Before You Insult That Quirky Kid in Your Class …

That odd-ball kid, the one who lives in their own dreamworld, dresses like a Hobby Lobby explosion, and just makes you a bit uncomfortable with their odd quirks or bizarre comments that seem to have nothing to do with what you are teaching? The one who you think disrupts your class on purpose just for the attention? The one who even the other kids in class treat like a pariah? Before you decide you’re helping the kid out with a dose of honest truth or harsh reality so they can get their act together before it’s too late, watch this. You may just be a bully with a teaching certificate.

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Tilting at IEP Windmills

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“The IEP allows assignments to be emailed. This wasn’t an assignment but a classroom expectation.”

This, according to my son, was the actual explanation provided to him as the reason his teacher refused to accept an assignment by email.

This, in spite of his IEP which clearly stipulates that he is allowed to turn in work by email and to use a laptop in class.

This, despite his arguments with her about his IEP – which led to a meeting with a social worker over disrupting the class – because he should just roll over and accept an F that is in violation of his IEP.

Despite all of his arguments and his efforts to advocate for the IEP that is supposed to provide him with a more even playing field, she still chose to give him an F if his assignment was not printed out. Somehow in her world, her “classroom expectations” supersede a federally mandated plan dictating my son’s individualized education accommodations.

Because my son is gifted and quite articulate, teachers so often assume that he should just ‘do it’, never mind that he has dyslexia, dysgraphia, a memory processing disorder, and a school file full of reports going back to third grade that document his need for the accommodations listed in his IEP.

After fighting similar battles for the past fifteen years, sometimes I wonder if I have it in me to deal with this kind of nonsense another day.

And then I remember that my son is facing it all day, every day.

And I realize it isn’t about how weary I am of the constant battle with his teachers and the school.

It is about my son.

And that helps me find the energy to once again tilt at windmills and help him succeed despite it seeming like such an impossibility on days like today.

Why We Should Stop Worrying if Other People Like Our Kids

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Here’s a thought:

It is not our job to make our kids likable by conforming to others’ expectations but to help them blossom within their own uniqueness.

Think about that.

Do you realize how liberating that is – how much guilt it removes when you’re able to do what your gut is saying is right for your child instead of what you know someone else is judging you for doing or not doing?

I remember when my oldest was a toddler. I wasn’t that far removed from being a kid myself, and so many of my decisions about how to raise my children were a constant vacillation between what my instinct was telling me was right and caving in under the weight of well-meaning advice and unspoken judgment of others who believed me to be in varying circumstances too harsh or too permissive, indulgent or strict, or too controlling or lazy in my parenting. I didn’t know it then, but my daughter is what is now called Twice Exceptional (and, no, that does not mean my kid is twice as wonderful as yours). A child who is Twice Exceptional qualifies for special education under at least two distinct and different diagnoses, with one of those exceptions being a gifted IQ (130 or above in most places) and the rest being some cocktail of learning disabilities.

Raising a Twice Exceptional child (or more than one) is usually a daily adventure into the unknown, especially when a child is young – because the exceptionalities are rarely identified that early, leaving parents a bit off kilter as they struggle to understand their child’s unique approach to life. All three of my children were on high speed from the time they awoke until they fell asleep – and they spent far less time asleep than did the children of my peers. They were intense, driven learners – and this usually meant that they wanted to do things that were far beyond their development level, which, in turn led to high frustration and meltdowns. I can say from first-hand experience that there is nothing  quite like a toddler’s meltdown in a museum (or zoo, store, or library) to entice complete strangers to negatively judge your parenting skills.

It wasn’t until I finally hit the wall with an exceptionally bad experience that I finally found my real footing as a mother.

I remember the day well.

My youngest – also Twice Exceptional – was in second grade and just newly accepted into special ed with a long list of learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and auditory processing disorder – although it would take three more IQ tests over four years to finally get him qualified for gifted as well. My son’s teacher that year leaned more towards the highly organized, rigid style of teaching, and it was a terrible match for my kiddo who failed miserably at helping her meet her self-defined goal of curing my kid of his ‘bad habits’. She spent many a day yelling at my son for his forgetfulness and messiness and sent angry emails home every Friday to report another failing grade in spelling. I was still a bit insecure, trying desperately to find ways to help my son learn to memorize his words and feeling guilty as a mother that I’d failed to find a solution that would work.

But in our last parent teacher conference of the year, with my little 8-year-old sitting beside me, the teacher began ticking off one complaint after another. She pointed out every one of his failings with great emotion. And as she detailed each failing on her list, my son sat quietly by my side, swinging his legs and rolling his little dinosaur over and over between his fingers. He did stop and listen as she reported his state test scores but never spoke a word.

When she finally ran out of breath and stopped, I looked at her and quietly asked, “This is all of your feedback?”

“Yes,” she said, still visibly upset.

“Nothing good to say about my son?”

