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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Advice To Teachers From An Exhausted Helicopter Mom

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I have come to hate Mondays.

I don’t mean dislike or any other vanilla word that is polite. I mean hate, as in filled with a sinking sense of dread and doom – but not for the reasons you might think. I love Mondays when it comes to my work. I love the fresh start with five wonderful full days ahead in which our team can make progress on milestones, complete new projects, land new clients, begin new work. When it comes to work, Mondays are my favorite days.

No, the reason I have come to hate Mondays is because that is the day when my child’s teachers email me a litany of complaints, many of which are leveled with veiled accusations that it is somehow my fault that my child forgot his homework, did a project incorrectly, offered an unwelcome opinion during class or in some other way made their day less than ideal.

It is probably the thing I’ve found is the most difficult when it comes to raising a twice exceptional child – and that is saying a lot. Anyone who has raised a child who has both an exceptionally high IQ and a complement of learning disabilities to boot knows just how many challenges are attached to the role of parenting. The learning curve is massive, especially if you didn’t grow up with similar challenges. Learning how to help your child find news ways to work around challenges while trying desperately to give them opportunities to expand their insatiable hunger for learning is exhausting and overwhelming. Being the bad guy – that’s tough, too, when you’re the one pushing your child to continue struggling with something that has taken them four hours to complete when it took their peers a handful of minutes. And learning how to suck it up and not be hurt when your child takes out their frustration, hurt, anxiety and pain on you – that is a monumental task to take on when one is parenting a child with exceptions. Please don’t get me wrong – it has a plethora of rewards as well, and I wouldn’t want my children any other way than who they are. I love their complexity and creativity and zest for life. I love learning so many new things because of their own growing wealth of knowledge. I love who they are as people. I am just being honest here about the challenges that come with raising children with complex challenges.

But nothing for me has matched the difficulty of having to accept the necessity of taking on the role of the dreaded helicopter parent when I wanted to be nothing of the sort. When it comes to teachers and administrators who are frustrated with the challenges they’re facing because of having your child in their class – the amount of vitriol, anger, accusations, frustration, and sometimes downright ugly comments that are directed at you and sometimes your child? Hearing at home your child recall some of the petty, mean things that teachers say in class in front of peers? It is heartbreaking. It is overwhelming. It hurts. And it resurrects the fiercest anger I’ve felt – one that has to be kept in check so that my child does not bear the brunt of the fallout that would surely come if I let a teacher or administrator know the truth about what I thought.

Part of the agreement that was made during our last marathon of an IEP was that I would send out a group email once a week asking each teacher a series of questions that they would then fill in the blanks and email back. It was hoped that this new communication would allow the teachers more direct access to me and vice versa as we all struggled to find a better system to help my son remember to turn his work in, to do all of his assignments and to stay on top of his classwork.

Instead, what has happened is that those emails have become the permission that each teacher has needed (with exceptions – there are some who have been amazingly patient and supportive) to turn the faucet on full blast with a litany of frustrations and anger that they feel not only towards my son but towards me for somehow failing to be all they expect me to be.

So this is my response that I cannot possibly say to them:

Of course I know my child is more challenging to work with than some of the other children in your class. This does not come as a surprise, seeing as I have been the hands-on parent of this individual for his entire life. You really don’t need to keep saying this as if it will open my eyes to some new discovery. There is a reason he is in special education, and it isn’t because the school can get more money for him if he is. It is because the school system as it is now does not adequately create an equal playing field for him. It is your job as his teacher to do what you can to make it an even playing field so that he can thrive and enjoy learning, whether you have decided you like his personality or not.

I’m sorry his personality isn’t all rainbows and puppies. Well, actually, I’m not. I like him just as he is – a completely open book with the most amazing honest insights I’ve ever seen. I love his purity and his willingness to hear very hard truths without being crushed under the weight of what he has to hear. If I had to hear half of what he did on a daily basis, I would be curled up in a fetal position waiting to die. So maybe you could figure out that not every child in your class needs to be the type that follows the rules without question, that doesn’t ask questions when he feels like something said isn’t correct, that doesn’t challenge your authority when you’re throwing it around like a medicine ball without any respect for the individual you’re targeting.

