Teacher Professor

March 24, 2013

Testing Anxiety

Filed under: College information,Home Things,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 9:27 pm

Warning- this is long. This is long because I have a lot to say about it. A writer from She Knows Canada (http://www.sheknows.ca) asked me for “some quotes” and I told her that I was afraid that I was going to write a rant. I see a lot of anxious parents at college- and there are so many things I want to tell them.  

I talk a lot about test anxiety to college students- how to breathe through it, how to focus on the positive, and how to manage the rush of anxiety that can block the thinking process. How to focus on how you’re going to answer a question rather than the question itself. But last week, a parent asked me what advice I had for the PARENTS who were waiting for the results of their children’s test scores- or exam results- or grades- or other high-stakes measures that can determine their child’s future. More specifically- “What can I do to help my child with these tests?” And I had to pause for a moment at this challenge of perspective-shifting.

There have always been high-stakes tests that determine a future. Whether the “test” was a dissertation defense that took place between 3-5pm on April 20th that determined whether or not you got a PhD, or taking the PSAT from 8-12 on a lovely day in October that determines National Merit scholarships, or an audition in January that determined whether you were going to Julliard; there have always been moments in life where your whole future determined upon performance for a few hours on a certain day.

This really is similar to the real world. Business contracts are won and lost based on a presentation of 15 minutes. Legal cases are won and lost based on the words that are chosen in the closing arguments. Your ability to get a job is determined on how well you do in an interview. Life’s turning points really do happen in a few minutes.

But here’s the kicker- failure used to be full of potential. If you didn’t get into a college of choice, there was another college available. If you didn’t get the account, you learned, and tried again with another firm. If you failed out of school, you could find another job that didn’t require those skills. Economically, we had a middle class, which meant that if you weren’t at the top of your game, there was a soft landing. There were possibilities there.

These days, parents are very well aware that second chances are few and far between. Good people do go on unemployment because there isn’t another job waiting for them. Smart people do end up working at McDonalds because the job market is so constricted. Your local college will cost a small fortune to attend and the job prospects are limited for those graduates because the only jobs in the area are either only for high-achieving students, or don’t pay well enough to enable your child to move out of your house.

Complicating this pressure is the generation in which many of our young people have been raised. Young college students grew up in a generation that had child care, seat belts and other symbols of care and protection. This generation received trophies merely for showing up to athletic events and there was a great deal of focus on their self-esteem; a focus that has led to record levels of narcissism. They perceived that their wishes could be bought and paid for by their parents, symbolized by bedrooms covered in “Little Princess” pinkness. I see college students bringing in their Disney gear so that they can retain that feeling of being cossetted and loved and protected from that big bad world.

The big bad world is full of pressure. It’s pressure that has grown worse- much worse- over time. It’s why we as adults are the most medicated, the most stressed-out, and the most politically-polarized culture ever. The test really isn’t the pressure- the pressure comes from our culture.

Parents and college faculty often get frustrated with students who appear to be unmotivated and uninterested. This “slacker” attitude is really a response to stress, with the added dollop of helplessness. In other words, kids are unorganized and self-absorbed, not because they don’t care, but because they care too much, but don’t know what to do or where to start. Our stress has become their stress, only they feel powerless to do anything about it.

All of this paints a very bleak picture; it probably doesn’t help to know that high stakes tests really are high stakes. And it certainly doesn’t answer the parent’s question to me- how can we handle the stress ourselves and what can we do? The answer is multi-faceted, but because lists are a helpful strategy (see #3), here are a dozen things that a parent can do to help their child (and themselves) handle high-stakes tests:

  1. Test performance is not something that you can make happen. You can provide guidance, tutors, or incentives, but ultimately, your child is going to perform the way that they are. The key is not what YOU as a parent do, but what your CHILD does. You want your CHILD to have testing strategies, a reward system of their own that they set up and to self-advocate for themselves. YOU cannot go to their teachers and ask what your child needs to do- you need to help your child practice what they’re going to say when THEY come to a teacher to ask what they can do to help learn the material. Don’t teach them the test content.  Teach them how to teach themselves the test content.  You have done your job when your child doesn’t need you.
  2. Understand the difference between Failure and failure. Capital “F” Failure are those things that you cannot fix- ever. Those are few and far between and generally involve life prison sentences. Little “f” failures are those things that you can fix, or bounce back from, or try again. Almost everyone in the Fortune 500 can point to decisions that they made that were wrong. Even Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy over and over again. These people learned from their mistakes and tried something new. There is a wonderful phrase that “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” In other words, while high stakes mean limiting of choices, there are still choices. And there is always trying again.
  3. Teach your child to make lists. Lists of what they have to do, what needs to be done first, what projects are due when. Lists connected to calendars are amazing tools-and often, they involve technology- always a plus! I think about college kids appearing uninvolved and listless- which can indeed, be “list-less”.
  4. Encourage your child not to come home. They need to get involved in their school. They will succeed if they want to be there and if they know others there. If they know the counselors and faculty and other students and understand that they all want them to succeed, they will be more engaged in their classes as well. “Involved” generally does not mean partying or hanging out. A group of uninvolved students leads to less involvement. Involved means being active in formally organized activities in which adults are involved as well.
  5. What would they do if money were no object? Play the game of “Life” with them (there’s an app for that!). Have them plan backwards-what do they want to be DOING when they’re 50? 40? The reason we take money out of the equation is that money comes to those who are passionate about what they do. Otherwise, they are earning money to do something for 8-10 hours a day that they hate so that they can have moments of what they really want to do. Also, realize that with the changing world, interests become careers tomorrow that don’t even exist today. If a kid likes to travel but gets airsick, they can make travel apps. If a kid likes basketball but is too short, they can design virtual games. If a kid likes fashion, they can design the next car. There are so many possibilities in this world that require creativity and interest. The future belongs not to the jobs that can be replaced by computers, but to those who can create new ways of doing things.
  6. Give the right kind of feedback. Carol Dweck’s now famous study gave three different types of feedback to kids who had done well on a test. The first were told how smart they were, the second were given a generic “nice job”, and the third group was told how effective their strategies must have been and how their hard work had paid off. In subsequent tests, the group who had been told how smart they were did worse than any other group.  The highest group?- The group who had been praised on their effort. I see it in kids all the time “If I’m so smart, how come this stuff is hard?” Don’t tell kids that they can do it because of innate abilities. Emphasize the amount of work and the type of work that leads to good results.  Celebrate their “hard work”, not their grades.
  7. Enjoy the journey. My husband, a college administrator, asked me to tell parents that if their child is “undecided” about what they want to be, chances are that they will be highly successful in whatever they finally do choose. Yes, they may take an extra year or two to graduate. But studies have found that they have higher rates of actual graduation than the kids who declared their first semester and realized two years in that they really don’t like that choice after all. As someone who got a business degree before I realized that what I really wanted to be was a teacher, I can attest to years of education wasted. Kids who are interested in lots of things can often become our greatest entrepreneurs. If they fail out of a program, perhaps that is simply a signal that they were really supposed to do something else. Adult lives rarely move in straight lines. These high stakes tests can sometimes guide those lines. For years, I had posted on my desk “This life is a test. It is only a test. Had this been a real life, you would have received further instructions about where to go and what to do”. If we grieve what we failed at, we miss what we’re good at.
  8. Model anxiety-reducing behavior. You can talk about how you face challenges and how you deal with the pressure, but you need to show them. Generally, actions such as drinking, over-eating, and calling incessantly are not good models. They will do as you do, not as you say. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t soothe yourself with a lovely mani-pedi every now and then, but it does mean that you have to show them what resilience looks like.
  9. Learn about other role models. Bill Gates dropped out of college. Yes, it was Harvard, but he still didn’t finish. Look at Steve Jobs who was fired from Apple- a company he himself founded. Look at Oprah who grew up with a single mom. There are lots of role models out there and they all faced adversity, shrugged it off, and found a way to move on. Help your child identify a role model that they can learn from.
  10. Help others. Whether it’s tutoring others, planting a garden at a local elementary school, or volunteering at a clinic, by helping others, children can see that their efforts have value. We know that the happiest people are the people who see value in what they do- who understand that their efforts are making the world a better place. Have your kids make the world a better place.
  11. Be in the moment, but keep your eye on the goal. Life is often a series of hoops to jump through. We will all spend a great deal of time doing things that are not what we would rather be doing. When anxiety gets to us, breathing, and being in the moment, allowing it to happen and knowing that it will pass can help kids deal with the anxiety of testing.  Teaching your child that doing these things allows us to get to where we would rather be is a great gift that comes from delayed gratification. There is a wonderful old test in which little kids are told that they have one marshmallow now or get two marshmallows when the adult comes back. Those who could wait an unspecified amount of time for the reward could handle frustrations better. Angela Duckworth, in her studies of successful kids calls finds that persistence is the most important factor between kids who do well and kids who don’t. It’s not ability. It’s grit.
  12. Back off. Yes, it’s a test. Yes, it’s a high stakes test. Yes, their future depends on it. But it’s their future. And they have to make it. What they need is your belief that they are a good person, and your support if they need a soft spot to land. They are going to make their own direction, and they have to want their future more than you do. Listen to them, ask them questions, but they don’t want you steering, they want you cheering.

The original question was “How can we help our children in college through test pressures?”, which relates more to the parents’ anxiety than the children’s- or relates to the parents’ anxiety about their children’s anxiety.    I’m a parent myself.  I know the heartache and stress.  I know that I worry that my child is going to be living in my basement for the rest of his life.  But I also know that I have to keep my anxiety about their lives to myself and I have to be the rock of support for them.  I have to let them make mistakes, and I have to help them learn from their mistakes.  I have to help them face obstacles, and not shield them from the obstacles.

I’ve described a dozen things, but the most important thing really is this:

Ask them to do their best, and love them no matter the results

Thank you, Mother… 


February 13, 2013

hAPPy- Please vote!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 9:08 am

I am a finalist in a national contest that asks people to invent ideas for apps for children with autism! The contest is sponsored by Autism Speaks, one of the major autism advocacy groups, and the “winner” will have the app designed for use. My colleague at Vanderbilt University, Lynnette Henderson, and I came up with the idea of “Homework Super Hero“.

