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The Unsuccessful Adolescent

By Melvin D. Levine, M.D. Carl W. Swartz, Ph.D.


The secondary school years represent a significant period of transition for adolescents (Levine, 1988). Students move from pupil-oriented elementary or lower schools to more content-driven secondary school settings. Students with disorders of learning &/or attention can find graduating with a high school diploma increasingly problematic.

Often, students with learning disorders lack the requisite skills for success & therefore aren't ready to meet academic expectations. Moreover, traditional classroom teaching techniques may not be suited to their particular learning strengths & content affinities or interests.

It's becoming readily apparent that within the adolescent age group, traditional criteria & definitions of learning disability fall far short of capturing the actual phenomena that lead to academic failure.

Many of the learning & attentional problems of secondary school students simply don't conform to the subtests of an IQ test or the parameters tapped by traditional group achievement assessments.

Consequently, many struggling adolescents "fall between the cracks" of diagnostic insight. The reasons for their difficulty are misconstrued & commonly they're deprived of needed services & accommodations.

In this chapter we're advocating a substantial broadening of the concept of learning disorder. Our paradigm shift entails the recognition & proper interpretation of clinical phenomena that are readily observable in the classroom. Some of these phenomena may reveal themselves on standardized tests, while others are simply observable within academic contexts.

If a student's patterns of learning & working reveal the presence of one or more such phenomena, that adolescent should be thought to harbor a disorder that's impeding learning &/or academic productivity. The well established phenomenon in & of itself is a legitimate cause for concern & a clear indication for intervention.

Research results suggest many students with learning disorders lack the necessary skills to succeed in general education settings (Deshler, Schumaker, Alley, Warner, & Clark, 1982); perform below the 10th percentile on standardized measures of academic achievement (Warner, Schumaker, Alley, & Deshler, 1980) & lack many of the higher-order thinking skills required of self-directed learners (Schumaker, Deshler, & Ellis, 1986).

Furthermore, increased requisites for students to receive a standard high school diploma may include mastering a second language, completing a mandatory mathematics course such as Algebra 1 & taking 4 years of language arts & sciences.

Such educational reforms undertaken to produce literate & thoughtful citizens (e.g., GOALS 2000, Healthy People2000) may potentially "push our' students who realize early in their high school career that they can't attain such standards tied to a "normal" diploma & other types of diplomas (attendance) aren't worth staying in school. The educational & professional options having a positive life-long impact on these developing adults may be few for students w/disorders of learning & attention.

Results of the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) suggested one option being used by students with high prevalence / low severity learning disorders is dropping out (Wagner, 1991).

Students with learning disabilities had the 2nd highest dropout rate (32%) among exceptional children, included in a representative national survey. The figures reported in the NLTS are conservative estimates of the percentage of students with learning disorders who dropout because students with learning problems who don't meet federal & state guidelines for learning disabilities aren't included.

The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development painted the following bleak economic future for our country & for students who drop-out compared w/students who graduate w/a high school diploma (cf Hamburg, 1992):

  • a. the rate of unemployment is double for students who dropout
  • b. over their lifetime the US loses almost $260 billion in lost earnings & taxes
  • c. a male high school dropout earns $260,000 less & contributes $78,000 less in taxes than males who graduate with a diploma; a female drop-out earns $200,000 less & contributes $60,000 less in taxes than females who graduate.  

Clearly, the percentage of students who dropout of school will have enormous implications for the overall well being of our economy & of our society as a whole.

Parents, adolescents & educators are left grappling with significant educational issues given the multitude of academic, social & behavioral problems that can be associated with learning & attentional disorders.

What are the roles of parents, special & general educators & the students themselves for managing the educational process in the secondary contributing to academic success or failure?

What knowledge & skills should teachers have regarding these students so as to manage more effectively their education, thereby increasing the probability that students will experience success & remain in school?

The magnitude of these issues is increased given the mismatch between the rate at which school districts are adopting & implementing inclusionary models when contrasted with the speed (& quality?) in which pre & in-service teachers are being developed to successfully include all students in their classrooms.