And lastly, let it go. Seriously. Sometimes just let it go. The kid is brilliant, and he can learn faster than you or me. So if he doesn’t finish an assignment, doesn’t show his work correctly because it came to him in his head because that’s how it works for him … just let it go. Make an exception. It’s ok. The world will not fall apart, and you will not be discovered to be a sham of a teacher if you bend the rules because the rule doesn’t need to apply in this very specific instance. It will actually mean you are a better teacher, a master teacher when you arrive at that understanding.

And to all of the teachers who don’t continually direct their anger and frustration at the parent simply because they’re a safe target, please let me say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know how hard your job is – and that the laws being passed seem bent on making it harder with each passing year. I deeply admire your commitment and your love of teaching. And I am forever in your debt for the peace you’ve allowed me to have, for the respite of anger you’ve given me. It was not lost on me, even if I failed to acknowledge it to you.

So, yes, I’ve come to hate Mondays with a passion. But there is an end in sight. In only a few short weeks, the school year will be finished and I will have three blessed months of peace before I get to meet a new set of teachers. But I’ll dread that tomorrow. I have enough on my plate today. I still haven’t heard from three of his teachers, so I’m not finished dreading today.

On Protecting Our Unique Thinkers

Man With UmbrellaSo the story goes that when someone once asked Einstein why he didn’t try harder to memorize his own phone number, he replied, “Because I have no intention of calling myself.”

Had he been born today, enlightened behavioral scientists and child psychologists would have labeled Einstein as twice exceptional – someone bearing both an exceptionally high IQ and documented learning disabilities. The would have likely thrown words around like Autism Spectrum, Aspergers, Memory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, and Dysgraphia. But with or without a diagnosis, most of the misperceptions which plagued Einstein would still exist today. Teachers and doctors would still wonder if he was mentally retarded when he didn’t start speaking until age nine. His failure to learn how to spell along with his inability to memorize random data such as times tables or names on a map would still result in most teachers thinking Einstein needed to focus on these failings to “catch up” with his peers. And for those teachers who actually saw the spark of genius behind the learning disabilities, many of those would believe he was playing them and lying when he tried to explain how he lost yet another assignment. They would never believe that someone that smart could be that forgetful.

It seems Einstein’s bane was keeping up with an umbrella. He lost them everywhere he went, and stories are recorded about his wives complaining about him constantly losing things.

So why am I writing about Einstein? Because I can’t understand how we can celebrate this man’s quirks as part of his obvious genius and contributions to society – and how we can understand that in great part his genius was because his brain was created so uniquely – and yet we persist in trying to shove all of our unique thinkers of today into the same box that people tried to fit Einstein in. How is it that our education system hasn’t evolved to the point that when a teacher sees these same quirks in a child today – the forgetfulness, the gaps in standard skills like spelling and memorizing, the out-of-the-box answers – that there isn’t this lightbulb that goes off that maybe, just maybe, we have the gift of another “Einstein” for this generation?

In the course of the past few months, I’ve received emails from my child’s teachers accusing him of not making enough effort to memorize important material for a test, of purposefully “playing” the teacher – that no one could forget an assignment that many times in a row, of being lazy (that one might be a bit fair; he’s a teenager). But my favorite has to be the teacher who told him to get help so he didn’t “turn in the same kind of crap” he did on his last assignment. That’s right. There is a teacher certified to teach special education that believes that this is how we should be talking to our students. All I can say is that he has no idea how hard my son tries. I watch the hurt in his eyes, and I see him being tempted to give up just a little more every day – and because I see the brilliance of his mind and the possibilities of what he can contribute, I get just a little more frustrated every day. My son is lucky. He has parents who see him for all he has to offer, and he has a few in the school system who are advocating for him (and for those I am so grateful; they make it bearable). But all in all, it is disheartening that this is what we are doing to our children in our public schools. Mine is just one of how many who face this every day?

If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend listening to the TEDxABQ talk this year by Alix Generous, a brilliant thinker of today whose mind has generated such unique approaches to current problems that, barely in her twenties, she has already addressed international audiences with her insights. She advocates more eloquently and effectively than I ever could for the need to protect – not “fix” – the unique thinkers of our day.