Saturday, January 31, 2009

Motivating factors

Nicklas is a smart kid. A really smart kid. Way smarter than I was at his age. We all knew this when he was going into kindergarten which unfortunately was incredibly easy and pointless.

(When he went to meet his teacher the first time, she did some testing to see what level he was at. She commented to me on how impressed she was with his letter recognition. I probably rolled my eyes at her as I explained that he'd been able to recognize letters as a two-year-old and he'd been reading since he was four.)

Being the well behaved, eager to please boy his is, Nicklas sat quietly and did everything he was asked to do in class. Even though he was completely unchallenged, he was content to sound out letters and learn to count to 20 with the rest of class.

First grade was a much better experience. Nicklas had been identified as having the potential to participate in a gifted and talented program and was invited to enroll at the elementary school in our district that hosts the GT program. All the other children in his class had GT potential and he finally participated in a class full academic equals. He had an incredible teacher who was creative, caring, and encouraging. She knew her students well - their struggles, their strengths, their abilities. She customized projects to personally challenge each student to maximize potential. She was awesome and Nicklas excelled in her class. His test scores remained one of the highest in the class and when it was time to go through testing for entrance to the actual GT program that starts in second grade, he was a natural choice.

Second grade begins. The Challenge program is more rigorous. The teacher is stricter and she's new to teaching second grade. (In previous years, she had taught the fifth grade challenge class.) But we have no worries. Nicklas adapts easily to situations. He's a rules follower who believes things are black and white and he has no problem adjusting to the new program. And it is an adjustment. Not only is the teacher new to second grade, several of the students are new to the Challenge program curriculum. (Sixty percent of the students came from Nicklas's first grade class and the other 40% are new to the school.) Nicklas does well his first nine weeks. He's in the top reading group and one of only eight students who are working a full year ahead in math. Nicklas's tests indicate high IQ and he's getting high 80%'s in math and reading. We aren't worried - he's working a grade ahead after all.

Midway through the second nine weeks, I start to notice that some of the papers he's bringing home have errors. Instead of 100%, I'm seeing 70%, 60%, and even the occasional 40 or 50%. I ask some of the other parents and receive similar feedback. I probably should have been concerned but I wasn't. It wasn't uncommon for other students to bring home lower grades. He still enjoyed school, his homework load wasn't that heavy, and I saw his teacher on a weekly basis (I volunteer in his classroom) and she never brought up any concerns.

Plus, Mike and I were dealing with other issues. Nicklas has horrible - HORRIBLE - handwriting. It's often difficult to read and we're constantly making him erase and rewrite things. During his parent/teacher conference, his teacher mentioned the students have to fill out scan trons for an individualized math program and he often has to redo his because the card is unreadable. And he often misses spelling words on his test that were correct but unreadable to the untrained eye. To us, this was a big concern and one we were working to address. So when a few papers came home with poor grades, I didn't think much of it.

Plus, how do you get upset with your child's grades when he's working a grade ahead? Especially when that child is often more hard on himself for messing up than you as a parent would ever be.

Then we got his second nine weeks report card. His grades dropped in every subject - the worst being math which had fallen to a 76%. Math is his favorite subject. We were shocked.

So Mike and I scheduled a conference with his teacher. Before meeting with her, I asked Nicklas why he thought his grades were lower. He didn't have much to say. He commented that even though he didn't do well in math, he's still in the top group in math. He also said that he understands everything he does in math but by the time he gets tested on it, he's forgotten the content.

Then we have our meeting. We learn that there are no groupings for math - Nicklas and the rest of the class are learning the same concepts. We also learn that the program uses a spiral approach to teaching math so concepts are continually visited throughout the unit. And the most shocking to us - Nicklas did very poorly on his second semester testing (which the students had just finished taking last week). He did much worse than the previous semester in math and even missed content he's gotten correctly the previous time. And in reading, his score was second from the lowest in the class (and the student who received the lowest score won't be asked to continue with the program in third grade). His teacher didn't have his official math score but his reading went from 89% to 72%.

