Misunderstood Minds, Disappearing Faces: Addressing the Drop-Out Epidemic by Focusing on Learning
Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

In schools across the United States, students are lining up for the annual ritual of having their school portraits made. Despite new technologies used by photographers — and the constantly changing fashions and hairstyles that class photos reflect — the tradition of memorializing each school year in photos has not changed over time. Elementary school students will be bringing home their class composites; older students will put together the first layouts of school yearbooks.

Sadly, too many faces disappear from these composites and yearbooks from year to year. On average, one out of every three students posing for his or her ninth grade photo right now will be missing from the school yearbooks that will be published in spring 2013.

If that seems too abstract, consider that according to America’s Promise Alliance, 1.3 million students in the U.S. drop out of high school each year. That’s 7,200 per day — or an average of one every 26 seconds.

A great deal of talk — and resources — are being directed toward solving this massive problem. But an understanding of how students learn is missing from most discussions about helping those students at risk of not graduating. Studies show that students with poor academic performance have the strongest risk of dropping out, and a disproportionate percentage of these students have learning difficulties.

To be sure — the causes underlying our nation’s drop-out problem are numerous and complex. There is no silver-bullet fix. Yet, research and anecdotal feedback from All Kinds of Minds alumni clearly suggest that the science of learning needs to be part of a comprehensive drop-out prevention strategy. Studies prove that increasing educator understanding of and ability to effectively address learning variation helps improve student attitudes about school, self-confidence in abilities, engagement in learning, and behavior in class — all outcomes that are linked to academic success and high school graduation.

Shelly Gregg, founder and director of the Outer Banks Learning Center in North Carolina, can attest to this. A graduate of and trained facilitator for All Kinds of Minds’ Schools Attuned program, Shelly left the classroom a few years ago to open a private tutoring center. Inspired by All Kinds of Minds’ philosophy that all students can learn and that no child should struggle or face humiliation because of the way she or he learns, the Center works in partnership with Dare County schools to make sure struggling students don’t fall through the cracks.

The Center’s REBOUND program takes in students suspended from local high schools. Participating students get academic coaching, take part in community service, and receive personalized counseling to help identify learning needs and interventions that may benefit the student. Students are able to avoid falling behind (or further behind) academically during their suspensions, and for some, the individual attention they receive during REBOUND helps identify and target barriers to academic success that have never been addressed at their regular schools.

“Through the REBOUND program, we have been able to tangibly support students who would not otherwise finish school and have made graduation and future educational success possible,” Shelly asserts. Shelly and her center’s efforts are adding new portraits of success for many of the most vulnerable students in Dare County, and can serve as inspiration for others trying to ensure that every young person’s last grade school photograph includes a cap and gown.

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More Accolades for the
book from All Kinds of Minds.
Coming in Spring 2010


Ian Adamson
Retired Superintendent of Alternative Programs, Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education Support Services
Peel District School Board

Any educator who is genuinely interested in improving student success, and their own knowledge about learning, will benefit from the research and practical suggestions in this book.

AKOM book


Eric Hirsch
Director of Special Projects, New Teacher Center

This book provides school leaders with a framework and strategies that will help them move beyond an ever growing list of accountability mandates to a focus on all students as learners that can reach their true potential.


Michael Spagna, Ph.D.
Dean, Michael D. Eisner College of Education
California State University

The notion that educational administrators should first and foremost think of themselves as learning leaders, is reason enough to explore this book. In the fast-moving world of educational reform, this work stresses the importance of putting the science of learning front and center in the current debate about how to improve schools. I highly recommend it to a wide audience of those committed to the maxim that effective teaching results in higher student learning.

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Online Language Module — Understanding the Role of Language in Student Learning — Now Available!

How many times have you wished for tools that would help you unlock a child’s mind so you could increase their academic success — whether it’s in reading, math, or other areas? How much of your time is spent creating strategies to help struggling students?

We are proud to announce the newest addition to the All Kinds of Minds array of programs for educators!

Our brand new, stand-alone ONLINE MODULE has just made its debut. We chose language as the premier module because this aspect of learning crosses so many discipline areas. So whether you’re a math teacher, a social studies teacher or a language arts teacher, this module can help you find strategies to help your students succeed and address the language demands of your curriculum.

This online module will help you to identify specific language breakdowns and develop strategies to address these breakdowns. It is designed for you to chart your own path through the material and to determine the right depth of the content. Our goal: to help you balance your continuing education needs with the rest of your busy life.

Take a quick peek and watch a movie about the new online Language module.
Click here to learn more.

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AKOM in Action

Digging Deep to Know Students Well

When it comes to knowing students well – their strengths, their affinities, how their profiles are affecting their school performance – the observations and inquiries made by teachers are critical. One might equate the role of teacher with that of detective, the person who is sifting through all the evidence and asking the essential questions. Sometimes the clues to what makes a student succeed are obvious. Other times, we have to dig deep into the evidence to find what we need to help students succeed.

The value of digging deep is seen in the experience of Liz Swearingen, a teacher in Owasso, Oklahoma. Liz attended a professional development course from All Kinds of Minds along with many of her colleagues from her school and district. Though her experience with the All Kinds of Minds approach was still pretty new, she was beginning to observe her students more carefully and think differently about what she saw.

