Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Mother of All GAT Skills

The very first insane thing I ever did as a parent was to hand my 5 year old the Every Day Math workbook #1 and ask him to do every problem on every page.  This was his introduction to math. Once I found out about the concept of "test prep", I raised the bar further with ridiculously complicated problems that take an hour to figure out what the question is asking.

Since then, he's done a steady stream of impossible tasks that take many months to complete, and at the end, he sees the results and I remind him of all the hard work he put into it.

I've subsequently refined the approach for his little brother.   For example, I now know that Every Day Math Level 2 should be preceded by Sylvan Kindergarten math.  And I know that phonics is really important at a young age and can be done at an insane level (and you can see the results of this on Amazon in about 2 or 3 weeks.  I finally fixed my logo and came up with a diagram that doesn't involve army rangers at training camp.  Although the logo "Test Crusher" and army ranger training is exactly what I have in mind, I'm afraid it puts off too many people.)

In past articles, I've outlined most of the parenting skills that are required to pull this off, and now I'm ready to talk about the biggest skill of all, which is to expect really big things of your child that take many months.   I could stop here, but you and I are probably wondering what is the long term outcome of this approach?  What is going to happen to your child if you exercise the Mother of All GAT skills?  What happens if your child doesn't attend a GAT program and you do this anyway?

Last weekend, I compared a 6th grade child in a GAT program and who is currently being subject to 9th grade insanity at home, to a 7th grader who is working at grade level and does nothing special but go to swimming practice 3 times a week.  I did this because lately I've been researching how the skill bar changes over time so when this friend came over to play video games, I announced that they needed to do math first.  And then run 2 miles.

First, let's take the GAT kid.  In Chicago, 7th grade is an important year, where grades and test scores determine high school enrollment.  At the end of 5th grade, we started stepping through the 7th grade math curriculum, which is an 8th grade book.  I think we're going to finish.  For the last month, I've asked him to write down every thing relevant to linear, exponential, inverse, and polynomial functions, which will take him about 6 weeks.  Last weekend, I bought the 7th grade Chemistry book, which is a 9th grade textbook, and we're going to memorize all of the vocabulary and concepts in the next 6th months.  Given his training in doing ridiculously impossible tasks, not to mention the years at the Word Board, I think this is doable.

I'm even more pleased with his ability to perform on non-academic exercises.   If you've seen Test Prep math, you might wonder where the characters Jeffrey Sincomhoff and Sumi Von Gusa came from.  My son wrote many of the questions, and I added the math.  Most of the main characters are his classmates, including the hapless Yani and his evil nemesis Mallory.  Mallory sat on the student counsel with my son in the second grade.  In case Mallory should happen across this blog, let me state for the record that she is not evil, even if she has all of the qualifications of a nemesis, including turning in her assignments on time, which is a skill that my son lacks out of sheer lack of caring, which is why I bought the 9th grade Chemistry book.

Now take the 7th grader.   I announced that the 7th grade non-GAT grade level friend would learn about linear functions in 30 minutes or less (which took 75 minutes).   I showed him y = mx + b, and to be on the safe side, y = 3x + 2.  He had no idea what "y" was supposed to mean, let alone the rest of it.

He wasn't lacking any of the core skills.  Didn't care a bit that he was totally baffled and happily redid his graphs when I pointed out discontinuity in his line.  I was really disappointed.   I asked my 8 year old to come over and show this kid how these functions worked.  My 8 year old happily obliged, because he thinks he knows everything and is fearless, and proceeded to get things mostly wrong as well.  The 7th grader was not the slightest bit annoyed.  I was hoping for tears.  I need more time to prepare.  I told him to come back next week and I won't be as easy.  I'm going to give my 8 year old all of the answers first, and I'll jump right into exponents in the middle of the lesson for no reason.

A few days later, my 6th grader and I walked to this friend's house.   His parents told me that their child was so excited about our session that he called his parents on the way home to tell them that he had so much fun and is now doing math at Mr. Norwood's house on Saturdays.

I know exactly what is going to happen in the next few years.   It's been happening in our neighborhood for the last 15 years.   This is an odd chummy neighborhood, with about 2,000 close knit families.  I haven't exactly been charting outcomes, but I could go up and down the blocks listing off who went where and why.   This has always been central to my research; parents are more than happy to talk at length about their children, and I'm more than happy to ask.

The 7th grade swimmer will get into a good high school, probably with little effort, although I'm raising the bar dramatically after last weekend.   My son will get into a good high school with a lot of effort, because his classes are ten times as hard and his classmates are all brainiacs.  My personal goal is to get him into the 50th percentile of his class, which will be good enough.   Then in high school, all of the GAT kids will be a year or more ahead.  Some of the non-GAT kids will take summer school in a few classes like math and catch up with a little effort.  They will go to similar colleges based on their own goals, and do great things that may or may not be academic in nature.

I could list off young college graduates and their accomplishments, and ask you which ones attended a grade school GAT program and which didn't.  You would answer incorrectly most of the time.

Then there is child #2 who isn't part of my "how to be an effective parent" research program but simply takes advantage of the results which I've been publishing here for the last 5 years.   Last weekend, he found the instructions to a lego Star Wars set that we haven't seen in 18 months.  He glanced at the materials list and tossed the book aside.  I sat their in stunned silence while he picked all of the the correct parts our of our bins of 70,000 legos, built the thing from memory, and then changed it to make it bigger and better.  The story isn't written yet for this case.  He'll be doing powers and linear functions today as well.

GAT Parenting Skill #7 - The Speech

Test time is upon us.  It's time to start thinking about what you are going to say to your child after you drive them to the testing center.   A better time to start thinking about this is last month, but better late than never.  I'm moving Skill #7 to the head of the line.

When I first started research GAT tests, the best advice I found for going into the test was to tell the child, "This test is going to be like puzzles and it should be fun.  If you answer every question on the test, after we leave we'll go to the toy store and I'll buy you a toy."

At the time, it seemed like sound advice in context, if the context is a little bit of test prep, a good night sleep, and a parent who is totally freaked out by the whole processes and needs something to say so that they don't send their child into the test room feeling the same terror that the parent is going to feel watching the child go in.

Oh, there will be terror.  It's worse than terror.   It's horror.  Any parent who tells you that they just let their child go in hoping for the best with no pressure is completely lying to themselves and you should never trust this person again.

