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What schools should be saying to struggling dyslexic students

At least 1 out of every five kids is dyslexic.

But like you, I don’t think about my son as an abstract statistic. I think more like a female lion ready to bite the head off anyone that dares suggest that he is lazy.

We received a letter from an otherwise brilliantly supportive school:

Dear Judah,

At the end of the term, a full staff meeting was held to discuss individual academic performances. We are concerned.

We hope that you will come to the realisation that you need to change your work ethic in order to achieve higher marks next year. The bottom line is that you need to adopt a more disciplined and structured academic approach.

The bottom line? Really? The letter surprised us, not because we are naive about the challenges, but because the school gives mixed messages:

“Judah was commended to me for embodying the school values, despite his time here not always being easy.” The head wrote to us in September.

“Judah’s marks do not reflect his ability… examination type assessment is challenging for him. I cannot fault his desire to do well and I know it is frustrating for him. I encourage him to remain positive and to persevere’” wrote his English teacher two days before the above, offending letter.

Don’t get me wrong, I have sympathy for the challenge of teaching a broad range of learners and for the pressure a school feels to deliver excellent results.

The same people that see Judah’s character, his ability and his effort are in a system that has to get him and the range of other kids around him through gates by certain dates. And those gates happen to be disproportionately weighted by written exams.

What I need to forgive them for, is a lazy standardised letter that forgot that a lack of success for a dyslexic kid isn’t always due to a lack of trying.

“Just how handicapping the limitations of disability becomes depends either on how well the environment is adapted to the range of people who use it or on the opportunities they have to learn to cope with it, or both.”
Anne Shearer, Disability: Who’s Handicap?

Shearer is right that if an environment does not adapt to the range of people who use it, or offer opportunities for those people to cope then disability is created.

Without my glasses I am handicapped!

More importantly, Dyslexia doesn’t only offer limitations that need support! Every progressive industry is increasingly hunting for people with brain differences, happy to accommodate those limitations for the chance to capitalise on those gifts.

But education is a ‘conservative industry’ dyslexic expert Thomas West says. (Catch my conversation with West in February 2023 when we discuss the extraordinary gifts of visual thinkers and how the world is beginning to seek them out.)

Instead of catching on and scurrying to accommodate limitations, education is still preparing students for a outdated workforce. Even our very good school is under pressure to perform on standardised exams and in doing so risks demoralising the neurodivergent students with a message that says: “You are the problem. Your challenges are due to a lack of effort: It’s personal”.

It leaves the onus on my boy to rise above the odds, not only of his own challenges, but of the pessimistic framework the environment invites.

The Drs Eide write that the most important internal support kids with Dyslexia can receive is to develop an optimistic framework. Facing failure often can become a message that is hard to ignore. And if you face failure while trying really hard,the message is: “don’t bother, it’ll never get better”.

But the research shows clearly that it does get better.

The grass, as Bodhi Bragonier of likes to say, is actually greener on the other side of school for kids with Dyslexia!

So to Judah we say:

  • They are wrong that you need to change.

  • They have forgotten what they know about you.

  • They are right that you are going to have to work ridiculously hard and be disciplined to succeed.

  • Later, this too will be your dyslexic advantage: that you know what it means to work as hard as it takes.

“We’ve found that teaching (an) optimistic framework to students with dyslexia can help them interpret and deal with their dyslexia-related challenges in more productive ways. This involves teaching individuals with dyslexia that their challenges are temporary and conquerable (either through the use of remediation, strategies, or accommodation), limited to particular functions (which are also accompanied by benefits), and due to specific patterns of brain organization and function rather than to a lack of effort or merit on their part.” Brock and Fernette Eide

With this insight in mind, I’ve taken the liberty to re-write the letter for the school and other good schools under similar pressure. (Feel free to copy and paste.)

Dear (insert struggling dyslexic student name),

At the end of the term, a full staff meeting was held to discuss individual academic performances. We are concerned about you.

But this is what we agreed:

Your challenges aren’t pervasive, they don’t affect every aspect of your life. They are limited to specific functions (that come with perks too!). Tackle them with renewed vigour in the new year, use the values we see you embody. We know this is hard but we think you’ve got what it takes.

Your challenges aren’t personal. You are not defective, disabled or lazy. Your brain is different and you need to learn how to use it well, to achieve whatever you set your heart to. While education changes slowly to celebrate and grow what you do better than others, we will offer you opportunities to learn to cope with what you happen to find hard. We see you are willing to take such opportunities.

Your challenges are not permanent but temporary and conquerable. Learn the skills to use the accommodations and do the extra hard work it takes to grow your abilities (while you wait for those surges of development that so often result in late blooming in dyslexics).

Whatever you do, don’t give up. Because the world needs what you have to offer.

Yours sincerely,

The full staff at (insert school name here)

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1 comentario

Samantha Webster
Samantha Webster
13 ene 2023

I hope your son's school, and many others, read and adopt your version of the letter! My child has for the first time caught the attention of a teacher for positive reasons, and I cannot believe the difference in her attitude to school from having someone believe in her!

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