By Don Winn
The task of educating our youth has many challenges, but two are especially arresting: the number of children manifesting symptoms of anxiety and those demonstrating behavioral issues. These are not simple problems to decipher or address, but this article will ask parents, teachers, and medical professionals to approach these issues with a sense of inquiry. Much has been written in recent years about dyslexia, its spectrum of manifestations, and strategies for helping students cope. But one aspect that receives less attention is that the challenges of dyslexia predispose children to anxiety and behavioral changes. Dyslexic students can put so much effort and energy into avoiding reading, writing, spelling, sequencing, math, or any other affected skills, and they can mask their lack of function in those tasks so well that sometimes their most attention-getting symptoms can be poor behavior or anxiety.
Of course, not all children with anxiety or behavioral issues have dyslexia, but here are some symptoms to be noted and investigated:
- Agitation about going to school or doing homework
- Fidgety, distracted, or disruptive behavior in class
- Noticeable weight gain or loss
- Changes in dress and grooming
- Oppositional or angry outbursts when asked to do school work or in the classroom setting
- Tearfulness and frustration
- Avoidance (often quite creative) of reading silently, reading aloud, writing, turning in assignments, answering questions in class, or even showing up for school
- Reports of unauthorized absences by the school administration
- Negative talk about self: “I’m stupid,” “I can’t do anything right,” etc.
- Frequent stomachaches or headaches
- Frequent nightmares
- Enuresis (bedwetting)
- Becoming withdrawn and uncommunicative
- Excessive focus on what the student deems unfair
- Extreme fatigue at the end of the school day
“Turning a blind eye to a child’s anxiety or the behaviors it can cause will not make them get better.”
Over the years I’ve shared a lot about my own personal experience growing up with dyslexia in the 1960s, from my academic challenges to my feelings of shame and inadequacy. My anxiety and behavioral manifestations were definitely discernible to my teachers and parents. I was constantly agitated, fidgeted all the time, lost weight to the point of concern, and was frequently sick. Very frequently. My stomach issues were my constant companion. After I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia, any help provided was limited, due to the lack of understanding of the nature and dimensions of dyslexia. I continued to struggle in school, and the repercussions of anxiety became the background music of my life. When I started junior high, my anxiety got worse. I was sick so much that the doctor told my dad that if I kept missing school, the State (Child Protective Services) could take me away—as though that would have helped!
No child is born with coping skills, or with the ability to effectively analyze, label, and communicate what they are experiencing. The subtext of my story is representative of that of so many others with dyslexia:
- ”There is something wrong with me.”
- “Nothing I have figured out to do has helped, so maybe nothing will.”
- “I’m afraid I’ll never be able to do what’s expected of me.”
- “I’m afraid that when people find out, I’ll be humiliated.”
In other words, shame. Shame is defined as the belief that our troubles are caused by being defective, and therefore, there’s no way out or through a problem, and the resulting feelings of humiliation and isolation can be devastating.
Therefore, the basis of anxiety and acting out in the case of many dyslexic students stems from the young, inexperienced mind-drawing inaccurate conclusions about self, and a lack of ability to see the potential for growth or change. Without intervention and effective redirection, these beliefs about self are a setup for a lifetime of misery, dysfunction, and unrealized potential.
Turning a blind eye to a child’s anxiety or the behaviors it can cause will not make them get better. Just like any other challenge in life, improvement only comes with identifying the problem and addressing it. Whether dyslexia is the cause of a child’s struggles or not, anxiety and acting out are cries for help that require a response.
If you have observed these traits or tendencies in your child or student, don’t wait: talk to your child’s physician about next steps to get your child the help they need.
Don M. Winn is an award-winning author and dyslexia advocate. He has written numerous articles about dyslexia and helping struggling readers. His blog archives are available at www.donwinn.com