The winner is determined by voting on the Facebook page of Autism Speaks and the competition ends on February 17th. I want to emphasize that we get no money from this- just the deep satisfaction that we might have helped some parents and teachers and kids…

Please vote! THe link to vote is: Autism Speaks http://www.facebook.com/autismspeaks?v=app_306225262780703&rest=1&app_data=essay%3D133034

APP DESCRIPTION: Homework Super Hero could be an app that encourages children with autism to organize their thinking and to reduce anxiety related to homework issues. It would help students to metacognitively determine how much homework they had and in what areas, linking to a notebook thta gets filled in during the day, in which students log their homework and estimate how much time it will take to complete the homework. As they activate the Homework Hero, the app asks questions that the child answers in the affirmative- Do you have a place to work? Is it quiet? Do you have the sound the way you want (quiet or low music)? As students answer, they are given their ‘superpowers’ that they can then use to ‘combat’ the game. As they complete their homework, they log it. The homework app keeps track of the time and compares it to the time that the student estimated. The child tries to not only ‘beat the clock’ but come close to their estimated time. They get points for completion and more points for having gotten close to their estimated time. They then get even more points when the homework is graded and the child logs in the grade. Points lead to levels which can then be tied to rewards that the child can preselect. If the estimated time is over 20 minutes, the app can break the actitivity up into two or more sections- each no more than 15-20 minutes long. The clock can be programmed to call the student back to attention after a 10 minute break. In addition to the homework focus, the app can have features that are appropriate for students with autism. Halfway through each homework assisgnment, the app can stop and ask the child to click on a visual icon that describes their frustration level from 1 (low) to 5 (about to blow). If the icon is above a 3, the app can provide some support through a set of scripted stories- ‘Tell yourself you can do this. You can remember doing this in class. If you need to ask a question, use your resources….’

COMMUNITY BENEFIT: The app is designed for three different audiences- the student themself, the parents, and teachers.

The app should benefit the student by taking a stressful situation- homework- and turning it into a visual and interesting electronic game. The game is structured to help students with executive functioning challenges learn how to moderate their response to homework situations, estimate, and take control of their homework. By providing emotional support, the goal is to focus homework, stress management and emotional regulation in one location.
The app is also designed to help parents who must work with a child during homework. By taking some of the “structuring” of the experience off of the parents’ shoulders, the parents can focus on actually providing content assistance. In addition, the parents can review the homework provided by the teacher on one app, instead of checking a sheet that the teacher completes and that the child may or may not have written correctly. By providing “points” for correct homework, the child can be motivated to document and do homework. Doing homework with a child with autism can be stressful for everyone. This app is designed to help students with autism and their parents focus on the academic component, while providing structured emotional management as well.

Lastly, the app is designed to help teachers document a child’s homework and to provide feedback to parents about grades, progress, etc. The app could be linked to IEP goals and encourage the child to become a “Super Hero” to work on IEP goals.

January 22, 2013

The Language of Mothers

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 9:51 am

Greek letters

“Who am I going to speak Greek to?” my husband asked last night in a quiet moment.

My husband’s mother died last week, and while it wasn’t a surprise, it was still a shock. After the hurry of getting her to Ohio to be buried next to her husband and the- hurry, hurry- driving 15 hours up and back and dealing with our car, which chose the day before the drive-hurry, hurry- to hit a pothole and bend the rim, which necessitated expensive car repairs just as we needed to hurry, hurry 600 miles- after the flurry, we were at home, quiet on a cold January night. And my husband realized that he had no one left who understood his language.

Losing a mother is… beyond words. You lose that connection to yourself- to your past- that tether of “Hey, remember the time that we…?” and “What was I like when I was…” and “Where were we when…?” Those questions remain unanswered now. This is the process of becoming an orphan in middle age as the world moves on, leaving you next in the line of succession. In the gradual decline of his mother- as she slipped farther and farther into dementia and into her old memories, he began that gradual grieving process. Her death solidified the beginning of the end of grieving. He expected to miss her. He did not expect to lose his language.

My husband, even though he was born at Camp Lejuene to a Marine father, had Greek as his first language because he and his immigrant mother talked together as he grew up- my husband learned Greek as his mother tongue. It was the language of home, of laughter, of shared jokes and love. They lived in North Carolina. They lived in Ohio. They lived in Massachusetts. And they lived in Greece for many years when she grew tired of being a stranger in a stranger land. But the language they spoke here was their own private communication that connected him to an island far away in the deep turquoise of the Greek sea- an island that was “home”.

It reminded me of the language that all mothers speak to our children- with or without autism, with or without second languages, with or without any discernible differences. We speak a language with our children- we shape their language, we build a language with them that is unique and distinctive from any other language structures around us, and our shared language connects us and our children to “home”.

I somehow think that when my mother-in-law was born in 1924 on an island in Greece, her family never anticipated that she would be buried in a small town in Ohio. She never expected the giant changes in her life that history and politics and love would create. But she endured and she thrived and she raised an amazing son.

I snuggled my own son last night, and he called me “Tom” because “Mommy” is too babyish and “Mom” is too ordinary, and it is our own private name between us and we have our language. Our words tether us to home and home is more than this place. It’s our love and our communication and our frustration and our guidance and the sum of the whole that is so much more than the parts. And although we don’t speak Greek, we speak “us”.

I held my husband last night as well as we cried for the woman who formed his “us”. For the woman with whom he spoke Greek.

