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The Overlooked Comorbidities of Dyslexia: Approaches to Whole-Child Remediation

Categories: dyslexia, Education & Teaching, Educators, Learning Disabilities, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age

“For many affected children, dyslexia has extinguished the joys of childhood” explains Sally Shaywitz in her book, “Overcoming Dyslexia”. 

While awareness of dyslexia has improved over the last decade, even the best interventions often fail to address the social and emotional challenges that make up the full picture of dyslexia. In addition to the core deficits which account for difficulties in reading, it is common for dyslexic students to experience bouts of anxiety, avoidance, and issues with self-esteem. 

Recently, Danielle Frith, an alumna of Monmouth University and Special Education Specialist spoke to an audience of Learning Ally community members about the social/emotional symptoms of dyslexia, and how teachers can respond to them appropriately. Her research reveals strategies that adults can use to help dyslexic students cope with their whole experience.

Life Long Anxiety

The most frequent emotional symptom reported by adults with dyslexia is anxiety. Case studies reveal that children with dyslexia grow up with scars that last into adulthood. While in school, these individuals face constant frustration and heightened feelings of inadequacy. Resultantly, they learn to anticipate failure. As they enter college and journey into adulthood, they are more likely to become fearful and overwhelmed, especially when faced with new tasks that require the decoding of complicated text.

To help combat this effect, Frith recommends employing the DE-STRESS method developed by Neuropsychologist, Jerome Schultz specifically for students with learning disabilities. 

The DE-STRESS acronym stands for Define, Educate, Speculate, Teach, Reduce the Threat, Exercise, Success, and Strategize. These steps are organized to help students and teachers identify triggers of where frustrations occur, and how they can be approached mindfully.

Avoidant Behavior Tactics

When dyslexia is un-remediated, students are forced to develop their own coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms often appear in the form of avoidant tendencies and are commonly misinterpreted as unsavory personality traits. Students who anticipate frustration and failure may take on a passive avoidant attitude to escape an assignment that is expected to cause distress. This sort of behavior is often misinterpreted as laziness, causing many students with learning disabilities to mistakenly identify with a lack of motivation. Other students may avoid frustration more actively by becoming a source of distraction. 

Teachers should understand that this sort of ‘class-clown’ behavior isn’t merely an outburst of excessive energy. Recognizing these patterns as attempts to defend against discomfort is a key to effectively responding to students’ needs. Teachers should also provide consistent encouragement for students who are likely to disengage when left to independently manage these challenges. Teachers should also be mindful to put more focus on effort than on product. Students with dyslexia are likely to notice themselves falling behind in activities that require reading, so teachers should prioritize a good effort above finishing a task quickly.

Dyslexia and Wounded Self-Esteem

While children may come to a dyslexia diagnosis at any age, they are almost always aware of their differences from a young age. At home, children with dyslexia may experience guilt or tension from parents, as well as blame or jealousy among siblings. At school, they are likely to be labeled as lazy, disruptive, and even stupid. Troubles with language may leave them feeling anti-social and may suppress their need to express themselves. As they approach high school, the pressure to gain academic independence may leave them feeling helpless, isolated, and angry at those who they once depended on for academic support. 

Self-worth and identity are some of the most vulnerable parts of a student, so it is essential for teachers to nurture dyslexic students’ self-concept. Remind your child that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence, and expose them to successful individuals who have also overcome these challenges. Students should be encouraged to talk about their dyslexia and analyze how it affects their day-to-day experiences. Helping students recognize their own experiences and advocate for themselves will help them to remember that they are more than their dyslexia -- much more. Remind students of their strengths and give them opportunities to use them whenever possible. If an assignment is especially challenging for a student with dyslexia, provide them with alternative options. Most importantly, give students a multitude of opportunities to express themselves and explain how they are feeling. 

Showing Support

Anxiety, avoidance, and low self-esteem are only some of the social/emotional conditions that tend to accompany a dyslexia diagnosis. Depending on a student's school, home environment, and support system, these comorbidities can vary in type and intensity, so it’s important to check in often. “A child with dyslexia is in need of a champion,” says Shaywitz. Frith encourages educators to be those champions by supporting both the academic and emotional needs of struggling readers. 

You can view the full recording of her presentation on Learning Ally’s Spotlight Series On-Demand. 

Join the Learning Ally community to learn more about how you can support struggling readers. 

Danielle Frith is a full-time specialist professor in the special education department at Monmouth University and an adjunct instructor at Rider University. Danielle is working towards attaining her PhD in special education from Temple University and recently completed a LEND Fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Her research interests include dyslexia, assessment, science of reading, teacher preparation and learning disabilities. She presents both locally and nationally on a variety of topics related to special education. She is a Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD) Leadership Academy cohort participant and is currently working on a special education technology meta-analysis.

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