Friday, June 22, 2012

Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their Spirits By Michael Popkin, Ph.D

Book Review written by Jill Humpherys

Years ago, I remember asking my three-year –old son to help pick up the toys before lunch.  I ran through every parenting strategy I knew: asking nicely, making it a game, offering choices, and finally spanking.  That was when I realized that I had one head-strong child.  Unfortunately, Michael Popkin had not yet written his excellent parenting book Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their Spirits.  Dr. Popkin  gives excellent advice about building relationships, dealing with emotions, and using discipline and structure to help children learn and grow without engaging in power struggles.
                Dr. Popkin helps us to better understand the challenging child, who is more curious, more adventurous, more powerful, more persistent, and more sensitive.  The acronym he uses for this is CAPPS. It certainly helped me understand my challenging children.  Many gifted children have these characteristics and can be very spirited.  He uses many acronyms to better help us remember different aspects of the program.  The one I found most useful is FLAC, for Feelings, Limits, Alternatives, and Consequences.
                Feelings.  Dr. Popkin helps us to understand that accepting a child’s feelings and empathizing with him helps him to feel respected and understood.  Dr. Popkin states, “when the child receives the empathy of the feeling response, she feels like she has a companion to share her concerns and who is willing to help her solve her problems.  This spirit of cooperation is a huge step in the direction of taming a spirited child.”(Taming, p. 149)  Perhaps what I could have said to my son is, “It is difficult to stop playing and pick up the toys, isn’t it?” 
                Limits.  Dr. Popkin says, “After acknowledging the validity of your child’s feelings about the situation, you want to remind him gently of the limits that you are operating under.  The limits may refer to family rules . . . or it may simply be the needs of the situation as perceived by you the parent or by your youngster’s teacher.”(Taming, p. 149)  This gentle reminder of limits helps the child understand that we can’t always have what we want and that we have to function in reality, where there are rules and time constraints.  My son may have better understood why we needed the toys picked up if I had said, “We have to get the toys picked up so we can have lunch.”
                Alternatives.  Brain-storming some alternatives together shows respect for the child and invites his participation.  Dr. Popkin says, “As children get older, looking for alternatives becomes more of a cooperative venture.  You can make suggestions, but do not feel that it is up to you to come up with a solution.  Kids who have been involved in such problem solving can be remarkably creative in finding innovative, and acceptable, alternatives to their problems.” (Taming, p. 152)  Being that my son was only three, I’m not sure that he would have come up with many solutions, but I could have offered several.  “Would you like to pick up by yourself or would you like me to help?  Would you like to pick up the blocks or the trucks first?”
                Consequences.    “if you stay friendly and let the consequences flow logically from the impasse that exists,” advises Dr. Popkin, “your child may find the added incentive of avoiding a logical consequence enough to agree to one of the alternatives.”(Taming , p. 154)  He gives the example of a slow-to-dress child who will miss a nice breakfast if he doesn’t hurry and have to settle for a quick snack in the car.  He suggests, “it is handy to always build in some fun things in any routine so that if the child balks at one point, he loses out on the rest of the routine, including the fun parts.”(p. 155)  I might have said, “When we pick up the toys quickly, we’ll have time for a story after lunch” or “ Would you like to help me decide what to fix for lunch after the toys are picked up?”
                My other favorite chapters were entitled, “The Dynamics of Power” and “Discipline:  Showdown at the O.K. Corral.”  I hope you find Dr. Popkin’s book as interesting and helpful as I did.
                As for my head-strong three-year-old?  He has grown up into a responsible, talented, determined adult, of whom I am very proud.  I must have done some things right.

This book is available through the Maricopa County Library System.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Gifted Education: Is it Worth it?

By Katherine Varga

In 2010, the federal government allocated 12.6 billion dollars for special education students across the country. In contrast, also in 2010, congress passed the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, which provided 7.5 million dollars for research on ethnically diverse, gifted students. There was no federal funding provided directly to school districts for gifted education and until today this still remains to be the case. Based on these facts alone, one can conclude gifted education is not a priority in our country.

With funding so scarce during these challenging economic times, the question must be asked, would special education for gifted students be worth the trouble and cost?  Should it be a priority?

