Teacher Professor

November 28, 2010

Breathing and Battling OCD

Filed under: OCD — Teacher Professor @ 8:18 am

Last night: Ray’s bed, where we were snuggling right before bedtime- a nightly ritual, it allows him to settle down into sleep.

“Mommy, I have a new Tourette’s.”

Oh? Oh?

Yea, I sometimes reach out and have to touch things.  I pat them, two or three or sometimes more.  I can’t help it, I just do it.

Oh man, oh man… I saw this on The OCD Project.  Deep breath… Does it feel like you just have to, like you’ll burst if you don’t and then as you pat, that stress goes away?

(Look of surprise)- Yea, just like that.  I feel better when I do it.

sigh- he has OCD now, too? Is it a problem?  Do you want to make it stop? No sense in “fixing” it if it’s not a problem.  And… depends on what he’s patting.  I can just see explaining this one to some third grade parent…

Yea, I don’t want to do it, but I just have to. It’s weird.

There are some things you can do.  Do you want to hear about them? Knowing Ray, if I jump straight into teaching mode, he’ll resist.   Sigh…


Well… the easiest thing to do is to take some very, very deep breaths.  That stress you’re feeling is a bunch of chemicals in your brain that is telling your brain that you’re stressed and this will fix it.  It’s a weird thing, because it’s not real- it’s just the chemicals that are combining and telling your brain lies.  Oxygen- a lot of it- can pop those chemicals sometimes.  You can take big breaths in through your nose- remember, smell the flower?- and blow out the bad chemicals through your mouth- remember, blow out the candle?  You are literally popping the chemicals and blowing them away. The book Talking Back to OCD says to disconnect OCD from the person- OCD is chemicals, NOT part of you. How to translate that to a kid…?

You’ve told me this before, Mommy! (aggravated tone).

Just trying to reinforce the message… Another thing you can do is to stop your hand and just wait it out- know that it’s the chemicals that are screaming at you to do it, not you, and you can wait it out.  And that’s really, really, really hard because the stress builds up pretty bad.  Breathing can help you through that waiting too.  It does go away and the chemicals do stop yelling at you to do something you don’t want to do.

Uh huh.  Mommy, are we going to watch Cats and Dogs?  It’s really, really funny.

And there closed my window of communication.. Oh, I hope it helped…

About 5 minutes later:

Time for bed, Ray.  Good night sweetheart.  I love you soooo much.

I love you, Mommy.

Said muffled against his hair: I admire you so much, Ray.  You are dealing with stuff that no little kid should have to.  And you’re doing such a good job.  You really are.

… and with that, Ray gave me an extra special hug and a small smile of gratitude.  And I went back to my bed, humbled.  Poor kid- this is really, really hard- and he’s so small.  But I was grateful, so grateful that he was at a place where he could verbalize it.  So often he lashes out in frustration and anger, rather than asking for help.  I only pray that I can provide help that he can use.

November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 12:27 pm

On today, it is not about the turkey- although we have a whole one this year because Ray has decided that he likes dark meat.

It is not about using the fine china and real silverware, although our table shines from the polishing of the children and the sense of history and family that comes from special occasion tableware.

It isn’t about the golden wine glasses that are filled with cream soda so that they appear lit from within

It isn’t about the 75 degree temperatures and sunshine that are the norm around here for November, but are such a treat from the 35 degrees we have experienced in other states.

It isn’t about the history of the holiday- for James grew up in Greece and I grew up in New Mexico, where the legends of the Pilgrims are thin- but the realities of family and place are thick.

It isn’t even about the pies, although they are the part that everyone is looking forward to the most


It is about the people around the table- and those we wish were at the table…

It’s about Ray showing off his toe trick of putting his pinkie toe under his other toes- just like his grandmother.

It’s about Elizabeth pulling out Christmas decorations and talking about the holiday with Mamamum and Dampa.

It’s about the phone calls to James’ mother- in a nursing home in Boston- and my mother, in an adobe in Santa Fe, and wishing they could be here.  It’s about good wishes to my grandmothers and uncles in Texas, my father and stepmother in Arkansas, James’ cousins and Vicki in Ohio, and his aunts in Greece.  It’s about the prayers to our dads- both dead at early ages. It’s about missing our families- scattered about, but very close in our thoughts and our hearts.

It’s about taking a cranberry-pear pie over to Drew’s house at 5:30 for Dessert Hour to celebrate friendships of children and grownups.  It’s about making new old friends at my reunion, virtual very real friends through this blog, and feeling the solidity of friends who knew me when I was young and are part of my very fabric of my age.

It’s about making a difference- finishing my book, reaching my students, James finding his bliss in providing research to the university community, the children learning to deal with their challenges and beginning their search for their strengths.  It’s about our family helping homeless families at Manna House tomorrow rather than shopping.

It’s about sleeping in, relaxing, enjoying the quiet time.