The purpose of this chapter is to present a phenomenological perspective of learning disorders. A phenomenological perspective emphasizes improving classroom teachers' ability to recognize & describe behavior associated with cognitive, behavioral & prevalence / low severity learning disorders.

The purpose of such descriptions is to enhance classroom teachers' social development of students with high prevalence / low severity learning disorders The purpose of such descriptions is to enhance classroom teachers’ ability to manage the education of students with neurodevelopmental variations in the classroom (i.e., selection of accommodations, implementation of direct interventions, modification of classroom materials).  

Recognition of Adolescents's Patterns of Neurodevelopmental Variation

As yet, no definition of learning disabilities has produced a consensus regarding what constitutes a learning disability (Levine, Hooper, Montgomery, Reed, Sandler, Swartz, & Watson, 1993). All definitions of learning disabilities remain relatively vague characterizations emphasizing what a learning disability isn't rather than what a learning disability is (Levine, et al, 1993).

Discrepancy formulas, i.e., are often intended to exclude students with mental retardation or "slow learning" but fail to shed light on the specific forms of learning disability. This has lead to an over reliance on standardized tests of intelligence & achievement to determine eligibility for services without illuminating the wider array of learning disorders that thwart the academic progress of adolescents.

From our perspective, well-educated classroom teachers can derive information about students' learning disorders by analyzing their error patterns & observing their behavior.

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Evidence gathered by classroom teachers, students & parents can supplement information gleaned from tests of intelligence & achievement, thus, providing crucial information aiding in the process of recognizing students' learning strengths & points of cognitive breakdowns.

Importantly, we believe that the information provided by a well-educated teacher(s) can significantly enhance the development & successful implementation of educational management plans that lead to success for adolescents who aren't meeting classroom expectations & whose external defenses & face saving tactics mask serious underlying deficits in academic skills, in cognitive functions & in the strategies needed to facilitate productivity in school.

In this chapter, we'll describe the following 4 common phenomena of dysfunction that teachers & parents of adolescents need to be able to recognize & manage in adolescents:

(a) reduced attentional strength

(b) insufficient memory capacity

(c) superficial comprehension

(d) output problems

The purpose of this section isn't to make readers expert "diagnosticians" but instead to provide examples of phenomena that often obstruct the quest for success as students traverse the bridge from early adolescence to early adulthood.

The Phenomena Associated with reduced attentenional strength

The heightened demands of secondary school curricula can place a strain on adolescents' capacity to attend to the varied sources of input from teachers, instructional materials & peers.

Secondary schools require students to sustain cognitive effort & to concentrate selectively for extended periods. Many adolescents may lack the attentional capacity to differentiate multiple levels of saliency in information & fend off the ever present threat of mental fatigue.

An adolescent's problem attending may be confined to certain contexts (such as highly verbal settings) or the difficulty can be pervasive & manifest itself globally as a deficit in one or more of the following domains:

(a) academics / cognition

(b) behavioral control

(c) social cognition (their ability to establish & maintain relationships w/peers & adults [Levine, 1993]).

Students with reduced attentional capacity in the academic / cognitive domain may feel tired, bored, or restless unless they're focusing on highly stimulating, romantically alluring subject matter or activities 

These students are likely to show signs of insatiability or such an intense desire for highly pleasurable activities that they're unable to delay gratification & focus on less exciting stimuli (such as a lecture in social studies).

Frequently, these students are prone to extremes of distractability & an inability to be highly selective in their attention. They focus on irrelevant detail or distractions & seldom make good determinations of what's important or salient in a task, or a text.

i.e., in reading, they may have a poor sense of what's essential to remember & what's relatively unimportant. Adolescents may also reveal prominent cognitive impulsivity, a tendency to undertake tasks hastily & without sufficient planning. Consequently, many of them are observed to "do things the hard way."

Attentional problems in the academic-cognitive domain may or may not coexist with attentional problems in the behavioral domain. Adolescents with attentional behavior problems seem to be unable to allocate attentional resources to previewing the consequences of their behavior, monitoring their actions or gaining from positive or negative feedback.  

The dilemma for parents & teachers is to decide if the behavioral problems are the primary issues to be dealt with or if these behavioral problems are related to the student's frustrations over failure in the classroom.

