Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Good Coaching Session

This article is necessary because my guidelines for coaching are very clear and I never follow them. They only work with the ideal child who is alert, well rested, just had a snack, and is ready to learn, as well as a parent who is cheery and patient.  Since these two conditions never hold in this house, I have a second set of rules under the heading of Parent Survival Guide.

The goal of a coaching session is to get 15 good minutes of concentration and learning out of a 5 year old.  With academic material, this might be 30 to 45 minutes.  With older children, maybe 20 or 30 minutes on cognitive skills work.  The reason for the 15 minute rule is that thinking is hard and I generally pick material so that after 15 minutes the child is mentally exhausted.

Rule #1  You will have bad days 40% of the time or more.

On a bad day, your child is sick, tired, or hungry.  An inexperienced parent will not realize this until much later.   An experience academic coach expects it.   If you start yelling at your child (guilty) it will result in crying and frustration and the whole session is wasted.  If you let them chose the material to do that day, they will pick something easy and at least they will exercise work habits if nothing else.

Rule #2   You don't know how it will go

I'm willing to bet that I have no readers who have experience teaching figure matrices to children where the trick in the question is that a square flipped but looks like nothing happened.  The problem is that your kid is making no progress.  Maybe it's way too hard for the kid at this juncture ("juncture" is an inappropriate word that coaches use in "pep" talks).

Plan B comes in many forms.

We take an unexpected detour to the shape box to start flipping shapes. We have this fantastic game from age 3 where you build patterns from shapes.  We'll flip them and I'll let my child describe what happened.  Flip the square.  "I already did."  No you didn't.  "Yes I did..."  This is the best way to learn anyway, but time constraints make it rare.

If I see that the child has exercised some of the skills and gotten the problem past the first step, I'll do the rest.   For younger kids, this works fine sometimes because they don't care if they learn by doing or watching.  With books, I used to read every other page.  For older kids, I do this more often because many of the problems I give require a team and since there are only 2 of us, I'm the rest of the team.

Note that I never do any figuring out or solving on test prep questions.   There isn't enough material out there.  For test prep questions, I'll just circle it on the chart and we'll try again a few weeks later. In fact, with an early enough start, you might circle a whole section or book if the child isn't ready. But on really hard math problems and reading comprehension, I'll jump right in there and work away side-by-side with my child, although I've been known to randomly get things wrong sometimes until they don't trust my help.

I may set aside my goal of 6 problems and we will spend the rest of the time dissecting the hard problem.

Or we can just read.   I don't know why, but strong reading families pick up these skills anyway, just not in time for the test.  (Curse you, strong reading families.)

Speaking of Dissecting
There is so little good material (aka hard) out there that you want to squeeze every last drop of learning and behavior planning out of each and every problem.   This is good, because it enforces the right skills.  I think we once spent 3 months on a practice test doing this, probably a year earlier than it should have been covered.  I never planned or expected to do a full length practice test just for the sake of doing a full length practice test.*

Step 1:  Describe what is happening in the problem in excruciating detail.  The kid, not you.

Step 2;  Ask questions about what they are describing.   What if?  Show no interest in hurrying into the solution.

Step 3:  Describe the solution set.  Again, this is not you.

Step 4:  Ask them to explain the rules of this problem because you are confused and until the child is about 10 they won't realize that you are the dumbest parent on the planet.  (By age 10 they are convinced you don't know anything because you always just ask dumb questions and never help them do their homework in any meaningful way.  The downside of this is that when they are struggling to finish their math homework at 9 pm they won't take your suggested answer.)

If they are really floundering, ask them to explain the example to you and then come back to this problem.

If they are totally clueless and you're getting desperate, ask them to memorize the mantra "Shape, Size, Color, Count'.   I did this because one of these things was always changing, although now that I think about it, the test may have been in black and white and "Shape" doesn't really mean anything.   I actually sent my child into the test asking him to use the mantra anyway.  Maybe he was baffled by the test (100% certainty because it's designed for that and way harder than anything you will practice) and the mantra brought him back to the practice rounds when he was figuring things out.  Maybe not.

Step 5:  Let them try to solve it as many times as necessary to get the correct answer.

Step 6:  When they finally get the correct answer because there are only 4 possible answers and their guesses on the last 3 were not correct, ask them to prove it to you, or at least explain why it's correct and the other 3 aren't.  I always make my kids prove it to me because their work with Vocabulary Workshop have made them expert guessers, and guessing is not one of the skills I'm looking for on the figure matrix problem.  When they guess correctly because they eliminated 2 impossible answers, I'm proud but we start over with Step 1.

Successfully problem solving a novel test problems rests heavily on your child's ability to do Step 1 and Step 4 as a matter of practice.  This is not at all like school and I'm not sure where kids will learn this approach if it is not coached.  Step 6 is a high level of Executive Functioning and reinforces  the bookend skill of checking the problem.  Making them live the problem elements during the discussion burns in working memory if it's not strong enough yet.  (I'm 10% sure of that last statement.  I'd like to think it is true because a project centered curriculum is a strong test prep method.  This may just reinforce executive skills).  Again, let me reiterate that they will be confused by the test and the practice material is not going to give them an edge because they recognize one of the easy questions.  You are teaching thinking, and not 7 + 8 = 14, which it doesn't anyway.

