“Chloe rushes up to her bedroom as soon as she comes home from school. If I try to ask her about her day, lessons or friends, she yells at me and slams the door.”
“Danny, is hopeless – ask him to do things and he forgets. I give him a few things I’d like some help with and he stands there looking confused and mouthing my instructions.”
“I’m so worried about Sam, I sometimes think she is bipolar; she can be lovely, sociable, kind – she has some great friends, she loves sport and art, but she can get so angry and frustrated; it’s as if she’s a different girl altogether.”
If you can see your son or daughter in one of these quotes, it may be a sign that he or she has dyslexia. A 2014 report by Dyslexia International states that dyslexia affects at least 10% of any given population. This makes it one of the most common learning difficulties in the world.
The good news is that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with the brain processing information differently. It is also known to run in families. If you have a dyslexic child, take a look at your family; you may recognise the same traits in other family members. In fact, as I have worked with many children and their parents – and we talk about their son or daughter – there has been a recognition that they are also the ones being described and they begin to see why they struggled so much through school themselves.
Many dyslexics have a gift for design technology
Seeing things differently
In many cases dyslexia becomes apparent when a child reaches school age but sometimes it can be diagnosed earlier. At school, teachers will want to discuss a student’s problems with reading and writing, the jumbling up of words and possibly poor organisation or difficulty carrying out a sequence of directions.
Take the example of two former pupils of mine, twin sisters Sophie and Alice. Over 20 years ago, at the age of five, their parents were shopping in a local supermarket where they bumped into the girls’ teacher who passed comment that if you put both their heads together you might get one functioning brain.
Thankfully, attitudes have generally changed since then but in some parts of the world there is still a massive stigma attached to these children who have what is perceived as a learning abnormality.
When it comes to dyslexia, low selfesteem is the single most prevalent issue that needs working through. Students become casualties of an education process that has pushed them to the back of the class, sent them out because they are causing a disturbance, told they are not trying or are just stupid. In reality, they simply see things differently; the way they learn does not match the way they have been taught and frustration has led to outbursts or disruptive behaviour. As this cycle of imposed failure and rejection occurs again and again, the child retreats into his or her own world.
Perhaps the one most common factor for dyslexics is how they process information and instructions. Their processing speed is much slower, meaning they become very easily confused by multiple instructions.
If you would like to try something simple at home to help ease frustrations on both sides, you can try a technique that we teachers call ‘chunking.’ Rather than asking your son or daughter to do multiple things, just say, “Please can you help me by taking the trash out?” Follow up with the next request once this has been achieved and make sure you praise them every time they succeed in achieving a task.
Unlocking the potential
What I have discovered in teaching dyslexic children for over 50 years is that what works best for a dyslexic, actually works best for all children. Every child has a preferred way to learn; if we tailor teaching and learning then not only does it become so much more effective, it becomes so much more enjoyable.
There’s no doubt that dyslexics can flourish in a mainstream academic context, provided they are enrolled in a truly inclusive school that caters for children who learn differently. A model of small classes, highly specialised mainstream teachers, expert 1:1 and small group SEN specialists, who teach strategies that dyslexic children are able to use in mainstream lessons, provides the academic springboard for achievement. However, the school has to provide more than just the academic.
There has to be a mechanism for unlocking a dyslexic child’s potential, building back their self-confidence and self-esteem and releasing their gifts. At St David’s we focus on three key principles: sound scholarship, physical fortitude and foundations of character. We make time for other ‘real’ education – sport, Duke of Edinburgh awards, community projects, volunteering, travelling, or simply playing with friends, without the stress of work constantly hanging like a dark cloud over everything. Students are inspired to fulfil their absolute holistic potential, in academic, physical and moral aspects of life.
Provide an education that develops each of these areas and you will discover a young adult ready to take on the world. Find a school intent on developing character, confidence, leadership and self-esteem, and then wonders can happen. Find a school that celebrates dyslexia as a gift rather than seeing it as a special educational need.
There is still one more key to real education and it is very simple – creating a sense of belonging for every child. School should not just be a school, it should be a community where both pupils and parents find a place of belonging. Education is a threeway partnership between parents, children and the school. We all know, sometimes with a certain amount of embarrassment or even pain, that learning actually comes most effectively through failure.
We need to encourage children to just try things and not worry about whether it will work or not. To create an environment where failure can be safe and positive, it has to be a place of belonging. In such a place a child or young person knows that there will always be someone to pick them up, put them back on their feet, dust them down and say, “Here have another go.”
Let’s revisit Sophie, my former pupil. As the more dyslexic of the twins her story really is inspirational. Sophie spent most of her time in school simply not being able to read or write. Throughout this time, we used traditionally extracurricular activities to build her confidence and provide her with light-bulb moments that helped to explain concepts she was learning in the classroom. I also spent time with her as chaplain, helping her to understand who she really was and what she could give back to the world.
Sophie still has a reading age of a nine or 10-year-old but she gained amazing GCSEs and A levels and is a hugely gifted artist, designer, communicator and spatial thinker. She has a first-class Master’s degree in Architecture, was headhunted by an elite architecture firm and also owned and ran a very successful photography business.
I wonder if school utterly exhausts you? I wonder if school totally frustrates you? I wonder if you sit at the back of the class screaming in silence, “Please help me, I want to learn too, stop leaving me out.”
Maybe you love sport, socialising, talking and playing but want to avoid reading, hope your teacher doesn’t ask you a question, wish your teacher would slow down and let you process everything she has just said, or you simply dread the classroom.
Dyslexia is a gift you have that is also a barrier to your learning in a typical school classroom. The barrier is that you see things very differently, process instructions very differently and see letters and words in a completely different way. Often these words may jump around the page and be unrecognisable to you. The gift is that you are what I like to call a ‘3D thinker.’ You see in pictures, you memorise in pictures and you see problems from a different angle. You are a solution maker, an innovator and a creative thinker, constantly having ideas you want to share.
How can you celebrate and work with your gift in a learning environment that is alien to you?
Here are a few practical tips:
• Tell your teacher you want to learn but you’re actually seeing the page of words as a jumble, you’re struggling to process multiple instructions, you often have ideas you would love to share in class but are too anxious to speak out.
• Ask a friend to sit next to you and help you with the bits you struggle with and tell your friend you have loads of ideas which may help with their classwork or homework. (Ask
your teacher about this so you don’t get your friend into trouble for talking in class!)
• Use your laptop or device for writing – there are so many speech-to-text and text-tospeech apps – find out which works best for you.
• You may be very disorganised and find it hard to remember time and co-ordinate what you need when and where. Use your phone to help you set reminders. (Would your school let you have your phone as an ‘assistant,’ if you negotiated it and made sure you used it in that way?)
• Find a good mind mapping programme, so that you can put your ideas down quickly and then you can get them into an order once they are recorded, before you forget them.
More than anything else enjoy your gift of dyslexia, share the gift and help other people understand what you struggle with so they can help you. It is not something to hide or be ashamed of, it is something to celebrate. By the way, one in 10 people are dyslexic, so you’re not alone.
• St David’s College, www.stdavidscollege.co.uk
St David’s College is a mainstream secondary boarding school in North Wales with a specialism for removing barriers to learning to enable children with learning differences (SEN) to access mainstream education. Registration is open for September 2020 and beyond. Limited places are available for September 2019Tags: st davids college, education, dyslexia