six books. For a mathematically geared child, this seamlessly integrates those missed topics into algebra, obviating the need for a separate pre-algebra course. For my older son who is highly mathematically intuitive, this was fine.

In Elementary Algebra, Jacobs does far more than teach the procedural goings-on of algebra. He explains why it works. This is not a text of algorithms to memorize and practice, practice, practice. Rather this is a book that encourages deeper understanding of the math it contains and that connects math to the greater world.  This creates a rather lengthy book, and my son did take a year and a half to move through it. At then end, however, he had a fine grasp of algebra and could easily relate and apply it to other studies.

The structure of the book makes for easy teaching, and the supplemental teacher’s guide (A Teacher’s Guide to Elementary Algebra  ISBN 0-7167-1075-7) provides additional ideas for teaching if that’s desired. This is, however, not a scripted program. For the parent whose algebra is more than a bit rusty, this text could be a challenge. Or, perhaps, it could be an opportunity to polish those rusty skills and dress them up with deeper understanding. Even if one doesn’t require the additional teaching tips in the guide, this book contains the answers to three of the four sets of problems in each chapter. (One set has its answers in the back of the textbook.) For this, it was worth its price several times over.

Each lesson takes a mathematical idea and develops it in two or three pages of text, diagrams, and examples. I’m a believer in interactive math lessons, since I think there’s much to be learned from discussion about mathematics. My son and I would sit together, with me reading the chapter aloud and discussing examples along the way, generally with scrap paper or a white board by our sides. Each lesson concludes with four problem sets: one review, two sections to practice the ideas from the current lesson, and a fourth presenting a challenging problem or two often with a historical bent or mathematical twist.  We generally omitted the review and did the second set (first set of practice problems) together. He’d then do the third set (second set of practice problems) and fourth set (challenge problems) on his own. The following day, we’d review his mistakes and move on to the next lesson.

Each chapter ends with two sets of review problems, of which I’d assign one. One review could be used for a test, but we used tests from the accompanying Test Masters for Elementary Algebra (ISBN 0-7167-1077-3), which offers four tests for each chapter, additional exercises on a host of topics, four multiple-choice midterms and two multiple-choice final exams. We’d have been fine without this supplement, but this was in my more obsessive “afraid we’ll miss something” homeschooling days. It’s definitely an optional supplement.

Algebra was more than a math class for my son. It was a jump in organization, textbook use, and test taking. Up until algebra, he’d done most of his mathematical work in his head. Dysgraphia and impatience with process had led to me scribing most of his work until this point, and while I’d modeled showing work, algebra was the first time I insisted he show his work every time. It was a painful first many months. The math came easily. Writing down steps did not. A second challenge presented when working through problem sets. Writing answers on paper while referring to a page in a book proved difficult. Often the writing issues, visual tracking work, and organized step-writing proved more challenging than the math. Test taking was also new to him. I don’t test my boys much — generally I can tell what they know and what they don’t. Test taking increased his accuracy and gave him a reason to show his work, since even a wrong answer with a clear and largely correct trail could earn partial credit.

Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra prepared my older well for the math that followed: Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Precalculus flowed fairly easily from the lessons learned in that first algebra text. I enjoyed teaching from it, and he enjoyed learning from it. My understanding of some concepts deepened along the way. While it’s hardly the only algebra choice for the homeschooling family, Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra is a strong text based on sound pedagogy that prepares mathematical thinkers well for higher math.