Remember these steps, because you will go through something very similar from ages 6 through geometric proofs in AP Geometry and can help even though you don't remember who Pythagoras was.

Getting It Wrong
Take the reward for getting the right answer out of the culture.  This is about learning, not getting right answers.  The general rule is that if your child is getting more than 50% correct, then you have the wrong material.  This rule of thumb is derived as follows:  they get a problem incorrect, thereby proving that they just came across something (skill or otherwise) that they needed to learn, and they get a problem correct (at some point, maybe not the next one) to show that they actually learned something.

How are you going to coach the thinking skills above if your child doesn't need to learn them?  I've had days where the error rate was closer to 100%.  If my child ever hands me a page with a score of 0%, we cancel the rest of the night and go out for ice cream.  I've had to adjust the policy a bit with bad report cards, because I'm not the one who feels bad, but not my general rule that failure is not against the law.  Does a report card with bad marks across the board guarantee straight A's will show up some time next year?  I think so.  That's an article for down the road.

*The Full Length Practice Test
I not only did a full length practice test, I made a deal to have a teacher give my son the test one-on-one in her classroom, all the while assuming a stern and intimidating persona.   Did this do any good? If it was worth a quarter of a percentage point, it was a quarter of a percentage point that we needed to get over the bar.  Unfortunately, we needed another 1/4% but I was out of ideas.

The other one managed to get in with nothing but ridiculously super hard problems I randomly found or created like roman numerals and zenn diagrams and reading comprehension problems when he couldn't read. Did this do any good?  Yes, I think it was more important than a practice test.

Readers often ask "What do I do?"   This is easy to answer when you have to get a 99.9% on the test and there's plenty of time. The answer is all of it.  I'm happy to give this answer because if they don't have enough time, they can start right in where they left off the day after the test.  Like I did.  Three times.  Although it turns out it wan't always necessary but it was always helpful.

The prescription gets harder when there's less time or the bar is something like 95%.  Then it's a matter of "what are my priorities with my limited time?"

Here is my answer, in reverse time order starting a week before the test:
1.  A practice test to prepare for the format of the test.  (3%-4%, $30)
2.  Really hard reading comprehension questions 2 grades in advance, even if you have to read these to a non-reader (5%-10%, 10$)
3.  Really hard problems of any type.  (5%-10%, not much on the market except for me)
4.  A practice test to coach like I describe above (5% - 15%, $30)
5.  Vocabulary Workshop and Building Thinking Skills, Mind Benders, etc, but this would be over a period of months
6.  Lots and lots of reading, which you should be doing anyway, test prep or not
7.  A good math workbook a year ahead of your child's level.  (Level, not grade.  You can only pull this off once in grades 1-4 so use it wisely.  After that, you need to stick to level or they will hate math.)

I may move #5 up above #4.   It's odd that practicing the test is so low on my list.   We did the practice test coaching a year in advance, which made it a learning exercise.  By the time of the test, the material is much too easy if your child has the approach down.  If not, it makes more sense.  Rest assured that it doesn't matter if they are struggling with an easy practice test and the test is rapidly approaching.   The cognitive skills are not that hard to learn if you have the proper approach to coaching.

I use my coaching steps above on everything, not just practice tests with an emphasis on #1 and #6.

Reading only comes in at #6 because test prep is for kids who didn't teach themselves to read at age two, which is most of us.

Good luck!


  1. Hi Norwood - I wanted to report a good news and say a huge thank you. I came across your blog about a year ago and have been following your curriculum with my then 4 year old. At a recent conference with teachers, it was reported that my child is a top of the class (reading and math assessment only). We are trying to make it to GAT next year.

    1. I'm glad to hear the good news. I hope you are in a school district that weighs teacher input in the GAT selection process. I have found that once the GAT battle is won, there is another layer of skills so that they thrive in the program, and yet another layer of skills to prepare for 5th grade. Just so you know. You're work is never done.

    2. Thank you. It's so true that our work is never done. Was there a post in the past about important things that are considered in GAT selection process (other than test scores) generally? For example, current reading level, teacher's recommendation, other recommendation letters...etc. What are the things we should start thinking about?

  2. Hi Norwood! I had to log in to share this with you since you have been our lifeline through the tough spots of the 'brilliancy' tests. My son took the tests between repeated bouts of flu/cold/stomach bug etc.(all in one month) and we almost gave up on the program, more so because the first test (verbal) was all pictures. Since you've been through it with your first one, you will know how bummed a parent feels when the child is ahead on reading. He is on 5th grade vocab and past Sadlier Orange in Vocab, but boys being boys, I did not expect much.
    The paper came in yesterday and said he is in the 99%. We are now on our way to getting him ready for ITBS which is in less than a week from today. Just keeping my fingers crossed. I believe scores for ITBS are much easier since the first one is the 'beast'. We'll see.
    I'll send you an e-mail with what worked for us. The biggest one being the Raven Matrices and NNAT (as you've suggested above).

  3. So true...test practice was really little. We did a lot more of 5 than anything else. And then to get picture analogies was such a dampener.