07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Smart Kids Can Do Poorly in School

Every week I speak with parents who call me looking for answers to their sons and daughter's troubles in school. Halfway into these conversations many parents stop and say, "It is amazing how much you seem to understand our situation. It's like you already know us." In many respects, I do already know them. I know them because their situations are not unique. I have heard the same story, with the same emotions and the same symptomatic descriptions repeatedly, week after week, month after month:

She is struggling and can't quite keep up.

It's not that he is failing; he is just not shining anywhere.

I know she can do better. She wants to do better.

I am afraid if we don't do something, we are going to lose her.

He used to enjoy school. Now it all bores him.

I know these children because they are everywhere and they keep coming. The growing industry around labeling and treating children with specific learning disabilities should be everyone's concern. It is difficult to know just how many children are labeled as having a learning disability, but estimates are that one in every five children is referred to educational testing at some time in his or her pre-K-12th-grade career.

There is much emotion and confusion around the topic of learning disabilities today. You've felt it, haven't you? Since you were first confronted with the idea that your child was not keeping up, you have felt like you are on a rollercoaster ride. Between the conversations with family members who each offer different advice and the special meetings at the school with teachers (who despite their best good intentions, don't seem to understand what you are going through) you have felt the weariness of not knowing what is going on and the apprehension about figuring it all out.

On the school's recommendation, you've been to the doctor, although on your way there you wondered if it was necessary. You considered a psychologist, and all the while questioned whether or not anything was really wrong with your child.

The one thing that all parents share in common with this experience is that once they realize things are not quite right, it is extremely difficult to find the answers -- the answers that are as unique as your child. And to make matters worse, while you are looking for answers, time keeps marching on. School doesn't stop and wait while you try to figure it all out. Your child doesn't stop and wait. Your boss doesn't call you in to the office and say, "Kerry, I know you are having trouble figuring out what is going on with your daughter, why don't you take a few day paid leave to sort through this."

'Even if your boss did say that, this is not a problem that can be resolved in a short time.

The reality is that many smart kids do poorly in school.

In February 2001, The New York Times published a memorable article about a scientific study by a group of psychologists. The group claimed to have done an "exhaustive" review of Winnie-the-Pooh literature and then catalogued and diagnosed a range of clinical, personality, and psychological disorders among the major characters in the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Their study, called the Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A. A. Milne, was one in which the authors describe the various deficiencies of each character. Pooh, for example, has impulsivity issues signaling ADHD, which is compounded by his addiction to honey. For him, they prescribe Ritalin and adherence to the Zone diet. Piglet, they contend, is beset by generalized anxiety disorder and may benefit from a low dose of paroxetine. Owl, though bright, is dyslexic; no drugs are able to help him. Christopher Robin spends too much time playing "make-believe," perhaps signaling some future malfunction, and the scientists noted the total lack of adult supervision in the Hundred Acre Wood.

The study was a great joke, highlighting our increasing tendency to label each other and focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. An amazing number of people didn't get it. They complained research "shouldn't be used for stuff like this." Other people got it but didn't think it was funny.

"These things are much too serious to be joked about," they said. The joke is in the madness of it all. We have created in real life a storybook world that is as crazy as the study done on the Hundred Acre Wood. Most of the labels we ascribe to children overlook what is right about children. We prefer to concentrate on labeling weaknesses. Teachers and parents must begin to change the focus from labeling weakness to proclaiming strengths.

I'm not suggesting that the students who are labeled LD do not struggle -- they clearly do, and suffer as a result. And I am all for helping kids catch up and learn what they need to know to get ahead in life, but the way in which we do that -- with a sole focus on the weakness of the students -- is only half the equation. If we are going to remediate weaknesses, we must have an equal commitment to building strengths. We don't help children succeed when we place all the blame for the learning problems on them. We assume that the struggle in school is entirely the student's fault when there are many factors that can contribute to a child having difficulty in school:

• If an adolescent is left home alone most afternoons, with no one to talk to her or help her solve problems or learn how to interact, the child may become delayed in social or intellectual development.

• If teachers have a learning style that is at odds with the child's style (such as a highly visually oriented adult and an energetic child who learns by doing, not by seeing), the mismatch may appear to be a learning disability in the child.

• If a child is fed a constant diet of junk food and gets little exercise, he may be unable to concentrate in school. If early instruction in reading and math was poor, a student who cannot catch up may become so frustrated that he gives up.

People will have to learn to rely on different types of evidence that measure individual achievement and satisfaction. This is going to require a major paradigm shift, but just like every other important shift in outdated, conventional thinking, the process begins with the individual. We can make things better for future generations, and for our own futures, if we begin instilling a positive, strengths-based focus in the youth of America.