If this were a sporting event, I would be thinking "I hope you lose.  At least you would learn something required for later success in life, and it would be fitting payback for me having to drive your sorry carcass somewhere on a Saturday.   Who's dumb idea was it to start sports for little kids?" I've actually said this before.

But this is the test.   If your child somehow passes this test, they will be in a top notch academic program, and regardless of their poor intelligence and lack of qualifications, they will emerge years later in the ranks of the gifted.  That's the dirty little secret of GAT tests - they are great predictors of academic success because GAT programs do all the work.   It's like winning the Lotto is a predictor of wealth.  The other secret is that your child's classmates will probably come from families that do advanced math during breakfast just for fun and calculate exponents on their cheerios, but that is the topic of GAT Parenting Skill #8.

During the process of test prep, your child is building cognitive skills, being exposed to a lot more vocabulary, and having lots of conversations with the parent that slowly develop into more adult conversations.   It occurred to me that I could use this new level of thinking skills to get my child to understand what was at stake and to take it seriously.

Equally important, there's the issue of the repeated mistakes that resulted in a consistent 50% or less on practice questions going into the test.  These include not reading the question carefully, picking the first choice as the answer without looking at the other answer choices, doing the opposite of the instructions for classification problems (he liked to pick the most unusual item from the list instead of the one that doesn't share the primary characteristic of the others), and giving up when he's stuck on a hard problem.

We didn't talk on the way to the test center for our second attempt.  I asked him to read.  The prior year was a complete disaster.  I signed up for the test too early, with a young four year old in the 99% of shyness, who was terrified of animals and people, and I was a nervous wreck.  He was shy of a passing score, and I'm sure it was because he spent more time trying to figure out how to get out of the testing torture room than how to answer questions correctly.  When he came out, he told me of the question and answer choices on the question he got wrong.  This was a one-on-one test.  The proctor asked informed him that he was wrong and asked him if he wanted to try again. This is apparently part of the test, and if you read my books or articles on cognitive skills for kids, you know why.  He answered, "No, I don't want to try again."  I was devastated.  We didn't talk the whole way to the toy store, nor on the way to the bookstore that I drove to afterward to start the process again.

The next year was a bit different.  In the test center, the MC announced that children with the yellow tickets need to line up.  This test was for 1st grade, which is the entry year for my other son's school and our target.  I couldn't have done anything with a passing score the prior year, but the experience still left me with a profound sense of determination.  Other parents stood up with their children and said things like "have fun with the puzzles" and "no matter how you do is OK with me".

After the parents and their children left their seats for the line, I said, It's time to do it.  You're ready.  You are going to crush this test.  A lot is riding on each and every question, and if you screw up, you can't go to school with your brother.

From prior experience, I knew that the lining up process would take a while.  When it was his brother's turn, we showed up to watch the line going into the room and after a bit of franticness, it worked out OK.  So I continued, Don't answer a question until you've looked at it long enough to figure out whether or not it is trying to trick you.   All the questions are trying to trick you.  Read them all twice.  Don't answer a question until you look at each answer first.  Repeat that back to me. Check your answers.

Then as the line looked like it was about to move, after the third call, I asked, What do you do when you get stuck?  He replied, "Shape Size Color Count", and off he went.

Before I explain how to pull this off, and why, let me mention two other things.  After we signed in at the test center, way too early, we wandered around looking for vending machines for a pre test snack and tried to get on one of the public computers to waste time.  "Waste time" does not refer to my child not worrying, but me. Plus, I had to gear up for my speech and try distract my son from my nervous and pensive behavior.

On the way home in the car, he thoroughly explained the number, content, and difficulty level of each section.   At home, he began drawing question and answer sets, providing commentary as he went. The test is administered by the psychology department of a local school, and they have this brain wiping trick in the form of a scented sticker that each kid gets after the test.   I have my own brain restoring tricks, plus my son had developed a powerful memory during our time at the Word Board.

Back to the speech.  It has 3 parts, as you can see above.

The first part was my preamble about how important this is and how I expect him to do well.  I probably blew it, but I could at least try because we spent the last few months (well, years, but months should be enough) working side by side on a big long term project.  He knew for months that he would earn a trip to the toy department but didn't really care, because the team and the project were much more important to him at this point, not to mention my confidence in him and his big role, plus the passing of the baton, the legacy, and whatever else.  Thanks to billions of dollars spent on psychology, the army already knows this and I was just copying what they do.

The second part was the rules of the game.  How many times did I tell him to reread the question, look at all of the answer choices first, and check his answer?  Maybe 10,000 times.  A child who has these skills drummed into their behavior will perform at the 99% level eventually regardless of their actual level. After another year of continuing to repeat these rules, and coincidentally being disgusted with the boringness and lameness of math curriculum, I wrote the Test Prep Math series to drum these skills in to all kids with a sledge hammer.

I was able to brief him on the rules again and expect him to take these rules into the test because they had become part of his training, even if he chose to ignore them most of the time.  That's why I gave a preamble.  The preamble let him know that now's the time to use them.

The third part was pure genius, and the reason why I won Competitive Parent Magazine's Competitive Parent of the Year Award (known as the Compettie) in 2012.   One of the most important skills in all advanced subjects is to look at a problem from different angles or viewpoints, and one of the best ways to do this is to step back from the problem.  Getting stuck ends the process and results in frustration.   It prevents the back part of the brain from tossing out suggestions and ideas.  It has been proven by research that the back part of the brain contains 95% of the thinking power of the brain and if the front part would just shut up for a minute, the back part will give it the answer.

At first, I just noted that the key to shape, size, color, count was usually the answer to practice problems in both the verbal and the figure sections of the test.   Of course, the real test is much more complicated.   About a month before the test, in exasperation, I started saying "Shape Size Color Count" all of the time during practice and made my son memorize it under the head of "What do you say when you get stuck?"

What I actually did was give him a mechanism to address being stuck whereas before, his only response was frustration, impatience, and more stuckness.  I'm not sure he was able to use "Shape Size Color Count" to correctly answer a question that involved shape, size, color, or count.  I asked him after the test how many times he resorted to "Shape Size Color Count".  He responded two or three.  That means that he was stuck two or three times, and got unstuck.   I don't remember what the questions were, but I remember thinking that I succeeded but not in the way I thought I would.

