James was in preschool when Anne Weber and David Schure noticed that something was different about their son. He had trouble following directions and he had trouble being with a group. “It wasn’t that he had trouble concentrating,” explains his mother. “He had to do it in a different way. He couldn’t sit with the group in story circle. He had to be in the teacher’s lap. Or curled in a ball, lying on the floor. But he was still listening to the story.”
The issues became magnified when James entered kindergarten and there were more rules. Weber recalls he would sit upside-down in his chair or under his desk, still paying attention, but wherever he shouldn’t be. “He was intelligent but processing information in a different way. It was difficult to make social connections because he was so different.”
It was when James entered first grade at the Johnson Park School in Princeton that he was classified and assigned an individual aide to help him one-on-one in the classroom. While having an aide didn’t change his behavior, Weber says, it made it more manageable for the teacher to have him in the classroom. “The teacher wasn’t as distracted and neither were the other kids. His aide could help cue James in to what was going on and take him out if she needed.”
It was also when James was in the first grade that Weber and her husband discovered Mel Levine’s work and began devouring his writings. They discovered his strategies for helping kids with learning differences. They figured out that James had a problem producing thoughts in written form. “If you ask him what something means, he can tell you. It’s not an issue of comprehension or learning the material. It’s an output issue and it took the school a while to buy into that. To get special services a child needs to be a full grade level behind, but in general, on standardized tests, his written language skills showed up in the 80th percentile. It didn’t test out that he had a problem.”
And so the family continued its arduous and frustrating journey to figure out exactly what James’ issues were and how to help him deal with them. While his parents felt that many of his inappropriate behavioral issues were a result of his learning issue and his frustrations with that, the school did not agree. The family had a private assessment done in the second grade that did determine a disability but he wasn’t determined to be behind enough to trigger special services. He continued to have an aide to help manage his behavior, but not to provide learning assistance.
Finally, by fourth grade, James was put in a resource room to help him with his writing, but it was not successful. “There was no diagnosis for his writing disability,” recalls Weber. “There are so many factors that go into written language output, issues of organization, saliency, prioritizing. He gets frustrated because his thoughts move faster than he can write things down. And because he can remember everything, everything is important. He can tell you everything, but he can’t summarize.”
In addition to his capacity to assimilate and retain information, James is a whiz at math, currently in an accelerated math program, and tracking to take calculus as a high school sophomore. He’s got musical talent. He sings in two choirs at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton and is an apprentice at the American Boychoir School.
Weber, an architect with Farewell, Mills and Gatsch in Princeton, and her husband, Schure, a real estate agent with N.T. Callaway, could not find any history of learning differences in their families. They were looking for different approaches because their son was so bright, but his intelligence wasn’t translating well in the school setting. “The teachers would see that he was comprehending things, but not able to write them down. Instead of saying he has trouble and that’s what’s keeping him from writing it down they would say he’s being lazy, he’s being off, he just doesn’t want to.”
Finally, after years of struggle and frustration, the family came to an important decision. A friend had taken her son for evaluation to Levine’s All Kinds of Minds Institute in New York, and was extremely pleased with what she learned. Since they had been following Levine’s writing for years, his parents decided that they would take James to the Institute to get help for his emotional-behavioral issues. They were looking for strategies to address motivation about school, maintaining focus, managing time effectively, and having enough mental energy to work.
To assess their son’s specific strengths and weaknesses they would use the Student Success Program, a team approach using a pediatrician, a psychologist, and a learning specialist and based on Levine’s pioneering clinical work. The day before they went in for the day-long assessment, Weber was tremendously excited. “We felt from reading Levine’s work, website, and newsletters, that this was the perfect approach for James. The people at his school, Johnson Park, are excited as well and have been very supportive.”
It was March 8 when the family braved a late winter snowstorm to spend the day at the Washington Square offices of the All Kinds of Minds Institute. “It was a welcoming staff and they escorted us into a little windowed room that would be ours for the rest of the day. They gave us a tour of the facility and it was painted with bright colors,” says Schure. He says that James was taken into a room where he would meet for the morning with a psychologist, learning specialist and pediatrician. Schure and his wife sat on the other side of a wall with one-way glass with headphones so they could watch and listen to what was going on.
“You think you know your kid, but the way he reacted, it was fascinating,” recalls Schure. “I was impressed with how well he converses with people and how well they drew things out. They did a whole array of exercises with him to test his long-term and short-term memory. They repeated numbers and patterns and tested how well he could repeat them back. It seemed like they were enjoying the process and we enjoyed watching it.”
The session started at 9 in the morning and broke at 1:30. While James and his parents went out to eat, his team met over a working lunch, and then sat down with the family to present something called a Demystification Document written in report-card style. There was a series of stickers placed in columns under three headings: assets — what’s working well for you; challenges — areas to work on; and suggested strategies.
James’ asset column showed strengths in something called “Higher Order Cognition.” Other assets included “Receptive Language, Spatial Ordering, Temporal-Sequential Ordering, Memory, and Expressive Language.”
Under his challenges column were “Verbal Elaboration” and “Graphomotor Function.”
Specific strategies that could be used immediately included keyboarding — learning how to use a word processor to write so that his fingers could keep up with his thoughts; using such graphics organizers as inspiration software and PowerPoint; getting a writing tutor to break down and stage tasks; getting help in school by using headlines and asking teachers to provide an incomplete framework based on the class lesson to ease and organize note taking.
‘I don’t know what all of this means. We are still sorting through what we were told,” admitted Schure after his son’s assessment. What did James think of it all? “‘I thought it went very well’ was how he put it,” laughs Schure, “a rather adult way of phrasing it, don’t you think?”
His father gave James a copy of his report to share with his teacher and principal. “He’s at the age where he knows there are some disconnects for him in certain areas. He knows it has to do with writing and composition. It pains him to do that kind of work and he feels the stress of doing it. Having some techniques to get around that, to be a better student, to have homework be less of a nightmare, it’s a relief to him.”
His parents are helping James better organize his room and the rest of his surroundings so he can work with a clear brain. With schoolwork they’re helping him chart information, outline things, get ideas down in a logical structure. They’ve put a whiteboard in his room so they actually draw circles and connect what is related to what. As far as keyboarding goes, the strategy is to get him up to 10-finger typing as soon as possible.
Next, the family will receive a complete written report from the Institute and then a follow-up visit. They will also receive guidance at major transitions in James’ life, including high school and college.
Schure says the day at the Institute helped him and his wife better understand their son’s learning differences. “They communicate with children better than I do because that’s what they do. The whole process of raising children is about ideas and networking and we got a superdose of that.” That superdose comes with a super price tag — $3,500 for the day, of which about half is covered by insurance. The neurodevelopmental evaluation is considered medical and so are some of the psychological services, but the learning assessment piece is not.
Schure says that when he was younger, James would express his frustration more by acting out. “Now we’re getting some of the pieces to help him so he’s much more comfortable, very upbeat about it. We were struggling because James’s way of thinking is not the mainstream and we would know that he was frustrated seeing other people grasp things and he was having trouble. Your brain works in a different way and you’ll get the same results, maybe sooner, maybe later, but knowing that is such a relief to a kid.”
Being given more concrete strategies and knowing they have a team on their side to help James is a huge relief to his parents as well.
All Kinds of Minds, New York and Chapel Hill. www.allkindsofminds.org