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Published in Parenting & Families
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1. What Educators Know and Parents Don’t
Did you know that by the age of 5 most children in America will have been given some kind of intelligence test? These tests cover all the abilities educators believe children must have to do well in the classroom. If you want your child to attend a top private school or a competitive gifted program, his scores will impact and in some cases determine whether he’s in or out.
If you choose public kindergarten for your child, testing serves a different purpose. American public schools commonly engage in a practice known as “ability tracking,” where students are grouped together by slow, average, and advanced skill levels and instructed differently depending on where they are assigned. Over time, children who make the advanced track get teachers who focus more on academic achievement and provide deeper, richer content. Those placed in slow groups are taught through drills, worksheets, and an easier curriculum, which limits their ability to handle harder work later. Their peers jump ahead of them and the gap between the two groups widen, limiting the educational opportunities of kids assigned to the slow track. Your child’s ability group placement will depend on how he scores on the tests he’ll be given when he starts kindergarten.
Considering how these high-stakes tests are used to make school placement decisions that affect our children’s educational futures, you’d think we would be given a heads-up on what they cover. Instead, information about intelligence tests is as closely guarded as the Academy Award envelopes. Parents who want the best for their children don’t understand what their kids need to know, much less how to make sure they’ve given them the right kinds of experiences to pick up these abilities. When I found out my daughter had to take one of these tests, she couldn’t even draw a triangle. I had completely fallen down on the job.
The first time I heard that children her age could even be tested was at her end-of-school meeting at nursery school. Our preschool director had gathered the parents for a briefing on transitioning our children from preschool to kindergarten—“ex-missions,” she called it. The word strikes terror in the hearts and minds of Manhattan parents.
In New York City—and many parts of the country—getting into a private kindergarten, a talented and gifted (TAG) program, and even many selective magnet or charter schools has become impossibly competitive. It seems absurd to test 4-year-olds for admissions. And yet, if that is the process where you live, your choice is to play the game or find the best public school program you can. In some markets, public school options are fantastic; in others, not so much.
Most parents who decide to jump through the hoops and apply their kids to more selective public or private schools go into it determined to retain their sanity. It’s a noble intention that isn’t always possible. These are our children we are talking about, our adorable, bright (in most cases genius) 4-year-olds who do not deserve to be judged by those wart-faced, fire-breathing admissions directors. I have seen icy-veined CEOs reduced to tears over this process.
Your Kid Can’t Spell Her Own Name? Forget Yale.
But back to my first ex-missions meeting. Before I arrived, parents were offered tiny wooden seats next to pint-sized tables with coloring-box centerpieces. Me, I was late, so I sat cross-legged on the floor until my foot fell asleep. Standing, waiting for the numbness to subside, I gazed at the competition. There was Margarita Gonzalas-Baikov, Ben’s mom. She had hired a Chinese nanny just so her son would learn to speak Mandarin before the age of 4. The kid already spoke Spanish and Russian. Showoff, I thought. After Kim Memolis’ mother heard that shapes were on the test, she taught her daughter to make three-dimensional boxes and cones. Was that really necessary? According to his dad, Matthew Stein was already reading Dr. Seuss books. Spare me! That little nose picker had memorized Green Eggs and Ham after hearing it sixty-eight times. My future honor student, Schuyler, knew it after a mere fourteen readings. On the other hand, “Thkyler” (as she so adorably called herself), favored books she could easily stuff down the back of her underpants and couldn’t spell her own name. I wondered, Is it too late to change it?
We lived in Manhattan, in a neighborhood with poor-performing schools, so we had three choices: apply her to private school, try for our local TAG program, or move to a different neighborhood zoned for a better kindergarten. The first two options would require she be tested. The third would not, at least not for admissions. Even so, when school started, her teachers would evaluate her for placement in the slow, average, or advanced ability groups.
Mark and I wanted to stay in our neighborhood, so our goal was to get Schuyler into either our local TAG program (which would be excellent and free) or a private school (which would be excellent and expensive). I asked our preschool director if there was anything we should be doing at home so she might score better on the all-important test. She gave me one of those “What kind of parent are you?” looks that you never want to get from your nursery school director the year you’re depending on her to recommend your family to an in-demand kindergarten.
“Puh-leaze,” she groaned. “It’s one thing to prep a teenager for an SAT, but to tutor a child barely out of Pampers?” You sicken me. Her lips didn’t say that, but her eyes did. “Relax,” she said, “you just need to trust that between preschool and life, she has absorbed everything she needs to know to do well.”
