Becoming Attuned, Transforming a School

Summer 2005

By Rebecca Shore

On a November morning in 2001, Amy Holcomb, a fourth-grade teacher at Forsyth Country Day School (NC), found herself bedridden following ankle surgery. Papers graded and the next day’s lesson plan for the substitute complete, she turned her attention to a segment on the Today Show playing in the background of her living room. “To treat everyone the same is to treat them unequally,” said Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrician from Chapel Hill, NC, and co-founder and co-chair of All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit institute that helps students who struggle with learning. As serendipitous as this event sounds, this chance encounter literally launched Forsyth on a transformative journey to becoming a national model on the implementation of Levine’s Schools Attuned Program.

While recovering from surgery, Holcomb researched the work of Dr. Levine, who, with more than 30 years of clinical experience, has pioneered a framework for understanding why children struggle in school and developed a straightforward system to recognize the wide variations in the ways children learn. This approach emphasizes using a developmental view of learning, recognizing that, as children grow and change over time, most will face a learning situation for which their brains are not wired.

The framework emphasizes strengthening strengths — considering that what really matters in adult life is each person’s strengths, rather than his or her weaknesses. The All Kinds of Minds approach makes it easier for parents, teachers, clinicians, and kids to work together with a common language and tools that promote understanding and help kids learn.

Impressed by Levine’s approach to education, Holcomb wanted to apply it to her teaching at Forsyth Country Day. She subsequently discovered that All Kinds of Minds was offering a professional development program, which prepares K–12 educators to meet the diverse learning needs of all students in their classroom, the next July in New York City. So Holcomb rounded up two other young faculty members, convinced them that the Schools Attuned Program may have the solution for those unique students who occasionally puzzled them in class, and the quest began — one that has led to a remarkable transformation in teaching and learning at Forsyth Country Day.

Getting Attuned

In New York, the three teachers were amazed at the intensity of the program. The Schools Attuned Program has three components: pre-course work, a Core Course of a minimum of 35 hours, and a minimum of 10 hours of follow-up experiences (practicum). The curriculum during the weeklong, 35-hour Core Course was based on focused study (content) and school-based application (process) of eight neurodevelopmental constructs (e.g., attention, memory, language, Higher Order Cognition) that affect learning. The program enables educators to understand the role of these constructs in building or undermining success in school.

The teachers were energized by the challenge. By the end of the week, all three embraced the philosophy and the hard work ahead, developing an entirely new lens through which to view student behavior. Upon their return, their goal was to expose all teachers at Forsyth Country Day to the innovative information they had learned in the course.

Back at school, the three teachers met with Henry M. Battle, the school’s headmaster, and discussed the possibility of training the entire faculty. Battle was enthusiastic about the idea of the school becoming involved with All Kinds of Minds and the Schools Attuned Program. Through the opening of a new Johnson Academic Center, he had already begun moving the school toward a more intense effort at individualizing instruction to meet the needs of every student. In the Johnson Academic Center, networks of parents, teachers, and students work together to nurture and encourage the academic potential in every student. This philosophy fused perfectly with the Schools Attuned Program philosophy. “The teachers came back, and they were so on fire for a completely different way of looking at how students learn and how best to reach them. They convinced us in very short order that we needed to have other teachers doing the same thing” explained Mr. Battle.

Key Leadership

Through brainstorming, the school leadership and the three teachers decided to dream big. Not only would the school aim to have its entire faculty attend the Schools Attuned Program, but also, since there was no Schools Attuned site in the southeastern United States, the team began the application process to become the nation’s next Professional Development Provider. Simultaneously, the three teachers planned and led monthly parent/community information sessions based on Levine’s eight learning constructs. Parents and members of the surrounding community became excited and some donated to the school’s growing fund in order to implement these ideas. An important donation of $250,000 was given in April 2003, just as the school received word that they had been awarded the Schools Attuned Professional Development Provider status.

After receiving the lead gift, Henry Battle made a crucial decision that ensured the success of the initiative at the school. He implemented a policy that every Forsyth Country Day School teacher would complete the Schools Attuned Program within three years, and he had the human resources office articulate this in every contract issued that spring. In addition, rather than forcing the teachers to attend the program by division, volunteers took the program that first summer. Within two years, nearly the entire faculty had completed the program. 