In 1976, Tucson was a small, but exponentially growing community with approximately 300,000 people. Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), the largest district in Tucson, was losing student enrollment to outlying school districts and therefore money as well. During this time, state funding for schools also dropped dramatically, the cost of many educational materials doubled, utilities in the Tucson area rose by 50% and a budget override of 1.9 million dollars was rejected by public vote. In other words, in many ways, the surrounding economic environment was exceptionally difficult and not very different from what we are experiencing in Gilbert today.

As an attempt to maintain enrollment and target students’ individual needs better, TUSD developed four alternative education programs.  One of these was the Special Projects High School, housed on the campus of a typical high school, which offered AP classes and required high test scores or an I.Q. of 130 to be enrolled.  Over time, the administrators made it a point to provide a balanced and developmentally appropriate education, with excellent access to athletics, the arts and other quality extracurricular programs in addition to providing a phenomenal faculty, many of which held doctorate degrees in their respective fields. In the last 36 years, the school has changed campuses (from Tucson High to Rincon High), their name, their mascot (from the skunk to the penguin), and also their notoriety. University High School (UHS), now known as a public magnet school for gifted and talented students, was recently ranked by the 2012 U.S. World and News Report as the fourth highest performing high school in the country. In 2004, the number of UHS students passing the AP exams for United States History, Comparative Politics and the English Language was higher than any other high school in the world. It boasts some very notable graduates including former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They report that 50-75% of their students receive at least one scholarship and nearly all attend college.

Sounds impressive, right?  Perhaps their gifted students are especially exceptional? Or not. Statistically speaking, Gilbert should have as high a percentage of highly gifted students as Tucson. Maybe University High recruited students from all white, economically advantaged households? Or not. The U.S. World and News Report recorded a minority population of 40% graduating from UHS last year. If these students had been spread out among all the typical high schools in the district, would they have performed as well?  Looking at the evidence, it is not difficult to assume probably not. Again, we can ask the question, does special education for gifted students make a difference?  Is it worth it?

As a student who attended UHS and as a special education employee currently working for Gilbert Public Schools, I have pondered this question myself. We strenuously labor to raise our struggling students to their highest potential, and yet generally neglect to academically target those students who have the most potential to innovate, lead and problem solve in the future. As part of my exploration, I wrote a few of my high school classmates for their feelings on the subject.  James Marsh, a fellow graduate of 1999, wrote the following about his experience attending UHS:

I don’t know if I am typical of the typical gifted student, if such a thing could be said to exist at all. I was always a little quicker to grasp concepts and build off of them. Large stretches of time during normal instruction were spent reading fantasy or science fiction books in class while the other students toiled away at assignments I’d long since completed.

“I was socially awkward and did not relate with the other students on an intellectual or emotional basis most of the time. There were exceptions to the rule, but for the most part my interaction with the other students was from a studied distance both of us preferred, or as the butt of jokes and pranks. I admit I was arrogant in my intellectual capacity and unknowingly encouraged and rewarded such behavior. I incorrectly divided the world into the intellectual, secluded nerds and all of the “normal kids.”

“When I heard of University High School, I sought it out as a haven – and was not disappointed. Everyone was a fellow comrade in arms, suddenly faced with workloads that challenged our intellect and sometimes stamina. Were we all still teenagers with the accompanying adjustment periods and sometimes clashing personalities? Of course. But we were all equal.

“Everyone had a chance to shine in one way or another, and everyone was regarded with and expressed a certain amount of respect for one another. Each of us had earned our spot there and we knew it. I learned that high test scores were no indication of any demographic, including personalities and interests. There were those that still outstripped the curve, but I did not resent it. In fact, at times it gave me a little insight into how I must have appeared to others growing up. When I struggled, others extended to me help and I returned the favor in areas where I excelled. There were times when I excelled but I took no pride in it. Humility was being drummed into me in other areas.

“For the first time I knew what it was to feel ‘normal.’

“I can’t say that that was the experience everyone held, but for me the most important lessons I learned at UHS was that everyone had something to teach each other. I learned how to interact with peers and how by holding each other to higher standards everyone was sharpened.

“I learned it was ok to be me.”

Certainly the experience of one may not speak for all, but for this one, gifted education made a difference. We have to decide what we want for our children and what we are willing to offer.  Personally, as a community, I believe we can and must do better.