It’s about enjoying being domestic- not my strength normally, but I so enjoy a production.  I cook, the children decorate and James cleans- we each have our role.

It’s about that this has been a year- a strengthening year- a year that builds you up as a person, as a family, to survive the  darker years, the tougher years.  The fact that it’s been a year where we can bend our heads with gratefulness and be glad that for the first time in our marriage- in the history of our family, there were no tragedies, no moves, no diagnoses- that it’s been an ordinary year.

An ordinariness that I took for granted in my younger years- before autism, before deaths, before Tourette’s, before losing jobs and losing our way.  Before. Now… we celebrate that it’s been a year that is extraordinary in its ordinariness.

To all of you reading- to God- to my family- thank you.

November 24, 2010

Tom Sawyer is Alive and Well

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 5:46 pm

My house is spotless- and it cost me a total of $5.25 to get it that way.

Elizabeth is spending the night out with Kaitlyn, but Emily came by this morning to see if she were around- which she was not. I invited her in and said that I would be cleaning the house for Thanksgiving- she was more than welcome to come and help me.  It is a testament to her boredom that she agreed to help.  In our house, we pay the children for extra chores, so she and Ray made a list and we agreed on prices that each job would pay.  And we started.  Emily polishing silver and Ray cleaning the cat box.

Then, Drew came over to play with Ray.  He volunteered to sweep the floors.

Then, Harmony stopped by to see if Elizabeth was around.  She volunteered to vacuum.

Then, Elizabeth came home and cleaned the bathrooms and scrubbed the cabinets.

My floors are swept and mopped, my bathrooms are clean, the toilets are scrubbed, the carpet is vacuumed and my entire collection of my grandmother’s silver is polished.  The shelves are dusted.  The cabinets are white.  The bathrooms rugs are being washed.

I cleaned inside the oven (self-cleaning over is a LIE!), did the dishes and made macaroni-and-cheese.  We cranked music that they love- Katy Perry, Taio Cruz, etc. and they laughed and kept each other company.  My house is clean in 3 hours, and each child made about a $1.00- Emily made a little more because she did so many tasks.  They were competing with each other to see who could do the most and kept each other company at each task.

I loved seeing Drew’s face as he stood back from the shiny floor, with pride on his face.  And Emily saying, “Look at THAT!” as she held up a previously brown spoon that was now shiny silver.  Ray was in his element- ordering kids around, “teaching” them how to clean, and generally not finishing anything, but helping.

Pay time was a tough lesson- I “tipped” about 10%, so Elizabeth got much less than anyone, because she was gone for most of it.  Ray got less, which he saw as “unfair”, even though I pointed out that he played on the computer for a good chunk of time and did not deserve as much as Emily.  Tough economic lessons… but important ones.

I’m feeling very pleased with my clean house, the good time we had, and the value of teaching hard work.  And rather pleased at my ability to sell cleaning as a fun activity for children. 

I’m sure that Tom gloated a little as well!

November 22, 2010

Anticlimactic Postscript

Filed under: Autism — Teacher Professor @ 10:05 pm

24 hours… gone now.  So sweet- but not nearly as significant- nor as eventful- as I had thought or worried about.

In those 24 hours, I:

  • Napped. NAPPED!  It was a lovely 2 hour nap…
  • Drank two banana margaritas with Vicki over bad Mexican food (Don’t judge- they taste like banana popsicles and are yummy!)
  • Shopped at leisure at Bed, Bath and Beyond- the scene of many a meltdown- and where I felt myself getting a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume.  Didn’t get anything beyond gingerbread coffee- but I touched LOTS of things.
  • Read a book until the wee hours of the morning.
  • Slept in- an hour later than usual, for a total deficit of sleep
  • Did a million loads of laundry
  • Folded them while watching “The Backup Plan”
  • Called the dryer repair people because I could follow through on my thoughts
  • Spent 5 hours cleaning Elizabeth’s room- all with my music blasting loudly throughout the house.

I did NOT:

  • Take a bath
  • Take the dog for a walk on the beach
  • Finish the afghan I’ve been working on for a year
  • Start the quilt that I’ve been promising the children for three years
  • Grade
  • Give myself a pedicure
  • Eat ice cream
  • Watch either of the Sex in the City movies

I could use another 24 hours, I think…


The most significant thing I did was clean Elizabeth’s room.  I was anxious about her, and her room reflected her own level of recent anxiety- things thrown helter-skelter, her bedding on the floor where she’s been sleeping and her clothing all around her.  I straightened, threw stuff away, and organized.  I pushed her bed back in the closet where it had been dragged out to open to trundle for an overnight a month ago, made her bed neat.  I found a blanket the right weight for the in-between weather we’re having, and I hung stuff up.  I made it a room where she could find peace, rather than the room adding to her frantic mind.  I did what I could so that my girl could be surrounded by calm.

And I waited for her to come home.

