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What influences the emotional wellbeing of young people with severe dyslexic difficulties?

with Claire Durrant, Researcher, University of Sussex

When our child(ren) have a SEND diagnosis, they can be made to feel stupid, isolated, rejected by thoughtless peers and often, shockingly, by teachers and the school system itself. As parents, we feel their pain keenly and want to do everything we can to build their self-esteem.

Today’s guest writer, Claire Durrant, knows this all to well. She is the mother of two sons with dyslexic difficulties and recently completed her PhD exploring the factors affecting the emotional wellbeing of young people with severe dyslexic difficulties in state, mainstream education. Claire’s research was based on a survey of parents/carers, plus narrative case studies with 15 young people and their mothers. Her research has shown how the actions of parents, peers and teachers shape how young people imagine and respond to their dyslexic difficulties. Claire is now an early career researcher in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sussex.

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How we can support and boost the emotional wellbeing of young dyslexic pupils by Claire Durrant

When my youngest son started having difficulties with literacy (later assessed as severe dyslexia), I couldn’t have anticipated the shame, sadness and self-loathing he would feel as he struggled to read and write to the standard expected of him at school. Motivated by his experiences in state, mainstream education, my PhD set out to understand why severe literacy difficulties have such a profound impact on children and young people’s emotional well-being. 

The emotional impact of severe dyslexia

Talking to young people and their parents confirmed that there’s a relationship between emotional well-being and literacy difficulties and that the more severe these difficulties are, the greater the stigma. Young people frequently demonstrated a lack of self-worth by referring to themselves as ‘stupid’. Many saw themselves as the cause of the problem and suggested that it’s their responsibility to try harder (no matter how that makes them feel) rather than for their school to adapt. One boy told me that school made him ‘upset’ and ‘down’ and that in primary school he wanted to hurt himself. His mother also described how he became more and more withdrawn at secondary school and spoke of ‘losing’ him.  

Effective provision is key but what else influences emotional wellbeing?

As the parent of a child with severe dyslexic difficulties, I believed that good teaching and effective intervention alone were the key to unlocking positive emotional wellbeing. Having now completed my PhD research, I can now see that although early, effective intervention and provision is critical (and is something that I would still battle to achieve), there are other factors influencing the self-image of young people with severe literacy difficulties.

One of my key research findings is that young people’s sense of self is significantly influenced by the culture surrounding them. In particular, the way that literacy is privileged in post-industrial societies, and especially in schools, has led to new norms of educational standards and the problematisation of those who do not conform (Campbell, 2011[1]). Burden (2012)[2] writes about how literacy has been constructed as something that everyone should be able to do and argues that people who struggle with it often have difficulty coping with these culturally imposed assumptions. Riddick[3] describes how ‘the notions of being “educated” and being “literate” have become inextricably bound together in many European cultures’ (2001, p. 224). 

On top of these assumptions about literacy, I think that young people’s self-image is influenced by the way that schools construct literacy difficulties as a ‘problem’ located within the child and treat it as a ‘deficit’. This situates dyslexia within the medical model of disability and leads to schools categorising it as a neurological impairment leading to limited educational participation, rather than something that is caused by the way society is organised. Government policies that frame SEND – the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice (DfE & DHSC, 2014[4]) endorse this model. 

Claire Durrant has light blonde shoulder-length straight hair and glasses. She is aged in her forties.
Claire Durrant

The role of teachers in challenging norms and stigma

My research suggests that teachers absorb and interpret the discourses that promote literacy and position poor literacy/dyslexia as a deficit. These are then internalised by young people with dyslexic difficulties and their peers through the words, attitudes and behaviour of their teachers. This in turn leads young people to form negative perceptions of themselves and can prompt peers to make insulting and hurtful comments. 

School leaders can, however, address this by building a culture of inclusivity and neurodiversity within their schools, where difference is normalised and accepted, and stigma is challenged. Teachers can also create an atmosphere within their classrooms in which young people feel valued for who they are rather than what they can achieve academically.

This may require teachers to find out about young people’s interests and the areas in which they have confidence and then look for ways to promote their strengths among their peers and within the school. Within the ableist environment of the school, where children are defined by what they can’t do, teachers may also choose to talk directly to young people about shifting their thinking away from the deficit model towards an appreciation of the social barriers they experience. While making these suggestions, I acknowledge that teachers are already working under significant pressure and that they may not have the autonomy and freedom to make these kinds of changes.

The emotional support of parents

My research suggests that parents, particularly mothers, emerge as central actors in the management of their children’s emotional states, playing a key role in scaffolding them away from notions of ‘deficit’ towards ideas of difference. Many parents in my research perceived that their role was to focus on the things their child excels in and ‘praise non-stop’. They suggested that parents should find activities their children enjoy and are good at and ‘shout it from the roof-tops. 

Although there were a few mothers in my research who may inadvertently have transferred their anxiety about dyslexia to their children by overly focusing on their education, most were firmly focused on their children’s happiness. There is, however, clearly a difficult balance for parents to negotiate between advocating for effective support at school and at the same time ensuring that their children do not perceive this as prioritising educational success (and projected happiness in the future) over their happiness now. Like many parents, I spent years advocating for more effective provision for my sons and therefore this finding caused me some anguish.

Parents and schools can both play a role to empower dyslexic children

To summarise, the emotional wellbeing of young people with severe dyslexic difficulties is not only impacted by SEND provision but is influenced by discourses that privilege literacy and treat poor literacy as a deficit. Parents have a significant role to play in scaffolding their child away from notions of deficit, towards ideas of difference. However, this must be reinforced by school policies of neurodiversity and inclusivity and teachers who are empowered to challenge norms and stigma. 

Claire’s research was based on an online survey with 474 parents/carers plus narrative case studies with 15 young people (aged 10-19) with severe dyslexic difficulties in state, mainstream education in England, and their mothers. All research took place in 2018.

About Claire Durrant

Claire is the parent of two adult children with SEN. She recently completed her doctorate about the emotional well-being of young people with severe dyslexic difficulties in state mainstream education, in which she attempts to understand the factors that cause young people with literacy difficulties to experience shame and stigma. She is also interested in issues of social justice in relation to accessing provision.

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References

  1. Campbell, T. (2011) ‘From Aphasia to Dyslexia, a Fragment of Genealogy: An Analysis of the Formation of a “Medical Discourse”’, Health Sociology Review, 20, pp. 450–61.
  2. Burden, R. (2012) The emotional consequences of dyslexia. 
  3. [Riddick, B. (2001) ‘Dyslexia and inclusion: Time for a social model of disability?’ International Studies in Sociology of Education, 11(3), pp. 223–36. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09620210100200078

[4] Department for Education (DfE) & Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). (2014) Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/send-code-of-practice-0-to-25

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