December 15, 2012

The Deep Roar of WHY: To the Teachers

Filed under: Autism,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 10:46 am
Tags: , , , ,

My daughter heard the news yesterday that the killer may have had autism or Aspergers or on the spectrum, and turned to me with horror in her face – “Didn’t I have autism?” I cannot tell you how the pain of that cut the wound of yesterday’s events even deeper.  I held her and rocked her through not just the horror of the day, but her terror at being lumped in the same category as this evil, evil man.

I never turned on the television last night.  Reading the news online was bad enough.  Had I turned on the television, I would have not been able to stop crying, terrified my children, and never stopped holding them.  I knew I couldn’t  handle it.  And so, I turned away from it in order to save my own sense of stability, my own sense of strength and to send prayers to the families.  Like so many others, we stayed quiet at home and treasured what we have: our health, our love, our future and our peace.  I value those things and can realize how small the little irritants really are.  There were few words that could be said.

But there are a few things that I can say that need to be understood as we become caught up in the deep call of WHY? that is resounding because the answer of “just because” is not good enough.

This is for the teachers out there- in the wake of yesterday’s horrible atrocities, there are many, many things being written.  I hope that this finds but a few of my teaching colleagues- and the teachers to come.

First, it needs to be recognized that teaching puts us on the front lines.  That a very sick, evil person who is seeking to create as much horror as possible, will seek out and hurt children because by killing the innocents, a statement is made about the loss of a future.  There were numerous teachers and one very brave principal who tried to stop the massacre by literally throwing themselves in front of the madman, and who huddled children in closets and who tried to reassure and show children that there are people that you can count on.  It needs to be recognized that teaching is about helping children- their minds, their hearts, and their lives.  Can we please stop bashing teachers when they are the ones to whom we entrust our future and our children’s lives everyday?

The quote from Mr. Rogers is making the round:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”  Teachers are some of the most caring people I know and they face great stress and pressure every single day.  Teachers are helpers.  Everyday.

The other issue is that while there are rumors that the gunman had autism, that is no more relevant to his warped state of mind than the fact that he was male, he was white, he was in the middle class, or he came from a divorced family.   He may have had autism, but autism did not make him who he was.

Simply put: Autism does NOT make you a killer.

Teachers who are looking at the events of yesterday, and feeling the pain, not just of their own personal children, but of our colleagues, cannot be afraid of a child with autism more than they are afraid of any other child from any other background.  Children with autism cannot handle the emotional intensities of others and so they walk away.  NOT because they don’t care, but because they care too much.  They look “unfeeling” but it is because they have fewer emotional walls than others and they choose to put the emotions “over there” rather than lose themselves to the emotional intensities around them.  It’s a coping strategy- compartmentalizing.  Dealing with something later.  Scarlett O’Hara embodied it in her line “I’ll think about that tomorrow“.

Please read the following statement from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) released today:

Our hearts go out to the victims of today’s shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut and their families. Recent media reports have suggested that the perpetrator of this violence, Adam Lanza, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or with another psychiatric disability. In either event, it is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence. Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters. 

Today’s violence was the act of an individual. We urge media, government and community leaders to speak out against any effort to spuriously link the Autistic or broader disability community with violent crime. Autistic Americans and other groups of people with disabilities persist in facing discrimination and segregation in school, the workplace and the general community. In this terrible time, our society should not further stigmatize our community. As our great nation has so many times in the past, let us come together to both mourn those killed by acts of heinous murder and defend all parts of our country from the scourge of stigma and prejudice.”

Media inquiries regarding this shooting may be directed to ASAN at info@autisticadvocacy.org

I don’t know what caused Adam Lanza to take the lives of so many babies and brave ones.  I don’t know why- I’m not sure we’ll ever know why.

But in that roar of “WHY?”,  the answer is not “autism”.

Teachers, thank you.  Thank you for being a helper.  And please, please know that children with autism especially need your help right now.   single-candle-burning-600x360[1]

May 10, 2012

Education Always for Everyone

Filed under: Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 12:48 pm

The following is a poem that my daughter wrote in her Language Arts class.  I had no part in the writing of it, and didn’t even know about it until just now when I was going through her weekly folder.

Education Always for Everyone

By “Elizabeth”

Together we learn

Forever in our brain

We all can be different

in many ways

Smart we will be

Without it it’s hard

We learn differently

Together we will be

Open the gates to education


She gets it.  She really, really gets it.

Listen to the things she’s saying:

  • We can all be different in many ways– Respect for others and appreciating differences
  • Forever in our brains– Importance of education and the impact that it has on our minds and our way of understanding
  • Open the gates to education- It is critical that we make good education available for all, for everyone, especially those who need it most
  • Smart we will be/… Together we will be.  We learn best from others and from others who are different than we are.

She IS the daughter of a special educator, and has dealt with issues of differences herself and with her brother, but even she knows that our educational system needs help.  I’m so proud and touched and humbled at the understanding of my child- of all children.  As I wipe away the tears, I am reminded of why I do what I do- and I know that she too, will make a difference.

