Monday, January 07, 2008

From Good to Great Kids

I hope everyone had a wonderful break. Welcome back to a new year of Gifted Exchange!

I've been fascinated to see the posts piling up on the "Gifted Kids, Bad Behavior" entry. While many people assume that gifted kids are the teachers' pets, quietly completing assignments ahead of time and becoming star pupils, this is not always the case. Gifted kids, no less than other kids, can act out when they're bored or frustrated, and unfortunately, gifted kids are probably more likely than other kids to be bored or frustrated in classes that don't challenge them. Viewed in that context, some behavior problems make a lot of sense. If I had to go every day to a job I hated, that I hadn't chosen, and that bored me senseless, I would not be a happy camper either!

But, broadly, I think the topic touches a nerve. When kids are having trouble in school, parents start to wonder if they're doing something wrong, and if they are, if this is causing permanent damage. We also wonder if there's anything we, as parents, can do, to actually help our kids become happy, successful people.

Which brings me to the actual subject head of this first Gifted Exchange blog post of 2008. I've recently read Jim Collins' perennial best-seller of a business book, From Good to Great. The book looks at companies whose stock performance kept pace with the market for many years, then outperformed the market by many multiples over the next few years. What happened to make these companies go from good to great? What lessons can managers take from these examples?

Since I write about education, I got to thinking: This question can also be asked of child-rearing. Is there anything parents can do to help kids go from good raw material to great lives?

It's a much more difficult question, of course. For starters, defining "great" for people is completely subjective. Public companies are supposed to generate great returns for their stockholders. That is their job, full stop. But while some people might consider a happily married small town second grade teacher to have a good life, others would think that's kind of boring, particularly if the kid grew up saying she wanted to be a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Some people think $50,000 is a great income. Some people find $100,000 to be inadequate. Maybe someone has started a successful business, has a large, caring family, but is still unhappy with her life because of a chronic weight problem. I don't think there's a single metric people could agree on as a "great" outcome.

There's also the difficulty of social science data. I spend a lot of my time perusing education and sociological research, and if there's anything hunting through footnotes and equations has taught me, it's that separating out correlation and causation is like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin. For instance, we know that kids from higher income families tend to do better on standardized tests than kids from lower income families. But is this because income buys children the advantages of better schools, tutoring if they need it, etc? Or is it because it correlates with other things, like parents who care about academics and intact families?

That said, there is a point to all this musing. And that is my list of Things That Actually Matter. Similar to the way magazines like to end the year by cranking out top ten lists of the best movies and biggest scandals, I've been trying to come up with a list of factors that actually matter in children's outcomes -- factors that can help kids go from good to great. I've got five here, and I welcome suggestions of others. In no particular order, they are:

1. Smart teachers. This was an interesting one to me. I've been researching efforts to attract higher-quality math teachers to schools, but everyone has their own opinion of what higher-quality means. A few people have done some fascinating studies on this. One particularly compelling one from Ronald Ferguson looked at the math scores of children, based on the scores of their teachers on the 1986 Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers (a basic literary skills test Texas administered to see how the state's teachers stacked up). He found districts in which kids entered with high scores but teachers had relatively low scores, and he found districts in which the opposite occurred. It turns out that, over 10 years, if students in two districts started out equal, but in one the teachers scored, on average, two standard deviations above the other on the TECAT, the student test scores would diverge by 1.7 standard deviations. In typical dry academic prose, Ferguson noted that "This is a large effect." A study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that, in high school math, one semester with a teacher who was in the top 5% of quality corresponded to an additional gain of 0.3-0.5 grade equivalents.

This one is hard for parents to do much about if you're committed to a particular school, as good and bad teachers can teach side by side. But it is a large effect. It matters.

2. Limit television. This one is less of a surprise. There have been thousands of studies on children and television, and while a few have shown some positive outcomes, many more have not. Television desensitizes children to violence, enforces gender and racial stereotypes, makes them whine for toys, corresponds with obesity and other health problems, and -- even when controlling for confounding factors -- watching more of it is associated with higher drop-out rates and lower college completion rates by age 26. Even educational television hampers children's ability to entertain themselves, to the point where new minivans on the market are advertising that they come with TVs in them so you can drive to Grandma's in peace. Heaven forbid children actually look out the window, talk to each other, etc. Even having a TV on in a room with a small child interferes with the child's focus. Better to treat it as a planned, occasional diversion, rather than a constant companion.

