A common thread that links many successful people with dyslexia
Anyone who has spent much time standing in school playgrounds is unlikely to have missed the almost constant whiff of competition in the air.
Schools are competing for pole position on league tables, sometimes finding creative ways to keep their lead. Parents are competing too, many attempting to achieve vicariously through their children. Sadly, children too are often aware of who is in the top set and which of their friends are achieving which level.
I have spent the past two years writing about dyslexia and the past 13 as a parent in schools and sixth forms. In my view, it is vital for parents of children with SEN to step away from this competitiveness and the comparisons that are perhaps inevitable in our results-focused education system. It is far better that we are able to keep an all-round perspective on who our children are, on their abilities and strengths, and realise that time after school may be when they truly come into their own.
Children who feel they are failing during their time at school are less likely to have the energy, drive and confidence to build up a successful working life. This is why keeping a child’s self-belief intact is so vital. Yet if the way they learn and take in information does not fit with the way most lessons are taught, they are in a difficult situation; according to the Driver Youth Trust, almost three quarters of teachers do not feel satisfied that their initial teacher training provided them with the skills needed to teach children with dyslexia.
Of course it is important that all children work as hard as they can and at the highest level that they are able. However, many of the attributes that come with the dyslexic profile may not show up in academic results while having the potential to help hugely in the world of work. For a fascinating read about these attributes and the occupations they can lead to, see The Dyslexic Advantage. Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain by Professors Brock and Fernette Eide. If parents, teachers and others in education can take this longer view, it will help them have confidence in children for the future. Children will pick up on this, soak up that confidence and learn to believe in themselves.
Turning it around
According to Ministry of Justice figures, a high percentage of prisoners have dyslexia. However, a higher than average percentage of architects are thought to be dyslexic too. So what will help a child with dyslexia end up in the latter category rather than the former?
Recent interviews I conducted with successful, prominent adults with dyslexia show that what many had to their advantage was at least one adult who they felt was “on their side” as they were growing up – often a parent or a teacher. This adult was someone who helped them realise during their troubled schooldays that they were not “stupid”, just different, no matter how badly they were performing in class.
With this self-belief, on leaving school they were able to utilise the special creative edge that many believe comes with dyslexia to its full effect. They also had a great determination to succeed in adult life in a way they had not managed at school, not wanting to fail again, and a realisation that success does not just arrive on a plate – it is something that needs to be fought for and worked hard for. As three times world champion racing driver Sir Jackie Stewart says, “If I had been a window cleaner I would have done it well. I could have been a world champion window cleaner. I’d have done it so well I would have cleaned your windows and you would have wanted me back. I couldn’t have done all the streets so I would have employed another dyslexic. Soon there’d have been a bunch of us.”
Learning is everywhere
As parents and teachers, we can find our own ways to encourage our children’s talents. For instance, many children with dyslexia find ways to learn outside of the school environment. Interior designer Kelly Hoppen says, “My parents would go out, come back and I would have moved a wardrobe. If we stayed in a hotel I would shift everything around in the room. I always knew what ‘worked’. It probably drove them mad.” Animal rights champion Meg Mathews (pictured above) spent a year in southern Africa as a girl and learnt the names of “every buck in the bush”.
These kind of examples can be organised easily. It doesn’t take a trip to Africa to help animal-loving children to learn about the natural world. They can do this in a local park or examining worms on a grass verge or a flower in a vase.
Dyslexia Action says the best response from a teacher or a parent to a diagnosis of dyslexia is to be positive. It is part of learning about who the child is and it is what helps makes them an individual.
For all children, achieving at school will make them feel good about themselves. To encourage this we can tell children to believe in themselves and work harder and that does sound simple enough. We can tell them that many see dyslexia as an advantage. However Dyslexia Action’s Director of Education and Policy, Dr John Rack, is clear that this is not enough. “Children need help and support”, he explains. “They need strategies and tricks to help them get better at what they find hard. They need people who can help them to have confidence when they doubt themselves.”
Working with your school
So if you are a parent and you feel as if your child is struggling, talk to the school or, if they are older, help them to talk to the school themselves. You are the one who knows your child best. If the teachers think all is well and your instinct tells you something different, do persevere. Be aware how much teachers have to deal with though, such as a classroom full of very different personalities who all learn in different ways. Plus, of course, teachers are under pressure to meet educational targets. So talk to teachers in the same way you would like someone you are working with to talk to you.
But if you don’t feel listened to or believe you are not being taken seriously, take it further. There are a number of charities that can advise you on the help that is available. There are ways that your child can have more of a level playing field, for example, being awarded extra time in exams.
Helping your child to feel valued and understood at school and at home is key. Everyone needs someone who is on their side to help them overcome life’s challenges. All children have things they love doing and are good at. Encourage them to focus on what they enjoy. This helps them feel encouraged now and could also lead to a job they love.
Stepping away from school, exam and playground competitiveness as much as you can does not mean having lower expectations for children. It means valuing them for their own personal qualities. Nothing will help them more as they step out into the world.
Margaret Rooke is a writer and a parent of a teenager with dyslexia. She is the author of new book Creative, Successful, Dyslexic. 23 High Achievers Share Their Stories, which includes interviews with many successful people with dyslexia: