Sparks

Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Executive compliance

When the phrase “executive function” is used in reference to school children, it usually means there’s been a failure to carry out tasks related to assignments – such things as keeping papers in order.  Conclusions are drawn about kids’ ability to execute. In my capacity as a coach and tutor I’m often asked to help kids address difficulties with executive function. And I have lots of strategies for improving it.

But before I offer any such strategies to a child, I need to know whether there’s actually a lack of executive function or a lack of executive compliance.  It’s true that sometimes kids don’t perform tasks they might otherwise perform because they can’t figure out how.  But sometimes it’s because they’re choosing not to perform them, for one reason or another.

There are actions to take in either case, but they’re very different actions. It’s no use offering a child strategies for executing tasks she could execute but just isn’t executing.  There are other things to attend to and address in that case that will be a better use of energy and resources.  On the other hand, a child who’s actually struggling to execute and is looking for support in doing so will be available for receiving any coaching an adult or peer might offer.

(See also: Help Unwanted)

Jake’s example

I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 14 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:

Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact.  After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…

Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science.  His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate. 

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax.  You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”

I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two.  She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back.  It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from.  But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.

As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction.  From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention.  Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.

The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses.  But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark.  Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.

How much room you get

A few months ago I read a short essay by a classical pianist about creating a recording of his performance of a piece of music.  At one point in the story he mentions that the positioning of the microphone relative to the piano is important.  It affects the roundness of the sound, he says, and “how much room you get versus how much piano.” I’d never thought about it quite that way before, that of course a recording includes the surroundings as well as the object of the recording.

I was reminded of this handful of words the other day when I heard someone mention a behavioral diagnosis frequently given to young children.  I have spent enough time with a wide enough range of children with various diagnoses to know that there are very real symptoms and challenges associated with particular combinations of neurological organization and chemistry, so I do not dismiss any such diagnoses out of hand.  But I think the musician’s query about how much piano and how much room can serve us in choosing how we’ll relate to and assess a child’s behavior.  We could ask ourselves “How much is the child and how much is the room?”

It seems to be easiest and most common to head right for all-child, no room.  That assessment, locating all of a child’s performance inside his or her skin, puts us in a comfortable helping position.  We can focus all of our efforts on fixing the child’s problem.  Another simple one is all-room, no child.  This one is clean in the opposite way, vilifying the environment and absolving the child.

In my experience it’s almost always much much more complicated and intricate than either of those two possible assessments.  Just as you can’t have the sound of an instrument without the space and conditions in which you play it, you can’t have behavior without the parameters of physical space in which it occurs, the demands made on and expectations of the person doing the behaving, the words spoken to him or her before and during, and myriad other conditions and contributing factors.

When I’ve made this point before, I’ve received frustrated and even outraged exclamations that I’m failing to recognize the plights of children, that my suggestion that we be careful to include the impact of a child’s surroundings implies that I think that kids aren’t actually struggling.

And I have seen many cases in which behavioral diagnoses are assigned because the diagnosed children are behaving inconveniently, not because the children are actually struggling.  But in fact I think it’s just as important, maybe more important, to the children who are actually struggling that we consider every factor in our efforts to support them.  That we are careful to disentangle to the furthest extent possible the elements of difficulty that are inherent to a specific human organism from those that are introduced from outside the confines of the organism.

Only once we’ve asked ourselves how much of what we’re seeing is the child and how much of it is the room can we actually begin the work of tackling any truly inherent struggle.

Beyond suffering

A few weeks ago I wrote about how kids are oriented toward fun, and how adults tend to be wary of this orientation.  It’s one thing to enjoy one’s self, we think, but too much attention on fun seems like it might suggest that a child isn’t motivated to do the hard stuff in life that prepares a person for adulthood.  It seems like a commitment to fun might eventually lead to, say, a 29 year-old child living in the guest room.

It helps to trade out the word fun for a word that’s a little less culturally charged.  Fun seems too much like the antithesis of work and productivity.  And we’re clear that the American Dream, whether we think of it as yachts and country club memberships, home ownership and health insurance, or a diet of organic food and a solar-powered car, is accessible via hard work.  Suffering, actually.  Kids can recite some variation of this ethic in their sleep: “You have to learn that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.”  This is what we say when we’re worried that they’re getting too focused on fun – when they’d rather be running around outside with their friends than bent over a math book, when they’d rather build and rebuild a pirate ship out of Legos than read, when they decide to study art instead of economics. Fun freaks us out.

