A neurodevelopmental function may be one component of memory, such as the ability to recall things that have been seen in the past (i.e., visual memory), or it may be the awareness of where within the letter "g" your pencil is located during each instant while you form that letter. The capacity to store and retrieve chains of information, such as the alphabet or the events leading up to World War I, is another example of a neurodevelopmental function. As you can surmise, the brain's toolbox is vast, the total number of neurodevelopmental functions inestimable. On top of that, the range of different combinations of functions called upon to accomplish academic tasks is mind-boggling. In view of all these moving parts, it should not surprise us that breakdowns or specific weaknesses are commonplace. We call these deficiencies neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. We as well as our kids all live with our share of these flaws. Often the dysfunctions do not seriously obstruct roads to success. But sometimes they do.
Here are some examples of neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Some children have difficulty writing, even though they have lots to say. They just can't seem to form letters quickly and accurately enough to keep up with their flow of ideas and words. So their writing is dramatically inferior to the richness of their thinking or speaking. When kids write, their brains assign specific muscles to specific aspects of letter formation; certain muscles are supposed to handle vertical movement, others create rotary movement, others assume responsibility for horizontal movement, while still others operate to stabilize the pencil so it won't fall on the floor while they write. Some kids endure agonizing difficulty with such motor implementation; they simply can't assign the proper muscles consistently. Therefore, writing looms as a tormenting problem for them. This inability to assign specific muscles to operate in the right way at the right time during letter formation is a perfect example of a neurodevelopmental dysfunction. Other kids have trouble finding the exact words they need when they talk, difficulty remembering the associations between sounds and symbols when they read, or trouble understanding complex sentences and thereby following directions quickly and precisely enough in the classroom. Each of these deficiencies is a specific neurodevelopmental dysfunction and in each instance the dysfunction is likely to interfere with learning.
All too often a neurodevelopmental dysfunction goes undetected -- much like an unsolved crime. As was the case with Carson, the assumption may prevail that somehow a floundering student is not really trying, that he is lazy, unmotivated, or, perhaps, even worse, that he's "just not too bright." A child like Nana may be discovered to be daydreaming and fidgeting in class, dreadfully out of focus. She is told she needs to start paying attention in class or she'll get detention. She comes to believe she is somehow bad. No one seems to realize that her fragile concentration is a kind of mental fatigue or burnout; she has neurodevelopmental dysfunctions interfering with her mind's ability to turn on and keep up the flow of mental energy that she needs to concentrate in class. Her neurodevelopmental dysfunction is misread as a behavior problem when she has to combat serious mental fatigue. She's an innocent victim of her own wiring.
Approximately 30 trillion synapses or nerve linkages exist within the human brain. That crowded network allows for plenty of strong connections, disconnections, and misconnections -- in short, a nearly endless combination of neurodevelopmental possibilities. As we have seen, designated teams of neurodevelopmental functions join together to enable kids to acquire specific abilities. When one or more members of a team fail to show up or fail to do their share, performance suffers. Such negative results can bring on a backlash of emotional and motivational complications. Fortunately, we have the wherewithal and the knowledge to mend these problems before they get out of hand.
Copyright © 2002 by Mel Levine
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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