The funny thing about high level cognitive skills is that they can be learned at any age, including my age, which is about 115 years old.   In this case, the problem is "What to say to your child on the way into the test", and if you spend a bit of time on the question and the answer choices, you'll see the answer.   If you get stuck, say "Shape Size Color Count" and try again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

GAT Parenting Skill #0 - Zero Expectations

This skill overlaps the other skills, and is foundational.   It is the most important skill for the parent of any child, up to about age 4 1/2, and then becomes critical for any advanced work after age 8.  At ages in between, this skill has to complete with a set of normal parenting skills, full of expectations about behavior, attention, and diligence.

When your child sits down to do an academic activity, whether reading, math, critical thinking, writing or whatever, the child is going to draw on perhaps dozens of learned skills all working together as the problem warrants.  The core skills listed in my articles are mandatory for a successful outcome, and these are correlated with the core Parenting Skills #1 through #3.  (I reserve the right to add #4 and maybe #5 in future articles).

When I sit down with a child, even my own children, but especially the children of others, I have no idea the exact measurement of each skill required to complete the work at hand.   In worst case scenarios, most skills are missing and the child is way behind.   Some days the child has the skills but doesn't think to use them.  Some times the child solves the problems using a completely different set of skills, usually the hard way, and undermines the learning session.  Some children will see the answer immediately, and I don't get to see a the skills in action and am left wondering whether or not the child just guessed.

The Zero Expectations skill is defined by acknowledging that you, as a parent, don't really know which cognitive subskills your child will need or display on a given day.   If you're lucky, you might know them when you see them.  Good teachers with years of experience probably know.  Even then, if 6 key skills are working together, it's really hard to work out which ones are strong and which are weak.

If you sit down with your child for an academic activity, acknowledge that you have zero expectations to match your knowledge of your child's cognitive skills, and be prepared to let these skills develop on their own.  The Zero Expectation skill will be supported by the 3 other GAT Parenting skills, and the Zero Expectation skill will support these other three skills.

Suppose for example that your child is learning how to add.   As a GAT parent, you are not going to force your child to memorize these math facts, but instead just present your child with a few problems each night to give them an opportunity to learn, or even better to give your child a more complicated problem that involves addition.  The child is faced with "4 + 5".  Here is a list of approaches in the order I would expect the average child to develop them:

  1. If "4 + 5" is buried in a longer and more complicated question, the child spends plenty of time rereading the question until it's obvious that he has to add 4 + 5 to answer the question.
  2. The child remembers that"4 + 5" needs to be solved and begins working on it.
  3. The child continues working on the problem without getting distracted.
  4. The child just starts guessing.
  5. The child can present 4 fingers on one hand and 5 on the other, and count them to 9.
  6. The child can envision 4 tick marks and 5 tick marks in their brain, and count them.
  7. The child is sick of counting, so starts with 5 and counts 4 more.
  8. The child recognizes that 5 is one more than 4, 8 is the double of 4, and adds 1 to 8.
  9. The child invents their own method to solve this problem.
  10. The last problem was 4 + 4 = 8, and 5 is one more than 4, so the answer is 8 + 1.
  11. If the child used methods 4 through 10, the child checks again to be sure that the answer is correct.
  12. If the child derived "10", found out she was wrong, she tries again without being frustrated.
  13. The child remembers that "4 + 5" was 9 the last time she recently was asked, so it's 9.
  14. The child has been asked enough and knows it's 9.

There are only 4 cognitive skills on this list.  Do you know what these are?  It's the same list that we could apply to almost everything, including reading.

#1 is a skill.  I consider this one of the most important skills for everything.

#2 is a combination working memory and executive functioning skills.  Both of these develop as the child ages, reads, and does academic work.  Executive functioning skills can be supplemented by training.  I consider Working Memory a brain part and not a skill.  An accomplished violin player usually has a big right arm, and no one considers a big right arm to be a skill.

#3 is relates to Executive functioning skills.

#4 is not a skill.  It's just something my kids do to annoy me.  I try not to show my annoyance because when the child is in middle school, this becomes a key problem solving technique, provided that the child verifies on their own that they are right.  This is why I always respond to a guess with the demand "Prove it."

#5 through #10 is a big bucket of cognitive skills that I've written on sporadically.  I call these problem solving skills, but they are underscored by poorly researched cognitive skills.   George Poyla has a famous book exploring these skills, which is summarized here, but his work seems a lot like my treatment of "4 + 5", although he does at least name some additional skills, like problem decomposition and visualizing the problem (aka drawing pictures).  IQ tests explicitly test for skills #5 through #10 in different settings, like word scrambles and logic problems.   Cognitive skills tests measure the capability that a child would have to devise these skills by presenting the child with novel problems at a difficulty level way beyond anything the child would see in test prep.

#11 is an important skill that needs to be relearned every year.  As soon as children become adept at something, they stop checking their work.

#12 contains two core cognitive skills, trying again and not being frustrated.

#11 and 13 are working memory in action, as a precursor to a photographic memory.  (#11 is also a problem solving skill.)

#14 is all memory.

The approach that I began with many years ago, and consistently developed, is to provide an environment where the child can develop the core cognitive skills of reading the problem carefully (I'll write on the sub-skills behind this one in another article), checking the work, getting it wrong without frustration, and trying again.   Of course, the child can't develop these skills without a steady diet of work that requires the skill set.  I wrote the Test Prep math series for grades 2 to 4 because nothing exists during this critical period of the child's development.  If the child develops the core skills, sometimes with constant nagging by the parent, the problem solving skills will develop on their own.

Kumon has a unique approach to teaching the problem solving skills, as well as the core skills.  Give the child a large number of ridiculously easy problems to do every day, slowly increasing the problem level as the child's knowledge of the subject matter increase, until the child has learned all of the skills listed above.  While this actually works in practice, I hate Kumon because you can accomplish the same objectives by subjecting the child to ridiculously hard work that takes 45 minutes just to get through one problem, which might not even have a solution by the way, and teach the Mother of all Skills.  I don't think I've explicitly defined the Mother of All Skills in any article, but a child can't get through Test Prep math without learning it.  I think I'll write an article about it soon.

I hate Kumon Pre-Algebra books even more because they just present all of the algorithms needed to solve the problems at the beginning of the book.   Nonetheless, for 5th grade and beyond, their books are super hard, and I recommend them if you rip out the section on algorithms and only let your child see it if he has gotten the wrong answer at least twice.