An opportunity to try on this new approach to teaching came when several students in her fifth grade class achieved poor results on a test on thermal energy. Students who demonstrated their understanding of this science concept in class one day were unable to communicate that same understanding on a multiple choice test the next. “Where is the breakdown for these students?” she wondered. Based on her observations of them during class activities, Liz had seen evidence that her students understood the concept, but the test scores were not indicating the same results. What was it about the test that prevented these students from showing what they know?

Liz spent a few weeks observing and reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of her students, then applied her understanding of the neurodevelopmental framework to the information she gathered. She realized there was a mismatch between how her students learned best and how she was asking them to demonstrate knowledge. Armed with a hypothesis of her students’ neurodevelopmental profiles, an eagerness to try something new, and the need for choices that allowed them to play to their strengths, Liz started with a simple change — allowing students to illustrate the three ways thermal energy is transferred and label where the transfer occurs and what it is called. This option for demonstrating knowledge of this concept using a spatial approach rather than relying on language and memory resulted in 12 students passing the test who otherwise would not have.

By creating opportunities for students who engage with curriculum based on how they learn best and to express their thinking in a way that leveraged their learning profiles, more students achieved success in this fifth grade classroom. “Next time I’ll give them options from the start and teach them more about how to choose an option that works for them,” she thought. Well-informed, inquisitive teachers like Liz recognize the value in digging deeper to discover more, of searching for information to explain why students are achieving (or not achieving), and of using that information to create student-centered learning opportunities.

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May I have your attention, please?

How many times this year have you already said to your students, “I need your attention” or “Pay attention, please?” In the battle for your students’ attention, who (or what) is winning?

In the course of a school day, students face many factors that compete for their attention — teacher expectations, anticipation of after-school activities, relationships with peers, distractions in the hallway or outside the window, temperature, fatigue, interest (or lack of interest) in the topic at hand, and a thousand other things. The ability to pay attention involves a collection of related brain functions that allow us to think about attention in specific ways. We know there are links between attention and memory, so helping students stay “tuned in” to the most important information is a key to school success.

Three functions of attention:
Mental Energy Controls initiating and maintaining the energy level needed for optimal learning and behavior
Processing Controls regulating the use of incoming information
Production Controls regulating academic and behavioral output

When you ask your students to “pay attention,” what are you looking for?

  • Do you need them to be alert, maintaining an effective level of listening and watching (mental energy)?
  • Do you need students to filter out unimportant information and focus on what’s most essential, or want them to maintain their focus for an appropriate amount of time (processing controls)?
  • Are you asking students to monitor their actions and make changes as needed, or preview the likely outcomes of their actions (production controls)?

How often have you heard “If he would pay attention in class, he would do better?” Let’s dig a little deeper into what that could mean…

  • Perhaps this student starts with a full “mental energy tank,” but struggles to maintain a steady flow of “mental fuel” for the duration of the lesson. How does his performance improve if the lesson is divided into multiple shorter segments?
  • Perhaps this student finds it difficult to connect new information to prior knowledge. Does his attention improve if he lists everything he knows about a topic before learning a new concept or skill?
  • The student may be unable to distinguish between important and unimportant information. Do things get better if you establish an essential question and scaffold the student in making connections between the content and this focusing question?
  • It may be difficult for this student to monitor his work while he is doing it, resulting in multiple errors. If he revisits the assignment at a later time, can he recognize his errors and repair them? 

Strategies for Supporting Attention:

  • In his book Brain Rules, John Medina talks about the 10-minute rule as a way to help manage demands on attention. Think of ways to break your lessons into 10-minute chunks with each chunk covering a core concept followed by details, constantly relating core concepts back to a main idea or essential question, and providing compelling “hooks” for students between each segment. (supports mental energy and processing controls) 
  • Provide students with models of assignments to give them a sense of how a final product might look. For example, make work from last year available and draw students’ attention to specific qualities of the work (e.g., “Notice that the students who received an ‘A’ did…, students who received a ‘B’ did…”). (supports production controls)
  • Engage students in active planning activities, such as setting long- and short-term goals, brainstorming strategies that may help meet goals, selecting the best strategy, and self-monitoring. Keep in mind the abilities of particular students (e.g., completing 20 math problems is as much a goal for some students as is reading 4 books and writing a report.) (supports production controls)
  • Post an essential question or target objective before each lesson. Refer back to this target throughout the lesson, asking students to determine if they have achieved the objective or answered the question. (supports mental energy, processing and production controls)
  • Have students appraise their own work. For example, set a standard of work quality for students to follow, and allow them to self-grade or appraise the quality of their work before turning it in. (supports production controls)
  • Have students practice deleting unimportant information in written materials, math and science word problems, etc. Allow students to create their own math and science word problems, in which they insert and delete information, examining the difference between necessary and unnecessary information. (supports processing controls)
  • Model strategies for students that help you work through uninteresting tasks, for example using positive internal statements or visual imagery about the rewards for delaying gratification, such as the feeling of a job well done, ending up with a good product, etc. (supports mental energy and processing controls)
  • Adjust the rate, complexity, and/or amount of information students must take in or produce at any one time. For example, warn students in advance about material to be presented (e.g., tell the class that you will present five ideas, and then present the ideas in stages, with review after each stage). Provide summary charts, partially completed outlines, or other aids to reduce the amount of mental energy required when working with complex concepts, ideas, or activities. (supports mental energy and processing controls)
  • Be aware of the length of time students can maintain consistent performance, and plan scheduled breaks accordingly. (supports mental energy controls)

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