I was recently contacted by a tutor in the UK about an 8-year-old boy with dyslexia and dyscalculia. The tutor has been working with him since he was 5. The boy suffers from anxiety and loathes school due to his challenges. She is especially distressed by the lack of support the young boy is getting in school, which is only making his struggles worse.
This young student is, unfortunately, not having an unusual experience as a dyslexic/dyscalculic in school: he’s already falling behind, feeling incredibly pressured to perform, and comparing himself unfavorably to others who seem to learn and perform effortlessly. I know, because I was that boy 50 years ago…some things never change, or change far too slowly.
In my recent interview with literacy expert Faith Borkowsky, she stated that in schools, “children are just given more of the same methods that did not work for them. Assessing children without analyzing and responding appropriately to the results is a waste of time.” This reminded me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. He said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The last thing any parent or educator wants is to irritate and frustrate children by expecting long-standing teaching methods to work for every student. All concerned parties have more than abundant evidence that they don’t.
But where does this leave dyslexic children? Here is where parents need to educate themselves. As Faith stated in her interview, “Parents need to ask questions and find out what the school is doing instructionally to change the trajectory.” The better parents understand what type of instruction their child needs, the better they can advocate for their child.
However, more is needed than just addressing the academic needs of the child. In the case of the boy mentioned at the outset, he suffers from anxiety and low self-worth and hates school. So part of the solution lies in addressing the social and emotional trauma—often this must be done before addressing academic issues.
What can help?
- Apologize for mistakes: let the child know that sometimes everyone keeps trying the same solution, hoping it will work—even grown-ups! But make it clear that without meaning to, trying to teach him or her the same way over and over may have created feelings of frustration for the student. The problem lies, not with the child, but with the approach. Encourage them not to give up, because not everyone learns the same way, but everyone can learn.
- Reassure them that they are smart and strong. Remind them of all the things they’re good at, things they’ve learned and mastered, or how fast they can run, or how well they take care of their pet, for instance. Set the stage for an adventure of discovery, because as they grow, more and more things that they try will be strengths for them. This is going to be fun!
- When the child begins to get frustrated with school work, take a page out of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. They may be saying, “I can’t do this”, “I’m stupid”, “I can’t do anything right”, or similar statements. REBT asks people to question those beliefs, so they can see that they’re not true, or irrational. As mentioned above, be ready with a list of things they’ve learned to do well, and say that the fact that they’ve already learned so many things successfully means that they can learn new things too.
- Make time regularly to spend time together doing things that come easier for the child. Everyone enjoys savoring their mastery as a way of recharging their batteries for new challenges, including kids.
- Praise them for hanging in there, even though they feel anxious or reluctant to participate in lessons at school. One of the hardest things for all humans to learn is how to endure when things aren’t going our way, especially when the situation is frustrating. Recognize how hard they’ve been working, far outside their comfort zone, just to show up every day at school.
- Foster a love of story. Read great books together regularly, daily if possible. Get them into the story, excited to hear the next plot twist. Once they see how fun books are, and how reading offers them an opportunity that no other form of entertainment offers, they will be motivated to keep working on their reading skills.
- Introduce heroes of self-reference. Memorable characters make a real difference in a child’s engagement with reading material, and nothing ignites a struggling reader’s mind more than reading about other kids who struggle with the same challenges, feelings, and situations they do. Seeing their life experience through the life of a beloved character helps them feel less alone and can reduce feelings of shame. When the hero of the story figures out their strengths, demonstrates personal growth, and learns to accept themselves as a valuable human being, our struggling student can finally begin to imagine his or her own life turning around.
- Check out the Super d! Show. It’s a great help for providing social and emotional support for dyslexic children, and I highly recommend it. This unique program is written, directed, produced, and acted by an all-dyslexic group of volunteers. The shows offer kids valuable heroes of self-reference in a TV format, rather than written form, and is designed to directly address the oft-overlooked social and emotional needs of struggling students.
As stated at the beginning, it’s time to stop the insanity of expecting all kids to learn the same way. None of us has to look very far to see a child who is suffering greatly from unmet educational and emotional needs. Let’s do something about it!
Take advantage of other dyslexia resources I’ve shared on my blog.
The award-winning Sir Kaye the Boy Knight series offers exactly the kind of hero of self-reference described above. The 4 book series centers around two young protagonists in the middle ages, one of whom has severe dyslexia and does all he can to creatively avoid reading and writing. This character, Reggie, also deals with shame due to his perceived differences, and voices his fears that he is stupid and can’t learn. He has tremendous growth over the 4 book story-arc, discovering that he has many strengths that can be used to benefit himself and his friends.
Take a peek at the award-winning Sir Kaye series