Finally, attention problems that manifest themselves in the domain of social cognition can reveal themselves as a student's inability to determine & to deploy appropriately the social skills needed to establish & maintain positive relationships with peers & adults. Adolescents may voice inappropriate comments, impinge on other people's "space" & appear to not have a sense of their negative impact on other people.

The attention deficits of adolescents may elude detection because their manifestations are highly inconsistent. Their difficulties tend to wax & wane. Consequently, during some hours, on some days, or even for weeks, an affected student may have no trouble concentrating, only to deteriorate at any time & for any interval for no apparent reason. Sometimes the test scores over a semester portray such performance inconsistency all too vividly.

Some adolescents with attention deficits show no evidence of other forms of learning disorders; however, the existence of attention deficits in isolation is actually unusual. Most of these students have trouble with other aspects of function, possibly including memory, higher order thinking skills, language, motor function or social development.

Additionally, these students are susceptible to a range of emotional problems, including depression & other form of affective disorder.

It's important to recognize that adolescents with attention deficits are apt to harbor notable strengths. In particular, many of them are highly creative & entrepreneurial. Often they're experiential learners. That is, they're likely to learn most from active participation & direct experience ("on the job training") rather than thru the usual formal modes of academic learning.

The Phenomena Associated with limited memory capacity

The memory demands of secondary school exceed capabilities of many students w/learning disorders. Secondary school curricula place a premium on students' cumulative recall of information (e.g., using information in May that was learned in October), ability to summarize information for oral & written presentations, differentiation of memory skills by content area & by teacher expectations & expectation for metamemory sophistication, or what individual students know about memory & memory processes (Levine & Reed, 1992).

Given the complexity of memory systems, there exist a range of memory dysfunctions that predispose to academic difficulty. We'll describe what we believe to be 4 common adolescent disorders of memory.  

Inadequate entry into short term memory

There are students who endure discrete weaknesses of short-term memory. Some have difficulty "recoding" input by paraphrasing or abbreviating information in lectures & textbooks to allow complex messages to "fit" within the very limited capacity of short-term storage.

Others have highly specific deficits w/the registration of specific modalities of data into short-term memory. Thus, an adolescent may have problems entering visual-spatial information (e.g., from a map), sequential data (e.g., the steps in a math process) or verbal information (e.g., oral directions from the teacher).

Still others fail to employ effective rehearsal strategies (visual imaging, sub-vocalization & self-testing) to facilitate & strengthen entry of information into short-term memory. These students may have trouble studying for tests & acquiring new information or skills during class sessions.

Active Working Memory Dysfunction

Active working memory enables a student to "hold on to" different components or procedures within a task while working on that task. Students w/dysfunctions of active working memory are likely to forget what they're doing while they're doing it. Active working memory is vital during extended periods of writing, while performing mathematics computations & while reading.

An affected adolescent may lose the essence of the beginning of a chapter while reading the subsequent sections. He or she may lose track of a process amid a mathematics problem. The student may forget an idea while trying to recall a specific spelling word or punctuation rule. Students w/active working memory dysfunctions become understandably discouraged & anxious in school. They often have serious problems w/test taking & seem more competent than their performance would indicate.

Slow &/Or Imprecise Retrieval Memory

Much of the secondary school curriculum demands rapid & exact recall of facts & processes. When a student is called on in class, he or she generally has 3 seconds to retrieve a response approximating the answer the teacher requires.

During tests, be it an essay test or a multiple choice / true false test, there's a steady need for the rapid recall of previously learned material. While writing, when time doesn't allow for substantive revision (e.g., timed exam), students must engage in simultaneous retrieval of content knowledge & rules governing written expressions (i.e., they must quickly recall spelling, punctuation, capitalization, vocabulary, facts, ideas & letter formations).

Some students simply can't meet this challenge & exhibit a chronic abhorrence of writing (Levine, Oberklaid, & Meltzer, 1981). Others are delayed in mathematics because of slow or imprecise recall of the facts or algorithms (i.e., procedures, such as how to reduce a fraction); especially when they must recall facts & maintain the flow of the algorithms nearly simultaneously (Levine, Lindsay, & Reed, 1992).

