How and when to tell a child they are dyslexic-
Many teachers and parents find it hard to tell a child they have dyslexia. It is a ‘lifelong learning disorder’ after all, and who wants to have one of those. Even the British Dyslexia Association describes it as ‘a lifelong, usually genetic, inherited condition’. It doesn’t sound like good news. And this brings me to my first point.
The Do's and Don'ts of breaking the news
1. Don’t over medicalise it.
Using terms like ‘diagnosis’ and ‘disorder’ instantly makes it sound scary and negative. While children with dyslexia often struggle, and this is probably why the child has been assessed, it is important they understand dyslexia has positive impacts on their learning too.
It is a difference in how your brain processes things. Sometimes this is good – it is probably why you are so creative and good at problem-solving. Sometimes it is bad – it is why you find it difficult to learn some spellings.
There is much debate around whether dyslexia should be described as a ‘learning difference’ or a ‘learning difficulty’. Certainly the term ‘difference’ less loaded, although in some instances it may also be less accurate.
2. Don’t globalise it.
Literacy and academic learning is a big area. Dyslexia affects a relatively small, if important set of skills. Frame their dyslexia in terms of these skills. It is not that they are ‘bad at literacy’ it is that they find learning particular types of spelling difficult, or that they find reading new words hard. Re framing it in this way makes it more manageable for the child, and less likely that they will feel negative about their academic abilities in general.
3. Do tell them - It is never too early to tell them.
‘A label’ is only a problem if it is a bad thing. No one minds being labelled a ‘genius’. The attitude of the adults around the child is the critical thing. Often it is a relief to a child to know there is a reason for the difficulties they have. This is particularly true for children who have been labelled ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ – ‘dyslexic’ is a big improvement. If they are struggling enough to have been assessed then the chances are they already know something's up.
4. Do send a message that they can still achieve, they just have to work harder and learn differently to get there.
Send a message that they can still achieve what everyone else can achieve, they just have to work differently (and often harder) to get there. Most children with dyslexia have struggled with their learning for years before they get a diagnosis. They know they have to work harder to do what comes naturally to everyone else, and however much we try to protect them they will have to continue to work hard to achieve. The difference is now they have a ‘diagnosis’ we will know how to help them a whole lot better than we did.
(Ok, this plainly isn’t true for every child in every circumstance, but certainly for younger children I would not want their dreams and aspirations squashed)
5. Don’t tell them it’s OK because they can be good at other things.
Sometimes, with the best intentions in the world, children with dyslexia get told is it ok that they are not good at literacy, because they can be good at other things... Good at dancing, good at art, good at being kind. Children aren’t daft, they know that they aren’t going to be policemen, astronauts, authors, scientists and doctors…. the things that children’s dreams are made of if they can’t read and write.
Children with dyslexia are just like any other children, some will be academic and some will not. A small number will find a career at perfectly suits them, that doesn’t need literacy. But most will need some literacy skills and our goal needs to be supporting them to get there.
If we don’t what children to lower their expectations of themselves then we have to make sure we don’t lower our expectations of them.
6. Do provide positive role models with dyslexia.
This can be older children they look up to, people they know or famous people. But avoid the trap of only pointing out people who have achieved in ‘non-academic’ subjects. Dyslexia is entirely different from IQ. A child might be very academically bright and have dyslexia or they might not. There are plenty of people with dyslexia who are academic.
7. Do be clear it can’t be ‘cured’…but it does get easier.
Dyslexia cannot be fixed. It is lifelong. Children with dyslexia grow up to be adults with dyslexia. Some compensate for their dyslexia fantastically well, others will always have difficulties. However, things do get easier. As adults we are rarely given spelling tests or reading comprehension. And other skills that we do have are valued more. We are allowed to type, to ask someone else a spelling or to choose to watch the film rather than read the book.
Primary School is disproportionately tough on children with dyslexia. By the time I was at university I could use a computer in my exams. It meant I could get a first class degree despite having the spelling age of an 11 year old (I’ve just double checked this – 10 years and 3 months to be precise). Thanks to a spell checker no one even noticed, and it was my knowledge and ideas that people cared about. Primary school, on the other hand, was a nightmare.
8. Do teach them to choose their battles.
I have officially given up trying to learn my times-tables. I’m 36 and if I haven’t mastered them by now, so be it. The psychologist who assessed me instantly told me to learn to touch type rather than to spell. I was 22 at the time and I only wish I had been given the same advice age 12. The sense of relief was enormous. Many children with dyslexia will have ‘blind spots’- particular things that just won’t stick, and no amount of repetition or effort is going to change that. So cancel that spelling-test, bookmark the tricky-words or burn the handwriting book. Find work-arounds and save everyone’s sanity.
9. Do celebrate it!
It is a new start and an answer to ‘why’ things have been so tough. It comes with blessings – a degree of creativity, lateral thinking, problem-solving …many of the skills the child is good at will be the ‘flip side’ to dyslexia.
This was written by Alice Frendo, a dyslexia assessor who has had to tell many children they are dyslexic and who…once upon a time…was told she was dyslexic.
I'm sure I've missed things. What do you think is important when telling a child they have dyslexia?