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This article by Euna Kwan Brossman was prepared for the March 23, 2005 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Treating One Mind at a Time

Some of Mel Levine’s favorite memories of his childhood center on the woods across the street from his house where he and his friends built forts, played imaginary games, and went exploring with his dogs. “I found romance and adventure. I didn’t have a coach telling me what to do. I didn’t follow the crowd. I marched to my own drummer. It established me as a leader.”

Today Mel Levine still marches to the beat of his own drummer as a leader in the field of child psychology and professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He is a pioneer in the non-labeling approach to understanding differences in learning. His work has helped thousands of children and young adults with learning, development, and behavioral problems. Levine will speak on “Educating All Kinds of Minds: A Non-labeling Approach to Understanding Differences in Learning,” at Stuart Country Day School in Princeton on Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m.

“Instead of diagnosing or labeling, I much prefer to use a description, to say that a kid is having trouble with social relationships, for example. When you use a description you are coming up with a plan to help him instead of trying to figure out what are we going to call him. I believe a lot of the labeling today is being fomented by the drug companies. It’s a marketing strategy. The more people you call depressed, the more Prozac you’re going to sell. I know that isn’t going to make me very popular with the drug companies.”

Levine says he sees a dangerous trend where milder and milder behaviors are being called manifestations of a particular disease, including the spectrum disorder called autism. “They lower the bar when they say that every child who is deficient in social skills is on the autism spectrum. I love eccentric children. I hate to see them perceived as pathological. A particular label then becomes an industry, a growth industry — depression, autism, ADHD. Everyone who is having trouble in their career will be judged to have an attention deficit; everyone who is different from the norm will be labeled. And yet each of these individuals is highly capable. Each has a niche out there somewhere they can fit into.”

Helping each child, one mind at a time, discover his own strengths and weaknesses and develop strategies for success forms the foundation of Levine’s work. His philosophies, described in his bestsellers “A Mind at a Time” and “The Myth of Laziness,” have been celebrated in the national media. On January 24 Time magazine printed an excerpt from Levine’s new book on preparing children for young adulthood, “Ready or Not, Here Life Comes.”

Levine also has a non-profit institute, All Kinds of Minds, with locations in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Manhattan, where families can meet with professionals to understand differences in learning and come up with strategies to help their children (see sidebar, page 40).

In 1995, Levine teamed up with financier Charles R. Schwab (who was dyslexic as a child) to translate the latest research on how children learn into programs, products, and services that help students struggling in school become successful learners. The programs are based on insights from medical and educational studies as well as more than 30 years of clinical experience by Levine and other leading researchers in the field.

The philosophy emphasizes team collaboration by parents, students, educators, and clinicians to understand and nurture each child’s individual learning profile. The Schools Attuned Program presents Levine’s philosophy in a professional development program for educators to help them meet the needs of K-12 students. The Student Success Program focuses on helping families understand why a student is struggling with a range of diagnostic tests and a follow-up program that includes concrete tools for change. The Institute’s website is found at www.allkindsofminds.org.

While there is a tendency to overlabel, Levine says there is definitely a wide spectrum of dysfunctions that deprive students of success. Students who have difficulties in school because of their strengths and weaknesses comprise a much larger portion of the population than realized. Not addressing those issues, Levine says, can have serious consequences that can last a lifetime. “Kids afflicted with these difficulties are the innocent victims of their own wiring. They have specific shortcomings in areas of the mind that control essential aspects of memory, language, attention, motor function, and other processes required for mastery of school subjects.”

The gaps in these areas, he says, are called neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Some are caused mainly by genetics, others stem mainly from environmental conditions.

Levine is convinced that parents and teachers can help all students unleash successful output by cultivating optimism. “Parents need to find things to praise in a struggling child and make sure that he doesn’t give up on himself and get depressed and distressed while waiting for his day to come.” That day may not come until he is much older, but Levine says everyone should remember that adult life offers many more opportunities for more kinds of minds than are available during childhood.

The trick is to help a child who learns differently navigate his life by arming him with concrete strategies and skills. “Far too many kids have been told they will never amount to anything or they are lazy because of their learning difficulties. To prevent that kind of prophecy from coming true, parents, teachers, and clinicians must help these children understand that their future is as bright as any other child’s. Helping them appreciate, understand, and celebrate the differences is the goal.”

