Behavior Problems: A Symptom of Something More

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Research done by Samuel T. Orton M.D., one of the first researchers to describe the emotional aspects of dyslexia, found that “the majority of dyslexic preschoolers are happy and well adjusted. Their emotional problems begin to develop when early reading instruction does not match their learning style. Over the years, the frustration mounts as classmates surpass the dyslexic student in reading skills.”  As reading intervention experts and dyslexia tutors, we often see dyslexic children that were late to be identified and late to receive appropriate interventions exhibit undesirable behaviors in school and at home.

The story is usually the same.  One (or both) of the child’s parents had some “gut feelings” that there was something different about the way their child learns or processes language.  Maybe both parents didn’t see eye to eye on these ‘differences’ so they swept it under the rug for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’.  Maybe they asked the school if they could do some testing, but the school assured them that “it’s too early to identify dyslexia”, or “it’s fine, it will just eventually click”.  Meanwhile, the child continues to struggle.  The child begins to understand that their peers are making progress, and they are not.  The child starts to become aware of their struggle to keep up academically and it begins to impact their feelings about school and their perception of themselves.  This realization, and the feelings that go along with it, usually lead to explosive behaviors (physical/emotional outbursts) or implosive behaviors (surrender, anxiety, depression).

According to an article by ldonline.com, “The frustration of children with dyslexia often centers on their inability to meet expectations. Their parents and teachers see a bright, enthusiastic child who is not learning to read and write. Time and again, dyslexics and their parents hear, “He’s such a bright child; if only he would try harder.” Ironically, no one knows exactly how hard the dyslexic is trying.” So, what does Dr. Michael Ryan and the International Dyslexia Association say these children are experiencing emotionally to trigger these explosive or implosive behaviors?

  1. Anxiety- Anxiety is the most frequent emotional symptom reported by dyslexic adults. Dyslexics become fearful because of their constant frustration and confusion in school. These feelings are exacerbated by the inconsistencies of dyslexia. Because they may anticipate failure, entering new situations can becomes extremely anxiety provoking. Anxiety causes human beings to avoid whatever frightens them. The dyslexic is no exception. However, many teachers and parents misinterpret this avoidance behavior as laziness. In fact, the dyslexic’s hesitancy to participate in school activities such as homework is related more to anxiety and confusion than to apathy.
  2. Anger- Many of the emotional problems caused by dyslexia occur out of frustration with school or social situations. Social scientists have frequently observed that frustration produces anger. This can be clearly seen in many dyslexics. The obvious target of the dyslexic’s anger would be schools and teachers. However, it is also common for the dyslexic to vent his anger on his parents. Mothers are particularly likely to feel the dyslexic’s wrath. Often, the child sits on his anger during school to the point of being extremely passive. However, once he is in the safe environment of home, these very powerful feelings erupt and are often directed toward the mother. Ironically, it is the child’s trust of the mother that allows him to vent his anger. However, this becomes very frustrating and confusing to the parent who is desperately trying to help their child.   As youngsters reach adolescence, society expects them to become independent. The tension between the expectation of independence and the child’s learned dependence causes great internal conflicts.   The adolescent dyslexic uses his anger to break away from those people on which he feels so dependent.   Because of these factors, it may be difficult for parents to help their teenage dyslexic. Instead, peer tutoring or a concerned young adult may be better able to intervene and help the child.
  3. Self-image– The dyslexic’s self–image appears to be extremely vulnerable to frustration and anxiety. According to Erik Erikson, during the first years of school, every child must resolve the conflicts between a positive self–image and feelings of inferiority. If children succeed in school, they will develop positive feelings about themselves and believe that they can succeed in life. If children meet failure and frustration, they learn that they are inferior to others, and that their effort makes very little difference. Instead of feeling powerful and productive, they learn that their environment controls them. They feel powerless and incompetent.  Researchers have learned that when typical learners succeed, they credit their own efforts for their success. When they fail, they tell themselves to try harder. However, when the dyslexic succeeds, he is likely to attribute his success to luck. When he fails, he simply sees himself as stupid.  Research also suggests that these feelings of inferiority develop by the age of ten. After this age, it becomes extremely difficult to help the child develop a positive self–image. This is a powerful argument for early intervention.
  4. Depression- Depression is also a frequent complication in dyslexia. Although most dyslexics are not depressed, children with this kind of learning disability are at higher risk for intense feelings of sorrow and pain. Perhaps because of their low self–esteem, dyslexics are afraid to turn their anger toward their environment and instead turn it toward themselves. However, depressed children and adolescents often have different symptoms than do depressed adults. The depressed child is unlikely to be lethargic or to talk about feeling sad. Instead he or she may become more active or misbehave to cover up the painful feelings. In the case of masked depression, the child may not seem obviously unhappy. However, both children and adults who are depressed tend to have three similar characteristics:
  • First, they tend to have negative thoughts about themselves, i.e. a negative self–image.
  • Second, they tend to view the world negatively. They are less likely to enjoy the positive experiences in life. This makes it difficult for them to have fun.
  • Finally, most depressed youngsters have great trouble imagining anything positive about the future. The depressed dyslexic not only experiences great pain in his present experiences, but also foresees a life of continuing failure.

Top Ten Ways to Help Your Struggling Learner?

  1. Early detection and intervention
  2. Family decision makers on the “same page” as far as the time and financial commitment that true remediation will take- it’s a marathon, not a sprint
  3. Orton-Gillingham approach structured literacy intervention: explicit, systematic, sequential, multi-sensory reading program
  4. Data driven instruction
  5. Open dialogue with your child and family about your child’s learning differences
  6. Growth Mindset coaching and modeling
  7. Find an area where the child can succeed
  8. Consistent and ongoing support and encouragement
  9. Celebrate effort and set realistic goals

Learn about dyslexia and teach your child to self-advocate or find an intervention program that infuses self-advocacy

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