St. Louis school first in region to use program

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

CLAYTON, Mo. -- It's considered a mark of success that the 48 children at Clayton Academy don't line up in straight rows, march to the same orders or form typical classrooms.

There's pride in the fact that an eighth-grader often chooses to sprawl across the floor because he knows he can't concentrate in a seat or that another student sometimes stands up for the same reason.

And school director Barbara Geno is delighted that some of the children don't always complete written assignments -- opting instead to use laptops or even sketch out diagrams to get a point across.

Because if all those things are happening, Geno believes, the small private school is in tune with the latest in brain research.

The research is aimed at unlocking the mysteries of why some children learn differently, why some fail and what should be done about it. More importantly, it's about not rushing to slap popular labels on children who are deemed to have a learning disability.

This year, Clayton Academy became the first school in the St. Louis region to adopt the Schools Attuned program, which attempts to translate complex neurological research for use by teachers, parents and students.

Different approach

The approach has grown rapidly in popularity, with more than 12,000 teachers training in it nationwide since it was introduced in 1998. That figure is expected to double this year.

Behind the approach is Mel Levine, a Harvard-educated professor who brings the perspective not of an educator, but of a pediatrician.

Levine is convinced that many children are misdiagnosed with severe learning or behavioral disabilities, when they may simply learn differently.

"Schools over-rely on labels and categories and in an odd sort of way, that leads to a tendency to over-diagnose," Levine said.

He offers the example of a child who lacks the fine motor skills to quickly complete a written assignment. If that weakness is allowed to fester, the child may be mistaken for having a severe learning disability. Or if he acts out in frustration, teachers might focus only on his behavior.

But if teachers are trained to notice the signs of fine motor problems -- which could be as simple as the awkward way a child holds a pencil -- they will find simpler and more effective solutions, he said.

In some cases, that child may need only to print rather than write cursive or to try a pencil with a different shape.

Levine's philosophy and the Schools Attuned program it inspired would seem custom-made for the Clayton Academy, which specializes in helping students with learning difficulties.

Geno said the private school always had worked to zero in on the exact reason why a child was not succeeding.

The new program, she said, is giving teachers the tools to understand things they've been seeing all along in the classroom.

Much of that information comes from detailed surveys filled out by teachers, parents and students. Each survey includes more than 80 questions that attempt to rate a child's strengths and weaknesses -- from paying attention in class to falling asleep at night or to even catching a ball.

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