Levine is a critic of many aspects of modern life that can stifle a child’s creativity. “Television, the Internet, social life, E-mail, instant messaging, and a multitude of other thrilling forms of experience make homework and other educationally useful activities seem like impositions or chores to get over with as expeditiously as possible.” He also criticizes overscheduling, keeping kids running from one activity to another with little opportunity for downtime. “Schools that are highly structured so that there is little time for original thinking can short-circuit brainstorming. This is also the case when a child is heavily laden with scheduled activities after school and on weekends.”

All of this, Levine says, worries him about the kids today who will be tomorrow’s grownups. “Kids are being doused with immediate gratification at every turn. They get big doses of visual motor ecstasy. Sports and video games yield immediate results and celebrate the body rather than the mind. As a result, certain kinds of mind growth are being neglected. Then all of a sudden these kids reach a point in life where the boss doesn’t care that you played shortstop, how your body looks, if you’re cool, if you have high self-esteem.”

Levine has a name for this phenomenon. He calls it “work-life unreadiness” and he says it exists in epidemic proportions in high school and college students and especially among people in their 20s who can’t get going in their career.

“Kids are over-programmed, over-protected, and over-entitled. They assume their boss will take over what their parents have done, and they feel abandoned when they don’t,” he says. “This is the rubber-band generation and many find great comfort in moving back home because they are not prepared for the economic realities of being independent.” But the bottom line, says Levine, is that parents should not bankroll their 25-year-olds. And it will only get worse unless we change education and think harder about the culture in which kids are growing up.

So how do we make those changes? Levine says families can start right away by involving everyone with long-term activities that require planning and organization, activities where you don’t see immediate results. Have the kids help chart out the summer vacation. Get out the calendar and plot the itinerary together. Engage in more discussions about the future.

Levine also says today’s trend toward producing “well-rounded kids,” perpetuated by the idea that that’s what colleges are looking for, will hurt those kids in the long-run. He says the danger with having a well-rounded kid is that he doesn’t get to know himself. Kids who are overprogrammed lose the ability to think independently. He says parents should encourage more imaginary play, teach kids how to entertain themselves, and teach them to pursue interesting things on their own, not just because their friends are.

“The kids we should reward are the ones with in-depth and interesting specialties,” he says. “The kids at 23 who are not successful, who cannot find themselves, are the ones who were forced to be well-rounded.”

Speaking of college, Levine believes there is too much emphasis on “college prep” and not enough on “life prep.” “Kids feel like the big goal is getting into a good college and then they get there and don’t know what to do. There doesn’t seem to be much life after college in the viewfinder of a kid.” He decries the push with getting into the “right” school and illustrates his point with a question. “If, God forbid, you get into an accident and break a leg and need a doctor, is your first question going to be where did he go to college? Absolutely not! I have 150 people working for me in North Carolina, and I can honestly say I don’t know where any of them went to college.” He says skills, experience, attitude, and work ethic count more than a pedigree on paper.

Levine also feels that schools are making a big mistake in their curriculum by not focusing enough on careers and real-life case studies. “Kids should be reading biographies, finding out what happens to people. They need to have an emphasis on knowing themselves, going with the mind they have, asking themselves what are my strengths and weaknesses. They need to have a sense of their own biography evolving, and understanding, for example, I love working with my hands, I love to cook, that’s who I am.”

He says kids should spend more time studying adults. “I find it interesting that when I go to a dinner party with families the kids split the moment they get there to hang out with the other kids. When I was a kid my parents couldn’t get rid of me when we had company. I would ask them how did you get so rich, how did you get so weird, and these people would become my role models. How do you become an adult if you don’t notice adults?”

Levine’s biggest role model in his childhood was his brother, Leonard, six years older, a very together kid who got straight A’s in school, played all sorts of varsity sports, and was pursued by the girls. “Me,” says Levine, “I was a schlep. Most of the time my nose was running and my fly was open. I’m sure today they would have given me some sort of diagnosis. Other kids loved me because I could make them laugh but I didn’t much like them. I preferred being alone. I would be inside and the kids would come to my door and say can Mel come out to play and I would whisper to my mother, ‘Tell them I’m not home.’”

Levine says that as a child he reveled in making waves. “In Sunday school I announced in front of the rabbis I don’t believe in God and I’m only here because my parents are making me come. Whenever there was an Arab-Israeli debate I would take the Arab side. I was never able to go along with the crowd.”