Education Always for Everyone

Mama’s note: Please keep in mind that she’s in 5th grade and has high functioning autism- Language is not her natural element.  Maya Angelou- maybe not.  But Maria Montessori– your legacy lives on…

April 27, 2012

Negative Review

Filed under: Autism,Book- Parent's Guide — Teacher Professor @ 5:41 pm

I don’t obsessively check the stats over at Amazon on my book, Children with High Functioning Autism: A Parents’ Guide  (I used to when it first came out- and oh, let’s say for a while longer), but I’ve moved on… I hope it sells well and I’m planning the next one.  But every now and then I have to refer to it and link to it.  And today, I found this… the first negative comment.  Ever. 

This book is fun to read for first coming parents, but not for parents who already try many therapies for their children. Half of this book says how smart her daughter is-everything is above average, no developmental delay, and gifted. Half of this book says so many superficial information without conclusion.
I bought this book because I wanted to know how to educate my son in the public school, not Montessori or private school. No informative at all.

I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was defensive- What does she mean- “no(t?) informative at all”?  Did she READ the section on how to have a good IEP?  Did she READ the part about trying the “gold standards” of ABA and speech therapy first and then, if there is left over money and time, trying other things?  Did she READ the part about how my daughter’s language and social skills were delayed?   

Until I realized, her review wasn’t about the book at all.  Her review was her frustration…

  • Her frustration that having tried it all, everything, followed all the books, there are still no good answers.
  • Her frustration that autism is so highly individual- that one person’s story doesn’t capture HER autism, her reality, her needs.  One person’s story can never capture that. 
  • Her frustration at a school system that is probably unprepared, undertrained and even, at time, oppositional.  But oppositional and unprepared in their own way that one book cannot answer how to deal with HER teachers, HER IEP needs, and HER school system. 
  • Her frustration at how the needs of her child continue and morph, and what were answers before are no longer sufficient. 
  • Her frustration at this amorphous thing we call “autism” that has no absolutes and no recipes to follow and no clear sense of direction.

Every mother of a child with autism realizes, after a while, that they are walking their own road.  There may be others, and books, and communities who walk alongside with you for a while and then diverge, but in the end, it is your own path.  There is support, there is love and there is help.  But it is your path.  And while you are not alone in your fights, your battles are as highly individual as you and your child and your family and your school are. 

I am truly sorry my book was not the help she was needing at that moment.  I don’t know her, but if she read this blog (although probably not, given  her reaction to the book!) Ms. Lee, somewhere out there, there are many people and many books who can help.  Truly help.  But you have to remember that the most important resource you have is you.  YOU know your child.  YOU know your school and YOU know yourself.  No one knows your story better than you. And while you may not find THE answer, there are lots of resources to help you find ideas- ideas to help you moving forward and to know that you are not alone. 

And did you READ the Resource Guide at the back?   

A quick list of some AMAZING Resources:


Author’s note: Personally, I MUCH prefer reading these comments:  🙂 But I want to emphasize to everyone to just keep reading and reaching out…

This book is great. I felt it was written for me. I feel the same way she does and I highly recommend this book for all those moms who feel they are alone. I have learned so much.

Very informative and eye opening book. It has helped me not feel so alone in this world & gave me some more insight on my son who has high functioning autism.

April 16, 2012

Happy Sensory Birthday

Filed under: Autism,Home Things,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 6:35 am

Authors note: This was drafted on March 7- a month ago. But not posted… See “Why I don’t blog like I used to” for explanation… Ray spent the evening at his friend’s house, because Elizabeth had decreed this a “Girl Only” party. 

Elizabeth’s birthday party just so captured her essence…Her 11th birthday party just absolutely demonstrated HER-  her spectrum-ness, her abilities, and her humor.

There were 10 girls invited- all but Emily came.. Emily who has been a best friend for years.  Emily who has traveled with us, gone through drama together, and understood Elizabeth and her quirks.  Emily who has new friends now on a travel athletic team and is growing faster and faster ahead.  Emily who decided that she didn’t want to come because she didn’t like some of activities or the other girls.  There was grief that Emily didn’t come, but for the night, it was pushed to the background.  In protective Elizabeth fashion, when strong emotion threatens, she is able to put it aside and blank it out. Autism as emotional armor.  When there are no words and the grief is too big, Emily retreats into a happy, stimmy place.

The theme was a “Spa Party”- and there were enough happy, stimmy, sensory activities to drown out the sadness.  There were facials- homemade of course.  Oatmeal mixed with honey and smeared on faces to dry.  Elizabeth happily smeared hers on and lay down with a blissful smile.  The other girls were… not as excited, but interested in the novelty.  There were lots of little jewels and sticky things to glue onto glass jars and make “beauty organizers” while putting little things into rows and columns.  There was a soap-making station in which girls mixed and poured and added smelly things to make soap.  And there was a bow-making station where girls could make a bow and pin them in their hair- and redo it, over and over again.

I use the word “station” in the teacher-meaning of the word.  Elizabeth organized her party like a differentiated classroom- and I mean she did it all.  I made suggestions, but she came up with the process.

