Nurturing Your Unique Child

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Do All Kids Have

Out-of-the-Box Potential?

You Bet They Do!

THINK DIFFERENT! This phrase makes for a strong,

successful, and inspiring Apple Computer ad campaign, but,

although much emphasis is placed on the importance of an

individual being diverse in thought and spirit, parents and

educators alike seem to fear a child who is an original, who

may be out of step with the kid next door.

In most cases, our concern is for our child’s well-being;

we want our children to be well liked, to feel they’re part of

a team, and, dare I say it—popular. We justify these feelings

by thinking that the mainstream kid integrates better into the

community and therefore will interact more effectively, make

a stronger contribution, and ultimately be more successful

than the child who thinks as a unique individual. In many

cases, mainstream kids do assimilate more smoothly and

easily into social situations and their own personal neighborhoods,

but often it is the children with out-of-the-box characteristics,

who have the ability to make a significant and

inspiring contribution to their community and the talent and

vision to change the world in a positive way.

Out-of-the-box qualities and characteristics are the stepping

stones that will help a child ultimately achieve his or her

personal best; that will better enable him or her to reach for

the stars. These distinctive attributes are driven by intellect,

talent, a dynamic persona, and any other factor that elevates

the child to a level above and/or outside the norm. These attributes

make a child a vibrant exception to the masses.

An out-of-the-box kid can be that shy child who hasn’t yet

developed social skills, but has a highly sophisticated comprehension

of and interest in the universe. Peers might call this

child a “geek” or “nerd” but in twenty years that child might be

an innovator in space exploration. Another might be overly

outgoing, a well-liked child who possesses an uncharacteristic

level of maturity and compassion and a highly developed

social conscience. You feel that this child could reinvent the

“Peace Corps” by the ripe old age of seven. This is our future

leader, writer, and commentator.

Any child can have out-of-the-box traits. Parents, teachers,

counselors, and significant educators need to identify these

qualities, work with the child to pursue and develop the characteristics

at which he or she is adept, preserve the child’s

individuality, and help that child integrate into the group, the

classroom, and community.

This element of distinctiveness should be encouraged in

all kids. Mainstream children are often rewarded for their

sameness, which then becomes the key to who they are. Yet,

they too may have wonderfully unique attributes that will be

enhanced only if nurtured and explored. As a rule, up until

the time they are ready to apply for college, mainstream kids

are held up as the group to emulate and deemed “most likely

to succeed.”

Then it’s time for college, and the qualities that have successfully

taken a child through high school are not enough.

A little more is needed: more individuality, more breadth,

and more depth. Suddenly, those wonderful interests that set

an out-of-the-box kid apart from the mainstream are now in

demand.

In interviews, several directors of admissions from wellknown

universities around the country explained that three

elements are considered crucial for admission:

• The candidate should clearly demonstrate high quality;

an all-round balanced person who has successfully

developed his or her talent. Although many kids possess

stellar academic records, the applicant who has

identified his or her special abilities, worked on them,

built on them, and utilized them is the one who meets

the tangible and intangible talent criteria that the

school is seeking.

• The school also assesses “how well the candidate does

the things he/she loves.” This is an extension of the

first point, and the next step in the process. Once the

child has discovered “uniqueness of self,” what he or

she does with that raw talent becomes the measure

of success. Of course, the directors didn’t expect an

applicant’s résumé to read like that of a superstar in

the field, but they were looking for personal accomplishment

that was individual and was pursued since

childhood.

• The candidate should have as much potential to develop

future ability as was demonstrated in the past. A

prospective student is judged on how well the college

feels he or she will “develop those abilities for the

benefit of themselves, the workforce, and society.”

The directors also made it clear that not every school is

right for every child and emphasized that careful attention

should be paid to locating the setting that will bring out the

best in each student. An admissions professional from Harvard

advised parents to know their child and to give that

child a lot space to figure out what he or she loves to do and

suggested that teachers and counselors, to the extent possible,

must be aware of each child as an individual.

The question and challenge is how to positively nurture a

child’s unique qualities and distinctive characteristics at the

same time as the child is integrated into an educational and

social environment, so that childhood can be a magical time

of growth, wonder, and development.

Deborah Hardy, former president of the New York State

School Counselor Association (NYSSCA) and a school counselor

in Irvington, New York, also provided valuable insight

into what and who is important to the success of a child’s

total educational experience. “Working with parents, teachers,

kids, and administrators in the process of the total education

of a child is integral to a positive outcome. Unlike other

fields, I have learned that all of us who are active in the teaching

process have to be a jack-of-all trades and ‘an expert at

all.”’ Based on her years of experience, she offered some practical

advice to teachers, administrators, and parents:

Teachers: As early as kindergarten, it is important to incorporate

your student’s experiences into the classroom.

Learning goes beyond the classroom environment and by

asking students to share outside activities, endeavors, and

encounters with others, you enhance the child’s position

within the group. You also add to the diversity and collective

self-esteem of the classroom.

Memory-based tests should not be the only way to assess

academic and classroom success, especially in the

lower and middle school years. Encourage a variety of

assessments. Let students show their talents and interests

through portfolios, drawings, or music. She recommends

incorporating discussions on topics relevant to the material

and incorporating problem solving, analysis, and the

discovery of new ideas and concepts into the classroom.