The ultimate attainment for retrieval memory is automatization, the capacity to recall facts or procedures instantaneously w/virtually no expenditure of mental effort. Some secondary school students are simply poorly automated; nothing at all is automatically accessible from memory. If reading decoding isn't automatic for a secondary school student, his comprehension suffers badly. When math facts or computational rules aren't automatic, it's hard to succeed in algebra.

Poor Pattern Recognition

There are some students who have trouble recognizing the patterns that keep recurring within a subject area. They have trouble identifying themes or processes that keep reappearing over an academic year, or within a particular subject domain.

To them, information & class work appears fragmented & lacking in cohesion. i.e., in mathematics it may be hard for them to read a word problem & recognize a pattern within the language of the problem that should cue a particular process.

In reading, these students fail to recognize a theme, image, or character trait that emerges repeatedly in various guises or contexts. Such weaknesses of pattern recognition memory ultimately take their toll on academic performance at the same time that they diminish significantly the likelihood that a student will find the content of school particularly interesting.

Embedded within the dysfunctions of memory is the ever-present role of attention. At any age, but possibly more so in adolescence, attention & memory can interact to potentiate more insidious forms of learning disorders. Are the learning problems manifested in class attributable only to attention deficits? To only memory deficits? Or are the attention deficits undermining a student's memory capacity or vice versa?

The Phenomena Associated W/Superficial Understanding

Adolescents w/learning disorders may proceed thru secondary education in a state of mild to moderate & sometimes even severe, confusion. These are students who have trouble grasping & building cognitive bridges between the facts, ideas, concepts & procedures learned within & across content areas.

Those who appear to gain only a surface level understanding of information may possess hidden language deficits, poor higher-order cognitive skills, including weak formation of concepts & an over reliance on top-down processing, or they may be passive in their approach to learning.

Adolescents w/Poor Language Processing

The academic demands for verbal comprehension, verbal reasoning & verbal expression explode in volume, density, complexity & abstractness during students' transition from early adolescence to adolescence (Montgomery, 1992).

Teenagers w/language deficits can manifest gaps in a number of processes & abilities assumed to be in place by secondary school.

Adolescents w/poor language processing may have difficulty following complex instructions & interpreting extended verbal explanations (i.e., lectures). They commonly harbor basic weaknesses in semantics, sentence processing &/or the capacity to deal w/large chunks of language discourse.

These students may reveal delays in their reading comprehension, major difficulties in foreign language acquisition, problems as well in the verbal aspects of mathematics, including the deciphering of word problems & the mastery of technical vocabulary (Levine et al., 1992). They are prone to serious problems in courses that rely heavily on reading for content (such as history).

There are some adolescents who can process language adequately but at a slow pace; they have trouble "keeping up" w/the rapid constant onslaught of verbal communication in the classroom.

Additionally, many of these students have a weak metalinguistic sense, an incomplete understanding of how language works. They are apt to be confusion over parts of speech, grammatical construction & other formal features of language.

In secondary schools there's a heightened need for students to be able to process abstract figurative language, to comprehend textbooks containing densely packed verbally encoded ideas, to use verbal reasoning skills & to learn a foreign language (Levine & Reed, 1992). There is a lack of well trained professionals w/a background in this. The critical role of language progression during adolescence is poorly appreciated.

There exists a dearth of appropriate diagnostic tools & adolescent language development (both normal & dysfunctional). Moreover, research into the language disabilities of secondary school students has been sparse.  

Adolescents w/Incomplete Conceptualization

Concepts are broad ideas that categorize the phenomena that keep recurring in any subject area. Examples include:

  • "balanced equation" in mathematics
  • "photosynthesis" in science
  • "right wing" in a social studies class
  • "conjugation" in foreign language
  • sonata form" in a music class

Some students struggle in vain with the concepts in one or more secondary school subject areas. In particular, they're likely to have trouble with the ever-growing array of abstract concepts, those concepts that don't contain any direct sensory references.