Obedient by nature, I followed my director’s advice. She was the professional and I was the amateur. In the end, Schuyler tested well enough to get into private school, but not well enough to qualify for the TAG program. We were disappointed because private school was so expensive and a TAG program would have been free, but the outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected (what with her habit of stuffing books down her pants and all).
Your Son Is No Baby Einstein
Over the next year, our younger son, Sam, suffered from recurring ear infections. I noticed that his language was developing more slowly than Schuyler’s had. At 3, Sam often didn’t look at me when I spoke to him, and he barely used words, pointing instead to what he wanted. When I brought this up with my pediatrician, he told me not to worry, that children develop at different rates, and Sam would naturally catch up with his sister.
Despite the doctor’s assurances, I was secretly afraid that Sam might have autism or have some other devastating condition. The possibility that something was seriously wrong with my child was too much to bear. I ignored my doctor’s advice and took Sam to a specialist.
The new doctor immediately ran a battery of physical and psychological tests. He told me there was good news and bad. The good news was that the delays stemmed from the fact that Sam couldn’t hear, the result of fluid buildup from all the ear infections. That could be corrected with surgery. I jumped with joy and hugged the doctor.
“Not so fast. There’s bad news,” he said. “We gave Sam the WPPSI, the test he’ll need to take to get into school next year. His scores were abysmal.”
“So I guess that rules out TAG programs,” I said.
“I guess it does. And with scores as low as his, there isn’t a private school in town that will accept him,” he declared. “You should look into the special ed program at your local school.”
Now, I’m no snob. If I could have placed Sam in a fine (free!) public special ed program, I would have been first in line. However, we lived in one of the worst-performing zones in New York City. I wasn’t about to put my precious son in their hands. “Isn’t there something I can do?” I asked. “Can we fast-track his development and improve his scores for next year?” Surely there was some sort of “how-to” book for developmentally delayed darlings and the mothers who loved them.
The doctor spoke slowly and patiently to me as if I were the one with developmental delays. He explained that the WPPSI was an IQ test and that it was impossible to prep for these. Sam’s intelligence was a trait like his beautiful blue eyes, his deep adorable dimples, and his funny cry. His IQ was set at birth and there was nothing I could do to change it. What I heard was, “Now, young lady, don’t you go worrying your pretty little head about such things. I’m the professional; you’re merely the parent. I proclaimed special ed and special ed it shall be.”
A Mother’s Got to Do What a Mother’s Got to Do
Lucky for me, I had access to a second opinion. My mother happened to be a PhD and professor of early childhood education. She had written a book called Working with Parents that guided preschool teachers on helping mothers and fathers support their children’s intellectual growth at home. Not only that, she had developed a preschool curriculum for children from low-income families who weren’t “naturally” absorbing what they needed for school readiness. In opposition to theorists in her field, my mother’s program advocated the active teaching of concepts and skills to preschoolers to make sure they met their intellectual milestones. A number of Head Start and other nonprofit early education programs across the country used her curriculum. The test scores for these kids improved significantly, and they were better prepared to enter kindergarten. Not only that, the preschoolers who were actively taught concepts did better on later standardized tests than those who weren’t, proving that the effects of early intellectual support can be lasting.
If this book were fiction, the editor wouldn’t let me have a mother like that. It would be too much of a coincidence for our protagonist to have the perfectly educated and experienced mother to get her out of her jam. But truth can be stranger than fiction, and in this case it was.
I called Dr. Mom. Was it true? Was there nothing I could do to help Sam, who (at age 3) trailed miserably behind his Pampered peers? “Nonsense,” she told me. “The doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Get Sam’s hearing fixed. Then you can tackle his delays.”
My mother explained that intelligence tests evaluate the extent to which a child has acquired the abilities he should have picked up by the age he’s tested. Sam was behind because he couldn’t hear what was going on around him. Other kids lag because they aren’t in a good preschool or their parents don’t talk to them enough. Kids of teachers test above expectations because teachers know how to impart the most important skills and knowledge to their kids. Mom said, “If you understand the abilities Sam should have by age four [when he would be retested for kindergarten], you can help him catch up.”
My mother pulled back the curtain to reveal that there was no magic to the testing process. In fact, once I understood how it worked, it made perfect sense. With Mom’s guidance and by studying the textbooks she used to train psychologists to assess young children, we mapped out a program I could do at home to strengthen Sam’s abilities so he would test better and, more important, so he would be ready to enter a regular kindergarten program in a year.