In summary, there are two reasons why I recommend that a parent focus on the core skills.  First, any child with any workbook on any subject on any day is a complete mystery, even my own kids.  I have no idea where they are in terms of problem solving skills, or how to develop the next one under the circumstances.  Even if there was adequate research in this area, I would need to write a 9,000 page book to give it adequate treatment of each sub-skill for all parents.   Secondly, with the proper emphasis on the core cognitive skills, supported by the proper GAT Parenting skills, these problem solving skills develop magically on their own, almost always way beyond my expectations, although in some cases I've had to sit their with a child hours every day for months until their behavior or working memory skills catch up.

The Zero Expectations Skill captures this approach.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Emergency Advice for Second Grade Test Prep

I've gotten about a dozen requests in the last week for advice on second grade cognitive skills tests.   In Chicago, this means taking a shot at a few slots in gifted programs that may or may not be available next year in any one of the GAT programs.  In some school districts, this is the official GAT entry year and may include the standardized test scores as well.

Competition is less fierce after Kindergarten.  Many more parents are working with their oldest child during pre school or Kindergarten because their schedules haven't been swamped by sports and other activities.   The entry scores get lower every grade in Chicago.  There is a 5 foot high stack of test prep material for the Kindergartners.  By second grade, this stack is about 5 inches high. To make matters worse, some Kindergartners have already used the second grade stack; this should let you know how challenging it is.

There is no evidence that it is harder to get a 2nd grader from 55% to 95% than it is to get a Kindergartner from 55% to 95%.  There is a lot of evidence that it feels to be or appears to be harder.

In this article, I'm going to summarize the basics with an emphasis on 2nd grade.  I'm going to assume that the test is in 4 months.  4 months is plenty of time of concerted, hard core, over the top test prep.  If third grade is "the year", then you can stretch this out or focus on the off season material. In this article, I'm describing "Test Prep Season", which is about 4 months each year.

Step 1
Get some books.

  • Building Thinking Skills grades 2-3, and don't short change the 2nd half of the book like you would have 2 years ago.  Think about following this up with the grade 4-6 book and working mostly in the first half of the book.
  • Vocabulary Workshop, which you can start at grade level or one level up.   These can be done all year, 20 to 30 minutes each Saturday morning.  This book didn't set out to teach testing skills, but I have found that it actually does.
  • Test Prep Math Level 2 - grades 2 and 3.   Since this is already test prep season, you have to do a problem from Section 2 each day in addition to a problem from Section 1, instead of waiting until you're finished with half of Section 1 like the introduction recommends.   Your child won't actually be competent in Section 2 for at least a month.  The extra "hell" will help accelerate the process, but I'm not exaggerating when I use the term "hell".  These may seem like simple addition and subtraction problems, and they are, but not when combined into a format that I designed to be twice as hard as the GAT test.
  • At least one practice test for the test you are going to take, at the level that you will take it. This test will help your child understand the format and will avoid disaster, like your child making up the wrong rules to answer the questions on the day of the test.  You can go through this slowly over the next few months and then repeat the process leading up to the test.  I recommend the practice test from Smart Cookie which has 2 practice tests in one book.
  • If you want more material, I recommend NNAT practice grades 3 and 4 from Smart Cookie, and then after that, a Mind Benders book.
Step 2
Get organized.  Carve out at least 30 minutes to 45 minutes each day for work on the above material at least 3 days during the week, Saturday morning (for double work), and perhaps a time period on Sunday.  You can dig through my blog for suggestions on posting a schedule to keep track of progress in each of the books.

Step 3
Get prepared.  I'm right in the middle of my series on GAT Parenting skills.  These can be paired with the testing skills for your child which I've written on extensively and summarized in a series of articles within the last few years.  You should read as many articles as you can.   If there was a book or another website that covered these at all, I would simply have recommended it and spent my time doing something else.

Step 4
Be prepared for the worst.  I have received 1,000's of emails and comments about how hard this can be.   Most describe the experience I had with my reluctant children who ended up "gifted and talented", despite their proclivity toward average behavior.  Maybe "gifted and challenged" is a better term for my blog.   I will happily respond to all requests, even if you describe a child with special needs or on some spectrum, which I am perfectly unqualified to comment on.  But I am perfectly qualified to say it will work out in the end, and it works out wonderfully in many other areas besides academic performance when a parent and child go through this process together.

In addition to the normal process where your child starts out doing half a page of work in 2 days as they build their cognitive skill set (on the way to 2 or more pages a day), you may have to deal with behavior modification like sitting still, concentrating, not crying, etc.   You may have to sit there the whole time "helping" (which is not helping at all, really, because you're not allowed to).  It takes about 6 weeks to modify behavior, and not just the child's.

There's a lot more that can go into this process, but this will get you started today.

Step 5
You need to read with, to, or next to your child (each with a different book) for at least 30 minutes a night.  This is what GAT kids do.  Get used to it.  I would recommend more reading, but you're already doing a lot of special work for your child.

Also, you might think about getting a Reading Comprehension book (Level C from Continental Press) and doing one problem every other week.  This is good test prep from the stand point of the experience of jumping into something new and climbing your way out, which is what the test is all about. 

GAT Parenting Skill #3 - The Bad Day

When doing test prep or advanced math with 4 year olds, I have routinely experienced bad days about 40% of the time or more.   If we were doing work 4 times a week, I might lose 2 days.  If I've got a schedule with a time limit, like school starts in a month or the test is 6 weeks away, bad days have a bad impact.

Bad days also can undermine GAT Parenting Skills #1 and #2, which is why dealing with bad days is #3 on the list of GAT Parenting Skills.

If your child is in sick and in bed with a fever, and this is a test prep day, you are not experiencing a bad day.  You have lost the day and need to rearrange the schedule, but this is not bad.  I mean something worse when I say "bad".

When I was growing up (here we go) I was a big fan of the Star Trek TV series from the 60's.  My favorite episodes began with a random guest lieutenant walking down the hall experiencing something like a glowing green arm.  A regular character would pass by, a character who had experienced many strange things in previous episodes that always led to the endangerment of the ship and crew and the death of guest characters. The regular character would ask "What is wrong with your arm?"  The guest lieutenant would reply "It's nothing, just a glowing green arm."  Then the regular character would suggest that he get it checked out later.