Such students are often described by their teachers as overly "concrete." Their conceptual understanding is incomplete or tenuous. They may over rely on prototypes, believing (or hoping) that if they can cite an example, they must understand the concept.

A student might know that the United States is a democracy without really grasping the components of government that constitute the concept of "democracy." In mathematics, a student may over rely on rote memory, deploying a so-called "algorithmic approach" to problem solving. She or he may be able to solve equations without really knowing what equations are. Such tenuous grasping inevitably leads to academic deterioration.

Adolescents With Extreme Top-Down Processing

Students who are extreme in their top-down processing are often very creative & imaginative. However, they have difficulty focusing on relevant details. They keep imposing or superimposing their own ideas, rich associations & values over what they're hearing, observing, reading, or discussing.

Adolescents who over rely on top-down processing are likely to have difficulty in highly convergent subject domains, those courses where there tends to be only one correct answer to a question or only a single acceptable interpretation of a situation. These adolescents often do poorly on multiple choice tests & can be very distressed when they receive their SAT scores.  

Adolescents with Passive Learning Approaches

Some adolescents are conspicuously inactive in their approach to learning. Within the classroom their minds seem to be inert. They fail to associate new information with what they already know.

They tend to be non-elaborative in their thinking & speaking in school. Very little intellectual content is of any interest to them. Their understanding is constricted & they tend to equate learning with memorization.

Some of these students with passive learning approaches may show attentional dysfunction as well; that is, they seem to have too little mental energy to partake actively in the learning process.

The Phenomena Associated With Reduced Or Inefficient Output

The expectations of secondary school curriculum demand ever-increasing quantities of self-directed academic productivity. Adolescents must not only learn to learn, they must also work & learn to work!

The demands of output include increasing amounts of a wide-range of writing genres, such as:

  • argumentative/persuasive essays
  • compare & contrast formats
  • original works of fiction & non-fiction

each emphasizing students' ability to analyze, synthesize & evaluate differing perspectives about history, literature & culture.

These important higher-order cognitive functions can stress the still developing or yet-to-be developed systems, that comprise students':

  • attentional strength
  • memory capacity
  • comprehension level
  • problem-solving facility

organizational function developmental output demands placed on adolescents.

Written Output Failure

There may be no more complex school-related activity than writing (Levine, 1987). The myriad of interdependent & recursive cognitive processes & sub-processes required to represent knowledge on paper (see Flower & Hayes, 1981; Hayes & Flower, 1986; Levine et al., 1993; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986) may make it the most cognitively expensive performance- based task; yet it's the single most commonly used activity to evaluate competence in secondary schools, if not at all grade levels.

Presently, schools are adopting performance based assessment tests comprised of open-ended items that students respond to by "thinking on paper," where generating a product (correct answer) isn't weighed as heavily as the process (procedures, thought processes) used to arrive at the product.

Such forms of evaluation will no doubt discriminate against students with "output problems" by underestimating their competency. These adolescents often can partake of activities requiring high-order thinking skills, but they may need to express these skills thru non-traditional means, such as producing a piece of art work that captures the essence of a poem instead of a written essay that reflects an interpretation of the poem.

Developmental written output failure can be associated with various underlying dysfunctions. Students whose writing is labored, slow & poorly legible may have graphomotor dysfunction which manifests itself in various forms of fine motor incoordination during writing that make it difficult for their fingers to keep pace with the flow of their ideas (Levine, et al., 1981).

The effort of transcribing thoughts to paper can functionally undermine thinking & the use of sophisticated language during the writing process (Levine et al., 1993).

Written output failures are also exhibited by students with memory dysfunctions (see above), language difficulties (see below) & organizational problems (see below).

In addition, the higher-order deficits, such as in:

  • problem-solving ability
  • social cognition
  • planning & revising strategies

can make it difficult for students to select topics & produce coherent & cohesive text (Hayes & Flower, 1986).

Disorders of written output can have a profound psychological effect on an adolescent who is prone to become discouraged & anxious about performance in school perhaps so anxious about school performance as to cease being productive at all.

Expressive Language Dysfunction

There are many students who have difficulty meeting the high expectations for expressive language fluency (of which written output is one form).

