Mel Levine, formally Melvin D Levine

Levine, formally Melvin D Levine

American Pediatrician, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founder of All Kinds of Minds, Author

Author Quotes

Be realistic; don’t aim to educate a “well-rounded child.” Expecting children to be good at everything puts unhealthy pressure on them. “No adult can do this,” Levine has argued, “so we shouldn’t expect it for our children.” Figure out what strengths your child has and develop those strengths. Every child has a different learning style. Build them up with success. “Success is like a vitamin,” Dr. Levine has said. “If you don’t get enough of it growing up, you’ll suffer a very severe deficiency that could have long-term impacts in your life.” Pay attention to those areas in which your child may have problems, such as sound differentiating, lapses in motor skills, or information processing.

I would really agree that that infrastructure for reading needs to be present, that people go through critical periods when certain kinds of perceptions, certain kinds of internalizations are occurring. As you mentioned, certainly during the early stages of reading acquisition, even a little before that, the programming of the language sounds becomes critical. At any rate, I would certainly agree that these basic language sounds, all kinds of things can spin off of them, especially when that's not being internalized by a child. In the mildest forms, for example, you can find a kid who has mild difficulty with phonological awareness, who has a little bit of trouble but not much trouble learning how to read. But then his parents move from Mexico to El Paso, Texas, and he's having a huge amount of trouble doing well in school in El Paso. Why? Because he never fully internalized the Spanish sound system and now he's having a huge amount of trouble superimposing a second sound system over a first one that never got all the way in. That's a very common problem in immigrant kids who are bilingual and it shows you how this has major ramifications since we have so many bilingual children now. When we go back and look at the way they were in their first country, many of them were not very good linguists with their native language. My only bias is that I, in my research and teaching and program development and so on, look way beyond reading. Reading is just one aspect of performance, in my opinion. It's certainly a vital one, but it's not the only one. If a person can't read well but has terrific artistic and social skills, that minimizes the impact of the reading problem. So, I don't like to think that reading is the end-all and really the only way to be a winner in one's intellectual life because I encounter an awful lot of kids whom I've now watched grow up who have been extraordinarily successful and still aren't very good at reading. So, I think it's important not to blow it out of proportion, and in particular, not to say that if reading goes well everything else will go well, and not to believe that the only important developmental issue we have to be examining is how well kids can read. I would argue how well they can organize, how well they can brainstorm and generate ideas, how well they can relate to other people are going to be more important in life than how well they read. I'm not putting down reading, but I worry sometimes when reading becomes considered sine qua non of competency in school.

If I see a kid who doesn't express himself well, he has trouble with oral language and I speculate could it be because he comes from such a poor environment, he really may be impoverished, could it be for some other reason? It's not going to affect my treatment. I've got to build his oral language skills because it's causing him a lot of difficulty that he has trouble expressing himself. On the other hand, I saw a little girl in Harlem who was having a lot of trouble with expressive language in middle school. After we evaluated her and found that she was a really bright kid who had so many strengths, really good spatially, good socially, fantastic motorically, had all kinds of strengths in her profile but getting thoughts into language, particularly literate school kind of thoughts was really hard for this girl. Well, I met with the principal of the school, and I explained to him what her problem was. He leaned back in his chair and said, "Mel, that's terrific. I'm glad you helped us with her." He said, "But guess what?" I said, "What?" He said, "You just described seventy percent of the kids in this school." And I said, "What are you doing about it?" He kind of shrugged his shoulders and I said, "Well, if I were you, I would just have a major campaign in this school emphasizing loads of oral presentations and we're going to build those expressive language muscles. We're not going to write these kids off and say they're supposed to have expressive language problems." So, I think when it comes to looking for the mechanism for something, it has preventive implications rather than therapeutic ones. It has policy implications rather than clinical ones, in a sense. So, if I see a student, I've got to diagnose what specific breakdown in language production she has. Is it word finding? Is it sentence formulation? Are there some articulation issues? I've got to really pinpoint where her language breakdown is and work on it. I don't think I have to go back and speculate could it be her mother's fault, her father's fault, her early childhood? In her case, I just want to fix it. On the other hand, if we had a group of kids, if seventy percent of kids in a school are having trouble like this then we want to say what are we doing in our culture and in our society that we can do something about to foster these critical abilities of verbal expression? Then we might say we need to start early. So, I think understanding the mechanisms has tremendous preventive and policy implications and curricular implications for all kids.

