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New Teaching Approach Shuns Labeling Children

You know the boy who can't sit still in class?

Or the girl who fails the test no matter how much she studies?

The teacher decides the first child is a troublemaker and the second is slow. The school sends them off to special education. And the children learn they have a "disability," confirming their own secret fears that something about them is deeply wrong.

But a new teaching approach developed by a best-selling author-pediatrician has a message for these educators and parents: Look closer.

The boy might have a minor problem with attention, and the girl a problem with short-term memory, according to Dr. Mel Levine, whose theories are now being used in public and private schools around the country, including Clifton and River Edge.

Give the boy a Nerf ball to squeeze so he can release energy to stay focused, advocates of Levine's method advise. Let the girl take open-book tests while helping to strengthen her memorization skills. Most important, teach the children how their minds work to protect their fragile self-esteem.

Levine has popularized recent research showing that brains are wired differently. Rather than grouping children under broad labels such as "hyperactive," "learning disabled," or "attention deficit disorder," he urges educators to approach children, as one of his book titles states, "a mind at a time."

Since 1998, his non-profit All Kinds of Minds Institute has trained 11,000 educators to become classroom diagnosticians. Teachers who attend the weeklong training and follow-up sessions, run in North Carolina and elsewhere, learn how to evaluate children's skills in everything from attention to social interaction.

"There are a lot of different ways to succeed in life and many different minds out there," Levine says. "We all have to strive to get to know a child very well and to make sure he doesn't grow up frustrated and depleted of motivation because his mind isn't fitting with what it's being asked to do."

Teachers and school counselors say Levine gives a scientific basis to their own best instincts.

"It's not a cookie-cutter business," Clifton educator Sonia DeAgazio says of teaching third-graders. "Sometimes you'd love for them all to act the same, but that's not how it is. They're their own individuals."

Some schools that have embraced Levine's methods, including one Woodbridge elementary school, have dramatically lowered the number of children placed each year in special education, says Mary-Dean Barringer, national director of the training program Schools Attuned.

Clifton had reduced its yearly special-education placements by two-thirds even before some of its counselors and teachers received Schools Attuned training several years ago, said Barry Mascari, counseling supervisor for the district. Still, some experts worry that schools might use Levine's approach as a way to cut special-education costs.

"I'm afraid euphemizing disabilities may encourage parents to gloss over the seriousness of their child's situation," says Jane Browning, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

Reducing special-education referrals is an "unintended outcome" of Schools Attuned, not a goal, says Barringer, a former special-education teacher. U.S. schools refer too many children to special education because they fail to clearly understand their problems, she says.

That failure also sometimes leads educators to rush to put children on Ritalin and other medications, Levine says.

Some children benefit from medication, but even they need specific help in academic or social areas, he says. "To feel medication is going to cure someone is an illusion and possibly dangerous."

Every year, DeAgazio at School 15 in Clifton has one or two students who are struggling. A boy who turns in half-finished work might have trouble copying instructions from a blackboard, causing him to fall behind in his assignment. His problem isn't with language, but with absorbing information through certain mediums, a function of attention, DeAgazio says.

Her solution? Allow that boy to copy from a sheet of paper instead of the blackboard, or have another child make a carbon copy of what's on the board for the classmate.

Some teachers resist making such accommodations, believing it gives the child with the attention problem an unfair advantage.

But Levine and his supporters say treating every student the same invites failure.

"Equal is not fair," says Joan Ferrara Millar, a consultant in Clifton's educational-support program.

Ilene Plotkin's son was one who got special treatment from teachers.

The boy, whose name is being withheld at his mother's request, is a bright child who has always made honor roll. But in third grade, he began talking back to his teacher. He got upset if he felt he didn't understand an assignment. He began to constantly criticize himself.

Michele Petrelli, an educational-support consultant in the district, found that the boy had certain weaknesses in how he interacted socially. She asked his teacher to carefully explain every assignment to him.

Now, he is a happy and successful middle-school student, says his mother, who works for Clifton schools.

Levine worries that once school becomes a source of humiliation, students might give up.

He once felt such pain himself.

Although he was a bright child, he was awkward in gym class, inept at organizing his homework, and awful at art. He writes that he still has trouble folding paper to fit neatly in an envelope. His fifth-grade teacher regularly criticized him in front of his classmates. Supportive parents helped him succeed in school.

Now a professor of medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he opened the All Kinds of Minds Institute with investor Charles Schwab in 1995.

Sabrina Dunier, pupil-assistance counselor for the River Edge elementary schools, took two Schools Attuned courses this year. When a child having trouble in school is referred to her, she first completes an extensive written neurodevelopmental evaluation. Parents and the child help in the diagnosis.

"The child can often tell you what's wrong as much as anyone if asked the right questions," Dunier says.

Once Dunier pinpoints the problem, she explains to children their particular strengths and weaknesses.

"It makes them feel, 'There's nothing wrong with me,'" she says. "That makes a great difference just in their wanting to come to school and to perform and to be motivated."

Excerpted from "A Mind at a Time" by Mel Levine, M.D.

  1. Know thy child.

    Know your children's strengths and weaknesses. How well, for example, do they manage time, control their attention, write and read?

  2. Respond to gaps

    If you suspect your child is weak in areas that may cause problems later, seek assistance from a professional.

  3. Foster strengths, knacks, talents, and interests.

    Help children pursue their passions. Playing sports is not enough. Children need both intellectual passions and recreational pursuits.

  4. Try not to harm

    If children feel they are disappointing their parents, they become emotional powder kegs. Give them lots of praise. Learn to listen without giving canned lectures or sermons.

  5. Support education

    Find out what the school expects and support your children in meeting those expectations. Help children enhance their skills and knowledge of facts. Drill them on math, letter formation, basic vocabulary, or spelling each night at bedtime, the best time for storing information in long-term memory.

  6. Maintain an intellectual life at home

    Show a strong interest in what your child is learning at school. Limit television. Make sure children have free time to brainstorm, exercise creativity, and engage in imaginary play.

  7. Foster optimism and a positive view of the future

    Help children envision how they might use their strengths and interests in the future. The vision of the future should help to keep them motivated and ambitious.

Copyright © 2003 North Jersey Media Group Inc.