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
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.”