When she did, after I picked up James and Ray from the airport, it was as if nothing had happened when she left- as if she and Emily and Tracy were- and always had been- the best of friends.  Her ability to tell me things is limited- she tends to live in the here and now- but she wasn’t upset; she wasn’t seeking solace, and she was invited back for Wednesday before Thanksgiving.


I am, of course, delighted.  But it does seem that on those days- those days where I reluctantly let her go, when I see how difficult it is for her, when I fear the worst, it somehow magically fixes itself out of my sight.  It’s the days when I least expect it- when I’ve dropped her off in a cheery, together place, that she comes drooping home, silent and unable to communicate about what has hurt so badly.  Or when I witness the slights, the teasing, the outright nastiness- Those days that take weeks to recover from; those days that re-teach me about what I need to teach her; those days that send my Mommy Instincts in high combat mode- I never seem to see those coming.  And when I’m prepared, when I’m so aware of how hard the world is to navigate for her, and how little others understand- those are the days when nothing happens.  Unless something does.  I can never see it coming- but I never see it clearly, either.  Autism has no patterns.

My own anxiety- the anxiety that I channeled into making my girl’s world, as exemplified through her room, peaceful and organized and a place of safety- that anxiety has made me tired because all of that pent-up adrenaline now has nowhere to go.  I’m glad… so glad.  She- and I in my translation of the world to her- dodged an emotional bullet this time.  She coped today.  What about next time?  What about tomorrow? There is more than a bit of a post-traumatic stress feeling from this- the fear that you can’t see it coming.

I need another 24 hours to recover from this last one…

November 20, 2010

24 hours

Filed under: Autism — Teacher Professor @ 6:19 pm

See those clothes tossed on the floor of the bathroom?  Mine.  See that plate by the side of the sink?  Also mine.  See that movie of “Sex in the City-2” in the DVD player- MINE, ALL MINE!

For 24 hours I am alone- ALONE… all aloooone… and I’m reveling in it.  Reveling.  Even though I know that it comes at a cost…

James and Ray are in Boston for the weekend, visiting Yiayia- like we did last month– only without all of us, without Emily, without the whole touristy thing.  But the most important part- visiting Yiayia- they’re doing that!  Oh yes- they’re doing that.


Elizabeth… Elizabeth is at Emily’s birthday party- which is where the price for my aloneness will be paid.  Elizabeth is spending the night with Emily and Tracy down at Emily’s grandparents’ house out in the country- grandparents who do not “get it”- and Emily’s dad, who definitely does not “get it”.  And Elizabeth is in her singsongy “NO” place…

I almost didn’t let her go.  Last night, we took Emily and Tracy out to see Harry Potter last night- a  movie that Elizabeth knew would be scary, but as she put it “I can tell everyone I saw it”!  The “coolness” factor seriously outweighed the fear factor.  I was amused that she is so aware by watching the 4th graders to know what would gain her conversation points- that she was willing to take on the fear in order to be “cool”.  Very 4th grade of her.  I went along to mediate the fear and to translate, since Elizabeth has a hard time with accents and movie dialogue anyways.  If Harry Potter was a way she could buy coolness points, I was willing to fund that.

And it wasn’t bad- we sat on the side, where it’s easy to stare at curtains to detract from the movie, and because it was so crowded, Elizabeth’s constant questions to me were less noticeable.  I did my usual running dialogue/translation with her that we do in most movies at home, and it wasn’t particularly bad- the whole movie was so loud that we could talk just under it.  I think it was a good movie- I spent so much time translating, I lost most of the “magic”…  Emily and Tracy had a good time.  It was a good time!

But this morning… the strain of holding it together around her friends and in the movie caught up to her, and she was tired and irritable and singsongy- where every request was met with a “No” and followed up by a “nononono” with her hands over her ears.  She didn’t want to eat, but she was fixated on going with Emily and Tracy- on not being left out.

Elizabeth and Tracy came over early and came with us on our errands before they left- I had to get Emily a present, and a trip to spend her Old Navy gift certificate was the choice.   One sweater for Emily later, (all right and yes, a darling hot pink lightweight pea coat for Elizabeth- it WAS on sale!) I also bought the three girls each a stuffed dog at PetSmart because they were $5 and benfitted the Humane Society.  Emily named her dog “Fluffybottoms”, while Tracy named hers “Stuffybottoms”.  They were making similarly-themed suggestions to Elizabeth, who refused to name her dog.  “Nononono“, she chanted.  I smoothed things over  with a “Perhaps later… but not everything has to be named” such-a-mom-statement.

