Mental Health and Children with Dyslexia

Dyslexic children do not understand why they cannot learn like their classmates and may blame themselves for failure at school – leading to low self-esteem.

Children’s first awareness of their dyslexia is often the result of a failure in school. They lack understanding of why they are unable to learn at the same rate, in the same way as their classmates. They cannot explain the difficulties they experience and blame themselves for their lack of progress. This often leads to low self-esteem and an expectation of failure.

Many parents have had to deal with the impact of dyslexia at home long before it is recognised by the school – and sometimes they have no idea that their child is struggling in school. Refusing to cooperate may be a ‘coping’ strategy for a dyslexic child who finds homework stressful and difficult – but many parents are unaware of this, so do not. Concerns about changes in attitude and behaviour at home – especially with homework – a frustrating and upsetting experience for dyslexic learners and their parents -should be shared with the school.

Dyslexia and Mental Health

The longer dyslexia goes unrecognised, the greater the problem becomes. Many dyslexic boys become angry and frustrated and some display disruptive or aggressive behaviour. Girls with dyslexia may become quiet, isolated and withdrawn – though many find support with a group of friends, which may be interpreted as ‘chattering’ or easily distracted.

From the earliest years in primary school, both boys and girls, whose dyslexia has not been identified, may be reluctant to go to school – they may complain of headaches or feeling sick on days when a spelling test or a subject they do not like is on the timetable. As they progress into secondary education, they may begin selective truancy to avoid subjects where they are struggling. Because of the fragmented nature of the secondary timetable, this truancy may take teachers – and parents – some time to identify.

An individual learner’s dyslexia may be hidden by apparent behavioural issues in the classroom – and identification of dyslexia may come as a surprise to some teachers who have been working hard to resolve these. However, when underlying dyslexic issues are not addressed, the coping strategies developed by children with dyslexia may become embedded in their approach to all learning and misidentified as ‘attitude’ or ‘behaviour’ issues. By the time they move to secondary school, they may be convinced that they are ‘stupid’ and unable to learn – so they give up trying, turning coping mechanisms into avoidance strategies.

Dyslexia is not only a series of difficulties – it often includes a range of specific abilities. A dyslexic child may be original, creative, artistic or orally very able and knowledgeable and a disparity between cognitive abilities, academic skills and performance is often noted in progress reports. Some high ability children with dyslexia develop individual strategies for coping with any barriers to learning met – though they may consistently underachieve.

Some characteristics of dyslexia may be masked by a learner’s high ability or by distracting behaviour patterns, and may also be deliberately concealed by children and teenagers who are desperate not to be ‘different’ from their peers. Very often barriers to learning – leading to a dyslexic learner experiencing unexpected difficulties – are attributed to inappropriate behaviour or a poor attitude. Asking other learners for help is assumed to be talking inappropriately, or taking a very long time to complete written work is thought to be due to laziness. Behaviours that are characteristic of dyslexia may not be identified as such when an individual is falling behind the rest of the class in an activity.

Dyslexia that has not been recognised and is not supported has a powerful impact on how individual learners cope with the demands of the curriculum – and how the demands of the curriculum may affect individuals. Concentration is easily lost and some may become restless or disruptive in order to draw attention away from their difficulties. Others may seem to avoid set work in class, being unable to concentrate and easily tired. Some appear inattentive and uncooperative. Most teachers deal with these issues using a range of sanctions – varying from mild reprimands to individual behaviour management approaches.

It is unlikely that an investigation for dyslexia might arise from identification of behavioural issues only – but if a lack of progress in the curriculum is attributed to observed behaviour, underachievement caused by underlying learning difficulties may not be considered. When a learner appears to be making satisfactory progress, teachers may look for reasons for behavioural issues elsewhere rather than consider possible dyslexia.

Classroom behaviours and low self-esteem are often attributed to social or emotional issues and dealt with as such. When behaviour – whether increasingly withdrawn or disruptive – escalates beyond a class teacher’s ability to help, specialist teachers or other professionals may become involved. If dyslexia has not been recognised or is discounted, the advice and support offered may be inappropriate and fail to resolve the issues.

Because their dyslexia has not been recognised – or has been discounted by some teachers who assume that learners have somehow ‘grown out of it’ – some learners believe that they really are lazy or incapable of concentrating. They believe that they are stupid or ‘no good’ at some subjects. Low self-esteem and the stress of trying (and failing) to keep up in school – especially when exams are on the horizon – causes some dyslexic learners to become anxious, while others ‘drop out’.

The combination of low self-esteem, stress and anxiety may lead to depression or other mental health issues developing. Some young people with dyslexia do develop eating disorders or find stress release in self-harm – and they require therapeutic input by appropriate professionals. However, therapies – and medication – will not resolve their issues until the underlying dyslexia is identified and appropriately supported.

It is vital that staff at all levels of education undertake dyslexia courses for teachers which would enable them to spot the early warning signs of dyslexia in pupils and prevent them from falling behind and developing low self-esteem and mental health problems.