So his teacher, Mike, and I discuss the situation. According to his teacher, he's well behaved in class. He does what's asked. He pays attention for the most part (although his eyes sometimes wonder around the room and he doesn't completely focus, he still completes everything and gets to work when told.) He's given plenty of time to complete his assignments. But then she shows us some examples of his work. He's missing questions that he shouldn't, he isn't grasping vocabulary that should be easy, his writing is still very bad. She doesn't like to focus on grades but she has too.

And then she asks us what ideas we have. We were at a loss. We had no ideas. We hadn't really identified what the issue was, how could we identify answers? His teacher comments that she is shocked by his recent test scores. She knew his grades were dropping but she didn't think is was as serious a problem as the test scores indicate. This isn't reassuring to me.

We discuss some more. We think that when it comes to school work and homework, he rushes through. He just wants to get it done and he doesn't take time to check his answers. Mike acknowledges this is a problem and while I agree, I know this is typical of most students. But reviewing his work certainly can't hurt. We also decide to emphasize the importance of grades. Like his teacher, we haven't talked about grades much. I've always told Nicklas that as long as he does his best, I'll be proud of him. But I also know my son and adding a competitive nature to his school work can motivate him.

Speaking of motivation, Mike believes that's part of the issue. He thinks Nicklas doesn't have a reason or motivator to do well. He doesn't see the value in the work his doing and therefore doesn't give it the effort and attention he should. So we'll talk to him about this as well.

And that's it. That's all we've come up with - grades ARE important and double checking work is now a requirement.

So we talk to Nicklas. He's understands we're serious and he's fine with us making him double check his work. But only time will tell if our conversations are making a difference.

As we left the meeting with his teacher, she mentions that we can try everything in our power to motivate him. But until he's able to personally motivate himself, nothing we say or do will really make an impact.

Is that the case with Nicklas? Is he not motivated? Is he content for mediocrity? Do I lack the ability to help him?

It's time for me to step it up as a parent. As I've been following Heather's blog and reading her posts about the struggles she's experiencing with her daughters academic progress, I've been motivated by her commitment and involvement in helping Grace overcome her ADD. And while I don't know the answers to helping Nicklas, I'm going to do everything I can to help him.

It's not going to be easy. I need to teach him to be a good learner, an efficient learner. I need to teach him the value of getting the work done and doing it well so provides better opportunities in the future. School is his job and yes, I expect him to always do his best work. And I expect that he'll understand and value the importance of always doing his best work.

In the coming weeks, I'm going to be talking to parents, visiting the bookstore and scouring the internet for information and resources. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please, please send them my way. I know this was a long post and I appreciate you sticking with me through the end!


Melissa Mix Hart said...

Sometimes it is a combination of issues. The teacher/student realationship, the student/class-friends relationship as well as many other issues. My eldest daughter had her grades drop from winning an academic achievement award in first term of grade 4 to average by year's end. Now, in grade 7 she is an A student who is moving ahead a grade in math. In retrospect, I believe having a new baby sister born that year and trouble with "friends" we later found out were bullies contributed to her lack of focus. Hope this helps a little. Good luck with your quest.

Heather said...

Hey Natalie,

Well, as you well know from reading my blog, the answers sometimes don't come quickly or easily. I have a couple suggestions, though.
First, motivation is a tricky issue. It's not just the case that someone is or is not motivated and that they can just make up their mind to change. It's usually connected to something just have to figure out what the something else it (ugh).

The other thing is, GT is a misleading label. I'm sure you heard this when Nicklas first started in the program. You wouldn't know it from reading my blog, but Grace was actually tagged at talented and gifted when she was in 5th grade, and that wasn't a banner year for her academically. But there's a catch to this label. No kid is talented and gifted at everything. A kid may excel at one subject and actually fall behind the average in another. Just like with kid with delays, kids with gifts do best in mainstream classrooms. In other words, putting a bunch of talented kids together in one classroom has been soundly demonstrated to actually have adverse effects on students. Surprising, I know. Worse, parents of talented and gifted kids really don't like to hear this. They intuitively believe if their kid is better able to perform in a certain area that putting them in a classroom where the other students aren't as talented will hold them back. It's actually just the opposite.

Email me sometime and we can talk more about this. It's a whole can of worms that gets opened, and you as a parent are the one who knows your child the best.

Debbie said...

I hope you get some answers and he can continue to do well. My thoughts are with you. And I'm glad he is happy.