She looked surprised for a moment and then, with a tight jaw, said that no, there wasn’t.

“Not one good thing?” I pushed her again to reconsider.

“No,” she said. “You son is difficult. He doesn’t do his work like the other students. And he says things in class that challenge my authority. He questions what I say – right in front of the other kids. He argues with the facts I share in science. And he is the student. He should be learning from me. Your son is a problem.”

I ignored her and turned directly to face my son. I put my hand under his chin and lifted his head until his eyes met mine. I said, “Do not listen to her. You are not a problem. You are wonderful and unique, and you will one day do amazing things because of your special gifts. Do not listen to her.”

We walked out of the meeting, and my legs were shaking so much I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the car before I broke down. I buckled my son into the back seat, climbed in our minivan and prepared myself for what I believed would likely be one of the most painful conversations I would have to endure – helping heal the wounds inflicted by his teacher’s words. I gently asked, “How do you feel about what your teacher said in there?”

“I was excited!,” he replied, much to my surprise. With a bit more prodding, he explained. “Did you hear what she said? I was at grade level in reading. Finally!”

It was in that moment that I realized my responsibility to my son. It would be my job to make sure that he learned the lessons life required of him, but that those lessons happened so that my son could embrace his own unique gifts to decide for himself what his contribution to this world might be.

My son is a teenager now. He’s already done some amazing things with his young life. He’s launched his first business. He helped his friend as she organized the first Teen Startup Weekend by teens for teens … the first in the world. He’s designed a plethora of mini games in Minecraft that his friends want to buy, and he’s created several of his own musical compositions. And yet his teachers, for the most part, continue to focus on the problems – his inability to conform to their specific process of turning in papers or his input in class which feels disrespectful or disruptive. One of his teachers recently sent an email asking about my son’s grip on reality – because the teacher just assumed that a child who still can’t spell a word the same way twice in one sentence – much less the correct way ever – could never  have the ability to launch a business at the age of 13 and must be bragging about things that didn’t really exist.

While I am all for teaching our children to respect authority, learn discipline and responsibility, I have also come to understand that it is so not my job to make my kid feel defective because he doesn’t fit in the right box. There are a long list of leaders across multiple industries who all rose to those heights in their careers by not fitting in a box, by not being the “easy kid in class”. While I won’t tolerate bad morals or bad behavior, I am completely over apologizing to anyone for my kid not being some bland version of himself so that he’s easier to manage.

When I stopped worrying whether someone else was comfortable around my kid or liked them, I discovered something pretty magical. I discovered I genuinely like my kid. Just as he is. So I’m pretty sure that I’m the one who’s ended up on the lucky end of parenting.

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Saying What You Mean

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Any time you receive an email at 10 AM in the morning from a teacher who has just finished teaching your son, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it won’t be to tell you how your darling child did you proud. It is usually because the teacher is so upset that she needs to get it off her chest then and there. And thus was the case this week when I received an email from my youngest son’s sixth grade literature teacher.

“Today in first period … ” it began and went on to describe the assignment given to all of the children, ” … out of the three myths we read this week, which was your favorite? Explain your answer.”

It seems my son took her literally and assumed that she really did want to know what he thought of her choices for reading material and thus gave an honest reason about why he selected the story he did as his favorite of the three. In fact, he did so with such clarity that his teacher felt compelled to immediately share his response with me  – and continued to share his response with each class she taught that day as an example of what to never write in an essay.

“My favorite story was the “Boy Who Flew” because it was the shortest,” my son shared with his teacher in his essay, adding that he hated having to read stories he’d already read before. But it was the part of his essay where he explained his choice as favorite that was the final straw for the teacher. “All the other stories sucked.”

Now just to be clear, I am in no way supporting his choice of words, and we’ve had several conversations about not using playground language in school essays. And he also wrote a letter of apology and apologized the next day in person, as well as doing the assignment over. But when my son arrived home from school, he was just as upset as his teacher had been, because he believed that the assignment and reaction were unfair. I explained to him that rarely does a teacher actually want their students’ unadulterated opinion even when they ask for it, that what they usually mean is “please describe in great detail the elements of each of these stories so I know you actually read what I assigned.”

My son’s response? “Then why in the world do they play games? Just ask for what you want, and I’ll do the assignment. I can do that, but you have to tell me that’s what you want. If you ask me for my opinion, then I’m going to think you actually want it.”

He has a point. In much of our lives, we speak in code. “Do I look fat?” is often code for “Do you still love me after all this time?”, just as “I’m so tired tonight” is usually code for “If you seriously think I’m in the mood for anything more than fuzzy socks and popcorn tonight, you have another think coming.” We rarely say exactly what we mean, and we want to hear the unfiltered thoughts of others even less often. But after raising three gifted kids who all have struggled with playing the games society expects us play, I have come to the conclusion that maybe my son’s approach isn’t so bad. You know exactly where you stand. In five words or less.