Imagine you are in first grade and learning to read. You go to school every day and participate in all the reading and writing activities. You are excited to learn to read and raise your hand enthusiastically any time the teacher asks a question. You try your very best every day.
However, while most of the kids in your class are starting to blend the sounds in words together, you are struggling to break words into their individual sounds. You feel discouraged, but you keep trying. Soon, most of the kids in your class are reading short books on their own. They are fluently reading most of the words in the book without sounding out each word one by one. You notice it takes you quite a bit longer to read the same books as your peers because it is harder for you to blend the sounds in the words together. You often need help from your teacher, and you can tell reading is easier for most of the other kids in your class. No matter how hard you try, you still cannot read, and you do not understand why. You feel frustrated, discouraged, and embarrassed. You begin to dread going to school, and you wake up with a stomachache most days. When it is time to read aloud in class, you do not raise your hand to answer the teacher’s questions. Instead, you put your head on your desk.
How do you think this experience would impact your self-esteem and your mental health? The research indicates that it would most likely have a negative effect.
Impact of Dyslexia on Mental Health
Recently, there has been an increased focus on mental health in schools, and with good reason. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of children diagnosed with depression increased by 27%, and the number of children diagnosed with anxiety increased by 29% (Lebrun-Harris et al., 2022). Students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, are at a higher risk of developing depression (Hendren et al., 2018; Maag & Reid, 2006; Mammarella et al., 2016) and anxiety (Hendren et al., 2018; Mammarella et al., 2016; Nelson & Harwood, 2011). Low self-esteem also occurs at higher rates among individuals with learning disabilities (Alesi et al., 2014; Ihbour et al., 2021).
Many children with dyslexia say that they have had negative experiences in school. In one study, 50% of students with dyslexia reported being bullied or teased, 30% reported feeling lazy or stupid, 30% reported feeling less intelligent than their peers, and 50% reported that they wanted to swap places with someone else (Humphrey & Mullins, 2002). Many researchers suggest that these low rates of self-esteem are related to the negative classroom experiences. When children with dyslexia are tasked with completing reading or writing activities without the appropriate instructional supports, they have a difficult time with them due to their disability. Children who are struggling to read frequently experience failure; this can lead them to feel unsuccessful at school (Ihbour et al., 2021; Olivardia, 2021). Additionally, children are often very aware of what these classmates are doing. Children who are struggling to learn to read may notice that they are progressing at a slower rate than their peers. This can result in feelings of stress, sadness, anger, disappointment, despair, shame, and guilt (Ihbour et al., 2021).
Strategies to Support Children with Dyslexia
Feelings of competence contribute to both children’s psychological development and their view of themselves as students (Ihbour et al., 2021). As mentioned above, the experiences children with dyslexia have in school may negatively impact their self-esteem. There are some strategies that can be implemented at home and at school to support the social and emotional well-being of children with dyslexia. Please note, the strategies discussed below are not a substitute for mental health services provided by a licensed clinician.
Support Children in Developing a Positive Sense of Identity
Children with dyslexia may feel less intelligent than their peers (Humphrey & Mullins, 2002). Helping children develop a positive sense of identity may build their confidence and boost their self-esteem (Bigler et al., 2001). Here are a few approaches Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer of Psychology at Harvard Medical School Dr. Roberto Olivardia recommends to help children develop a positive sense of identity (2021):
Help children understand that everyone learns differently, and that the goal is for them to understand how they learn the best: This may help children focus on what they need as a learner instead of comparing themselves to peers. You can talk with kids about different learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory) and have them identify which way(s) they learn best.
Work with children to accept mistakes and failure: Everyone makes mistakes. Making mistakes and failing is part of learning. Helping children to accept this as part of their learning may promote resiliency. One strategy for doing this is to help kids develop a growth mindset, which is the belief that abilities are not fixed traits, but can be developed (Dweck, 2015).
Support children in developing their strengths: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Only focusing on weaknesses can have a negative effect on children’s self-esteem (Neff, 2011). Providing children with opportunities to engage in activities where they will experience success can boost their confidence and have a positive effect on their self-esteem (Rutter, 1985).
Teach Children Strategies to Support Emotional Control While Reading
Emotional control is the ability to manage one’s emotions without losing control of them (Nordman, 2020). When children experience negative emotions while reading, that influences their success. Similarly, when children experience difficulties with reading, that effects their emotions (Zambo & Brem, 2004). This establishes a cyclical relationship. Teaching children with dyslexia strategies to increase emotional control may help them navigate any negative emotions that arise when they struggle to read. Here are some strategies from Associate Professor of Reading and Literacy Dr. Jenny K. Nordman that children can use to increase emotional control (2020):
Relaxation techniques: If you observe children getting frustrated when they are reading, prompt them to take a relaxation break. You can also teach them to independently request a relaxation break when they notice themselves feeling frustrated. Relaxation breaks can include deep breathing exercises, gentle gross motor movements (e.g., yoga), or guided meditations. Deep breathing can be as simple as instructing children to put their hands on their belly and breathe in for a count of 5 seconds and out for a count of 7 seconds. There are many short yoga and guided meditation videos for children available online.
Positive affirmations: When children appear upset or frustrated while reading, you can ask them to stop reading and prompt them to say a positive affirmation (e.g., “I’ve got this”). You can provide them with a list of affirmations to choose from or you can work with them to create custom lists of positive affirmations. Children can repeat the affirmation they chose to themselves several times.
Mental health is a concern for children with dyslexia and something teachers and caregivers should be aware of. Supports for children with dyslexia like individualized instruction, explicit instruction aligned with the science of reading, and assistive technology, are important. However, mental health should not be overlooked in the process. Using a wholistic approach will support children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities in making gains in their ability to read and write.
Alesi, M., Rappo, G., & Pepi, A. (2014). Depression, anxiety at school and self-esteem in children with learning disabilities. Journal of Psychological Abnormalities, 3(3), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.4172/2329-9525.1000125
Bigler, M., Neimeyer, G. J., & Brown, E. (2001). The divided self revisited: Effects of self-concept clarity and self-concept differentiation on psychological adjustment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 20, 396. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.20.3.396.22302
Hendren, R. L., Haft, S. L., Black, J. M., White, N. C., & Hoeft, F. (2018). Recognizing psychiatric comorbidity with reading disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00101
Humphrey, N., & Mullins, P. M. (2002). Research section: Personal constructs and attribution for academic success and failure in dyslexia. British Journal of Special Education, 29(4), 196–203. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8527.00269
Ihbour, S., Anarghou, H., Boulhana, A., Najimi, M., & Chigr, F. (2021). Mental health among students with neurodevelopment disorders: case of dyslexic children and adolescents. Dementia & Neuropsychologia, 15, 533–540. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9018082/
Nordman, J. (2020, November). Strategies to address task persistence and emotional control in struggling readers [Conference session]. 71st Annual International Dyslexia Association Annual Reading, Literacy & Learning Conference, Virtual.
Olivardia, R. (2021, October). Promoting positive identity and self-esteem in dyslexic youth [Conference presentation]. 72nd Annual International Dyslexia Association Reading, Literacy & Learning Conference, Charlotte, NC, United States.
Rutter, M. (1985). Resilience in the face of adversity: Protective factors and resistance to psychiatric disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 598–611. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.147.6.598