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How to Read Your Child’s Mind

When it comes to the way kids learn, one size definitely doesn’t fit all.by Barbara Turvett



I’ve always felt lucky to be an adoptive parent---and not just because of our great fortune in being matched with our wonderful daughter. Another reason: I think I have fewer preconceived notions about our daughter than I might if she were mine by birth.

My husband and I know our genes are not her genes. We try to honor and support her unique strengths rather than despair that she’s not a chip off the old block where, say, math is concerned. In understanding how our daughter thinks and how to help her learn, perhaps this has given us a leg up. And guess what? Top learning specialists say we are on the right track.

My friend Suzanne Weissman’s situation was a bit trickier. Her second daughter, Grace, now 11, had some learning difficulties in first and second grade. “Grace had trouble paying attention and said she was bored,” explains Weissman, who lives with her family in New York City. “Her teachers reported that she didn’t participate in class, while Grace said it was simply more interesting to look out the window. I couldn’t help but worry that there was something wrong.” The Weissmans had Grace tested and learned that she had auditory processing delays, which affected her ability to screen out background sounds and to pay attention.

What Weissman knows now—and wishes she’d understood better then—is that her daughter’s learning was well within the “normal” range. Simply put, different children process information in different ways; each has his or her own style of learning.

This simple yet powerful assumption is at the heart of the groundbreaking approach of Mel Levine, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and director of the Clinical Center for Study of Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Dr. Levine asserts that all children learn in different ways and the more parents recognize their child’s individual learning patterns, the more we can support their growing minds over time. “Adoptive parents’ advantage is compelling,” he says. “They are always asking, ‘Who is this kid?’ and, ‘What does it mean to know my child?’ Every parent should think this way.”

That’s the message Dr. Levine is spreading as founder and co-chair of a nonprofit learning institute, All Kinds of Minds. His mission to help children succeed, combined with years of research, have resulted in a blueprint for understanding the ways people learn and a method for helping children make the most of their learning style or “learning profile,” as Dr. Levine calls it.

“If I had known of Dr. Levine’s research when Grace was younger, I could have suggested strategies to her teachers—or perhaps looked for a school with smaller class sizes and lower noise levels,” says Weissman.

Eight Ways of Learning
The key to understanding your child’s mind is to know something about how the brain works. Research has shown that the brain is a vast toolbox of neurodevelopmental functions. Dr. Levine says that these neorological functions, which cause us to learn and apply what we learn, can be sorted into eight systems (see chart on facing page). Each system controls an area of information processing, but all need to work together for learning to happen.

A child may be stronger in some of these areas than others, but the big news is that these eight learning systems are not programmed for a lifetime. Your child may be good at some things and not at others when she is five, but by the time she is eight, her strengths and weaknesses may have shifted. So you’ll want to keep a constant eye on the way your child performs where each of these systems is concerned. “Parents are on the observational front lines,” says Dr. Levine. “Understanding these learning systems gives them the background to watch and then advocate for their kids.”

By understanding all eight areas of learning and how they reveal themselves, you can tune in to your child’s weaknesses as well as her strengths. You can find ways to strengthen problem areas, and help your child understand that she’s excelling in other respects. By understanding your child’s strengths, you can help her use them to work around weaker areas.

Overall, you need to remember that whatever your child may be going through, she is a work in progress. “These systems can change in their capacities over time,” say Dr. Levine. “They can level off, but they can also grow in their effectiveness.” And that’s something to watch for.

Barbara Turvett writes and edits for many national magazines. She lives with her husband and seven-year-old daughter in New York City.

View the chart that accompanied this article in print: Dr. Levine's 8 Learning Systems & Your Child

©2003 Adoptive Families. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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