Suggestions for schools

1. Faculty and Parent Book Discussion Groups
Use the writing of Mel Levine to create book discussion groups. Focus on one book each quarter of the school year to give participants ample time to read and reflect. Start with A Mind at a Time, then progress through The Myth of Laziness as well as the student books, All Kinds of Minds and Keeping a Head in School. In small groups, parents and faculty can discuss each book, ask questions, and/or share concerns, as well as talk about implications for the school itself. Send out frequent flyers or e-mails to remind parents of the dates and times. Alternate morning sessions with evening sessions so all can attend. Discussion questions for A Mind at a Time and The Myth of Laziness are available on the All Kinds of Minds website,

2. Read All Kinds of Minds
Have third- or fourth-grade teachers read All Kinds of Minds in class as a read-aloud. This delightful book about a group of children with different strengths and weaknesses can serve as a springboard for thoughtful discussions about the differences in all children and the appreciation of those differences. Middle school students could read Levine’s Keeping a Head in School as a class book to expand on the discussions about strengths and weaknesses. The Mind That’s Mine curriculum could be used with a class throughout the school year to help students learn about learning. Book excerpts are available at

3. Quotes, Quotes, and More Quotes!
Dr. Levine is a masterful linguist. He eloquently speaks about students and their learning. Choose several favorite Levine quotes from his books or online and post them around your school. Post them in student areas as well as teacher areas. Every month, replace the quotes with new ones. The quotes will serve you well in encouraging others to thoughtfully reflect on their teaching and students.

4. Parent/Teacher Information Sessions — Developing Minds
One evening per month, offer a parent/teacher information session. Each month concentrate on a different learning construct or theme. Skip December because everyone is so busy, and, voila, you have eight school months, one for each of the eight constructs! During these learning sessions, introduce parents to the basics of the learning constructs, discuss how students who are strong or weak in that construct may appear in the classroom or while working on homework. Give several strategies for parents and teachers to try to open up the discussion to their own success stories. The Developing Minds videotape series is also an excellent resource to use during the information sessions as every construct has an interesting and entertaining video. Choosing and distributing session dates for each month at the beginning of the year will help members of your community make a commitment to write it on their calendars and attend each month. This will also give them the opportunity to look ahead and notice topics that may especially apply to their child/children. Learn more about Developing Minds at

5. Student Strength Quilts
Have each class of students create its very own strength quilt. Each student can decorate his or her own quilt square. Each square should contain the student’s name and illustrations of his or her personal academic or co-#urricular strengths. If you sew, you can let students design their very own cloth quilt square using fabric markers. If you don’t sew, paper quilt squares, which are later tied together with yarn, form a beautiful “quilt.” If each teacher displays his or her class quilt in the hallway, you have a beautifully decorated school that is representative of the diversity and uniqueness of children. Students of all ages enjoy creating strength quilts.

6. Sponsor a Learning-Differences Support Group
Find a teacher or administrator who is willing to sponsor a Learning-Differences Support Group for parents whose children are struggling in school academically or socially. Once each month, the group can meet in the school library or auditorium to enjoy a time of sharing, asking questions, and offering and receiving helpful suggestions. One way to facilitate this monthly group is to invite different speakers every other month to share strategies and information. Speakers could include: Pediatricians to discuss healthy habits for students, attention problems, etc. Psychologists to discuss the assessment and evaluation process. Neurologists to discuss basic brain information; how brain differences affect learning, causes of disorders, etc. Librarians to share books to which students who are struggling may relate, helpful research and study skills, etc. Counselors to share deep breathing techniques, stress relief exercises, test anxiety de-stressors, etc.

The small fire that the first three teachers had brought to the campus swept throughout largely because of the support of the administration.

What’s the Difference?

Battle freely admits that the difference Schools Attuned Program has made in the school has been substantial “in terms of the way we reach students, the way we communicate with parents, and, frankly, the way we attract families.” So, what does implementation look like? It is more than hanging a poster of the eight constructs or keeping a copy of Levine’s books on the bookshelf. It’s a matter of carefully incorporating the philosophy and practices into the everyday functioning of the school.