  • She put 9 girls into 3 groups- thinking about who got along with whom, who was more sensitive and who would encourage others.  She analyzed the dynamics and made placement decisions and provided each girl with a card as they came in to let them know their individual schedules.
  • She arranged the stations around the house so that there could be movement between stations and allow room for activities.
  • She had timers at each station so that girls would rotate through 4 stations in an hour.
  • She provided materials at each station that were selected for the girls in that group- Tracy got a red bow, Faith got a blue bow, etc.
  • She provided choices, but allocated out the supplies- each group got the same number of jewels to share among the three girls in that group.
  • She started with a whole group spa eating activity (yogurt and strawberries) as girls showed up, had the stations, pizza, a whole group movie- “13 going on 30” and and then games as girls were picked up.

James and I were used as monitors and supervisors, but she came up with the ideas and was clearly in charge of everything.  I have seen teachers with 10 years of experience with less organization.

Another Author’s note-  I fell more in love with my husband as I watched him working with 3 pre-teen girls at a time, calmly helping them pour smelly soap stuff and trying to figure out directions at the same time, and then moving them on to the next station when his timer went off.  The world of Girldom is not a comfortable one for him and he handled it like a pro. 

And as I worked , much as a paraprofessional might, handling the tasks of the facial station, I thought about her future- how clearly, teaching or wedding planning or something where she can move people around and engage in happy stimmy activities might be in her future.  I thought about how turning 11 was so much less scary for me than her turning 3.  I thought about how much things change- and how much they stay the same.

She’s 11- and she is finally, finally growing into herself where autism has become part of who she is- where autism that used to be a challenge to overcome has been hurtled and is now sometimes a strength- rather than interfering with who she is becoming.  I marvel at her journey she has accomplished- and where she is going.  I can look forward with hope and anticipation now, rather than with fear.

April 12, 2012

Underneath the Water- Or Why I Don’t Blog Like I Used To

Filed under: ADHD,Autism,Home Things,Tourette's Syndrome,Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 11:39 am

Ray’s guidance counselor described it perfectly the other day as we were determining the need for a 504 Plan for him.  “If you’re working this hard to keep everything ok, perhaps we should document it.”

There’s a phrase that goes something like this “Be like the duck- Calm on the surface and paddling like hell underneath“.  Yes.  And oh yes.

Here’s the thing- things ARE “ok”.  Ray is getting Bs in school,he’s got a few really good friends, and life is not a series of dramatic challenges.  And we’re working really, really, really hard to manage the environment so that he’s doing all right.  When I describe how things are, I get a lot of “Oh, that’s him being 9!… Sounds like he’s being a boy!… Ease up on him, Mom!…”

I have come to realize that his anxiety disorder has created one in me.  Every time we leave the house- to go to the movies, to go to eat, to go to the beach, it’s resistance.  He doesn’t want to leave the house.  Ever.  If we force him, however, he goes.  He doesn’t throw a screaming, hysterical fit.  What he does do is get mean and ugly and “irritable”.  But he goes.  He either relaxes and we have a good time or he doesn’t, and manages to ruin it with his “hmphing”s and growlings and nasty comments.  Until the next time we leave the house again and it never gets easier.  Never.  My husband and I have discussions “Is this worth the fight we’re going to have?”  Every single time, it’s a fight.  And the simplest of errands becomes a battle of wills.

We pick our battles carefully, because it’s important to be consistent.  It’s important to win the important ones, “Yes, you have to go to your cousin’s wedding.. yes, you have to eat three pieces of spinach” and give choices in the unimportant ones, “Do you want to go see ‘The Return of the Titans’?… Do you want spaghetti or tacos tonight?”.  And then there are the “Is this worth the scene it’s going to cause?” issues.  Should we force him to do a sport?  Should we ignore the incessant dribbling basketball in the house?  Should we provide incentives for him to sleep in his room when he wants to sleep in the living room or at the door to our room?  Should we …?  Every thing we do, we have to plan out with the forethought of a general- “What choices can we provide?  Is this worth the battle it’s going to be?  What is causing this resistance and how do we work with this?”  We have to steel ourselves to being stronger and more positive than he is going to be.  Every time.  Except when he’s not.  And we’re tired.  We’re so tired.

The thing that gets me is that these issues are not unique to Ray.  I know 9-year boys.  I taught 9 and 10-year old boys for years.  They are contrary, wonderful, on-the-brink-of-teenagers-but still rational and snuggly.  It’s not the types of challenges- it’s the intensity of challenge that he poses.  I often feel like a whiny, paranoid parent, because these are not unusual issues.  I constantly have to judge- “Is this MY problem or Ray’s problem?”

But then there are the “Things are just not right” moments.  Today, as I took him to the doctor for a bronchitis diagnosis, and I watched him with his arms wrapped completely around himself, rocking with anxiety, avoiding eye contact, and growling at me when the doctor or I tried to talk to him, my heart broke a little bit, but I feel validated that “No, it’s not just me”.  There’s a strong-willed child, and then, there’s… this.  When things are not “right”, he retreats into his own area of misery, rocking and growling and losing his language.  And getting things right is constant juggling, balancing, paddling like hell.

I haven’t been blogging about this because I’ve been very carefully constructing his environment and planning the battles.  He’s hanging in there.  He’s getting Bs because he gets 100s when things are well-balanced, or he gets 20s when something is off.  He has a few friends and their families tell me how sweet and nice he is.  He’s polite.  Teachers tell me they don’t see any real behavior problems other than he’s a little active.  He’s not aggressive and has never hurt himself, anyone or anything.  But I haven’t been able to blog because it feels like it would be a continual litany of “This is so hard… this is so hard… this is so hard…” and I can’t go there.  I can’t let myself sink into the morass of sadness and frustration and depression that lurks- under the surface of “Everything’s ok”.

But I’m tired after this year of keeping things as even as possible, as managed as possible and as positive as I can be.

To hear the guidance counselor support the work that we’ve been doing felt good.  I cried when I heard someone recognize that although things look calm on the surface, we’re paddling like hell underneath.

January 27, 2012

Change in Education- Why, What, How

Filed under: Schools — Teacher Professor @ 7:30 pm
Tags: , ,

Notes from a First District RESA session with the GA State Superintendent- Guest Speaker

Willard Daggett– January 27, 2012

CEO of International Center for Leadership in Education

We need to be looking at countries with growth- not those who are already on top.  During the past 5  years, even in a global recession, there are countries with double digit growth:

  • Vietnam
  • Indonesia
  • Brazil

We are used to a Euro-centric model of education- and the Asian model is eating us alive.

Problems with cultural differences- they do not accept special education and they do not allow all children to live.  His daughter, born with epilepsy and developmental differences would have, by state policy, received no medication until age 3.  Survival of the fittest.  Not a perfect comparison- we see potential in the underdog- but we also have to focus on developing all of us.

Change is hard in American schools:

  • Just try to change the bell schedule of a high school
  • Just try to change the room where a teacher teaches.

We are this close to losing public education and everyone else thinks they know how to fix it except those in public education.

Myth:  It is a myth that schools are failing. More kids graduating  %, scores are up.  Even with:

  • Standards: Georgia has never seen a standard it didn’t like.
  • More tests
  • More diversity.  Long term is a strength.  Short term is a challenge.

But: World changing faster than schools.

Schools are improving but we’re worse off than ever because of the increasing skill gap.

Action:  With funding from Gates Foundation, they found the 25 schools which had improved the fastest.

  • Did not say highest performing.
  • Those that were the fastest improving- who moved from the bottom 5% to the top 10%.
  • None did it the same way. But there were certain trends.
    Stage 1- Why- got a sense of purpose
    Stage 2- What- set a goal
    Stage 3- How- Decided how to do it

No one believes they are the problem. Until you feel you are part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.

Change is hard.  If you go too fast, you feel like a cat among dogs. (Picture shown)

World is changing


  • Semantic web:  Analyze documents through keywords – Google– old technology
  • Meaning concepts- Wolfram Alpha
    -verbally and visually connecting information

    • Implications:
      Term papers

Goal for growing up: using resources and working with others.
Why don’t we let kids use smart phones: look up answers and text each other?  We call it cheating.

Technology is changing:

  • Projection keyboard and projector. No more keyboards or monitors.
  • Technology going into watches and jewelry. In 2-3 years, computers going into clothes and buttons. Solution? Naked tests!
    Coming soon – medical molecular devices.  Examine colon polyps, kill cancer cells- Personalized medicineIs this chemistry?  Biology?  Physics?  Where do we teach this content-connnected information?

Financial word is changing

  • US is borrowing 41 cents for every dollar we spend.
  • Everyone agrees until we have to make changes.  Stalemate in politics

Same with schools: Everyone agrees we need to fix schools until a change impacts some grownup.


  • Example: Shenzhen. Fishing village 1980. Olympics 2016
  • The US has 9 cities with a million people. Europe 36.
  • China has 160 cities with over a million people.
  • Even more: there are 168 million preschoolers in India- they would be the 4th largest country in the world.
  • Both India and China have moved to a 270 day school year.
  • China graduates 86% of its 18-year olds. The ones that live, true- but still 86% is an impressive number.
  • US- 5% of population 24% of consumption. We are a nation of shoppers. They own us.

Gridlock in political arena. We seem unable to be able to make the changes that are needed.
We have the same problem in schools. We can’t figure out how to heal ourselves. If we don’t, we will lose public education.  

WHY do we need to change?
Until you create a real level of anxiety, people won’t accept any form of solution.

Research is crystal clear- teaching reading in the content areas improves scores in the content.  Teaching how to read math problems raises scores in math.
Study- 75 high schools lexile levels. The higher the score, the higher the reading level. Average levels: (My visual guess from chart detailing the highest point of the middle 50%- #s are approximate)

  • Junior/senior level English Language Arts classrooms- 900.
  • College literature courses – 1100.
  • High school content (math)- 1150.
  • Career and Tech Ed has the highest reading requirement. Have to be able to read- and write!- those manuals.
  • College textbooks- 1350.
  • Military- 1250.
  • Personal use (taxes, forms, etc.)- 1350.
  • Entry level workers- 1360.
  • SAT, ACT-  1200.

Academic skills for entry level jobs have surpassed college readiness skills.

We have been looking in the rear view mirror at where we’ve been and planning where to go.   We can’t do this anymore!


State comparisons- Standards and Reading
Massachusetts is the only state looking at job required skills.
Georgia is the lowest state for proficiency on NAEP data.  Used to be Mississippi in 2005, but by 2009, Georgia is the lowest. (My note here: I can’t find this data- GA looks like we’re in the middle of the pack according to the NAEP site)
State has to dump standards for depth. Everyone will like it until you mess up someone’s laminated lesson plan.

