Dena was the star of her nursery class. All the kids loved her and the teachers gushed to her mother, “Dena is so kind. She shares with everyone and is so inclusive. When we have circle time, she sits attentively and she is always ready with a detailed and fun answer.”
Things got a bit more difficult when Dena entered kindergarten. For the first time, there was formal learning going on in the classroom. The teachers would focus on a different letter of the alphabet during each day’s circle time and Dena would fidget and talk out of turn. She still played nicely with the other children, but was a bit combative with her teachers.
When Dena’s mother asked her about school, she would say, “I don’t like it. The teachers think I am stupid.” Dena’s mother spent a lot of time talking to the teachers, but they said Dena was just fine.
In first grade, things got really hard. Dena could not read the chapter books that were being assigned and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition, and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurological in origin and often runs in the family. Children with dyslexia experience trouble reading when taught through traditional instruction.
But, even with this diagnosis and the tools to help her overcome this academic setback, Dena had decided that she was stupid. Because, according to Dena, she wasn’t as smart as the other kids, “no one liked her.” And, this vicious cycle began to spin out of control.
There are many remediation techniques to help children with dyslexia learn to read. However, research shows that children like Dena are more likely to suffer from low self esteem than their peers. This is a problem that parents and educators often overlook. In order to integrate these children into the classroom, we cannot simply focus on helping them cope academically. We need to help build their self-esteem through social interventions as well. The Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities has compiled a list of ways that parents can help children with LD gain self-esteem:
- Special time. Set aside designated time with your child to explore her interests. This need not be daily, but if possible, should happen at the same time every week. This will give her the message that you value her and enjoy your time together. In addition, you will be participating in an activity she enjoys.
- Develop problem-solving skills. Not everyone automatically knows what to do when they encounter a problem. If your child is having trouble with a friend or cannot figure out a math question, talk to her about the ways she can approach the problem. Ask her to suggest multiple paths to get to a plausible conclusion. This will give her confidence when she encounters a similar problem in the future.
- Practice empathy. Raising children with different needs can sometimes be frustrating. You might find yourself telling your daughter, “Why don’t you listen to me?” Or, “Just think about it! You’ll understand.” Chances are that most of the time, your daughter is trying her best to listen and understand. Instead, try to place yourself in her shoes and say, “I know you are trying to listen and that sometimes that is difficult. Let’s try that again.” When you practice empathy, she will be more likely to think kindly of herself.
- Highlight strengths. While learning disabilities often come with multiple disadvantages, there are some benefits as well. Children with dyslexia are often more creative and artistic than their peers. Consider signing your daughter up for art or drama classes. Doing something that she is good at can boost her self-esteem tremendously and provide her with an opportunity to make likeminded friends.
- Provide opportunities for child to help. When people help others, they automatically feel competent and confident. Provide your daughter with plenty of opportunities to help others. Volunteering outside of the home is just one avenue, but even helping siblings at home can be great encouragement. She can teach a younger sibling to tie his shoe or help an older sibling braid her hair. Alternatively, you can teach her to bake her favorite cake and then she can bake it for Shabbos. Regardless of the task, if your daughter feels that she is making a contribution to society or the family, she will gain self-confidence.
LD and ODD, Depression, and Anxiety
Many learning disabilities are simply academic disorders, but because of the way academics are intertwined with social situations, children with LD will sometimes experience problems in the social arena as well. Some common problems are low self-esteem (as discussed above), Oppositional Defiant Disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder: Children with this disorder, also termed “explosive children” are rigidly defiant, reacting to simple stresses with anger and extreme frustration.
Depression: Depression in children can manifest in changes in sleeping or eating patterns, irritability, a lack of self-worth, and social withdrawal.
Anxiety: Anxiety disorders are characterized by extreme and persistent fears. There are multiple types of anxiety disorders, including social phobia, school phobia, and separation anxiety.
While the above issues can occur separate from any learning disabilities, research shows that many of these cases in children are linked to LD. Therefore, it is important to recognize that your out of control, explosive child is perhaps that way because he is struggling academically.
The first step is to address the learning disability. When you have a diagnosis and a detailed plan to help your child succeed academically, you can work on the other troubling areas that, like Dena’s low self-esteem, are linked to these academic struggles.