As you would expect, the guest lieutenant would turn into a horrible alien and endanger ship and crew before he was killed.

Now, back to your child.  You sit down to do a page in your workbook.  Your child is complaining, misbehaving, making amateur mistakes, and whining.   You start yelling, the child starts crying, and all progress for the day is gone.

On any given day, the child could be hungry, tired, exhausted, sleep deprived, or other wise completely unprepared for the workbook page.  As a regular character in the child's life, you should know this, but instead you assume that the child is just being difficult and displaying a lack of self control and discipline.   After all, he's a child, and as a regular character in the child's life, you have also seen bad behavior, which is worth correcting.

The problem is that you don't see a glowing green arm, just either bad behavior.  Bad behavior may or may not be related to a Bad Day.

Here's how you will respond using the Bad Day parenting skill:
1.  You reprimand the child's behavior the first time with no emotion.  "Get to work.  Quit complaining."
2.  By the fifth time you are really mad.  Were you supposed to be unemotional?  Does this fall under the no Emotion Skill?  You check my blog and it doesn't say.
3.  You pull out the bag of skittles and lay 5 on the table.   "I'll give you one for every question you answer."
4.  The child is getting worse.  You say "OK, why don't you pick which workbook you want to do?" Next to the hard one that the child is doing, you put down the easy workbook on the same topic or something fun like Vocabulary Workshop.
5.  Of course, they pick the easy one.  If progress is still bad, you just jump in and start helping with the questions.  By help, I usually mean letting the child read them out loud, feigning interest, and asking questions.
6.  If things are a total disaster, you will find yourself answering questions.

Notice that we didn't quit, even if you answered questions and your child got nothing out of the work. (By we, I mean you and your child plus your academic parenting coach.) The goal on bad days is not to ruin the whole session by losing your temper, because you expect bad days and you're totally prepared.  The goal is to get something done, regardless, even if you find out 2 hours later that the child had a fever.  Of course, if the child is listless, a fever means a trip to the doctor and you should have checked already, but a complaining child with a fever might not be as dire.

There are interesting outcomes to the steps I listed above.

First, I realized that if my child eats candy, a couple of pieces out of a full serving will do.   Occasionally, we have candy in the house, and everyone is happy with just a few pieces.  I learned this during test prep.  I also found out that if you have to bring candy every time you do math, within a few weeks you can retire the candy permanently just by announcing that there is no more (which is technically if not physically true) and put the bag away until a bad day.

Next, once I learned how to get through bad days, we got through quite a few bad days.  We got through so many bad days that later in life my children had no problem going to school sick, and the normal things that happen to normal children that would otherwise hamper performance do not affect my children.  Or so I think.  Maybe they just grew out of it.  I'm going to say with 71% probability that my kids are much better prepared for bad days because of this approach.

Finally, I'm a much stronger academic coach because I have much more patience.  Dealing with bad days with a predefined strategy is a big part of this.   While I list these parenting skills like I expect people to have them, it takes a few years to learn them.  Bad Days are a really good teacher.  I think I'll write a whole article on how these skills are learned.  It's not like I expect a parent to read them and apply the skills; it's almost like being the opposite of a parent.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

GAT Parenting Skill #1 - The No Emotion Parent

Continuing my series of parenting skills, under the slogan "A GAT Child usually doesn't happen by magic", I'm introducing the #1 skill of a parent.

The No Emotion Parent skill allows a parent to remain completely emotionless to the child's performance and the result of each attempt on a question, especially math and thinking related questions.

If you child is working on a math question, for example, and takes 45 minutes and 8 attempts to get it correct, the parent is happy.  At least the parent coveys that they are happy, but you don't know how they really feel.  A parent with this skill takes correct versus incorrect answers out of the equation. Speed isn't important.   Dead-ends, failed attempts, and solution strategies that went in the wrong direction are part of the process.

Wrong answers are especially valued, because during wrong answers, learning is taking place. During correct answers, your child is just displaying that they were either lucky, or already know the material, and you both just wasted your time on the question, unless it took 20 minutes to answer it.

Until a parent masters this skill, learning is hampered and their child is not going to make real, accelerated process in their thinking related activities.  A parent who is lacking this skill is destined to produce a child who hates math homework and feels like "I just don't get it".  Speed is the enemy of learning.   Right and wrong answers are the enemy of learning.  Good grades are the enemy of learning.

What makes this skill so rare is that our entire school system is based on speed, memorization, and incorrect versus correct answers.  This is why so many gifted children at age 5 become non-gifted adults. At school, your child is going to become programmed to fail, especially between grades 2 and 4, and your job of a parent, The No Emotion Parent, is to undo the damage.

For younger kids, unless the parent has this skill, the child will never get to gifted.  "What's 3 + 4?" you ask your 4 year old.  If you indicate that you expect the child to know this, and know it now, and they're either going to be right, in which case mommy loves you, or wrong, in which case mommy is disappointed in you, learning is dead forever.

When I bring a math book home, the first thing I do is rip out the solutions and throw them away.  I make a big performance of this, yelling my disgust at the educational system and telling my child that he doesn't need them because he doesn't know any of it anyway or else why the heck would I waste money and time on this book.   I also choose material way beyond "3 + 4" if in fact my child is at the level of "3 + 4".

The second thing I do is give him plenty of safe space to spend the next 2 weeks on the first page and get it horribly wrong repeatedly.

The third thing I do is yell at him for being distracted and not paying attention.  The No Emotion Parent has a limit to patience, after all.   Then he starts yelling and I ruined the whole session.   But this is a different skill, next on the list, and will wait for the next article.

I have a rule that if my child spends a lot of time on a work book page and gets every question wrong, we all go out for ice cream to celebrate.  I think we did this about 5 times so far.

The No Emotion Parent is always rewarded with a child who works quickly and accurately.  I am always rewarded a few months or more after that abysmal performance on the first page with a child who will zip through 2 pages in one sitting with a good score.  This is the irony behind not caring - truly not caring at all - about incorrect answers or speed.  The only way to get speed and accuracy is by not asking for it.

When I wrote Test Prep math, I had this skill in mind on every question, regardless of the other objectives for the material.  Many of the core skills that the child needs like reading a question multiple times, concentrating on the question and not answering it, and trying again, are based on the parent mastering the No Emotion skill.  I think I mentioned in the introduction that one of my objectives is to train the parent, but I didn't mention that my ultimate goal was for their child to be in graduate school in my child's class, and this was the way I was going to succeed.  