Many language processing activities require the apportionment of capacity from different cognitive processes (Montgomery, 1992). Classroom teachers can recognize adolescents who may have expressive language dysfunction by observing students who have difficulty communicating their ideas during class discussions, on paper, or both.

These adolescents are at-risk for academic & social problems (Montgomery, 1992). Montgomery (1992) stated that research results are mixed as to delineating causal mechanisms underlying language impairments in adolescents.

Deficits in expressive language have been associated with:

  • difficulties in social conversational abilities
  • word retrieval during conversation & written expression
  • the cohesiveness & coherence of narrative text

Affected students may live in constant apprehension over the prospect of being called upon in class!

Organizational Problems

Secondary schools require adolescents to be extremely efficient & effective organizers of:

  • time & materials
  • textbooks
  • homework
  • pencils, papers, pens

must all arrive at 6-7 different classrooms at the appointed times to be used in classes led by teachers with different expectations for performance & behavior.

Adolescents can have temporal-sequential deficits, or an inability to estimate, allocate, stage & monitor progress towards completion of activities, that undermine efficient management of time.

Many adolescents with temporal sequential deficits have trouble making use of stepwise approaches to task completion; they try to think of what to do as they're in the process of completing a task.

Instead, students need to plan or preview what the final product may look like, generate multiple alternative strategies that could be used to complete the task, select one strategy, start the task, monitor progress & quality of the product & modify the strategy or select another when it's no longer facilitating goal attainment.

Adolescents can often benefit from an adult or a peer who will provide "expert scaffolding," or the provision of help, for the purpose of structuring the timing & sequencing of activities (see Palinscar & Brown, 1984).

The goal should be to model these covert cognitive processes approached for the student to utilize him/herself during problem-solving tasks.

Other students will experience problems organizing materials for school. Notebooks, desks at home, lockers, assignment journals & other "props" are simply difficult to manage. These students "lose" many possessions, have difficulty knowing &/or organizing materials to take home or bring back to school & surround themselves with hopelessly disorganized work areas & lockers.


Some phenomena that impair learning & attention in adolescents have been presented in a compartmentalized, linear fashion. In reality these phenomena associated with negative school-related outcomes never operate in isolation.

Importantly from a developmental perspective, all cognitive processes are highly interdependent & can influence each other's development & refinement. i.e., an early adolescent may possess attentional strengths but weak memory capacity during middle school that over time functionally undermines existent attentional strength.

This student's inability to continue to use developed attentional processes during middle school may result in weak attentional strength & reduced memory capacity in high school. In fact, by the time students reach secondary school age it may be very difficult, if not futile, to identify single dimensions of cognition that cause learning problems.

That is, is a student's negative performance related only to deficits in attention, memory, language, or a combination of two, or a combination of three?

Furthermore, a unitary explanation for learning & attention deficits implies a single treatment strategy.


What are teachers, parents & adolescents left to do regarding the management of the phenomena underlying underachievement given the complexity of these learning & attentional disorders & the limitations of standardized tests for illuminating subtle & sometimes hidden learning problems?

First, the phenomenological approach to learning disorders requires teachers to be well educated in adolescent cognitive & social development. Teachers need to be keen developmentalists especially about the phenomena relating to areas such as:

  • attention
  • memory
  • language
  • higher-order cognition 
  • output

Second, well-educated teachers should apply this knowledge using as observational tools to record prospectively relevant dimensions of performance.

Additionally, teachers should engage their knowledge in skillful analyses of students' error patterns. Teachers can gather their evidence, including reports from the parent(s) & the student & draw inferences regarding the functional status of a struggling adolescent.

Third, teacher(s), parents & students need to collaborate in a process of formulating, monitoring & evaluating the effectiveness of educational management techniques that lead to academic achievement, social skill development & enhanced self-concept.

Optimal management must include "demystification" of the phenomena associated with negative school-related outcomes & may include use of accommodations that "by-pass" the problematic areas &/or direct cognitive interventions that instruct students about the covert processes underlying school related outcomes.

