Children's developmental problems are often misdiagnosed as "laziness" and "underachievement," a University of North Carolina pediatrician says, and the difficulties often begin to appear in late elementary school or in junior high.

"It's usually subtle," Dr. Melvin Levine said in remarks prepared for delivery yesterday to the American Academy of Pediatrics. "A child may be able to think of words and ideas quickly, but putting them down on paper creates fear and chaos. There could be a justified reason for this, such as an awkward pencil grip."

In a study of 9- to 15-year-olds, preliminary results show that 17 percent had some sort of undiagnosed developmental problem, such as short attention span, poor memory or trouble with motor skills.

As school work, such as spelling, punctuation and math, puts increased demands on memory, they may withdraw because "the struggle has often become too difficult."

Teaching memorizing techniques is one way to overcome these problems, Levine says. And for children who have trouble holding pencils or have other motor-skill problems, word processors may be the answer.

"Laziness and underachievement result more often from these hidden problems than from stresses like parental expections or the pressure to perform," he said.