Keep in mind on COGAT practice tests, we never got beyond 50%, even after 2 years of test prep, even with the test a week a way.   Apparently, getting practice answers right is not on the list for the GAT Child that they will need to do well on the test.  I'll talk more about this when I get to The Parent's Speech before the test.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Alternative Paths to Gifted

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to focus on key GAT Parenting skills under the head "it doesn't happen magically."   My focus is a child who is learning academic skills.  This child will emerge gifted though the normal channel of a solid academic career.

Last weekend, I saw three really good examples of kids progressing through other channels.

On Saturday, I experienced another Cub Scout campout.  As expected, the kids continued their own tradition of lining up at the camp fire to tell stories.  At this event, there was a log next to the camp fire, a foot in diameter, and I asked the kids to line up behind the log because they were all shouting, telling, or acting out their stories at once after the pack leader finished with her two introductory stories.

What amazes me about these kids is that in addition to the steady stream of competent performances, some kids who obviously have no public speaking skills, or even the courage to speak in public, or any courage at all, get in line and stand on the log when it's their turn.   Some of these kids get in line before they realize that they have nothing to say and then begin making up a joke or story.   After each performance, we all applaud enthusiastically, not because the joke, riddle, story was any good, but because it just was. And this is totally awesome.

One kid slowly and methodically struggled with his story, a few times backtracking to correct himself.  It was a bit painful to watch and took way too long.  When he started, I thought that he had no business attempting a public performance.   When he ended, I put him on my watch list for kids who I expect big things from.   He hit the punch line, and it was really funny for the 1st and 2nd graders.   He deserved at least one award.  Maybe three.

This tradition needed some startup help.  The first year, the former pack leader gave some inspiring stories, and the two kids who were inspired to repeat it met roaring applause.  Apparently, one of the parents who encouraged the kids researches cognitive skills as a side line; he is currently writing about parenting skills. The other parents went along.  The second year, at least one parent invited all kids to present stories, jokes and riddles (guess who). That year, we realized we needed a time limit for the made up stories that tended to ramble.  This year, our work paid off and we have either a junior Toast Masters, an incubator for future leaders, or more likely both.

As we were taking down the tents the next morning, I saw some of our kids mingling with another pack that was shooting homemade air rockets.   This pack was from Mount Prospect, a suburb of Chicago.   I asked one of the Mount Prospect kids for instructions and he provided an overview.   When I wear an official uniform, kids feel the need to approach me and tell me things.  I don't know why.   I'm not currently leading anything and the uniform just happened to be at the top of my backpack so I put it on.  30 minutes later, 4 kids from Mount Prospect hunted me down and gave me thorough instructions with tips and examples.

One of the more articulate kids from Mount Prospect was less than 2 feet tall.   After his sound lecture, I inquired about his Cub Scout membership and didn't get a straight answer.  What grade are you in?  I asked.  "Pre K", he replied.   If I wasn't in a hurry, I would have hunted down his parents and added them to my ongoing research project.  At this point, I expect that they read a lot and talk a lot at home, but it would have been nice to know what else they do.

On Sunday, we went to the Chicago Jazz Showcase, which is another 3 year old tradition, this one to honor my wife's birthday.  The performer teaches music locally.  Many of his students were in the audience, and one of them was none other than Hank, the leader of my older son's Boy Scout group.  (Not sure what this "group" is officially called, but it's made up of 6th graders.)  Hank signed up for an 8 week program wherein a music shop called Sharps and Flats puts the kids in bands, provides the music, and puts them on stage the last week.

At first, I wasn't sure why the Boy Scouts chose Hank as their leader.  Of all the kids, he is the most reserved, quite, and shy one.  I've since learned two things.   First, his dad teaches high school English and has become of my favorite people to talk to at scouting events.  Secondly, Hank is a quiet wall of confidence.   Before the performance, I quizzed him on his trumpet practicing habits (just to gauge the level of my trumpet practicing son.)  The only difference between talking to Hank and talking to an adult is that Hank waits for questions out of respect.  I image that Hank really doesn't care whether I'm a parent of a friend, the board of BP, or a senate subcommittee.

I think there is another really important skill that is not on my catalog.  It will not directly contribute to a high grade in Calculus.   It grows under the encouragement of one or more parenting skills.  We all want our kids to have this skill.   I don't have a name for it yet and I'm not an authority in this area.

One of my readers posted a question to my article on building a strong memory.  She deleted her question before I could post a reply, or I deleted the question by pressing the wrong button on the blog dashboard.   My answer applies to memory, speaking ability, or any other skill that you can teach your children.   First, everything is a skill that can be taught and learned at any age.  There is a definite advantage to starting young, but this advantage is not permanent.  Secondly, it takes between 3 months and 3 years depending on the starting point, related skills that need to be learned, and how much time you put into it.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

GAT Parenting Skill # 2 - Learning or Telling

Learning or Telling is one of the more challenging skills needed by a GAT Parent.  As I mentioned 2 articles ago, I'm going to start describing these skills, because a GAT child usually just doesn't happen by magic.  Learning or Telling is the most confusing of the skills because it's hard to decide when to learn or when to tell.

First, a definition of this skill.   If you tell your child something, they know it.  If you don't tell your child something, and just wait until they figure it out themselves, then they learned it.

The general rule is that you want a child who picks up learning skills (aka cognitive skills).  You don't care if you child knows something or not (except in cases of safety and cleanliness, and even then your kid will come back from two weeks of camp with perfectly folded clean clothes in their backpack that they never took out because they're wearing the same outfit you dropped him off in.) You want your child to learn, to learn to learn, to pass the GAT test and do their homework on their own with no help from you outside of paying tuition.  Learning will get you there.  Telling won't.

In my Test Prep math series, I provided detailed instructions to the parent how to survive the book.   The questions are fairly easy for a child that has a strong set of cognitive skills an a strong working memory who will have no problem getting a 99% of the COGAT, but I wrote the book for children who don't have these skills, and therefore out of guilt I included a parent's manual for surviving the crying and the "I can't do this".  Learning or Telling is barely mentioned other than a dire warning to the parent not to help, ever, until the bonus questions, which are sometimes open ended and nonsensical.