He says he got his sense of humor and his entrepreneurial spirit from his father, who owned a successful textile business in New York City. His mother did the bookkeeping. In addition to his older brother Leonard, he had an older sister who died prematurely from cancer. “My father was a real wheeler-dealer, very creative,” says Levine. “By the time they got to me they gave me almost no guidance so I became very self-guided and motivated.”

The family lived in Great Neck, Long Island, at a time when a kid could hop aboard a train, take a ride into New York, and spend the day there. “I was maybe 10 or 11 years old and my mother would ask where were you and I would have been in the city all day. Manhattan was like our backyard, you just went. It was as safe as walking around Great Neck.”

To recreate the bucolic atmosphere of his childhood, Levine has chosen to make his home on a 50-acre farm in North Carolina. When he’s not traveling or lecturing, he spends time with his wife of 35 years, an administrator in state government — they have no children. He has a menagerie of farm animals including 16 donkeys, six dogs, six or seven Maine coon cats, a flock of more than 200 geese, and an assortment of swans, pheasants, peacocks, and chickens. He likes to clear his head by doing the chores, and then is in his office by 6 a.m.

Another formative experience of his childhood, says Levine, was his inability to play sports. He was an absolutely terrible athlete whose parents sent him to a series of competitive athletic camps every summer and made him feel he would be ungrateful if he told them he hated camps. “So I went for six or seven years, unhappy and feeling inferior because I have no ability to deal with spheres flying through space.”

But he says it is those feelings of inferiority as a child that helped shape him into the adult he is today and helps him even now better understand children in his work. “Every kid needs to spend time dealing with feelings of inadequacy.” This lack of sports success gave Levine his first inkling that not everyone is good at everything, a notion that has stayed with him throughout his career.

Young Levine was bright but absentminded. In the fifth grade his teachers wanted him to repeat the year but they couldn’t because his achievement levels were too high. Then, in the seventh grade, came the turning point that would help define the rest of his life. His brother got into Harvard and as a freshman, would invite his younger sibling to visit him in Cambridge and hang out with his friends. “I loved his roommates. I would go to lectures and eat it all up. Going to a lecture for me was like going to a concert. It just sounded good. From that moment on I got straight A’s and there was no stopping me. It was like someone put a booster rocket on me intellectually. I really started to love to study. I was seeing the big leagues in life. It wasn’t that I wanted to go to Harvard. I just wanted to be the kind of person who went to Harvard.”

He ended up choosing Brown, graduating summa cum laude in 1961, and becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and completed his pediatric training at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. He spent 14 years as the chief of the division of ambulatory pediatrics there and was an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School before moving to North Carolina.

Today Levine cannot stand it when he hears someone criticize a class as boring. “There is no such thing as a boring class. There’s such a thing as a boring mind in a class. Minds are just bristling and lighting up all over.” He also deplores the overuse of the word “fun” by children today, as in “I like my teacher, it’s fun, or I like social studies, it’s fun.” Says Levine: “Interesting is a better word than fun. Almost everything is judged by whether or not it’s fun and certain things, such as the early years of a job, are not fun. Kids want everything to be a form of entertainment. Somewhere between boring and fun is interesting.”

Levine admits that he has a lot of critics, that sometimes, because of his philosophies, he is seen as trying to buck the tide, swim upstream. He says sometimes he is criticized for not being scientific and he will admit that there is actually some truth to that. “A lot of the issues I deal with, time management, for example, have not yet been dealt with scientifically. Or take studies of creativity. How do you study creativity or the lack thereof. We might come back in 25 years and we will have progressed to the point where we are doing formal scientific studies in those areas.”

Levine says his detractors sometimes say “everything Mel Levine says is correct but impractical.” He doesn’t buy it. “Frankly, if you believe in something and work on something, it becomes possible. If somebody says that a child has to be labeled to be serviced, then Mel Levine says you have to change the law. Laws are made by the people, not just handed down and obeyed. Each child deserves to be treated as an individual.”

“Educating All Kinds of Minds,” Mel Levine. Monday, March 28, 7:30 to 9 p.m., Stuart Country Day School, 1200 Stuart Road Princeton. 609-921-2330.

Doors open at 7 p.m. Booksigning from 9 to 9:30. Visit PrincetonCommonGround.org.


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