Demystification of the Phenomena

Educating students about their learning strengths, weaknesses & affinities is based on the premise that students must begin to understand the mysterious processes underlying learning & the nature of their differences as a precondition of intervention.

Students' inclusion in the process of management grows in importance as they grow older; it's futile to attempt to intervene in this age range if adolescents don't have a firm grasp on the nature of their cognitive assets & shortcomings (Levine, 1993).

The purpose of demystification is to educate students about their own unique patterns of ability using non-threatening, non-moralistic & jargon-free vocabulary & examples. It's hoped that such teaching can relieve students of negative attributions for their success & failure in the classroom & fantasies ("I'm dumb!') about themselves commonly associated with low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness & loss of motivation in children & adolescents with learning & attentional disorders (Borkowski, Weyhing, & Carr, 1988; Sabatino, 1982; Swartz, Purdy, & Fullingim, 1983).

Accommodating To The Phenomena

One component of the educational management plan may be the formulation of "by-pass" techniques. The purpose of using by-pass techniques is to change the nature of tasks to minimize the negative impact of inadequately developed cognitive processes underlying school-related outcomes (i.e., long division, writing).

Such techniques demand flexibility & compassion on the part of teachers.

Generally, accommodations take the following forms:

(a) rate adjustment, or modifying the speed in which information is taken in & the speed in which output is expected to be produced

(b) volume adjustment. or modifying the ideational density of information taken in or amount expected to be produced

(c) complexity adjustment, or modifying the number of steps to be remembered within a procedure, reducing the linguistic demands of instruction

(d) devices, or the use of props (i.e., calculators, word processors). Instructional decisions regarding the use of accommodations, individually or in combination with others, is a function of the student's profile of neurodevelopmental strengths & weaknesses & the teacher's understanding of their interactions with components of specific tasks.

An adolescent who produces very little written output on paper, but who is very eloquent & sophisticated in her verbal output during discussions & then transcribing it to paper.

If this by-pass technique isn't possible, the teacher can reduce the complexity of the writing task by encouraging the student to write the initial draft of her paper without regard to spelling, punctuation & grammatical structure of the sentences & paragraphs.

The teacher will then evaluate only the quality of the ideas contained in the initial draft; the teacher will evaluate other mechanical aspects of the essay in later drafts. This process may require the teacher to make adjustments in her expectations for when the student will turn in the final paper. But, the teacher will be evaluating an essay that more closely approximates this student's competence.  

Interventions to Strengthen Weaknesses

Intervention research with children & adolescents w/learning & attentional disorders has had a mixed history. Kavale (1990, 1993) laments the past shortcomings of intervention research because "little agreement has emerged about the value of an intervention much less insight in how & why it works" (p.6 [Kavale, 1990]).

Teachers don't know which students will benefit from participation in intensive intervention programs. This problem is primarily due to researchers who provide inadequate descriptions of the samples of students they're studying & the lack of well-controlled experimental settings. The former limits generalizability of findings to individual students while the latter limits transferability of teaching strategies to classrooms.

Regardless of such a less than optimistic perspective on the effectiveness of direct interventions & intervention research, a growing empirical knowledge base suggests that students with  learning & attentional disorders can benefit from direct instruction in the covert cognitive processes (such as strategy use) underlying many school-related outcomes (i.e., reading comprehension, narrative story writing). The purpose of direct interventions is to improve students' self- regulation of information processing, behavior & personal relationships.

i.e., a student with developmental written output failure may possess relatively intact attention, memory, language skills & higher-order cognition based on his teacher's classroom observations, analyses of error patterns & student self-reports. The student's weakness may lie in his tenuous understanding of the writing process (planning, translating, reviewing) &/or how his unique neurodevelopmental profile of strengths & weaknesses interacts with writing tasks (e.g., interaction between active working memory & transcribing ideas at the same time he's trying to use rules of syntax).

The adolescent student may benefit from direct instruction in the writing process thru a cognitive behavioral writing intervention. The purpose of the intervention is to improve the student's knowledge & skillful use of planning strategies (idea generation & organization), decisions about the time line for translating ideas into sentences & paragraphs (initially attending to meaning then attending to other text features such as punctuation, spelling & grammar) & reviewing strategies (evaluating the cohesiveness & coherence of the text, comprehensibility of the text & revision strategies that improve the quality of the essay).