When we got home, we packed Elizabeth up, which was a challenge.  She didn’t want to take pajamas- I can wear this!- and she didn’t want to take her warmer coat that can get dirty- I want my NEW COAT!- and she was already in tears “Emily and Tracy are making fun of me!” because of the eye rolling- eye rolling that I wanted to do too.  “Baby, do you want to stay home with me?” I offered in a private moment- an offer I had been making throughout last night.  “We can watch movies (NOT Sex in the City- I was offering up… gulp-Hannah Montana), and just be… you are welcome to stay here, you know.”   “Nonononono!” she sang.  “It’s Emily’s birthday party and I can’t miss that!”

And I sent her across the street to Emily’s waiting truck, with a last note of “If she gets cranky, feed her” to Emily’s dad, and a feeling of trepidation mixed with deep sadness, and worry, and.. all right, I’ll admit it, a touch of glee (Glee’s on my To Watch list as well for tonight). But mostly worry…

I know the cost.  I know that there will be new problems that arise.  I worry that that gains we’ve made will be damaged- that the friendships that I consciously try to mediate- and occasionally bribe- will be broken.  Elizabeth is intense at any time, but with her challenges being particularly strong today, and around grownups who do not understand- maybe I should have kept her home.

Or maybe it was all right- that she’s almost-10 and needs to strike out on her own, knowing that Mama is there right behind her to mop up what every happens.  That she can have a challenging weekend, and come home where it’s everything is all right.

So for 24 hours, I am going to revel in that I am alone, that I will blast MY music loudly; that I will watch what I want to watch, that I will go out to eat with a girlfriend tonight, that I will sleep in late, that I will listen to the silence.  I will enjoy my 24 hours without autism, without Tourette’s, without being someone’s picker-upper, reminder, shusher, mediator, driver, or cleaner- or someone’s soother, hugger, discusser, or comforter.

I will gladly pick back up all of those jobs tomorrow- after 24 hours.

November 18, 2010

What’s Behind Door #3?

Filed under: Autism,Exceptionality issues,Tourette's Syndrome — Teacher Professor @ 10:05 am

This week, someone in my family got invited to apply for two fabulous jobs- all in one day; jobs that she hadn’t been looking to do; jobs that she had perhaps thought about, but never seriously.  But jobs that each pay better, and have more authority and responsibility than hers does now.  She’s not sure she wants to do either of them, but she’s mulling possibilities now; whereas, on Monday morning as she drove in for work, she was mulling the weather.  Now, she’s faced with choices- and with choices, comes some stress.

One of the things that is most frustrating is when you have no choices- when events beyond you are driving what happens next.  To feel powerless in that situation can create anger and helplessness.

But it can be equally daunting to have too many choices.  When multiple pathways open up and present themselves, you can feel frozen and angry and afraid that you’ll make wrong choice.  Too many choices can be as stressful as no choices at all.  It may be even more stressful- but it is certainly a very different sort of stress.  Coupled with the anxiety of the implications of the choices is the realization that if you choose wrong, the only one to blame is yourself.

I’ve seen it so many times- and experienced it.  It does appear that the Universe has a tremendous sense of humor in not providing any options and then providing too many options. When we were going through autism identification for Elizabeth, there were no choices- there was one Early Intervention specialist available and one date available for identification and only one road in front of me.  Her sensory and language issues led to one label of PDD-NOS, which led to one therapist which lead to a coordinated approach of treatment between an Occupational therapist and a speech therapist.  When she “graduated” out of therapy, her ability in school led to one label of gifted.  Elizabeth has always been a sequential child.

This was in stark contrast to my son- where we got choices of which way we wanted to proceed with his issues.  Did we want to go down the nutritional route and address his eating issues?  Did we want to go with the neurologist and address his issues from a Tourette’s perspective?  Did we want to address his anxiety issues?  Did we want to address his speech impediment? His attention difficulties? His sensory issues?  His oppositional defiance? His strong academics, but not strong enough to fit into classic gifted, but perhaps twice-exceptional?  His issues do not fall tidily into one little label.  The help that we seek changes depending on his needs- which means that we get ping-ponged between doctors, between medications, between choices, between doing nothing and doing something… anything.  No wonder my son’s issues are the ones that have me in knots on a regular basis- we have too many choices to deal with, and I’m responsible for which way we go.  Or don’t go.

When Ray is presented with choices, the stress is enough to send him into a very, very dark spot.  He is so afraid of making the wrong choice, that he often can’t make any choice at all.  Even something as simple as “What do you want for dinner?” is enough to send him into a tailspin.  Libraries and stores are terrible places for him- he is overwhelmed with the choices available to him.  But he’s too anxious to give up control, which makes him oppositional.  I have learned to play the Choice Game with him- which has two steps.  The first is to give him two choices.  He will reject them both, because they were choices that I came up with, not him- so they must be rejected.  I provide a third choice- one that I indicate that I’m not crazy about- and he selects from between the three- often the third.  It’s a dance we do- and one that I haven’t mastered  yet, because I keep forgetting to come at him sideways.  Then, once he has decided, he agonizes about what he missed.