I think it's important to realize that poverty is going to have it's most deleterious effects on wiring that was a bit weak to begin with; that it will bring out someone's vulnerability. But if some kid is beautifully endowed for language, even in a deprived environment he can become a reader. The other thing I want to point out is I think sometimes we tend to overemphasize phonology and phonemic awareness as the key to all reading. I mean, the research that's been done in phonology and phonemic awareness is extraordinary. I think it's the best research that's been done in our field. On the other hand, there's a tendency sometimes to think that that's the mechanism for all reading problems. We see some kids, I just saw a boy yesterday in fact, who had difficulty reading because he can't deal with linear chunks of information, anything that comes in a linear chunk. If you watch them spell, they get the first two letters right and the last two letters right and mess up the middle. Many of them are very good artists when it comes to gestalt and configuration, but they have trouble remembering patterns that are arranged linearly. In our clinical work we have met an awful lot of kids who have superb phonological awareness, excellent phonemic awareness, and they can't read. So, there are other mechanisms, although it may be the phonologic one is the most common. The other thing we see are an awful lot of kids who can decode but can't comprehend well. They really didn't have a lot of trouble with word identification but they're having big trouble with reading comprehension, especially in middle school and beyond. Some of these are students who read in a very passive mode. While they're reading bells are not ringing in their minds. A really good reader, when he reads something, should be getting into a dialogue with the author. Things should be resonating. There should be, in a sense, a very active process going on. We have a whole bunch of kids whom we see who are passive processors and they're getting nothing out of reading because they process everything passively, particularly things that have language in them. But they have good phonological awareness. There's another group of kids who have trouble with what we call saliency determination; that when text gets particularly large they can't sort out what's important and what isn't important. They can't do it in math either and they can't do it in a lot of other areas of their lives. They have trouble really teasing out key ideas, key words. They feel overwhelmed when they read. I hear from a child like that, "I get to the end of the chapter, and I have no idea what I just read." There are also kids who have trouble with reading because they have trouble relating what they're reading to their prior knowledge and experience. So much of reading comprehension involves access to what you already know and comparing the new stuff to what's already there. And for some kids, that's exceedingly difficult. They may be having trouble remembering math facts, too. We always look at what else is affected as a way of coming back and explaining the reading breakdown. We also see kids who have trouble understanding what they read but they're forgetting what they're reading while they're reading it. We call that an active working memory dysfunction. As one little girl told me in a TV show we made, she said, "Every time I read a sentence, it erases the one before it." So my job as a clinician is to take a kid that's not reading, and say where is the breakdown occurring? Is it the phonological level? Is it some sort of a pattern recognition issue? Is it a process of passive reading? Is this a kid who can't engage in saliency determination? Is this a child whose basic sentence comprehension is so weak that he can't understand sentences when he reads them? He doesn't really perceive the effects of word order on meaning and grammatical construction, and how all that works. Is it a kid who doesn't have prior knowledge or doesn't have access to prior knowledge that he really does have, but he can't access it fast enough and in a precise enough way while he's reading? So, I think the issues with reading are complex. There's sometimes a tendency in this field to oversimplify things and equate, which we would never do in medicine, equate a symptom with a diagnosis. Can't read? Must be phonological. I would say it might be phonological.