First, the teacher needs to demystify the student about his profile of strengths & weaknesses & then introduce the writing strategy.

Second, the teacher should make covert thought processes underlying the writing process overt by verbalizing his thoughts & decisions during his modeling of how to write an essay. Initially, the student is likely to overtly verbalizing his thoughts & decisions & over time sub-vocalize his writing strategies. Finally, the student should self-regulate the writing process with no overt behavior. Depending on the status of the student, this process may take weeks, months, or the whole school year.

Conversation of Adolescents

A byproduct of a phenomenological perspective for recognizing & managing adolescent underachievement has at the core of its philosophy the conservation of individual variation among students. It assumes that all adolescents want to succeed in high school & that they want to be successful adults.

It's important to recognize that the abilities needed for success as n adult differ markedly from those functions that are requisites for accomplished performance in secondary school.

Moreover, the adult world values & needs diverse kinds of minds. We must overcome the irrational drive to homogenize young people.

Teachers, parents, clinicians & policy makers must strive to preserve developmental differences rather than to punish or discriminate against them by imposing needlessly rigid expectations during a critical period when maturing nervous systems are working overtime to define their individuality.

Unsuccessful Behavior

by Karl W. Palachuk

www.relaxfocussucceed.com Copyright Karl W.Palachuk. Used with Permission.

A great deal of attention is given to successful behavior.  And rightfully so. We want to know how to be successful how to think positively, how to bring happiness to ourselves & others.


It's also useful to examine the opposite behavior - what you might call “unsuccessful behavior.”  This is the behavior that hinders success in yourself & others. It includes actions, reactions & attitude influence.


Unsuccessful actions are specific behaviors that have a negative influence on the success of individuals or organizations. The worst examples are gossip & back-biting at work. Unsuccessful reactions are less obvious than are our “negative” reactions to our environment. As a rule they're reactions we don't intentionally create. 


i.e., when a co-worker is given a promotion, you might feel jealous. You think this is an unintentional reaction. In fact it's only unintentional because you let it be. If you stop & think & consider the situation, you should have a different reaction. Jealousy contributes nothing positive to any situation. It's a reaction that leads away from success instead of toward success.


Unsuccessful attitudes are the predispositions of biases we have that lead us away from successful actions & reactions. If you tell yourself that “everyone” in a certain department is an untalented suck-up, your behavior will reflect your attitude.


I once worked with a secretary who jealously guarded what she considered “her” territory.  She believed that people were trying to take away pieces of her job. Eventually, of course, she feared that her job would be taken away altogether. When she went on vacation, it was almost impossible to use her desk. 


The stapler, tape dispenser & post-it notes were locked inside the desk. We couldn’t even find here wastebasket! In an attempt to defend what was “hers,” she made it difficult for others to step in to her position.


Her attitude & actions didn't contribute to the successful operation of the office. In fact, they contributed to the perception that she was a bit odd, which in turn didn’t help her future prospects.


Changing your attitude can be very difficult. Changing your actions & reactions is a bit easier. Changing these unsuccessful behaviors in others is almost impossible. Basically, people have to change themselves.


The good news is that we're social creatures & we're affected by those around us. So, if you change your unsuccessful behaviors into successful behaviors the people around you will see this & may follow suit.


What do you change in your life?  The answer is different for each of us.  First, you need to increase your awareness of your unsuccessful behavior.  The first level of awareness is the most important:  Right now, what behavior do you think you need to change?  Write it down.  Just one or two items is all you need.


Now, as you go thru your week, try to be aware of these behaviors. Then, as you get used to seeing the situations & actions that accompany these unsuccessful behaviors, you can start to change them. 


Start small. Change a little at a time. We're all tempted to “become a new person” & want to do it all at once. Relax. You have the rest of your life to fine-tune. 


One simple small thing might be to just stand & listen when co-workers begin to complain. Don’t participate. Don’t contribute.  Perhaps even change the subject.

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Unsuccessful Behavior

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