So instead of fun, let’s call it vitality.  Let’s imagine that when they make or attempt to make these choices (outside, Legos, art), they’re actually demonstrating a commitment to vitality.  They’ve noticed that when they’re doing these things, they feel alive.  They have energy, they feel light, they’re participating.  If you look at a child, or any person for that matter, and you see them going after something that brings them to life this way, it’s hard not to imagine that they’re on the right track.  And the really good news is that it doesn’t mean that they won’t ever choose to do something they don’t necessarily “want” to do.  If kids know and are allowed to pursue the experience of feeling alive and being committed to keeping that experience at the forefront of their lives, they’ll have reason – motivation – to endure what they have to do in service of that experience.  Even if it’s not always fun.  If you’re studying art, for example, because you find it invigorating in some way, you’re more likely to be patient with the parts of your studies that may in their own right be less than invigorating – practicing a particular technique over and over and over, or reading up on the financial ins and outs of selling your work, or even working extra hours at your day job because it means you can keep up your studies in the evening.  If someone tried to get you to do any one of those things and it wasn’t connected to something that gave you an experience of vitality, they’d just feel like Things You Have To Do.  If you feel alive and energized by building things out of Legos and you need a new $60 bulk set in order to build what you’ve got in your imagination, the extra chores you have to do for your neighbors in order to earn the money aren’t necessarily things you Want to Do, but you’ll do them without having to be told that it’s important to do things you don’t want to do.

We can teach kids to search for the realms in which they can experience profound commitment, or we can try, in a vacuum, to get them to do stuff we think they should do.  When they’re actually committed, they’ll still be able to use our guidance, but we won’t have to force them to do things just to teach them the lesson of doing things you don’t want to do.  In fact, the whole notion of Don’t Want to Do tends to fade and even disappear in the face of actual self-driven commitment.  Don’t Want To is a relic of a worldview we could let go of if we weren’t such creatures of habit.  We say we want kids to have better lives than we had, but we cling to our beliefs about how hard life has to be.  Every day kids are trying to show us how to be committed to vitality, to be guided and informed by it, and every day, we try to steer them toward suffering.

Top billing

Parents of kids who struggle with or resist traditional academic subjects (math, reading, writing, etc.) are usually encouraged to concentrate all their energy and resources on helping kids with those areas.  It makes sense, but it also doesn’t usually work.  It often has the opposite effect of what we intend.  With a few exceptions, kids who are struggling with these subjects are not especially driven to excel in them.  They may express frustration and upset about their struggle, but that’s usually the result of social pressure to excel in those areas.  These are the areas we value and kids know it.

So here we are, helping them like crazy with things that make them feel lousy about themselves and measure their success only in the areas they struggle with.  Meanwhile, they have strengths and capacities in other areas that get short-changed or neglected entirely while the academic subjects get top billing.  We do this out of good intention.  We do it because we’ve been taught that the job of adults is to train kids to do school stuff.  But when we do it to the exclusion of areas that kids have a chance of thriving in, we cheat them out of the chance to really succeed and we sabotage our own efforts to get them academically proficient. Our academic bias and obsession actually costs kids motivation and excellence both in the areas that make great use of their existing capacities and the areas we’ve chosen to zoom in on as a culture. Continue reading

More on slowness

Slowness in young people tends to worry adults.  We often take it as a sign of disorder or dysfunction; something kids need help with.*  Sometimes our help is helpful – sometimes kids really do want us to help them do things more quickly.

But other times, they’re just plain taking their time.  Or they aren’t in an automatic hurry to get something done.  Or they don’t see the point of the thing. Or they’re choosing to be meticulous.  Or they’re reflecting on something else as they work on the task at hand, and the two fit nicely together.

What would it be like to get really interested in the slowness, to understand where it’s coming from and what it might reflect, what insight it might offer into the workings and preferences and capacities of the mind behind it?

(See also last week’s post on how kids make boring things more interesting.)