After a while of struggling at school, the diagnosis of dyslexia might initially come as a relief. That explains it; until you realise it only points out your child’s shortcomings, when measured against a very limited set of criteria used in the educational system.
More than 20 years on from when my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, little has changed. In spite of its prevalence, and the huge talents that accompany the difficulty, teachers are still not sufficiently educated themselves about this fascinating group of people.
In this blog, you’ll learn of dyslexics’ strengths and their styles of thinking as well as how to help a dyslexic child at home, whilst also nurturing their talents.
This ignorance is harmful
(1) Like the Ugly Duckling, too many children go through life conditioned to see themselves as inferior, hiding their light under a bushel and suffering the psychological consequences of low self-esteem.
(2) Schools are still not designed to incorporate and nurture dyslexic thinking and learning styles. This is not just wasteful of talent, but wasteful of the strengths urgently needed in our fast changing world.
Dyslexics learn and process information differently than neuro-typical brains. Their main challenge is in how they see, process and produce written language, affecting spelling, reading and writing.
So, why is this?
The answer lies in their great learning strength. Dyslexics are whole-body learners. They learn with their mind, heart, body and its sensory organs. They think in pictures and feelings. For understanding to take place they need to see and experience. Things need to make sense in the real world and their greatest strength is the ability to think laterally, out-of-the-box.
Dyslexics and the written word
Words are symbols. They do not mean anything in themselves but merely represent real things. Words that cannot be pictured cause the greatest problem - think of ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘in’, ‘past’, ‘by’. These little words send their mind off on a search for meaning (i.e. image), which disconnects them from what is on the page. This disassociation is connected to strong right-brain activity, which is vital for associative, intuitive thinking, and lies at the heart of creativity.
To understand this better, imagine the left- and right-brain as two ends of a see-saw. Each side is important to function, but when the right-brain (the creative brain) becomes too active, the left-brain (which is needed for processing language) loses its footing, and vice versa. Without this understanding we cannot properly support our dyslexic children and colleagues.
They either become too mechanistically caught up in the process of writing, reading, spelling and lose connection to the meaning of what they are doing.
Alternatively, they go off on a right-brain associative daydream and fail to be consistent in how they process the written language.
In conclusion then: our educational system values the merits of logical, linear, left-brain thinking, in spite of its lack of originality. Dyslexics however, excel in analogous, lateral, right-brain and highly original thinking.
The right-brain talents your child was born with are numerous. It is for good reason that there have been many initiatives to rename the condition, in an attempt to move from a deficit model to a more strength-based description: right-brain talent, upside-down intelligence, indigo children, new age children, gifted - the list goes on, though nothing has stuck as tightly as the word ‘dyslexia’.
What is sure, is that insightful and prescient employers actively seek the talents of dyslexics and other neuro-diverse brains. GCHQ for one, relies on at least 25% of its workforce to have the ability to recognise pattern, innovate, think creatively and so on. They consciously seek out dyslexic employees.
Did you know that 40% of self-made millionaires are dyslexic? To find out more about the incredible talents of dyslexics and how to support them, visit the excellent website of the newly launched charity Made By Dyslexia. (You may remember their launch when they opened the ‘world’s first dyslexic sperm bank’. Hear more on founder Kate Griggs’ TED talk here.)
7 ways PARENTs can help a dyslexic child at home
Parents often come to me asking how to help their dyslexic child at home in addition to the support they might be receiving at school. Read the following ways you can support and nurture your dyslexic child’s abilities:
1. Keep the flame alive
Regularly ponder the words attributed to Albert Einstein that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll live its whole life believing it is stupid.
Connect with what your child can do and feel gratitude for those traits. Give him responsibilities and opportunities to shine.
Remind yourself of your whole child – his talents, humour, interests, kindness and above all his enormous curiosity. Keep a picture in your wallet of a joyful time, before he went to school.
2. Check in with yourself
What are your feelings about your child’s dyslexia? Acknowledge and examine these.
Are you fearful of his future? Work on changing that. Your dyslexic child picks up all the vibes, even if he doesn’t know it consciously. Your reservations will affect his esteem.
3. Foster a growth mindset
Life is about learning, which means being curious and free to experiment and make mistakes, so as to learn from them. Let the process be at least as much fun as the end result and avoid black-and-white thinking or judging.
4. Acknowledge your child’s feelings
School is exhausting for dyslexics. Help her name her feelings of exhaustion, confusion, being fed-up and so on. Don’t trivialise them.
Teach her to self-manage her feelings. ‘What does she need now?’
Being angry or fed-up never justifies aggressive behaviour or tantrums, but once the feeling has been named, your child can think about what she needs to calm down or make amends.
Remember too, that when your child is overwhelmed, she cannot absorb any of your spoken instructions.
Perhaps the best thing after a long day’s work at school, is a good break.
5. Time to be private and play
Yes, those breaks: we all need them, but no one more so than dyslexics. Playtime is vital, to get into the 3-D world again, to make things, imagine, exercise, be out in the fresh air and feel free.
Which brings me to the much needed privacy: a regular time when they are not accountable to anyone, but also disconnected from hi-tech games. This is the reset button to help calm them down fully and arrive back home to themselves.
6. Mood Sponges
A dyslexic child mops up moods like a sponge. She will pick up an atmosphere or take on the agitation around her, as her own. Learning to distinguish her own stuff from that of people around her and to drop the unwanted mood like a coat at the door, is a vital component of building resilience and learning to regulate emotions.
7. Curiosity - the greatest gem
Help keep your child’s curiosity and eagerness to learn and find out, alive. Support him in his hobbies and having a life well away from school.
Limit the time you spend talking about school related matters. There is so much else going on in the world to think about and most especially to be in awe of.
If learning is not understood, show him, let him discover and experience (even if only in his imagination) what you are talking about. Simply explaining - particularly when it is about something that doesn’t much interest him! - will not go anywhere. Remember that words belong to the world of cognition; your child is a whole body learner.
Finally, let’s all make sure that our dyslexic children have a different experience of childhood than Richard Rodgers who said that ‘the one advantage of being dyslexic is that you are never tempted to look back and idealise your childhood.’
Find the masses of articles about the creative mind and parenting on my website. I also enclose the small BREATHE article I did specifically for teenagers with difficulties at school. Read my own favourite article ‘Why Dyslexia is a Gift to Creativity’ here.
I also link my blog post based on a question I am regularly asked by parents with dyslexic children: How do I help a dyslexic child regulate their emotions?'
Services for Dyslexia
After reading this, you might still be searching for further guidance…
As well as one-to-one therapeutic coaching sessions for dyslexic children and adults, I offer (online) coaching sessions to help parents support their dyslexic offspring. To get in touch to discuss how we can work together, click here.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based in Woodchurch (near Ashford), Kent.
Renée works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.
Renée is a regular contributor to Breathe Magazine and the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind.