Square pegs and round holes

There is no such thing as a lazy, bad kid, writes US pediatrics Prof. Mel Levine, author of ‘The Myth of Laziness’.

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September 19, 2010 03:29
‘MOM AND DAD, I failed the test but I knew all the

Laziness 311. (photo credit: (Lexington Herald-Leader /MCT)

Every year, tens of thousands of Israeli pupils who have difficulty with their studies are labeled in their teachers’ minds as “hopelessly lazy.” They don’t prepare their homework regularly, pass tests, pay attention in class or even sit properly. They are labeled as having behavior problems and an un-met potential. If only they tried harder, teachers tell parents, they would do better.

But there is no such thing as laziness, contends Prof. Mel Levine, a pediatrician and developmental behavioral expert at the University of North Carolina Medical School, director of its Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning and founder and cochairman of All Kinds of Minds – a non-profit institute for the understanding of differences in learning. For the past quarter-century, Levine and colleagues have initiated and used programs to assess youngsters aged five to 18 who sufferer from behavior, learning and developmental problems, and suggested ways of coping with them.

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In 2003, Simon & Schuster published his best-selling book, The Myth of Laziness, which has now been translated into Hebrew by Modan as Hamitos Shel Ha’atzlanut. He had previously authored a major bestseller titled A Mind at a Time, which looked into learning patterns of children aged seven to 11 that are unsuited to the schools where they learn.

The 286-page, NIS 88 softcover book on the laziness myth, which I read in the Hebrew edition, is convincing, detailed, sympathetic and often fascinating, with theories, case histories and advice that should interest parents and educators as well.

‘LAZINESS is not an innate trait,” writes Levine, recipient of numerous awards and a former Rhodes scholar. “We all are born with a drive to produce, and like saplings in an orchard have within us the resources to bear fruit, to be and feel useful and effective. Most of our own success and that of our children is experienced and demonstrated through the attainments of our heads and hands – the sum total of our school, family and career. From early childhood through our adult years, we want to show what we can do. We gain energy and feel good about ourselves whenever our personal output wins the approval, acceptance and respect of our friends, families, bosses (or teachers) and, most of all, our self-critical selves. To feel fulfilled in life, it helps immeasurably if you can take pride in your work.”

Thus, he argues, children who are labeled “lazy” naturally want to achieve. He writes that he has never encountered a lazy child; the problem is that their brains are “improperly wired” for certain tasks such as remembering, reading or even using muscles required for writing. Thus their brain’s “output failure” – resulting from neurological, psychological and biological influences in the form of motor problems, cognitive deficits and emotional problems – can cause them to be poor pupils and later to fail in their careers.

The orange, black, white and blue cover of the Israeli edition shows a series of stick figures of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king punished for his sins by being forced to forever push a large boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Levine meant this illustration of endless and unavailing toil to represent the struggles of children whose output failures hold them back.

“Too many kids struggle needlessly simply because the way in which they learn is incompatible with the way they’re taught. Schools are filled with kids who have given up on themselves and conclude that they are ‘stupid.’ It’s tragic. It’s also painful... for the (pupil), the teacher and the parents. All these individuals may be unaware that the ‘wiring’ of a child’s brain is simply not in sync with the demands of the situation. Telling (him) ‘You can do better’ doesn’t help when he has done his best to no avail. Criticizing him for an inability to complete a particular task in a particular way is similarly ineffective, not to mention inappropriate. And humiliating him, in private or in public, for circumstances beyond his control is simply hurtful.”

Levine continues that “these types of responses to children with learning differences are all too common.

The fact is that these kids often have real and obvious intellectual strengths. However, they suffer from what is often subtle dysfunction. These children are highly vulnerable – and they’re slipping through the cracks.”

He chose the term “output failure” based on his familiarity as a medical student with a heart problem called “cardiac high-output failure” or heart failure, in which the demand for cardiac output exceeds the ability of the heart to respond. Chronic severe high-output failure may result in a decrease in heart muscle performance, he says. This is relevant to stigmatized children in school.