I have always hated that “Road not Taken” – when you’re deciding medication, jobs, colleges… etc.- these are all big choices.  Your choice is going to impact your life, others’ lives, and your family’s lives.  It’s that  Making Up Your Mind part that can be so stressful.  Especially when you don’t know everything- especially when you don’t have all the information.  Especially when  you don’t KNOW.  Especially when there might be something else that comes up later- or maybe she makes no choice at all, which is a choice as well.

Luckily, I was raised by a mother who taught me to make a decision carefully- and then stick with it.  That spending time afterwards in a “might have/could have/ should have” state of mind is pointless.  That if you don’t like your choice, you either decide to stay with it, or you decide to change it, but you don’t spend your time dithering- once you’ve made up your mind. 

And so as my family member decides between Option #1, Option #2, she’s wondering if there’s a possible Option #3 coming down the road.  Because once she makes up her mind- she’s heading down that path- and there’s no looking back.

November 16, 2010


Filed under: Exceptionality issues,Gifted — Teacher Professor @ 4:53 pm

I just returned from attending the National Association of Gifted Children’s annual conference, where I saw old friends, started new projects, and just feel filled up with renewal- oh… and I’m tired.  Like really, really tired.  It’s an odd feeling.

I have been attending the conference since 1994 in Salt Lake, and over the years, I have laughed with, cried with, and touched base with some very special people.  Gifted education is a very positive field- we look for strengths in kids and we try to build those strengths.  We even see challenges as strengths- and try to find contexts that are helpful.  Rather than fixing the child, gifted education struggles to fix the curriculum, the context, the school- all so that the child can grow without being constrained.  So many of us are alone in our schools- whether we’re the department of one in a college or the single gifted education teacher in a school, we’re all used to operating independently and with little support.  So, it’s always nice when you get us together- we tend to greet each other like the long-lost friends we are. 

Some of my graduate school cohort comes regularly, and we have a standing dinner date the first night of the conference.  We have known each other for 15+ years from when we were  the students hanging together- to now, when we’re the “old ones”.  We’ve known each other since before marriage, before divorce, before children, before jobs, and through moves.  I have gotten used to everyone looking at my name tag and saying “Where are you, now?” 

It’s odd/nice/interesting having a once-a-year relationship with close friends.  “How ARE you?” is loaded with expectation for more than the traditional “Oh, fine” that culturally is what one says.  We know that we can tell of deaths in the family, divorces, disease, new marriages, books written, promotions and so many other major events.  Call it the “Christmas Letter” approach to friendship.  Incredible depth, but very little breadth.  I shared hopes and dreams that many of my pals here have not asked about, with once-a-year friends as we met each other in the hallways between sessions and talked for the five minutes we had until our next appointment, our next meeting, our next presentation.  We either talk between moments- or at the bar until 2:00am like the young adults we haven’t been in quite some time.  Intensity is a hallmark of gifted education- and gifted kids.

For ultimately, NAGC is about the work.  Those of us who keep attending,  year after year- we keep fighting the same fight- how our culture, our schools, and our fellow teachers must learn how critically important it is to recognize the strengths in our children.  How we all live through our strengths and that the role of schools is to help children and their parents become empowered to ask for what they need- when what they need is no more nor no less than what any child needs- the right to be respected, the right to grow, and the right to be who they are. 

I am the new Chair-Elect of the Special Populations Network, which absolutely thrills me because I can help the organization and schools recognize that children can be more than one thing- they can have autism and still have strengths; they can be from poverty and still have talents; they can be gay and still be worthy of educating and protecting.  Schools and our society need to know that abilities and talents come wrapped in so many different packages.

But perhaps the real reason I keep going- year after year- is my belief that when we cut gifted education in the public schools, we are practicing the most blatant racism/classism/ and abilitism that is possible.  When my children- who chose their parents fairly well- are denied services in public schools, we will make sure that they get what they need because we are educated and we will make the financial sacrifices as best as we can to help them- and even then, there are limits.  But other children- who were born into poverty, or whose parents are so busy trying to learn a new language, or who are ignored because of their skin color- these other children depend on the public schools for whatever talent development they are going to get.  If the cure for cancer,  or the next lightbulb that doesn’t use mercury, or the next amazing book, is going to be happen, it might get produced by that poor Hispanic child with a learning disability who was given a chance to grow.  But to create a system where only children whose parents can pay for challenging outside-of-school activities will have the opportunity to go on … that is just wrong.  Wrong.  Wrong.  From the bottom of my soul and the reason I went into education- wrong.

And so I am renewed with the reason I went into education- to help make a difference in children’s lives; I am renewed by seeing and touching souls with people I care deeply about- but see once a year; and I am renewed with new work- new projects and new coalition-building and new ways to chip away at old fights. 

And I’m tired.  Such intensity of living and passion and working takes its toll- and the laundry and the grading and bedtimes and autism and Tourette’s- the day to day battles pile up next to the long-term dreams. 

