Elementary Lessons for Mom

By Amy Price.

Each month a different member of the SENG team describes a personal passion in the realm of social and emotional needs of the gifted. This article, authored by SENG Executive Director Amy Price, appeared last month in Parenting for High Potential, and is reprinted with permission of the National Association for Gifted Children, copyright 2008 NAGC. No further reprints or redistribution is permitted without the consent of NAGC.

Elementary Lessons for Mom

Just before the start of the school year, my family relocated from a bustling suburb of New York City to a peaceful rural community in the Hudson Valley, a family-friendly haven where we were certain to enjoy raising our family. Both our sons were gifted and would enter new schools. The older one would be a seventh grader in the middle school, where he would also attend advanced math classes at the high school, and the younger son would enter third grade at the local elementary school.

While our new district did not offer a gifted elementary school class like the magnet gifted program that my youngest attended in the city, this new district was well-reputed and took pains to assure us that they were experienced in meeting the needs of gifted children via differentiated learning in the classroom. I provided the school with my son’s records and samples of his work.

No one was prepared for the challenges that we would face with my son over the next two years. I had no inkling, either, that I was about to learn my most pivotal parenting lessons through this elementary journey with my son.

Signs of Trouble

Problems quickly surfaced. Although he initially achieved perfect scores on daily timed addition and subtraction tests, my son’s scores quickly declined. Reed was not completing timed tests and was answering basic questions incorrectly. I knew that he had already mastered multiplication and division. How could these simple problems provide such a great challenge? Even worse, this once-articulate child now seemed unable to organize his thoughts on paper. Simple tasks like using vocabulary words in sentences became hurdles. Reed was reduced to tears in reporting that he was finding the physical process of writing exhausting and difficult. With the onset of class lessons in cursive writing, his misery increased. So, too, did the phone calls and notes from the school.

My son’s difficulties were not limited to the academic arena. He became the subject of a laundry list of behaviors reported by the school. He cried easily and often. The more the teacher tried to communicate with him, the louder and longer he cried. And he moved a lot. He slid his feet in and out of his sneakers. He tapped his pencil on the desk. He often kneeled on his seat, or even stood beside his chair, while concentrating on assignments. He resisted moving from one activity to the next. He hummed while working on tasks. When he was asked to stop, the humming would start up again. With the tactless honesty of an eight year old, Reed informed the teacher, in front of the class, that she was doing the math problem wrong. “Why,” he asked, “would you take all those steps just to come up with an answer that was obvious?”

At home, the simplest homework assignments became explosive battles. Assignments that could normally be completed in minutes dragged out for tearful hours. Reed was despondent, unmotivated, withdrawn and angry in turns. He would be unable to settle to go to sleep at night, even as he was complaining that he was really tired. He woke with painful stomach aches in the morning.

My heart was broken. Where was the exuberant son I had always enjoyed, and who was this sad child in his place?

The Great Dilemma

Reed had earned a reputation as a student with social and emotional behavior problems. His self-esteem was on the ground. He was not learning much, and he was miserable. Our entire family was impacted and walking on eggshells to avoid further meltdowns.

What did my son want at this point? Simply to be “normal.” One evening, he shared a brief diary entry: “I wish I were normal. Normal means you can run fast and catch a ball. I’m slow and not good at catching. Normal kids say their favorite subjects are gym and recess. Mine are science and math. They like sports. I like to read…”In truth, there were many times that I also wished we could trade “gifted” for just average and happy.

Everyone genuinely wanted to help this boy. We were dedicated parents who would communicate our son’s needs and support solutions. The educators were experienced teachers and caring people. Yet the parent perspective and the school perspective on how to help Reed were initially at great odds. We suggested that the lack of academic challenge, the resulting frustration and even fear of feeling different from his classmates, might be the cause of – or at least a contributing factor toward – the troubling behaviors. The school, however, required our son’s behavior to improve before it would consider providing more advanced work.

I did what I was certain that any good mother would do. I set out on a mission to get Reed’s needs recognized and met. The problem was that I did not yet have an effective set of tools. I harnessed my fear and directed my anger at the very people who were in the position to help my son. I demanded change. This was a battle for my son’s well-being, and I was in active combat mode. Accusations and sarcasm were my weapons. And I cried. I spent one awful meeting with a principal, where not a word was exchanged. To my horror, I cried, and he handed out tissues. Much later, I found comfort in the words of our superintendent, also a parent, who explained that a parent’s pain is understandable and that tears of distress are humanizing.

My husband and I realized that we were in a “Catch-22” situation that needed impartial and specialized expertise. We decided to pursue a complete psycho-educational evaluation for Reed. The school did not request this and would therefore not pay for it. We silently said goodbye to our hope of affording a finished basement for the children, and made an appointment for several days of testing. We had no knowledge of any psychologists versed in testing gifted children, and we were relatively new to the neighborhood, as well as to the gifted children field, but we were lucky in our choice.

Discovering the Right Tools

The report and subsequent meeting with the psychologist were life-changing events. Three things stand out in my memory of that day.

First, Reed was not gifted, he was “beyond gifted.” The psychologist showed us articles on the subject, and she later told our son, “If everyone sees life through a lens, and some people’s lenses are clear and others are cloudy, yours is an electron microscope. You are seeing things that others might not see.” Like many parents of gifted children who have faced challenges, we began to scour the internet and read articles and books. Each one led to a greater understanding of giftedness and resources to help our son and our family. Some articles that we shared with the school were helpful to the teachers, as well.

Second, we were cautioned that our son’s perfectionism needed to be addressed, and that he needed to work with someone who could help him understand and accept his giftedness. The professional told us that Reed was at risk