When you are doing math or test prep, every time you tell your child something before they figure it out themselves, you just short circuited learning.  They know it, but they are no more capable of thinking on their own than before you told them.  Plus, you just wasted a question, and test prep books are expensive.  I should know.  Every month I get a statement of publishing costs with a measly check for my Test Prep books (google Test Prep COGAT on amazon) and this is not going to fund the books I need to buy to solve the African American violence problem in Chicago.

As I near completion of the Gifted Phonics book, this skill plays a unique role.  There's some telling, and some learning in different circumstances.

The problem with the general rule is that the academic goal for children 3 to 9 is to pack their brains with as many facts as possible, which is a lot of facts.  You have to tell your kids stuff day and night, whether they get it or not.  If you kid comes home from school with a rock, you research rocks, and post the names of 20 rocks on the word board and go out to find as many as possible.   When you come across the word "mammal" for the first time, you talk for 20 minutes on mammals, google it, wiki it, post more words on the word board, describe the difference between a spider and an insect, and generally spend your time at this age telling, telling, and more telling.

That's how kids pick up vocabulary, language use, sentence structure, concepts to think about, and high scores on all tests, including the GAT tests, because 75% of it is all vocabulary anyway.

Grit is somewhat similar for different reasons.  When your kid builds a lego set, you take out the 20,000 legos you got at the second hand store and make it 3 times as big.  When your kid builds a fort out of cushions, you turn it into a rocket ship after googling images, and then create a mission control on the other side of the room.  Your child doesn't know how far to go with their ideas until you show them.

Usually, when we are reading, I ask my kid a question, he's baffled, and then I tell him the answer. It's 8:55 pm and his bedtime is at 8:00 pm.  I almost always telling at reading.  When kids are older, and they are capable of "learning" by difficult questions, I'm usually only marginally involved in the reading process and I'll leave the question open until tomorrow or later.  My favorite learning question for older kids for reading is "What is going to happen in the rest of the book?"  That one has no answer, but I made my point to the child and they will learn the rest the hard way.

The theory of the classical education is that during the 3 to 9 year old stage, the more concepts you cram into that brain by telling, the more stuff the brain has to work with, and the smarter the child will be.  A brain that knows hot versus cold can do some thinking, but the brain that also knows frost, slush, ice, melt, burn, etc has a lot more work to do and will get a lot bigger.  They get this by telling.

Tests are 75% knowing stuff, especially vocabulary.  Even GAT tests.  But they are also 95% thinking and learning on the spot.  Time for the summary.

Learning or Telling is the skill by which the parent tells child kid something or let's the child learn it on their own.  Telling is appropriate when the parent is cramming the child's brain full of definitions and information.  Learning is appropriate when the child has to figure out some relationship or result from the available information that they already know.  In my experience (yours may differ), children usually can't figure some things out, and it's usually during reading.

During the "learning" process, a parent might have to sit their patiently through tears while the child tries over and over again.  Once "learned", aka a correct answer, the parent is not allowed to display any reaction or emotions of any type, nor are they allowed to react in any way during incorrect answers.  This is a different skill, essential to the "learning" part of Learning or Telling, which I haven't named yet.  That can wait for my next article.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Executive Skills and Grit

After my last article on Executive Skills for the 4 and 5 year old group, a reader asked if I could describe Executive Skills for older children.

The answer is a mixed bag.   I don't mean good and bad, I mean that it's mixed together with Grit in interesting ways.

Executive Skills for younger children consist of displaying self control, staying on task, and setting and completing goals during a craft project or imaginary play.   These are Baby Grit Skills or prerequisites for more advanced skills.  If you can teach your child Executive Skills, then they will read longer, concentrate more, be more engaged in the learning process, and have a much higher probability of going to a GAT program.

The parent can encourage Executive Skills as needed by recommending an activity, setting it up, or keeping the child engaged.  Sometimes the kids come up with the idea themselves, and the parent has to go to the craft store or rearrange the cushions for the fort.   Sometimes the child is building something and the parent suggests taking it to a much higher level.  Part of the time, the parent is just playing a role and making suggestions, the other time the child is playing a role and trying to keep up.

I consider Grit the next level, where the parent, becomes less and less involved as the child grows.

Therefore, my answer to Executive Skills for older children is to let them come up with the projects themselves, and drive to the craft store or help out as needed.    You're now in Grit territory.  To reiterate and add to my main point from the last Grit article, a parent only has to worry about 2 things for their child's academic success:
  1. Teach Grit.
  2. Get them into a GAT program of some kind, at least AP course by high school, so they'll be challenged, or at least teach Grit so they can eventually succeed at whatever they do.
To get from Executive skills at age 4 or 5, to Grit a few years later, you need a lot of projects.   I'm not sure where these are going to come from, so to be on the safe side, add music, art, especially drawing stuff, books, more books, activities like scouts, some books, trips to any museum or anything anywhere that charges admission and you can walk around looking at old stuff, and books.  And of course crafts, anything you can build by rearranging the furniture when your spouse is away, and turning everything into a song or slogan.  Sports isn't going to help at all; it's just going to eliminate your free time for projects.

At a young age, we spent a lot of time building projects and other things.  I did most of the doing, the explaining, the planning.  If my child came up with a project on his own, I would drop everything - piano practice, test prep, math, everything - and let them do it.  I have mentioned this repeatedly in articles going back years.   If the child makes a suggestion - go with it.

Failure is part of the process and the more the child does, the prouder you will be, but the more it will just stink.  Lack of proper planning, shoddy construction, lack of structural integrity, colors that aren't compatible on the color wheel, but if the kid did it herself, it's great.

Below I'm going to show you that my younger child is in the middle of this weekend.  Brace yourself. I don't normally discuss how great my kids are (aren't they all?) but on this topic your going to be exposed to the most awesome child on the planet who is in the (1 - population of the world)/(population of the world) percentile of Grit.   The older child is social, and always has 6 social irons in the social fire.  These are all top secret, need-to-know-basis and my security clearance was revoked when I saw his email last year.   The CIA could learn discretion from the older child.  So I'm only going to discuss the little one.

To preface the shock you are about to experience, lets go back to 2nd grade, when he showed up for school on the day when they were going to do their open time Bunicula project.   The topic and media were up to the child.  He brought sewing supplies, and to the surprise of the substitute teacher, produced this gem:

Next is my present on Father's day.  It's a Stuffed Daddy.   This was the moment where I realized that I have already succeeded as a parent and it's time to solve the violence problem in Chicago.  If I don't succeed, he will.