I think I do see some very interesting ripple effects when kids are not acquiring reading skills. For example, it might be that a particular child in fourth grade is having difficulty keeping pace with reading comprehension or with decoding and because he's having trouble with reading he hates to read, and when he does read he gets almost nothing out of it because he's reading very passively. And because he's reading very passively he's not able to use reading as a way of building his language abilities. So, what oddly happens is that his language problems caused his reading problems, and his reading problems are now causing much more aggravated language problems. Those language problems, in turn, are going to make it hard for him to follow directions, communicate well with other people, and even use language inside his mind for some verbal mediation. Verbal mediation is the process through which you regulate your behavior and feelings by talking to yourself. And believe it or not, a lot of kids with language problems really don't use language as a way of regulating themselves. What does that mean? That means they're much more vulnerable if someone offers them cocaine to take that cocaine. They get in trouble, they get depressed because they don't have a voice inside that says, "Yeah, I could take that medicine, I could take that drug from that kid and he'd think I'm a cool dude. But oh, if I take it I could like wreck my brain and I could get addicted, and my mother will kill me if she finds out, and I could get arrested." All of that comes out of language, that sort of verbal conscience that's guiding you. So, if you go all the way back to the language problem and say, yeah, it's causing a reading problem, and the reading problem is causing a language problem, and the language problem is causing a behavior problem, and the fact that this kid can't read and other people around him can read much better is eroding his self-esteem and making him feel pretty worthless. He better find other guys in town who have the same feelings and have similar reading difficulties, together they can form a gang or a cult, get in trouble, act macho, and form their own society that really is going to be self-destructive and cost our society a lot. Those are the ripple effects.

I think there's a much wider spectrum of differences in learning than we ever thought. I think it's a mistake just to focus on reading and believe somehow that how someone reads is the total revelation of their wiring. I think there are so many other aspects to differences in learning that have real long-term implications, ranging from how fluently a person is able to speak to how well a person can read faces and pick up social feedback cues to relate well to other people; the ability to manage time and organize materials; the ability to brainstorm and think critically; the ability to engage in evaluative thinking, sort of critical thinking. There are enormous differences between kids in their capacities to mobilize these different areas of performance that are going to relate to school success and beyond that. So, I think I, probably more than most other people, have a much broader definition of what a learning disorder might be and what the differences in learning might be. It's one reason I have trouble labeling someone and saying he’s LD and another person is not LD because I include all kinds of differences in learning in my area of concern for an individual.

I don't deny the importance of environmental issues and cultural issues and family issues in shaping a mind. I think the fascinating thing is to see the interaction between the two, between someone's environment and early learning experiences on the one hand, and that basic wiring that individual was born with, and how that's going to be conditioned over time. I think we have to keep combining nature and nurture. I think we have to realize that children who are exposed to some kind of intellectual atmosphere, who can see the romance of acquiring knowledge, are in a much better position to learn effectively than those for whom somehow learning doesn't fit in any context and seems somewhat irrelevant for them. I so vividly remember when I was about four years old, my brother and sister coming home from school and opening the mail and reading what was in the mail. I was so intensely jealous that they could break the code and that I could never figure out what was in those envelopes. I had the sense there were all kinds of secrets there and they could find out the secrets, and because I couldn't read I had no way of accessing that secret information. It really intensely aggravated me when I was four years old and I couldn't wait to learn how to read. I also watched my father read the newspaper every night and talk about it, and reading seemed to be romantically attractive that all the incentives were there. It happened in other academic areas as well. I think we have to really emphasize to the parents that somehow they have to cultivate an appetite for skill and for knowledge as soon as possible in life.

Question: What are the spectrum of reasons or causes for the variations of differences that we have as minds? Answer: As a pediatric existentialist, I never ask why. I don't know why I am the way I am. And in fact, I think schools, and sometimes clinicians and others, waste an enormous amount of time asking the why question. Is it genetic? Is it because she had all those ear infections as a baby? Is it the parents' fault? Is it the school's fault? I would rather we divert as much of our thinking and resources as possible to very precisely understanding how somebody is, rather than speculating on the why question, which you can never prove or disprove in an individual case anyway.

The other thing about learning disabilities is how do you decide what's a learning disability and what isn't it? Is a problem with time management a learning disability? What’s more important than a spelling problem?

What's a disability at one age could turn out to be a strength at another age. So for example, if you're a kid who has a lot of trouble with subjects in school that have a tremendous amount of detail in them because your mind just balks at detail, you are a big-picture kid. You love conceptualizing and generalizing and speculating, and being creative and brainstorming but you can't stand little details. We see a lot of kids like that. That could turn out to be a huge problem in terms of your reading scores when you're a kid and it will also probably be the reason you're the CEO someday. So, is that a disability or is that a difference? Also, I'm convinced that many kids who are said to have learning disabilities have something else we really have to reckon with called highly specialized minds. In the adult world, the more specialized your mind is, the better. When you're a kid, you're supposed to be well-rounded. I think that's a silly expectation.