Thank you to my husband who dealt with the dragons of autism and Tourette’s while I was gone- who helps me renew on a daily basis- and to my friends and colleagues at NAGC, who remind me that I am not alone- and thank you to my children who remind me daily of why I stay in education.

November 14, 2010

No Winning

Filed under: Autism — Teacher Professor @ 6:40 pm

I have to admit that my house is not terribly eco-friendly.  We used to buy the curly lightbulbs- the ones that everyone was supposed to buy  in an effort to be “green”.  I stopped three years ago when I learned that the lightbulbs had mercury in them.  Mercury.  After two of them broke in my house and I threw the pieces away, I learned that I was supposed to treat them as “hazardous” materials- dispose of them in an “appropriate” manner- a manner that is rather difficult to do when there are broken shards all over your living room.  I’ve done research that finds that mercury is skyrocketing in our environment- the air, the soil and most frighteningly of all- the oceans.  Mercury poisoning looks an awful lot like autism.  Many people worry about the trace mercury found in immunizations- when the rate of mercury is skyrocketing in our environment around us.  I’m not the only one to suggest a link between environmental mercury and the rates of autism; Generation Rescue published an article in 2004 that found a correlation between environmental mercury and autism rates.  So- no.  We don’t have curly lightbulbs in our house because I am not about to add to the mercury that is around me.

And we might not be buying an electric car.  We all know the challenges of the internal combustion engine.  Prius, other electric cars, computers and even my cell phone use lithium batteries- they hold a charge for a very long time and are very efficient.  One Prius holds about 30 pounds of rare earth metals alone.  Lithium is a rare earth metal and is only mined primarily in Bolivia and China- countries that are not exactly eco-friendly, human-rights oriented, nor friendly to the interests of the US.  It looks like we’re going to be trading in our dependence on limited oil reserves for rarer earth minerals.

There are days where I feel my whole world is operating from a “Zero Sum” standpoint- that the gains you make in one area are constrained by limitations in others.  Just as Ray or Elizabeth learn one set of skills, a whole new set opens up.  Just as Elizabeth masters the proper games to play with her friends and exchanges crafty projects while losing baby dolls, the other fourth grade girls start the gossiping and “teasing” activities. Yet another new set of skills that she’s behind on.  Ray’s self-esteem is constantly under fire as he sees other kids growing around him- gaining in that third grade growth spurt, and he stays small- still able to wear a size 4.  We buy him size 7 shirts so that he can drown in them- but he feels better wearing a size that is closer to his friends.  There’s just no getting around the pants- he’s in a size 6 on a good day, if they’re short enough. The battle is never won; the battle just changes face.

There are days when I see the broken light shards, the exchange of one limited resource for another, the battle for self-esteem- and I just feel like there’s no winning.

November 11, 2010

Testing Pictures

Filed under: Exceptionality issues,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 4:23 pm

There’s an interesting conversation going on in the comments over on Diary of a Mom…   Go ahead- read them- but come on back, and I’ll tell you my view.


First of all, I am NOT a psychologist.  I am a teacher of teachers- in other words, I teach folks how to take the RESULTS of assessments and translate them into effective learning experiences for a child.  But in order to do that, you have to understand assessments.  Whether the test results are from a school psychologist, a neuropsych, or even the classroom teacher who sits down to watch a kid, assessments have to be done in order to know what to do with a child.

There are two kinds of assessments- those that compare one child with a group of children, and those that compare a child with a pre-established set of knowledge or skills.  When I tell parents that their child is reading at a third grade reading level, there are two possible meanings to that phrase-

  1. It MIGHT mean that their child is reading at the fluency level, comprehension, decoding and analysis level as a level that the school system/the publisher of the text books/ system says is third grade level,  has mastered the skills that are called 2nd grade level, but not yet mastered the skills that are called 4th grade level, OR
  2. It may mean that their child is reading the same fluency rate, comprehension, decoding and analysis level of other children who are 8-9 years old.

These are not the same thing.  They are often similar, but they are not the same thing.

A child who is reading at a third grade level is expected to have already mastered the concepts, ideas, etc. of skills and knowledge at the 2nd grade level, but not have yet mastered the knowledge and skills that are at a 4th grade level.  The “criterion-referenced” assessment tells me, as an educator, where in a scope and sequence of specified skills a child is- what he or she has achieved and what he or she needs to work on next.  It tells me where there are holes in a child’s knowledge and what skills a child has mastered.

Criterion referenced tests are very, very useful for teaching.  The information can provide a road map of instruction.  It can give me the “What” for teaching- What do I need to work on with this child?  The words “third grade level” simply tell me that most of the time, that’s where this material is taught, but there is no hard and fast relationship to third grade.  In Montessori education, teachers often take away the grade level designations, and focus simply on a progression of skills- that are mapped in order and by a set of materials.  As a child finishes one set, they are moved onto the next set.  But the criterion assessment drives the instruction- what does a child know and what can he do?

