Neil Alexander- Passe, author of Dyslexia and Mental Health, talks about the different ways that parents can support their child with dyslexia who may be struggling at school. He explains that, with the right encouragement and communication with teachers, there is every chance that a child with dyslexia will thrive in today’s day and age.
Contrary to public perception, you do not outgrow dyslexia. The dyslexic child who struggles with literacy will likely become a dyslexic adult who also struggles with literacy. What has changed, however, is that today’s schools have a duty of care to support the additional needs of their students. Unlike older generations of dyslexics who quite likely had a negative school experience, teachers have a responsibility nowadays to make sure that SEN students are recognised, that they are made to feel included in the classroom, and that they are not subjected to humiliation and left behind. In fact, teacher training is finally introducing a compulsory SEND element, which means that all teachers will be judged on their ability to support the special educational needs of their pupils. What, though, can parents be doing to ensure their child with dyslexia enjoys school? And how can they help their teachers provide the best support?
The most frequent coping strategy the young school-aged dyslexic will utilise is avoidance. Such strategies may include: avoiding reading by changing seats to not be picked on; avoiding the teacher’s eye to not be asked to read aloud; constantly breaking their pencil to avoid time writing in class; avoiding doing homework by leaving it to the last possible minute; “forgetting” to bring their homework in; or avoiding school entirely by feigning sickness when there is a spelling test. Avoidance is a dyslexic child’s attempt to hide their learning disability from their teachers and classmates. It is a way of protecting their self-esteem and preventing themselves from experiencing the embarrassment that comes from performing badly in class. Whilst such coping strategies may benefit the child in the short-term, in the long-term they are detrimental to their education.
It is of course only natural for parents to want to protect their children from humiliation, and it is understandable that some parents react to their child’s learning disability by pretending it isn’t there, but parents who are complicit in this camouflaging of difficulties, who assist their children in making up excuses for their lack of homework, who indeed do all their homework for them, only compound the situation.
It is not easy to see your child suffer and not achieve, but one of the most constructive things a parent can do is to ensure their child’s teachers receive as honest and transparent a picture as possible of their learning needs. This is particularly the case if there has not yet been a diagnosis, and whilst teachers now have the legal responsibility to teach SEN pupils, many currently lack the training to plan differentiated lessons, or the time to teach inclusively. Hence many children still remain undiagnosed in today’s classrooms, especially at the primary school stage. Parents should therefore allow their child with dyslexia to spend the planned time (e.g. thirty minutes) completing the homework set without giving them too much assistance. If the work isn’t completed on time, or if it indicates poor spelling and handwriting, then the teacher needs to see this. This way the teacher will be able to see an accurate reflection of the child’s abilities and judge any learning difficulties they may have without their parents obscuring the process. That is not to say that I don’t believe parents should play a fundamental role in helping their child to develop their literary skills, and by all means they should provide a lot of encouragement and play a consistent and practical role in helping them to learn. However, homework is something that is best for parents to leave alone so that teachers can accurately monitor their child’s progress.
Parents who are worried about their child’s dyslexia should also understand that schools offer good counselling services. As a SEN teacher and SENCO in both primary and secondary schools, and being dyslexic myself, I recognise the need for schools to offer counselling services to pupils who may struggle emotionally to keep up in these results-driven days.
It is not uncommon for young dyslexics to come home exhausted from a day at school. A day when they are working harder than their friends to remember everything they need to (compensating for their weaker short-term memory); a day when they are on the lookout for situations that involve having to read aloud in class; or writing on the whiteboard in front of their peers. Parents should therefore offer downtime to their child before hounding them to start their homework – which is normally a dreaded task for any young person regardless of whether they have a learning difficulty or not.
It is also very important that parents praise and encourage their child’s talents and interests. Commonly dyslexics excel in non-academic subjects such as art, design, sport, crafts, debating, drama and electronics (the list goes on). These subjects tend to rely on vocational-kinaesthetic skills and have reduced reading and writing elements. Dyslexics tend to excel in such subjects beyond the level of their peers, possibly as a compensation, however there is a strong argument that dyslexics are blessed with an innate creative streak (Leonardo da Vinci is, for instance, argued to have been dyslexic). In fact, what started as hobbies for many dyslexics have now turned into numerous high-profile careers in the business, innovation and sports worlds (the likes of Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Lynda La Plante, Steven Redgrave, Eddie Izzard and Zoe Wanamaker spring to mind). Parents should therefore recognise and nurture their child’s talents. Doing so will benefit their confidence, and who knows what fantastic careers these hobbies might lead to?
Whilst many adult dyslexics have a flair for creativity and entrepreneurialism, they commonly look upon school as being a motivational force in a negative way. They are motivated to prove their peers, teachers and in some cases parents wrong about them. To prove to others they are not “lazy” or “stupid”. Even those who are now multi-millionaires talk about their harsh and traumatic schooling. They still have nightmares about teachers and peers humiliating them. But thanks to new legislation and the changing attitudes of schools, those growing up with dyslexia are in a much better position than their older counterparts were. And with the right encouragement from their parents, there is every chance that a child with dyslexia will have a bright future in today’s day and age.
Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Click here to find out more about his book, Dyslexia and Mental Health.