LEVINE PRESENTS in-depth case studies of half a dozen youngsters and an adult he or his team worked with and whose problems, he insists, were ameliorated by treatment. He described Russell Strinberg, a fifth grader who suddenly told his successful academic parents that he hated school and himself, and had “no reason to live anymore.” After initial treatment with psychoactive drugs, he was brought to Levine’s center, where he eventually disclosed what had made him so miserable. He was overweight, and when changing into his bathing suit, classmates ridiculed the size of his genitals, which were hidden by fat. He was hopeless in athletics, unable to assess what had to be done to catch a ball, and suffered from enuresis. He was found to have graphomotor difficulties, misspelling words and having difficulty copying sequences of movements, including those with a pencil needed to produce letters. These difficulties in writing held him back. But he had numerous skills, such as copying designs, fixing broken objects and working on computers. Efforts to improve his motor problems, lose weight and deal with his emotional problems resulted in significant improvement in his abilities and mood.

CLINT WALKER, an adopted boy from Texas who was a talented horseman, showed difficulty writing and solving math problems. He had so much trouble in school that teachers threatened to leave him behind for a year. Levine declares that redoing a year of school is never helpful academically, and causes much emotional distress. Thus Clint’s adoptive mother decided to teach him at home.

He showed excellent understanding of mathematical principles, but just couldn’t remember the sequences for solving problems. His handwriting was unreadable. But while he was able to absorb much knowledge, he had trouble with long-term memory and setting ideas down on paper. Assisted by Levine, Clint was persuaded that he was neither stupid nor lazy. When his school received Levine’s official assessment, the principal and teachers changed their approach, and he was helped to improve.

SIXTH GRADER Ginny Caldwell had impressive social skills, but could never sit in one place. She rarely did her homework and refused to study for tests, Levine writes.

But she stayed up late reading plays, designing costumes and sketching jewelry, and was so busy thinking about school gossip that she couldn’t cope with her studies.

After a battery of physical and neurological tests, she was found to have attention deficits and difficulty amassing and using her mental energy.

“She drove on an empty tank,” Levine concluded. Her brain’s connection to her body reduced her mental output. And Ginny’s father, who was unemployed after being an unreliable employee and becoming an alcoholic, seemed to have the same problem. She refused to take dextroamphetamine, that could have kept her more awake during the day, but was taught to go to bed earlier. Her school took a more positive view, helping her tackle mathematics and other subjects.

A TALENTED basketball player, Darnell Mason was kicked off his school team because of constantly failing grades. His handwriting was perfect, but his thoughts were expressed in a childish, simplistic way. He defined words when speaking instead of giving them names.

Darnell was found to have no intuition for language construction; Levine discovered a large gap between his comprehension of language and his ability to get thoughts coded into language. His being forced to repeat seventh grade was a blow to his ego, and his language abilities deteriorated. He also got into trouble with the law. Levine noted that many teens with active language difficulties end up in corrective institutions. His school was finally persuaded to put him back on the basketball team; he was trained to express his ideas and encouraged to use a word processor instead of writing.

Levine devotes several chapters to explaining that output failure results from ineffective motor production, meager idea production, language weaknesses, disorganization, low mental energy, inability to control social diversions, weak production control and inadequate memory. These can be worsened by the lack of role models, family problems, socioeconomic difficulties, bad marks, competition, pressure and bad school experiences, he continues. The book offers numerous tips to teachers and parents on how to treat (if not always cure) these difficulties. He even follows up some of those examined in his case studies and reports that many have become great successes.

The author can be criticized for his anecdotal case studies, which have not undergone peer review, as well as for the fact that this book and others he wrote lack footnotes to back up his claims. But Levine’s influence on educators and others has been immense, and whole school networks have adopted his methods.

AND NOW for the shocker: The New York Times last year reported that Levine, “was one of the most prominent voices in the field of learning disabilities until sexual molestation charges surfaced in 2008.” It said that, facing a lawsuit accusing him of molesting young boys during physical examinations, Levine (now 70 years old) agreed to stop practicing medicine. “The action came as the state medical board conducted an inquiry into charges that Dr. Levine sexually abused patients in his pediatric practice. The state medical board said it had been prepared to present testimony that the genital examinations Dr. Levine conducted on five unnamed patients were conducted without the presence of a parent or chaperone, were not medically indicated, and were either not documented in the medical record or not documented according to prevailing standards. Dr. Levine has denied any wrongdoing,” continued the Times’ report. “He voluntarily suspended his license to practice in April 2008 and faces no criminal charges. There have been complaints, including a civil lawsuit, against Dr. Levine dating back more than two decades. None of the complaints were proved in court.”

His lawyer, Alan Schneider, said the pediatrician agreed to leave medicine “because the medical board proceeding has been and would continue to be a major distraction from Dr. Levine’s primary mission to help individuals with serious learning difficulties and developmental problems. Dr. Levine has not been a practicing pediatrician for some time.”


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