Have to raise standards- fewer and different.
Kids have to function to application to real world unpredictable situations. Test at knowledge within a content area.

Takes time to get there.

Rigor and Relevance Framework
Rigor= Blooms taxonomy.  From Awareness to Evaluation

  • A= low level knowledge, low level application. High school
  • B= low level knowledge , high application- career tech
  • C= High knowledge, college prep
  • D= real world, good paying jobs. In an effort to get to D we drove them to A.

*Relevance makes rigor possible*
Ex. Teaching degrees of a circle through football. School in NC involved the coach in teaching degrees of a circle to 2nd graders. Playing football with degrees.
Ex. Adopted child with EBD. We are taking kids out of what they like and doubling them up in what they’re already failing at for the convenience of adults.  We MUST integrate music and art. Must teach rigor and relevance through integration. It is critical to teaching to a child to find out what the kid likes.

Where are the jobs?

  • Routine jobs are giving ways to non-routine jobs.
  • Routine jobs
    • Rules driven
    • Require Problem solving
    • Use Algorithms- If… then.
    • Can be digitized and outsourced.
    • Non routine jobs. Ex. Building principals- like pulling a slot machine.
      • Results driven.
      • Require Decision making.
      • Require More innovation creativity.
      • Cannot be outsourced.

Quad A are preparing them for routine jobs.
Quad D prepares kids for non-routine jobs.

We have the highest unemployment in history but the highest number of unfilled jobs.

We have to teach decision making, not knowledge and problemsolving.


  • Develop a Culture of high expectations
  • Relevance of instruction
  • Integration of multiple disciplines.
    • Ex: One school got rid of their chairs of departments- gatekeepers of the past.
    • Strong relationships.
      • Ex. Looping classrooms.
      • System wide focus on literacy
      • Focused and sustained PD

Recommendations- Next navigator. Next steps. Road map… his programs

  • Use the data from National Essential Skills Study  Focus only on those skills that are relevant.
    • Ex. Skill: Give clear directions. Rank #2 for business. Rank #28 for ELA teachers.
    • We must use the data to drop 40% of state standards.  Focus on Common Core

End of session- lots of quiet chatter, lots of concerned looks.  General look of being stunned…

Oh wow… I have my work as a teacher educator cut out for me…

January 24, 2012

Fighting Fog

Filed under: Bipolar,Gifted,Home Things,Medication issues,Tourette's Syndrome — Teacher Professor @ 12:14 am

This evening, holding my son- who has been quiet and subdued all evening.  

Me: What’s wrong, Ray?


Me: Anything you want to talk about?

silence- the silence gets to me.  It’s not a loaded silence.  Just a still.  

Ray: What do you want to talk about?

Me: Any words in your head?

Ray: No

Me: Any feelings in your head?

Ray: No


Me: If you were a color, what color would you be?

Ray: Gray

Me: If you were a shape, what shape would you be?

Ray: A sphere

Me: If you were weather, what kind of weather would you be?

Ray: A cloud

Me: A stormy cloud, a gray cloud, or a big puffy cloud?

Ray: A rain cloud.


Me: What does the rain cloud want to do?  Feel better?  Get some sleep?  Feel happy?

Ray: You know.


The problem is that I don’t know.  I’m never quite sure what son I’m going to have on a day-to-day basis: Do we get the angry, resistant, black mood Ray; the quiet, not-really-there Ray; the run-around and talk a mile-a-minute Ray; the anxious and wring his hands Ray, the focused scholar and look-how-smart-I-am Ray?  While all kids go through “moods”, his are intense.  Even when he’s gray.

Jess, from Diary of a Mom, talks about fighting “dragons with rubber swords”.  I feel like I’m fighting fog with pointed sticks.  We have the “stick” of medication, which nibbles around the edges of issues– creating other issues in the wake.   We have the pointed stick of therapy, in which he refuses to engage- or worse, pretends to be completely normal (a play therapist told us that it was our problem, not his when he was 4).  We have safety and structure in our house, which leads to agoraphobia.  We sortof have labels: Anxiety Disorder, mild Tourette’s, mild giftedness, not quite autism, not quite bipolar, not schizophrenia. In dark times, James and I have to remind each other- he has special needs.  And just because there’s no good label doesn’t mean that the needs aren’t there.

I’m grateful for many things: I’m grateful that he has never tried to hurt himself or anyone or anything.  I’m grateful that he has never talked about not wanting to be here.  I’m grateful that he’s smart and funny and that he can do academics well enough that everyone around him is frustrated that he’s underachieving- but not failing.  I’m grateful that he has a few good friends.  I’m grateful that I have enough background to have consistency, behavior charts, and metaphors to help him.

But I’m terrified.   I feel like I’m keeping him from falling off the edge through pure will- and he’s only 9.  I’m terrified of adolescence.  I’m terrified of his genetics.  I’m terrified of losing my child to alcoholism, to suicide, to a place where he won’t let us help him. I’m terrified to speak possibilities aloud for fear of them coming true.

And I don’t know what to do about the monsters in the fog that never quite reveal themselves enough to fight.  If you can’t see something well enough to fight, it can’t be vanquished.  It just shifts and morphs.

Into the gray.

Ray, I have no idea what to do.  But I’ll do anything to help you.

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