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Why Smart Kids Struggle

  • Written by Erica Peterson, Campus Manager, Dartmoor School
We all know those kids. The student with 3000 songs on his iPod who can sing the lyrics to every song from memory, but can’t recall the year of the American Revolution.  The student who can glibly discourse with her friends, parents and teachers all day, but will hardly put two sentences together on paper. The student who can master a video game within 48 hours of its release, but can’t master spelling to save her life. It’s easy for baffled parents and educators to become frustrated with the students whose obvious intellectual gifts contrast so starkly with their academic outcomes.  Are these kids just lazy? Why don’t they succeed at school?

Dr. Mel Levine, founder of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, believes that student success, or lack thereof, is a lot easier to understand when we grasp what being smart really means. Drawing together research from neuroscience, cognitive psychology and child development, Levine has developed a framework for understanding intelligence as a conglomeration of discrete mental skills. He identifies eight categories of cognitive abilities that provide a detailed portrait of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. The first category has to do with skills that relate to attention, such as the ability to filter out distractions, the ability to sustain focus on one thing, and the ability to inhibit one’s impulses. Similarly, the memory category contains skills that determine how well a student can store, retrieve, and juggle pieces of information.  Three important categories have to do with the mental skills necessary to effectively take in and organize information: spatial ordering, temporal-sequential ordering, and higher cognition.  Two more categories deal with how a student handles specific types of especially complex information — language and movement. A final category of mental skills called social cognition relates abilities that allow students to get along with people.

Naturally, all of these diverse mental abilities are required for the complex tasks carried out in a school setting, but not every student has equal measures of aptitude in each area. Consider the dilemma faced by a student who has excellent abstract reasoning alongside weak impulse inhibition and an inability to regulate the speed and quantity of her written output. Such a student may have brilliant insights into the latest work of literature studied by her English class and a terrible grade on her term paper simply because she had a hard time keeping her paper focused and she couldn’t finish it fast enough to meet the deadline.

When we see students whose brilliance belies their grades, we can avoid a lot of heartache and frustration by taking the time to investigate exactly where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Often times, these students have unusually divergent skills, developing highly refined talents in some areas compromised by much lesser abilities elsewhere.

When we understand exactly what type of problem a student may be experiencing, we can turn a frustrating situation into an opportunity to grow.

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