What a criterion-referenced test does NOT do, though, is tell me how that child compares to other children.  If a publisher calls a book “3rd grade reading level” because it comes after the “2nd grade” reading materials in level of difficulty, but no one who is 8-9 years old in a school, in a district, in a state can do that material- then it’s not at a “typical 3rd grader level”.  Similarly, if everyone in a school, class, etc. can read it, then it’s not at a typical 3rd grader level.”.  Most publishers, when they present their grade level information, have set it up in a sequence of skills, and determined how well most kids at that age level do on those skills.

Normative tests tell us if there are “strengths” and if there are “challenges”- and these questions ALWAYS need comparisons.  If a 4-year old is reading the same materials of an 8-year old, then we say that the child is strong in reading.  If a child is 14 and reading at the level of an 8-year old, then we say that reading is a weaknesses.

Comparison to WHO is another question.  If I compare a child to other children, then I can get an idea of how that child compares to others of his or her age and I can get an idea of strengths and challenges.  If I compare a child to other assessments that the child has taken, then I can get an idea of relative strengths and challenges within that same child.  If a child has a “problem”, that determination is made using normative data.  “A problem compared to what?” is the question that I ask.  Compared to others of his or her own age?  Or compared to other pieces of data within the child’s assessment picture?

There are lots and lots of areas that can be assessed to give us a “picture” of a child.  Children can be assessed in all areas of development and compared to their peers in some areas, and compared to themselves in others, and placed in a sequence of skills and knowledge in others.  Children can be assessed:

  • Physically- “ill” is a relative term compared to “well”.  “Tall” is a normative comparison. “Can cross mid-line” is a criterion-referenced point.
  • Socially and Behaviorally- “Can maintain proper social distance” is a criterion referenced point.  “Is acting like a typical 4th grade girl” is a normative point.
  • Academically- “Mastered phonics decoding” is a criterion-referenced point.  “Is in the 50th percentile” is a normative point stating that 50% of scores of same-aged peers fall above, and 50% of peers score below
  • Cognition functioning and thinking skills- “Attention is age-appropriate” is normative, “Can focus on tasks for a maximum of 3-5 minutes” is criterion.
  • Language- “Can sustain a conversation for 12 minutes” is a criterion point.  “Can maintain appropriate conversational length” is criterion
  • Emotionally- “Has difficulty maintaining control in crowded situations” is a criterion referenced point.  “Has self-esteem issues” is probably a norm-referenced point, because it often means that compared to other aspects of the child- but can be compared to other people- self-esteem is the biggest “problem”.

…. and on and on.  The developmental aspect being measured is the key to a good test.  What information are you/a teacher/ a doctor / a therapist/ a parent looking for in order to work with the child better?

All of these assessments together provide me with a complete picture of a child.  I can get a picture of the “What” and the “How” of how I can best work with this child.  If I’m teaching specific content or a set of skills, I need criterion data to know what I can teach next.  If I’m teaching a child in the context of other children and I’m grouping in a way to be most efficient in my instructional approaches, I need normative data comparing the child to others.  If I’m trying to find the most effective method of providing information to a child in a way that he or she will learn best, or I’m trying to remediate areas of difficulty, I have to have normative data compared to the child overall.

My areas of expertise are with those kids whose assessment pictures are often very different compared to other children of their same age.  I work with parents and children who are gifted and have disabilities.  Needless to say, normative data that tells me that this child has “problems” in one area or another is not completely helpful.  When a 2nd grader is reading at the 99th percentile compared to other children their age, I have no idea how high they really are.  Are they reading material at the 5th grade level?  At the 9th grade level?  College?  I have no real idea where to start.  And the same holds true for children who are in the lower part of an assessment.  A child with autism may be in the 1st percentile of language.  Are they non-verbal?  Speaking like a toddler?  Able to provide grammatical structure?

Normative data provides labels and a profile of strengths and challenge.  Yup, you’re high enough/low enough that you need something different- you learn in different ways.  It can also show me how far I have to go- or how well I’ve done.  If I’m working with a child who is in general education curriculum, normative data can pinpoint the areas I have to work on- whether those areas are academic, language, social, whatever.  I can see how much work might be needed. If I’m working with a gifted child, I can see how much growth the child has made in a certain amount of time compared to his peers.

Criterion data can help me figure out what knowledge or skills I need to work on next- and how far I’ve come.  The child has mastered social distance, but needs help in self-control.  He’s mastered basic chemistry concepts and next comes in-depth work on the periodic table of elements.  He’s mastered two-digit addition, and next comes two-digit with carrying.  He’s learned to hold a fork, and next comes working with a knife.