The enthusiasm of the first three teachers was soon felt by the new participants in the Forsyth’s lower school. One example is the third-grade team, which participated in the Schools Attuned Core Course during the summer of 2003. Implementing the program in their own classes, the teachers claim that their students, who are just beginning to develop the learning skills necessary to succeed in middle and upper school, have benefited from the Schools Attuned Program. One teacher commented: “I’ve taught here for 16 years and have encountered children whose learning difficulties puzzled me. I didn’t feel I always had the tools to adequately help them. The Schools Attuned Program is tremendous because it gives you many more tools with which to help children be successful learners. It furthered my belief that learning strategies are useful for all of us, not just the children who struggle.” Not only did the third-grade teachers incorporate new methods into their repertoire, but they also questioned some of the existing practices in their classrooms. For example, the team eliminated the Math Mad Minute competition because it “wasn’t important how each student did against another. They began competing for their own personal best instead.”

Implementation looked different at the middle school level, because middle school students generally want to feel independent. Chuck Jones, director of the middle school agrees, “Our middle school students have been incredibly receptive to learning about the way their minds work because they are essentially egocentric. Our middle school teachers have been able to give their students ownership over their minds and make them self-aware of their learning profiles.” A middle school history teacher commented that, “First and foremost, it has made me a better teacher. I feel I’m communicating more with the students. I’m more interested in what they’re doing outside of the classroom and, because I know the students so much better, I have better communication with parents.” Beyond the benefits the program has had on this teacher’s ability to know his students, he has learned about himself: “The program is beneficial for the educator almost as much as it is for the student because it makes us evaluate how we’re conveying information, and that we really have to be cognizant of the fact that people have different abilities and learn in different ways.”

The upper-school faculty participated in the pilot testing of the Schools Attuned: Subject Specialist Path during the summer of 2004. This program, available in the summer of 2005, supports subject specialists in creating classrooms that meet the learning needs of all students through an understanding of the implications of the neurodevelopmental constructs for their subject area. This track focuses on early adolescent developmental challenges, including self-advocacy. The upper-school faculty worked inter- and intra-departmentally to come to conclusions about how to reach students in demanding content areas. One teacher commented; “My teaching changed radically after this course. I had new insight into why some students were behaving the way they were. It was a genuine epiphany. I changed a few things I was doing and it made a dramatic difference to several students.” A high school English teacher remarked on the changes she saw in her teaching. “I amended my outlook, instruction, and assessment style. For example, each week the students had been required to learn a list of 15 vocabulary words. Their Friday quiz entailed recalling the words and writing a sentence for each. I quickly revised the exercise into one in which the student had to evaluate the usage of those words in sentences I created. I no longer solely assessed their memory, but I also challenged them to use higher level reasoning skills. This course made me evaluate my teaching in ways that I never had before.”

The Work and the Hope Continues

Forsyth Country Day School continues to make the Schools Attuned Program a focus at the school even though the faculty has completed the program. As the school moves forward with programs such as curriculum mapping and a “Good to Great” initiative introduced by the headmaster, the Schools Attuned philosophy is embedded in each right from the start. As teachers develop maps for their curriculum, a Schools Attuned Program component is included in every rubric. “Schools Attuned question of the week” e-mails are sent to all faculty members, taking scenarios from one construct per month to deepen the comfort level with the Schools Attuned Program terminology.

Every single professional development day has a Schools Attuned Program bullet on the agenda. Sometimes this is used for the follow-up practicum hours that are completed as part of the first year of the program. Other times, it may be discussion groups of teachers who have read A Mind at A Time, The Myth of Laziness, or any of Levine’s other books.

Teachers and administrators in each division use their own creativity in implementing various aspects of the program (see sidebar of resources on p. 53). Directors incorporate time into every faculty meeting for open discussion about the philosophy, including questions, issues, or success stories related to the Schools Attuned Program. In addition, all faculty members are required to reflect on their work with the Schools Attuned Program in their annual evaluations. Teachers are working to develop student learning goals related to the eight learning constructs, and the school is excited to continue offering information sessions to the school and surrounding communities.

Following up on Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences and Daniel Goleman’s studies on emotional intelligence, Mel Levine’s research into brain development and function — as well as his unique outreach to educators — gives us further insight into the minds of students. What is increasingly clear in all this is that the best schools will be those that individualize learning as much as possible. Indeed, this may be the next important revolution in education: schools highly attuned to the neurodevelopmental profiles of their students. After all, isn’t a student’s understanding of how hor she best learns at least equally as important to the subjects we teach? At Forsyth Country Day School, and many other schools, educators are answering yes — and then rolling up their sleeves to do this new and exciting work.

Source: © 2005, National Association of Independent Schools.

Rebecca Shore

Rebecca Shore teaches ninth grade at Forsyth Country Day School (NC) and at Wake Forest University.