For children with learning problems, early detection and intervention marks the difference between achieving academic and social progress, and languishing at a lower level of economic and social development indefinitely. So posits Michael Kirk’s Misunderstood Minds, a documentary committed to exploring the topic of learning disabilities and their long-term impact on society. Children who exhibit learning disabilities in grades one and two benefit when teachers and parents intervene swiftly and provide the extra tools and time these children need to move forward in the typical public school learning paradigm. Failure to name the disability, and take immediate action, condemns learning disabled children to a sub-standard experience of education, and life, and pushes them ever closer to substance abuse, poverty, and crime (Kirk, 2002).
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Kirk highlights the work of two principal specialists in the field of pediatric learning problems to render his point: Mel Levine, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School, and G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health. Each specialist interacts with Kirk’s cast of learning disabled children and offers insight into each child’s particular affliction. There are five children featured in the documentary: Nathan VanHoy, Sarah Lee Harris, Lauren Smith, Nathan Suggs, and Adam Dunning; they range in age from six to 15. For this paper, two children warrant individual emphasis: Nathan VanHoy, a six-year-old boy, and Adam Dunning, a 15-year-old. Using the life experiences of these two boys, Kirk exemplifies the crucial nature of early detection and intervention (Kirk, 2002).
Nathan VanHoy appeared to his parents as a bright high-achiever. He was a social leader, an excellent athlete, and an animated conversationalist. However, when Nathan reached Grade One, his teachers informed the VanHoys that their son could not read. Nathan repeated the first grade as a result but encountered continual comprehension problems in Grade Two. Later tests conducted by Nathan’s school and Levine confirmed that Nathan’s academic scores were all below average. Levine identified Nathan’s issues with phonemic awareness, the ability to distinguish the sounds that formulate words. Nathan had been using his memorization skills to camouflage his disability up until that point, memorizing entire books through oral comprehension (Kirk, 2002).
This information shook the VanHoys to their core. Nathan did not indicate that he had any reading difficulties whatsoever. Lyon clarified that phonemic awareness manifests solely in written language. Children with phonemic awareness problems master oral language easily, as in Nathan’s example, yet due to their disability, have tremendous difficulty reading. Lyon also notes that children who struggle with phonemic awareness are regularly misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, since they often act out to avoid reading, and often encounter crippling self-esteem issues as a result of their inability to read at the same level as their peers (Kirk, 2002).
Nathan’s parents followed the advice of his teachers and enrolled him in the Resource Room curriculum, where he received education tailored towards his disability. Concern for Nathan’s self-esteem became paramount, however. A sharp little boy, Nathan knew that the reason he was going one way and his friends were going another was because something in his brain had malfunctioned (Kirk, 2002). His parents grew concerned that his natural social gifts might wither if he began to lose confidence in himself and his abilities. Nathan rallied, however, and when Kirk and his crew returned a year later to film Nathan’s progress, they learned that he had mastered sounds, and learned to manipulate sounds while reading (Kirk, 2002). After his parents arranged for him to dictate his answers verbally to a state-mandated Grade Four test, Nathan received a perfect score on his writing exam. The crucial combination of Nathan’s innate memorization skills, the support of his parents, the early detection of his condition, and the specialized attention mobilized on his behalf through his school’s Resource Room, allowed Nathan to advance scholastically (Kirk, 2002).
Kirk employs 15-year-old Adam Dunning’s story as a cautionary tale for parents and educators alike. Adam mirrored Nathan in that he demonstrated reading problems in Grade Two. Unlike Nathan, Adam’s academic scores labeled him as an average student. Teachers identified his learning problems as behavioral: he was deemed “lazy,” and his school took no further action (Kirk, 2002).
As Levine astutely observed, the real pressure for learning disabled kids is social. Social setbacks encountered by learning disabled children make their educational experience incredibly painful. Some are bullied, picked on, and verbally abused, and the likelihood that they will avoid school altogether to avoid that socially generated pain becomes extremely high. Adam’s Grade Seven test scores revealed that he read at a Grade Three level. He was unable to decode multi-syllabic words (Kirk, 2002). Bewildered, his parents asked the school how Adam had fallen through the cracks. The school’s answer was to place him in remedial classes. Already a teenager by this point, attending the remedial classes mortified Adam to such an extent that he began skipping school. Adam interpreted the remedial classes as proof that his intelligence was worthless. He turned to drugs and alcohol to escape the pain, and soon after, spent three months in a juvenile detention center for breaking (Kirk, 2002).
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At this point in the film, Kirk recounts Adam’s bittersweet experience while incarcerated. Adam enjoyed the small classes and individual attention the juvenile detention center’s educational component offered. Ironically, it was the first time he had ever felt good about school (Kirk, 2002). Sadly, three months later, Adam’s return to the Special Education classes at his high school was short-lived. Expelled after a year, Adam dropped out of high school and began working full time (Kirk, 2002).
According to Lyon, early intervention would have been the deciding factor in Adam’s educational experience, as it was in Nathan’s. Lyon points to the reality that many states predict prison populations based on Grade Three and Grade Four literacy levels. Children who are not reading by these grades, in Lyon’s experience, never do learn. Instead, they begin to travel down the lonely road of societal alienation, loss of self-esteem, substance abuse, and, as shown by Adam’s case, cyclical incarceration. As a result, Lyon feels that learning disabilities are a public health issue because the children that do not receive the specialized educational support they require can grow into disenfranchised adults, or worse, drug addicts and criminals. Early intervention, including prompt diagnosis of a learning disability and rapid action to confront not only its academic impact, but its social impact also, can be the difference between a life of purpose and opportunity, and a life lost to low self-esteem, crime, drugs, and alcohol abuse (Kirk, 2002).
Misunderstood Minds. Dir. Michael Kirk. Perf. Adam Dunning, Sarah Lee Harris, Lauren Smith, Nathan Suggs and Nathan VanHoy. WGBH Boston and Kirk Documentary Group, 2002. DVD.