It’s essential that teachers get to know their students.

Learning who these children are and integrating their

special qualities into the personality and fabric of the classroom,

enhances the individual’s as well as the group’s

learning experience.

Teachers also need time to share with one another

their ideas for enhancing the student’s learning and interests.

It also gives them perspective, strategies, and new

ideas.

Administrators: Teachers need a strong educational and visionary

plan. Too often administrators forget that their

work affects the student. Administrators must set the vision

and then frequently communicate with the teachers

to ensure they are working well together; sometimes ideas

work in theory, but not in practice. It’s also a good idea to

work with the school counselor to establish a class time

to get student feedback on problem solving, curriculum

discussion, interests, and the development of activities

and groups that may not be present at the school.

Parents: It is the parent’s job to raise strong, independent

children with a definite sense of self. You are there to guide

and educate them. Parents who are overprotective limit

what works for their children.

Trust is a major factor. Parents must trust their children,

themselves, and their parenting values. This is paramount

in the development of the solid parenting skills

and strategies needed to raise a well-balanced child.

Children react well to approval, which, in many cases,

they take to mean love. It’s important for parents to listen

to their children. Approval is important to all of us.

Children’s behavior is affected by their environment.

Although grades are important, approval should also be

based on how a child overcomes obstacles and meets

challenges.

As Deborah Hardy implies, in addition to the parent, the

teacher has the most important role in educating and building

the self-esteem of a child. Encouraging individuality within

the established constraints of a classroom while challenging

the child, is pivotal. Just as the out-of-the-box children should

be encouraged to pursue their significant talents within the

framework of the classroom, so too should mainstream children

be supported in the pursuit of their unique traits. This

should be a time of self-exploration for all children.

How does a teacher achieve the proper balance? How

does a teacher take a “diamond in the rough,” recognize and

encourage differences, and still successfully integrate that

child into the classroom? It is a challenging job, and it takes

the right personality, intuition, training, and teaching skills to

effectively master this undertaking.

Gail McGoogan, Disney Elementary Teacher of the Year,

2003 (American Teacher Award) clearly has a strategy that is

innovative, inspiring, and tailor made for her unique students.

In my interview with Ms. McGoogan, she was straightforward

and direct:

For all my special students who quietly search for a means

of expression, our learning environment must expand beyond

the four walls of a classroom; it must encompass

life’s experiences. For example, if students need to understand

what the area in which they live was like in the days

of early settlers when all they see now are roads and attractions,

become an early settler and canoe on a secluded

creek. Design and build a pioneer cabin and sleep out

under the stars. Sing and dance and share stories around

a campfire. If a child needs to connect to society through

service, restore yards for needy families. Refurbish a lakefront

and share it with the community. Somewhere through

these real life experiences a spark will be lit that, in time,

will light the way for those quiet, deep thinkers who have

yet to glow on their own.

I asked her if the teacher who works hard to promote the

distinctiveness of each child requires a less disciplined environment

within which to work. She replied, “I am not so

certain that the approach to teaching is ‘out of the box,’ but

rather using the stability of the box and stretching it to its

utmost. I do know that all students learn better when they

understand the meaning and purpose of what they are learning.”

I think of McGoogan’s philosophy as structure plus: a

structured environment that goes hand in hand with the tailormade

innovative teaching methods and approaches necessary

to reach all students. Some of my children’s most inspiring

teachers are those who expected great things from them as

students and as people.

Another vitally important characteristic is fairness. Most

people have one teacher who changed their lives in some significant

way. Ms. Carlino, my algebra teacher, changed mine.

She maintained her position of authority in a matter-of-fact

way. In the early 1970s, when structure was a concept that

was rapidly being abandoned, Ms. Carlino started her class

each day with a morning greeting. She would face us and

pertly say, “Good morning class,” and we would all respond,

“Good morning Ms. Carlino,” and then she would instruct us

to be seated. We laughed and snickered the first day, but then

we got it. The greeting became second nature, and when it

was done, we knew that math class had begun.

Ms. Carlino was also fair. The point was for all of us, with

very different aptitudes, to learn algebra. That was Ms. Carlino’s

expectation. If you didn’t get it in class, she had regularly

scheduled after school study classes—no one had to ask

for help. The classes were there, and no child was singled

out for not knowing the material. Ms. Carlino was there at

3:10 PM, right after school, in our math room ready to coach

whoever showed up. No question was considered dim.

Parents have so much to learn. Each of my three children

is different and, as a result, I am a different parent to each.

I look at the world differently for each of them because

through their eyes the world is different. As an adult who is

in the “parenting business,” I look at their world through my

eyes as well; with my values, perceptions, and innate child

development strategies and tools. How do I guide them in

their optimal direction, the one that suits them best? How do

I know which teacher is best for them, and how do I work

best with the school counselor? How can I direct them down

a path that enables them to be whole and strong, one that will

develop their sense of confidence and self? I know it’s by listening

to my children, gaining strength from my values and

beliefs, and learning through the experience of others, along

with a strong dose of parental self-confidence. Most times

that is easier said than done.