What do you call a kid who can't concentrate, can't keep up, can't remember, can't sit still, can't get it right, can't succeed? If there's a punchline that follows this barrage of "can'ts," it probably contains the letter d, as in attention deficit disorder, learning disability, behavioral disorder a few of the labels pinned on the struggling student. To Harvard-educated, nationally-renowned pediatrician Mel Levine, not only are such labels inaccurate, they can also be devastating.

A professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Levine has spent more than 25 years researching how the brain functions, particularly as children learn and develop. Frustrated with all-inclusive labels, he made it his work to demystify the brain, hoping to "label the phenomenon rather than the child." To surmount learning differences, he believes teachers, parents, and students alike must be taught how to recognize, understand, and manage both strengths and weaknesses in brain function.

Schools Attuned, a professional development program founded by Dr. Levine and colleagues, trains teachers to do just that. Currently applied in 500 elementary and middle schools nationwide, Schools Attuned has teachers evaluate case studies of children and teaches them to recognize eight areas of brain function. Methods for intervention are designed to preclude labeling, special classrooms, and excessive psychological testing. Inclusion is the goal, and with it nurturing of strengths and self-esteem.

Everyone Has Learning Differences

At the Frances C. Richmond School in Hanover, New Hampshire, a number of middle-school teachers are applying the Schools Attuned concepts. A grant enabled four of these teachers to attend a core-instruction course in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after which they shared their learning with colleagues back home. Many say the training has profoundly altered their views. "Everybody has learning differences," says Jay Davis, teacher of seventh-grade English at the Richmond School. "It's just that some kids' differences obstruct their learning, because of the traditional way in which we teach."

Kids who excel in school, explains Dr. Levine, can do so because their brains are "wired" for the tasks with which they are usually faced. Facility with memory, for example, is rewarded in school. But how many careers really call for memorizing and regurgitating large chunks of information, particularly in the computer age? "It takes a lot more memory to succeed in school than it does to succeed in your career," he contends. The brain researcher believes that understanding learning differences can benefit even academic superstars. "The kids who are struggling in school are sending us a message about how all kids learn."

No One Has a Perfect Brain

Slim, bespectacled, with a pleasant face, Mel Levine is self-effacing when he speaks of his own learning differences. Searching for a lost pen that was right there "just a moment ago," he laughs at his "problems with materials management." It's a weakness, he admits, but no one has a perfect brain. In fact, he says, all of us 100 percent! experience some kind of neurodevelopmental dysfunction. What, exactly, does that mean? Carla Balch, a sixth-grade math teacher at the Richmond School, explains it: "You're having dinner, and you notice you need a knife. You get up, walk to where the knives are, and stand in front of the drawer. Suddenly, you cannot remember why you're standing there. This is a dysfunction in short-term memory one type of 'function breakdown.'" There are others, equally as common, that we might not so readily name and understand.

With his colleagues, Dr. Levine has charted eight neurodevelopmental constructs, or aspects, of the brain function. They are attention, language, memory, fine and gross motor function, spatial ordering, temporal-sequential ordering, higher-order cognition, and social cognition. Each of these constructs contains specific subcategories, running the gamut from "alertness" to "rule application." Areas of strengths and weakness throughout the brain form a person's neurodevelopmental profile. These constructs, Dr.Levine cautions, are not set in stone. They simply provide an efficient, albeit imperfect, way to categorize the workings of something as complex as the brain.

If even "neurodevelopmental" seems a mouthful, be prepared. The Schools Attuned vocabulary isn't, at first, easy. For example, "saliency determination" is a child's ability to extract what is most significant from a passage of text. A child's "sequential output" relates to the ability to follow steps in a specific order, say, during a science experiment.

A Vocabulary Lesson

In a large way, says Dr. Levine, the Schools Attuned program is a "vocabulary lesson" for educators. Notes Balch: "What's really nice about the vocabulary is that the technical terms are incredibly precise in their description of specific behaviors phenomena we as teachers observe daily."

Take a child who is consistently rude and impulsive, unintentionally hurting classmates' feelings. Teachers may say the child is "out of control" without understanding the motivations behind the child's poor behavior. But when teachers are able to discover, through close observation and use of the program's precepts and terminology, that the child's dysfunction lies in her previewing skills, or ability to predict a possible outcome, they have something with which to work. Since previewing skills are practiced while reading a novel or writing an essay, concentrating on such tasks might help the child when her previewing proficiency is carried over into her social skills.

Graduates of the program may use such technical jargon as "serial implementation" and "ideational praxis," but the goal is not to shut anyone out. Instead, it is inclusion. Teachers, parents, and students work together to focus on exactly where the "breakdown point" occurs that is, the specific skill area that causes the child to falter.

Interventions at Breakdown

A seventh- and eighth-grade learning specialist at Richmond, Patti Dodds finds simple the program's strategies to address identified problem areas, such as attention controls and memory capacity. For instance, highlighting important concepts on an overhead, photocopying and distributing the overhead sheets, then having students highlight the same concepts can especially help struggling kids retain material. Good teachers already use such exercises, but now they have a precise target they know which brain function they are working to facilitate.

So, instructors design learning tasks in which a child works up to his or her trouble spot, at which time that particular task ends. Once the child has conquered the obstacle, the task can continue. For example, says math teacher Balch, "I present an exercise that has 20 problems: adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing. It may be that I first ask a certain child to highlight the addition problems in one color, the subtraction problems in another, and so on. She completes this task before I ever ask her to solve the problems. Otherwise, I might get the sheet back from the child and find she has done them all wrong, perhaps because of something as simple as not recognizing the difference between a plus sign and a multiplication sign."

Learning About Learning

It's not just the Schools Attuned-trained teachers who become aware of neurodevelopmental constructs. It's the kids and their parents, too. "The Mind That's Mine" is a middle-school curriculum developed by the nonprofit institute All Kinds of Minds, from which the Schools Attuned program also comes. Its aim is to get kids involved in the metacognitive process. Comprising student workbooks, a teacher's manual, a video, and a poster illustration of the brain, this curriculum encourages students to gain perspective on how their minds work, zero in on their skills and affinities, and learn about better ways to learn. Children are taught the same terms for the eight neurodevelopmental constructs that the adults learn, but they are explained in "kidspeak." According to Dr. Levine, kids quickly pick up the language particularly regarding their own area of weakness. Teachers in the program, the researcher says, are often amused to hear a fifth-grader note that he or she has difficulty with "phonological awareness" or "self-monitoring." The advantage of isolating a specific dysfunction for the child, according to Dr. Levine, is that the dysfunction then "has borders. It tells the kid, 'I'm not pervasively defective. I'm not retarded. I'm not slow.'"

Isolating and identifying strengths has obvious advantages as well. Not only does it build self-esteem, but the child can use his or her strengths to work around problems. If the student is having trouble in math, for example, he or she might use verbal or artistic strengths to get by drawing a diagram or writing a story about a problem. "That's OK," says Dr. Levine. "Kids who don't have a tendency toward something shouldn't have to do it the same way as kids who do it intuitively."

Adds Sue Boyle, a generalist in the learning center at Richmond, where the curriculum is used in the fifth grade: "All the kids come away feeling they have certain strengths. Their strengths have validity; they can use these skills. If they find a weakness, there is a way to get around it."

Indeed, the Schools Attuned program stresses that teaching is more effective when students are aware of the cognitive function that an activity addresses for instance, short-term memory. "The implicit message in a lesson needs to be made explicit," says Dr. Levine. "Kids need to be learning about learning while they're learning."

A Holistic Model

Because Dr. Levine's background is as a pediatrician, not an education specialist, his broad approach to education has made him a target oftentimes, he says, of those who have made the study of attention deficit disorder or learning disabilities their life's work. His ideas, he admits, came not from academic textbooks but from years of observing children grow and develop. "My textbooks were the children," he says.

But his approach, although unique, isn't radical. The researcher regards it as a holistic, integrated model a synthesis of disparate pedagogical theories compatible with other ideologies, such as Harvard professor Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. A main difference, says Dr. Levine, lies in the level of clinical complexity in his own approach. While Gardner might identify a math-logic intelligence, Dr. Levine might examine neurodevelopmental constructs, such as spatial perception, active working memory, and/or pattern recognition, that could be playing a part in this intelligence. A variety of interconnected brain functions can go into solving a math problem. Indeed, Gardner never intended the intelligences to be compartmentalized, Levine points out. He understood that they work together in complex ways.

Beyond helping all children to succeed, the All Kinds of Minds institute and its programs seek to remove the labels that suggest kids are different or deficient. They have strengths; so does everyone. They make mistakes. So, too, does everyone. In fact, what might hinder kids in school may actually serve to help them succeed as adults, when specialization is valued. That realization can jump-start a child's self-esteem and save him or her from unhappiness and failure. "In the adult world," Mel Levine says, "what really counts is how strong your strengths are not how weak your weaknesses are."

 

Schools Attuned
Workshops are conducted at regional centers throughout the country. The core program is a minimum of 30 hours of instruction, with at least 10 contact hours of follow-up. Tuition per participant: $1,200. Materials available from the institute include workbooks, videotapes, audiotapes, and books. For more information, write: All Kinds of Minds, P.O. Box 3580, Chapel Hill, NC 27515; call 919-933-8082; fax 919-967-3590; or visit http://www.allkindsofminds.org/.

Books and Articles

Our Labeled Children: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know About Learning Disabilities, by Robert J Sternberg, Ph.D., and Elena L. Grigorenko, Ph.D. (Perseus Books, 1999).

Discover Your Child's Learning Style, by Mariaemma Willis and Victoria Kindle-Hodson (Prima Publishing, 1999).

Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, by Thomas R. Hoerr (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000).

"Let 100 Flowers Bloom," by Kristen Nicholson-Nelson (Instructor magazine, October 1999).