With funding from the city, we were able to arrange for a special-ed teacher to assist Sam in the classroom a few hours each week. He was also given speech therapy and occupational therapy once a week. Then, every evening after I came home from work, the two of us nestled in my bed for a special activity time. To Sam, it was fun and games with Mom. But in reality, everything we did was selected to support his intellectual growth.
A year passed. Sam took the test again. Not long after, his nursery school director called. She was thrilled to report that Sam, her special-ed student, had made the top score in his class. He was admitted to the same private school his sister attended. Today, he is an excellent student. In fact, by first grade, his teachers were surprised to learn that he was ever behind.
Psychologists say that the home environment can impact IQ by 15 to 35 points. Sam’s scores improved more than that. At age 3, his overall IQ was in the 37th percentile; at age 4, it was in the 94th percentile. His was an unusual case, but it showed me the enormous impact parents can have.
Ear infections are among the most common illnesses in babies and young children. Middle-ear infections (acute otitis media) can lead to fluid buildup that results in hearing loss and can lead to delays in language and cognitive development. This is what happened to Sam. If your child suffers from recurring ear infections, work with your pediatrician to stave off recurrences. For Sam, the insertion of ear tubes did the trick, but there are other treatments. If your child has experienced this problem over a period of years, as Sam did, you may want to have him tested for developmental delays.
You Are Your Child’s Most Important Teacher
Watching Sam blossom, I am convinced that parents working with their children to build abilities that intelligence tests measure is not only fair, but it is the responsible thing to do. We make it our business to understand nutrition so we can feed our kids in ways that will keep their bodies healthy. Shouldn’t we understand intelligence so we can interact with them in ways that will nourish their brains? If we lovingly teach our children through play, at home, in the natural course of daily life, then why not?
After my experience with Sam, I cofounded Smart City Kids, a company devoted to helping families get their children into NYC’s top gifted public schools and best private kindergartens. Through workshops and individual coaching, I taught scores of parents how to engage their own children as I had Sam. I figured if these activities could make such a difference with a mildly developmentally delayed child, think what they might do for kids who are where they should be. Time and again, parents followed the program, their children tested well, and they were admitted to NYC’s most competitive public and private schools.
I am not suggesting that you turn your home into a classroom, use flash cards, or make every waking moment a learning opportunity. There’s a balance to be struck. You read to your child every day anyway, but how can you do it so that you build his vocabulary and inspire him to become a voracious reader himself? How can you introduce math irresistibly into your dinner preparations? What games can you play in the car to build memory, vocabulary, and comprehension that will have your toddler begging for more? The activities I’m going to suggest are what every good parent should be doing to give kids the best chance to thrive in kindergarten and beyond. Better test scores are icing on the cake.
Early childhood is the most critical and vulnerable time in any child’s development. Our research and that of others demonstrates that in the first few years, the ingredients for intellectual and moral growth must be laid down. Children who don’t get this are likely to be two or three steps behind no matter how hard we try to help them catch up.
—Dr. T. Berry Brazelton
I am not a professional educator. I am a mother who was forced to figure this out to help her own child. Later, I became a professional, sharing what I knew with other parents so they could help their children, and they did. Now I’m passing it on to you.
This is the book I desperately wanted to read when I realized how much help Sam needed before he would be ready for school. If I only knew how to engage him in ways that would help him grow intellectually, I could get him back on track. It is my guess that you are already doing many of the types of activities I’m going to suggest. So much of this comes naturally to good parents. What you may not realize is how some of the different activities you’re doing affect your child’s intellectual growth.
You read her nursery rhymes, right? Do you know that nursery rhymes teach children phonological awareness, the ability to isolate individual sounds in words like “J-i-ll” and “h-i-ll?” This is an enormously important prereading skill.
Your child plays with different-shaped blocks, right? Did you realize that shapes are critical to learning letters, which are nothing more than lines, circles, squares, and triangles put together in different ways? When you read on, pat yourself on the back for the many right things you are doing now and then add some things you haven’t tried.
Like many experts, educators and psychologists can be protective of “their turf.” But don’t ever let a school director or some fancy doctor tell you to leave your child’s intellectual development “to the professionals.” By being aware of what your child needs to learn and providing the right environment and stimulation, you are your child’s most important teacher.
In the next chapter, you will discover specific things you can do and ways you can interact with your child at home that will naturally increase her IQ score and set her up for success in any kindergarten she attends, be it public, private, or gifted.
© 2010 Karen Quinn
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