To me, learning is a kind of amalgam of two things: understanding and remembering. Then I could have some subheadings - maybe I should even say three things: understanding, remembering and utilizing. Schools, and many kids unfortunately, have come to think that learning is memorizing.

If you're chronically anxious it can affect your memory in school, and therefore, your test performance. If you have memory problems in school it can make you chronically anxious and depressed. It's a two-way street and it keeps going back and forth. We’re also trying to get people away from saying which one is it mainly? Well, which caused which? It ends up just being something that exposes your biases. We used to joke around about the fact that when we referred a kid to a clinician like a psychiatrist or a psychologist for services and you got a report back, you didn't have to open the envelope. Just look at the return address and you know what the diagnosis is because people have their pet diagnoses. They call everybody depressed or everybody emotionally disturbed or ADD at the door.

I always tell people that from the moment a kid gets up in the morning until he goes to sleep at night, the central mission of the day is to avoid humiliation at all costs.

We're seeing an epidemic of people who are having a hard time making the transition to work — kids who had too much success early in life and who've become accustomed to instant gratification, ... Ready or Not, Here Life Comes.

To deny a developing mind access to its specialty is cruel. To judge one's worthiness in the specialties of others is equally inhuman.

Everyone is expected to be highly productive... but they do not all need to be turning out the same product.

Teachers should evaluate and reward students for the way they went about doing something as much as for the right answer or a stellar essay.

What I've tried to do... is create a whole model that got away from test scores and avoided labels like LD (learning disabled) or ADD (attention-deficit disorder), and use a profile of strengths and weaknesses.

To treat everyone the same is to treat them unequally.

Success is a vitamin that every kid must take in order to thrive during his or her school years. We, as teachers and parents, must make sure that this critical learning "supplement" is available to all students. All Kinds of Minds believes that embracing the unique set of ideas and practices that follow will increase our odds of succeeding at this essential task.

In general, kids have very little tolerance for humiliation or failure. One of a student's most important goals is to make it through the day without embarrassment. Imagine then, the frustration of children with differences in learning, who are at risk of growing up deprived of experiencing success. Naturally, they compare themselves to their peers and siblings. While some may see themselves as "different," many will feel inferior. Unfortunately, these feelings are likely to endure. When they do, serious complications can develop including plummeting self- esteem, behavior problems, excessive dependence on peers, alienation from family, deep anxiety, and a loss of motivation. The sad reality is that a difference in learning, not addressed as such, can lead to anti-social behavior, substance abuse, dropping out, and other serious forms of maladjustment.

Yet these types of responses to children with learning differences are all too common. The fact is that these kids often have good minds with real and obvious intellectual strengths. However, they suffer from what is often subtle dysfunction - patterns of brain wiring that makes certain aspects of learning exceedingly difficult. These children are highly vulnerable - and they're slipping through the cracks.

All of these individuals may be unaware that the "wiring" of a child's brain simply is not in sync with the demands of the situations at hand. Telling a student "You can do better" doesn't help particularly when he has done his best to no avail. Criticizing him for an inability to complete a particular task in a particular way, similarly, is ineffective -not to mention inappropriate. And humiliating him inadvertently, in private or in public, for circumstances beyond his control is simply hurtful and unnecessary.

Too many kids struggle and fail needlessly simply because the way in which they learn is incompatible with the way they’re being taught. Schools are filled with kids who give up on themselves, are convinced they’re "losers", and conclude they’re just dumb. It’s tragic. It’s also painful—painful for the student, teacher and parent who may be unaware that the "wiring" of that child’s brain simply is not in synch with the demands and expectations of the situations at hand.

Fortunately, all kids' minds have the potential for great growth.

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Levine, formally Melvin D Levine
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American Pediatrician, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founder of All Kinds of Minds, Author