3. Praise children for effort, not ability. We've covered this one on Gifted Exchange before. Kids who are told they are "smart" or other positive attributes they cannot control become more risk averse because they don't want to try activities in which this label might not prove correct. We've all seen gifted children who breeze through high school, then fail in college because they don't know how to actually tackle something that isn't easy for them. Some drop out, claiming that no one understands their genius. Children praised for effort, on the other hand -- which is within their control -- are inclined to try harder things. Over time, kids who continually try harder things will achieve more than those who refuse to do so.

4. Keep the family intact. This is another one that could justify many books in its own right -- and has. Some of the trouble with single parent families is economic. Given that the vast majority of mothers are involved in the labor force to some degree, two parent families are going to almost always have more money than single parent families. Children from higher-income families have a lot of advantages over children raised near the poverty level. But, over the years, researchers have attempted to untangle the economic elements from the family break-down elements (for one excellently researched look at this, see Sarah McLanahan and Gary Sandefur's Growing Up With a Single Parent from Harvard University Press). Yes, many single parents do a heroic job, and deserve nothing but praise. From a sheer statistical perspective, though, overwhelmingly, the research shows that growing up with two parents is better than growing up with one.

5. Get children involved in some sort of constructive activity alongside adults. We've also covered this one with my posts on the Cristo Rey schools. These inner-city Catholic schools do a great job setting high expectations for children. But their most brilliant insight was born of financial necessity. Children at these schools work in corporate offices for 1-2 days a week in order to earn their tuition. The work itself isn't much (filing and faxing). The net result, however, is that kids see the kinds of lives they could have if they finish school, go to college and make something of themselves. This gives them the discipline to counter their more childish current impulses and to think long-term. This discovery isn't unique to Cristo Rey; I've encountered some other mentoring programs that work on the same principle (one Ernst & Young program raised the graduation rate to 90% among its Bronx student participants by bringing these kids to the gleaming Times Square E&Y headquarters fairly frequently). I suspect this is one of the reasons volunteer work appears to have such a good effect on kids. It's not just that they're volunteering, it's that they're working alongside adults -- the people they will someday become-- to accomplish something. Kids today spend way too much time with other kids. The modern teen culture this breeds focuses on things that don't matter, and inspires a lot of alienation. Volunteering, church activities, part-time jobs, and other such mixed-age activities get kids out of the world of TV, clothes, Britney Spears, etc., and hence can do a lot of good.

So anyway, that's a start on the list. What else should be on there? And if you've made it all the way down to the bottom of the post, thanks so much. We'll get back to specific gifted issues soon enough...


Anonymous said...

Great list! The one thing I would add is reading to your children. Bring some board books with you in your bag when you head for the hospital and start on day one. Let chubby baby hands handle books, carry them in the diaper bag, and point out text everywhere you go -- on signs, menus, subway maps. Fill your home with as many books as you can afford, then get a library card and visit regularly. Attend storytimes together. Read for pleasure in front of your children every single day. Read fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose. Buy or borrow quality books on tape or cd for when your voice wears out. Children who are read to have larger vocabularies, longer attention spans and a much greater grasp of the size and scope of the world around them. They also know how to seek out information to further their own learning, which is so important for gifted kids.

Anonymous said...

Inspire them.

The world is full of wonders. Life is full of wonders. Help them notice, discover, and marvel at the wonders of things growing, things working, things stop working. How? Why? What have changed? What can change? How things may work better? How things considered impossible at one time became possible, then taken for granted, then obsolete...

Make learning fun and exciting, until they have to contain their enthusiasm and excitement in the regular classroom, and pretend they don't know any of it yet...

Alternatively, mom and dad embark on non-stop advocacy for the next 10+ years, to enable the children to grow up in an environment where they can continue to explore, learn, and excel. Other than that, make the children take ownership of their learning. Show them ways to look for answers by themselves and encourage them to work out their own solutions.

Kevin said...

For toddlers: play the why? game.
The toddler has one role: keep asking "why?" the parent has to keep going deeper and deeper into the reasons for things without getting the child lost or engaging in circular reasoning. (It is ok to stop once you get into quantum mechanics.)

Anonymous said...

Help them understand their giftedness and how it fits in mainstream society.

Give them a copy of the Bill of Rights (of gifted students), and support them in asserting their rights.

GTTeacher said...

This is a great list. I'd also suggest reading Barbara Henke's E-mc2 & Me in the December 2007 issue of Parenting for High Potential. It's a great article on why some girls graduate high school prepared for hte world while others don't. The article focuses on preparing girls for science but it can easily be applied to preparing all gifted students to be successful.

bob1 said...

great list,both u and the blogs..i suggest adds to include ...bring the outside world into the home, national geographic is a great start and expand ur #5 to include descriptions of a variety of role models, investors business daily is a great source most every issue