The circle of help: and other ways friends can support a dyslexic child

Good friends are vital for children with dyslexia. Having classmates they feel safe with and who are understanding can make all the difference to their school day. Margaret Rooke, author of the bestselling Dyslexia is My Superpower (Most of the Time) writes using the insights of dyslexic children and teens, and their parents, about how you can be the best possible friend to them.


It’s no surprise that not all children and teens with dyslexia tell others about their diagnoses. Children don’t want to be seen as different in any way and being told they are dyslexic can weigh heavily on them.

For 12 months, Amber’s daughter didn’t tell anyone at school about her dyslexia. “Since then, she’s realised her real friends will help her and not pick on her,” her mum says. “Amber has the nicest bunch of friends and she’s found her place after struggling a lot in primary school. If her friends can’t help her or are too busy, she asks her teachers.”

Leah, who’s 14, told just one friend she trusted, and the decision paid off. “A teacher told us she was dyslexic, and a group of girls were laughing about it after the lesson. My friend told them to stop because some of the girls here might have it. Afterwards I couldn’t thank her enough. She said to me, ‘It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.’”


Noticing their strengths and attributes is a wonderful way for friends to encourage their dyslexic classmates. So many children with dyslexia have talents that arise at least in part from their particular way of thinking. Just look at the numbers of architects, artists, actors, entrepreneurs, sports people, musicians, interior designers, and other successful adults with dyslexia.

Patricia’s daughter Lucy is 11 and gets frustrated when her friends read much more quickly than she does. “She doesn’t want to draw a lot of attention to her dyslexia. She likes help from her friends in certain ways, but she’s a determined person who knows her own mind and would rather get on with things quietly.”

But her mum says in one particular way her friends have been a great help. “When they tell Lucy she’s brilliant at sport I see the happiness in her face when she reports this back to me.”


Karan says of some of her son’s friends: “They all compare marks among themselves with no thought about the challenges our son faces. There’s nothing malicious at all in these conversations, just a lack of awareness of how comparing their English marks so publicly can be problematic. Fortunately, he’s robust and is holding his own, with buckets of self-confidence.”


Teagan, 16, is clear that dyslexia doesn’t define her friendships which are about so much more. Yet she also knows what’s helpful for her. “My advice is to be patient and wait for your friend with dyslexia to ask for help, not just do everything for them,” she says. “I ask my friends for help when I need this. I like that they understand that I have dyslexia and some things are tough for me.”


Donna says she’s always encouraged her 12-year-old Emma to be open with her friends. “They help her quite discreetly,” says Donna. “They never make a big deal of it. Kids are so much more accepting than we give them credit for.”

Eight-year-old Reeve’s friends know he likes them to read the instructions of the computer games they play together, so now they do this before he even has to ask.

Jane’s son Joe has ‘safe students’ he can sit with and can ask ‘obvious’ questions of them, such as ‘Can you help me spell my email address again?’ One good thing the school has offered is that he can request these students to be in his class the next year.

Meanwhile Karen, remembering back to her schooldays, describes some specific help she received. “My friend used to organise my very messy desk and help with my timetable. This helped save me at school.”


The Circle of Help is a wonderful concept, brought to my attention by Catherine, one of the mums I spoke to. She says the ‘circle of help’ for her son, Donovan, is that he accepts support with the subjects he struggles with, finding it easier to understand explanations from his friends than from the teacher. In return he gives help with maths to his friends as he finds that easier.

Another mum, Jo, says her daughter Beth could spend 90 minutes reading one A4 page, trying to understand the teacher’s instructions. Instead, she can ask her friend what the page says, and she’ll answer it in a couple of minutes.  In her daughter’s words, “It’s easier to ask friends than your teacher because they know you better.” Teachers can give too much detail in saying what’s on the sheet, but friends know exactly what you need to know. Beth gives back to those friends too. She’ll come up with ideas in sessions of project work or draw the relevant diagrams, while her friends do the reading and writing.  

Eighteen-year-old Ben is a big believer in this concept. “I have a handful of friends from day one of high school who are happy to help in any way possible. One thing I try to do is return that favour to them. I can explain their points of view to people in charge because I’m one of the college captains, and they don’t feel as comfortable as me doing that, for example. I look on it as a one for one deal: you help me, and I’ll help you.”


One of the 100 children I spoke to for Dyslexia is My Superpower (Most of the Time) is Harriet who’s now 14. She explains how some of her friends help her on her journey. “Sometimes when we work in groups, I say, ‘Can I please not be the writer?’ and they’re fine with that. When we have to present a group task, they present my part as they know I don’t like to talk or read in front of the class. 

“But sometimes they don’t understand that it takes me longer to process information and write or type work and they might say ‘come on hurry up!’ Occasionally they don’t understand about me not presenting and think I’m just trying to get out of work. They will pressure me to try – but dyslexia isn’t an excuse.”

Friends are important, she stresses, because young people with dyslexia need a lot of support. “We need someone to trust when there’s no one to help us. They just need to understand how we feel a bit more.”


The final word goes to Donna. “My son likes to have someone who explains things to him, to help him understand what he doesn’t – and to have a little joke too,” she says. Just like the rest of us, then.

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