Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pay Attention to a Child's Individual Bent

This is an especially fun story for me to recall because it involves my precious nephew. He was my first nephew and I was in college. We were all amazed to see his early interest in numbers and marveled at his insatiable appetite to learn about them. No one forced him to sit down and listen. No one made him memorize anything. His parents just sort of scratched their heads and watched it all unfold.

He had an early desire to know more and more. We soon figured out that as he was mulling over the answers to his questions, he was properly putting it all together in a way none of us imagined. On his own he figured out that the symbols for the numbers meant something.

He didn't fit any of the models I was studying in my college childhood education and psychology courses. None of us knew how he did it. He was just too little to explain to us what was happening in his mind.

Here's how it played out. It started with his asking us "What is 3 and 5?" "What is 4 and 7?" We never knew where that idea to ask those questions came from, but as long as we were willing to answer, he kept firing those questions. It was nonstop and it never seemed to be enough. What 3 1/2 - 4 year old normally does this?

I think we all thought it would run its course and play itself out after a while. But it didn't. His mind was an unquenchable little sponge and the questions, always related to numbers and groups of numbers, kept coming.

But those simplle questions soon became "Daddy, what's 38 and 5?" "What's 57 and 8?" And when his daddy was tired, aunts and uncles and grandparents were the next victims. And all that we told him, he took in and somehow analyzed it correctly. And the questions became more precise, showing that he was honing his skill.

We started turning the tables on him. We started asking him questions and were just blown away with what happened. This little guy had somehow figured out sets of "tens" in his mind. He knew how to regroup and go past tens. He could answer anything we asked him. And he was right on the money -- every time.

He could subtract, too. He could add and subtract 8's or 7's just as easily as you or I.

He was not really any smarter than his siblings. He just had a bent toward math concepts. For some reason it was a challenge, it was compelling, it was satisfying to him. To him, the mental computations were enjoyable, and even something difficult didn't set him back. He kept wanting to know more.

His questions turned to money and how much things cost, and even multi-step procedures didn't make him waver.

One evening, my husband and I took him to a small airport in our area to watch the commercial planes come and go. He asked us a question (number related, of course).

"How much would it cost to fly to . . . (a nearby town)?"

My husband said, "Oh, about $5," mostly just to give an answer, rather than to be accurate. Immediately, my nephew shot back, "Well, I'm saving my money till I have $30, and I'm going to take you both to . . . . (the town)."

He had added and multiplied so rapidly, we were stunned. He even planned on our return flight!

If your child has such an appetite, such a natural bent toward math, nourish and encourage it. Provide opportunities for him to grow. Make sure he doesn't languish in a "fuzzy math", "non traditional" classroom. You may not think that the misguided approach of "new math" can have a detrimental affect him, but it can.

Or if your child doesn't show an early interest, provide opportunity for little baby steps of counting and of understanding numbers and make it fun. He/she could be a late bloomer. He can make good progress with just a little encouragement and interest from a parent. And make sure he doesn't languish in a "fuzzy math", "non traditional" classroom. He could likely be at the most risk because he is neither strong or weak and can easily slip through the cracks.

And if your child really does struggle and it never gets easier, just keep being your kid's biggest fan and biggest encourager. Don't ever show your disappointment in him, and don't give up just because he/she doesn't have a natural bent. Support him and praise him for even small gains. And for certain make sure he doesn't languish in a "fuzzy math," "non traditional" classroom. Be prepared for an early intervention with tutoring and evaluations. Make sure he learns to ask questions. And he must know he can come to you. And give him room to excell in something else -- art, or music, or helping people.