Please notice that I have not once mentioned specific tests- the tests all measure something on the developmental aspect of a child.  Different tests will give different glimpses into the whole “picture” of a child.  Some tests are wonderful measures of cognitive functioning.  Some give comparisons of a child’s executive functioning.  Others do fabulous jobs at looking at a child’s math skills.  Some do broad reading skills; others do in-depth examinations of specific reading skills.

The selection of a test has everything to do with what you want to find out. Do you want an understanding of how this child’s attention compares to others of his or her age?  Do you want an idea of what language skills the child has mastered?  Do you want an understanding of what modality this child learns best in?  There’s a test for that.

As a teacher, as a parent, I love test data.  The data can help me better identify how to help a child; I waste less time trying to figure out the individual strengths of a child and going over skills that might either bore or frustrate the child.  As a parent, I stopped using words and started using pictures to give my child directions about how to clean her room, how to use the toilet.  I learned to give instructions one at a time.  Some of this I figured out the hard way.  But when I got the test data from a good doctor, it made sense- she has superior visual memory and very low sequential memory. “Oh… now that makes sense”.  The tests confirmed what I already had a hunch about, but wasn’t positive how it fit in.

And it’s important to have good test data.  One psychologist tested my son and got a “typical” reading on intelligence, but a 130 academically and had the gall to tell me that that was not an unexpected result.  I knew better- I know tests and I know my son.  I then went to a psychologist who understands twice-exceptional children and got test data that made more sense.  You can’t “buy” the right test score by shopping around psychologists, but you can make sure that you find one who will match the right tests to the child- and get answers to the right questions.

But… there is no one test or even series of tests that can provide a complete picture of a child.  The only thing that can do that?  Love.  Parents know their children best.  The tests just put into words what we already know.

November 10, 2010

True Grit

Filed under: Schools,Tourette's Syndrome — Teacher Professor @ 7:02 am

I was brought to tears last night at the incredible bravery of my son.

He volunteered for, auditioned for, and got a speaking part in his school’s 2nd and 3rd grade song performance for the parents that the wonderful music teacher, Mrs. J, puts on every year.  Last year he thrilled down to his toes as he sang patriotic songs for the  Veteran’s Day sing.  The enjoyment of that memory buoyed him up to speak up when the teacher was asking for volunteers for this year’s “Celebration of Music”.

He came home a month or so ago bursting with pride to tell me about it.  He was Speaker #8 and had three very long sentences that introduced the third song.  He read it a few times and then refused to practice.  “Nah- I got it,” he would brush me off when I suggested that he practice with me.  Two days ago, I finally bribed him to read it through with the lure of cookies- two cookies for 10 times reading it through.  He garbled it, ran through it, and said it correctly maybe twice in those 10 minutes- when he had the paper right in front of him.  He said “wite” for “right”, and “thud” for “Third”.  I have learned not to pressure him, and I hoped that the visual memory would carry him through- that, and I’ve heard that Mrs. J stands off to the side to prompt them.  I gave him his cookies and resigned myself.

Last night, I watched him with my heart in my throat during the first two songs.  It was a crowded auditorium- well over 500 people.  The lights were bright on the stage.  The children filed in and he was on the side, next to his best friend.  He was ticcing- not really obviously, but he was tapping his arm- to the point that it interfered with the salute that they were to do during the second song. He didn’t swing and beebop with the other children- he stood there and wrung his hands.  He didn’t even sing- I could see his mouth was still- just every now and then popping with a verbal tic.  I hoped that everyone would be kind; that Mrs. J would be right there; that maybe the microphone would go out.  And we waited for Speaker #8.

He and a little girl- Speaker #9- strode out to the front of the stage, where he picked up his microphone.  I heard him take a deep breath.  And we in the audience heard every word- clearly, in the right order, and  with almost perfect pronunciation.  He hit every “l”, every “r” and paused between sentences.  He lost his place once, and quickly righted himself, finishing the sentence.  And then, he was done.  He waited for the little girl to finish, bowed and took his place.

When he looked triumphantly in our direction, I lifted my hands to clap for him so that he could see, but I could barely make him out through the blur of tears in my eyes.  The enormity of what he had just done just overwhelmed me and I… I sat in that audience and quiet, silent tears absolutely streamed down my face.   His speech teacher, who helped me fight for services last year, was sitting right behind me, and reached over to pat me and said “Nice work!”  I leaned back, and in a choked whisper said “Thank you.”.  She and I both knew that I was thanking her- for her instruction, for her insistence on giving service to a child who “wasn’t affected” academically, but was wobbling right on the edge of problems, and for her persistence.  And I was thanking God that Ray did it…  He could do it and he did do it.  Tonight, he did not let Tourette’s win, he did not let anxiety win, he did not let speech problems win.

As I was tucking him into bed, I shared with him…

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. Nelson Mandela

Ray got one of his perfect, rare smiles and snuggled down- silent now and proud.

My great-grandmother, in her imitable Texas way, would have called it “Grit” what he did tonight.  And she, too, would have been proud.

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