Katie has to take her socks off to do middle school math but she's got Christmas Eve dinner totally handled. She designed, printed and mailed the invitations; planned the menu; compiled grocery lists; rented extra tables and chairs; hand-lettered seating cards and designed centerpieces that do nothing but shine.

Teacher Says: Celebrate learning differences. Help kids understand and use their own strengths and weaknesses to more successfully navigate the ever-changing demands of school.

"Kids who experience difficulties in school as a result of the unique strengths and weaknesses of their minds comprise a much larger portion of the population than parents, schools and clinicians generally recognize," says pediatrician Mel Levine of Chapel Hill, N.C. Levine is founder of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, which works with families, educators and clinicians to provide practical strategies for kids who are struggling in school.

"The expectation that kids will be good at everything all through their time in school can make it very tough on kids. It may sometimes cause variation to be confused with deviation," says Levine, author of "Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children With Learning Problems at Home and in School" (Educators Publishing Service, $31.50).

Levine says some learning difficulties are really just poor fit. It may be that Katie is labeled "delayed" in math when the problem really is a mismatch in her learning situation. Would she be more responsive to math if class were occasionally held in the school kitchen instead of the classroom?

Maybe there's a mismatch between her learning style and the teaching style. Would food-based examples provide her better memory links than football analogies? "Mismatching under certain circumstances is not a disease," says Levine.

Some learning difficulties might be developmental. "Children grow and change over time," he says. "Sooner or later most children will face a learning situation which they are not wired for. This perspective on learning is critical to understanding and nurturing a child's mind."

Critical, too, is showing kids how to use their own talents to handle the rough spots. "Helping a kid get better at what she is good at can really help her work through or around any weakness she might have. You can use her strengths to improve her weaknesses," says Levine.

Teachers and parents should start with a high-powered mindscope on Katie. "Look for recurring themes in the child's life. What are her patterns? They are telling us how the kid is wired. Get to know your child and don't assume anything," says Levine. Guide your mindscope with the following questions:

Where is the breakdown in learning occurring? Only in math class?

What concepts/facts are always falling out of her head? 8 + 4?

Is she strategic? Does she plan first or just plunge in?

How does she organize her time and space?

Is she always losing her possessions or does she keep them orderly?

Does she sequence numbers, ideas and events properly?

Can she focus on unexciting things?

How is her spatial sense? Can she visualize how to accommodate 13 people around the dining room table?

Then, fueled with the data your mindscope yields, make Katie "part of the solution," says Levine.

Educational therapist and author Lawrence J. Greene agrees. "The likelihood of your child's overcoming his learning problems improves significantly if you can help him become an active, voluntary participant in the process. Uncovering the pain and examining it is the first step in finding solutions," Greene writes in "Finding Help When Your Child Is Struggling in School" (Golden Books, $14).

To help older kids, like Katie, sort through their strengths and weaknesses, Greene suggests a written self-evaluation as a springboard to discussion. "Your goal," Greene tells parents, "is to draw out your child and stimulate a discussion about impressions and reactions."

Keep follow-up discussions short and don't allow Katie to become saturated. She should rank herself on a scale of 1-10 on the following questions:

What is the quality of my work in my best subject?

Quality of work in my worst subject?

How intelligent do I think I am?

How much effort do I put in?

How happy am I in school?

How happy am I at home?

Help younger kids sort out their unique strengths and weaknesses by using concrete analogies. Use a computer and its mouse to strike up the following dialogue:

The computer is controlled by the mouse and the keyboard--what do you use to control your brain? Deep breaths? Karate?

What causes your brain to "boot up" creative ideas? Holiday dinners?

What keeps your brain running smoothly? Sleep? Good food? TV?

What causes your brain to "crash and burn"? Marshmallow whip?

How does your brain store information if the subject is exciting? If it's really boring, like multiplication tables?

Does your brain have enough memory? How can you upgrade?

Then help Katie develop some "bypass strategies," says Levine. Find alternative methods that allow kids to remain on track while they're working to strengthen their skills. "Open up another mode and bypass the problem," he advises.

Use a common courtroom strategy if Katie's brain shuts down every time she's asked a question in math class: Prepare her for questions in advance. Before class, her teacher gives her "advance warning about questions to be asked," says Levine, perhaps even telling her the exact questions she will be called on to answer. This "bypass strategy" gives her a taste of success in math class while she's learning precisely where to move that decimal point.

Allow Katie to bypass pages of mind-numbing math problems with graphs that capitalize on her strong visual sense and organizing ability. Find excellent graphs for all subject areas in "Organizing Thinking: Graphic Organizers" (Critical Thinking Press, $32.95), by Sandra Parks and Howard Black.

Teach Katie to celebrate the unique workings of her own mind. Show her, now, in her childhood, how to bypass obstacles blocking her way to success. Play up her strengths--strengths that most likely could be the basis of a successful adult career. Then sit back and watch as she does nothing but shine far into a brand-new century.

All Kinds of Minds Institute, www.allkindsofminds.org; books from Educators Publishing Service, 800-225-5750; books from Critical Thinking Press, 800-458-4849.

Contact Evelyn Vuko online at evuko@teachersays.com or write her at Style Plus, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.