That red thing with the word "Math" printed on the front is supposed to be a book and not a coffee cup.  The great thing about self-driven projects is that they all succeed even though, as you can see, there are quite a few improvements that could be made.  My gray hair color, for example.  What's up with that?

A few weeks ago, his Harry Potter halloween costume arrived.  I like to buy costumes a few months early, maybe multiple costumes.  It should be obvious why.

Here is the front and back of his instructions to play Quiddich.  If his school projects get half this effort, he's going to Stanford.  Maybe soon.

Here are some of the other projects we are working on today.

The poster is his campaign for class president.   The class keeps losing recess because of talking, so the kids decided to elect a class president to fix it.  He won the primary and faces a little Polish girl who not only speaks Polish fluently, but likely trounces his verbal score on the annual standardized test.  (Curse you, GAT classmates!)  I was coopted into the campaign committee and spent last night helping make 28 campaign buttons.   His slogan is "Vote for Colin - and have fun again". Button making is boring for me.  I got reprimanded every time I snuck in an alternate slogan, like "Vote for Colin - use the force".  I warned him that after he wins the election (have a concession speech in case this doesn't happen), and the teacher announces that there is no office of the president, because she's the king, he is automatically the leader of the Rebel Alliance.

The little thing in front of the poster is a paper sculpture of a wizard riding a broom.  One night last week, he took an index card (of which I keep thousands on hand) and folded a rectangle.  What is that?, I asked.  "It's a leg", he replied, and kept folding.   45 minutes later, he folded and taped together a little wizard riding a broom.   He's always been good at Origami.  I credit practice for the COGAT folding question (see an old article of what I did with my time on Jury Duty, I'm not kidding about this).

The sticks represent potential wands he has been collecting, some of which he widdled with his late great-grandfather's electrician's knife which he sharpened on a diamond block.  I didn't include a picture of the pocked he sewed on to the inside of his cloak costume to hold the wand, but I think you already know this was trivial for him.

The frame in the back is the wizard trunk we started last weekend.  On Saturday morning, he announced "I need a wizard trunk".   I got out the saws and some old furring strips I had left over from turning our basement into the project room 12 years ago.  After watching a week of Harry Potter Puppet Pals (warning - lots of sarcasm, swearing, and a blizzard of vocabulary - we are immune to swearing and reserve it for potential future combat situations), we decided that the trunk needs more than a lid.  The front should open to reveal a stage with curtain, and the back should open to manage the puppets.  So today, I'm off to Home Depot to purchase more hinges.  He's on his own puppet-wise, but I see trips to Michaels in my future.

In the last article, I introduced the concept of "GAT Parent Skills".  In my next article, I'm going to introduce the key skill entitled "Learning or Telling".   There is quite a bit of work behind getting to this level of GRIT with your child, not to mention getting from reading to test prep to advanced math, and this is one of the more complicated involved skills.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Book On GAT

I've been asked repeatedly to write a The Book on how to get your child into a GAT program.   I've been dragging my feet for 3 years.  It's a good thing.  It's taken me three years to figure out what I'm going to say.

Up to this point, I've only been half the way there.  

My first breakthrough was to realize that the concept of intelligence is a complete myth and a sham.   I hope that this is well known in 2016, but in 2010 and 2011, I had to spend a few hundred hours reading a lot of very technical math oriented books to figure it out.  Your child has learned behaviors, habits, and learned skills.  You child doesn't have any intelligence.  No one does.  But your child has a brain, and it's a muscle, and it needs exercise and growth.  (I'll have to write another article on this.)

Next, I realized that the GAT tests were measuring cognitive skills.  The greatest tragedy in education is that we test for these skills and don't teach these.  I hope someday to pick up a Kindergarten or First Grade math book and see these skills listed in the table of contents as chapter headings.

The problem with cognitive skills in the psychology literature is that they are given names like "Verbal Fluidity" or "Spacial Reasoning".   This is not really helpful to the average education researcher.  The other problem with education researchers is that they don't have a 3 or 4 year old child at home while they are reading technical papers.  If they did, they would have realized what I saw next.

Cognitive skills are a lot more fundamental.  Things like reading the question again slowly because you didn't get it the first time or checking your answer because you got the last 3 wrong and this one is probably wrong as well.   Once a child learns these skills, and gets a bit of practice, they can figure out what a star looks like when it does a 1/8 clockwise turn, and they have spacial reasoning.   Or maybe they just have learned the patience to think through the problem.  There probably are advanced skills like spacial reasoning, maybe 100's of these advanced skills, which you don't have to worry about if your child has the core skills because they will pick these up on their own through trial and error.

So far, all of this is in my blog.  In the early years, it is described in painful detail while I was trying to figure it all out and conducting experiments.  Lately, I've been summarizing it in various ways.

 I've begun writing the introduction to the Gifted and Talented Phonics book, a project I've been working on for the last 18 months.   As I'm describing how to go through the process from letter sounds through advanced reading, I'm outlining basic parent behaviors that are going to be critical during test prep (aka teaching cognitive skills).   I realized that I could rewrite this whole blog in terms of "How to Get Your Parent into GAT and then your child will follow".

I'm going to start writing about Parent GAT skills.   I've described many of these in my past articles and put this concept into the introduction to Test Prep math.  I've never gone into detail on how important these skills are.  As I describe these skills in the phonics book, I'm cognizant of the likelihood that the parent will be less experienced, and the child will have much higher variations in their skill list.  It's much more challenging than a 5 or 6 year old.  That's why this topic is getting more attention.

In working with parents locally, that I approach myself, for every success I've had a failure.  I generally don't write at all about these experiences, usually just what I learn from working with their children.   Failure generally consists of me outlining the whole approach and the parent putting their child on the soccer traveling team.  When parents approach me, they are motivated, and things generally go well.

Shortly, I'm going to take on 6 very special clients with a very high risk of failure.  I'm going to select them myself.   I've been waiting for my phonics book because I'm going to need it.  The rest I'm going to crowd fund.  The World's Greatest Academic Coach and Foremost Authority on Getting Into A GAT Program needs a challenge, after all.  Then I'm going to write the book.