By Marion May,

Blog Curator and Content Writer for The Open Door blog

At an office supply store recently, I noticed a family shopping for back-to-school supplies. As the parents filled their basket, their daughter toddled along behind holding a small, worn and well-loved, stuffed dog toy. At the pens and pencils aisle, the little girl stopped to see if her little dog toy would fit inside each pencil case. Was she feeling anxious about going back to school and planning to bring her favorite cuddly toy along for comfort and moral support?

This brief scenario reminded me that, in addition to the logistics and materials needed for starting back to school, we must also be aware that children need comfort, empathy, guidance, encouragement and reassurance in their emotional toolkit, when returning school. As the first day of school approaches, you may notice your child behaving a little differently; acting out, not sleeping well, becoming clingy or being more prone to angry outbursts.  In particular, for children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, returning to school can prompt memories of frustration and shame; times when they knew they were not catching on as quickly as their peers. As a result, these recollections may cause them to feel stressed, anxious and fearful about going back to school.   

Henry Winkler, accomplished actor, director and writer—who is also dyslexic—summed up his memories of learning to read like this: “To me, reading looked like a magic trick and I wasn’t in on the secret.”

If your child has dyslexia or a learning disability and is anxious about returning to school, taking the time to explore their anxieties and empathizing with their learning struggles could go a long way toward building their confidence and allaying their fears about the first day back, and the year ahead.

Explore their anxieties: Go for a walk or a drive in the car together with your child and have a heart-to-heart talk about what’s on their mind.

Starting a new grade, going to a new school, making new friends, having a new school bus routine, and meeting a new teacher can all be quite overwhelming for a little person to contend with in one day.  As authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish suggest in their book, “How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk”, when talking with your child about feelings:

  • Listen with full attention
  • Acknowledge their feelings with a word—“Oh…”, Mmm”…”, I see” 
  • Give their feelings a name (you must feel “sad” when this happens…or… that is “frustrating” when you’re not being heard
  • Give them their wishes in fantasy (wouldn’t it be great if you knew your teacher liked you the minute they saw you? Or, imagine if you made a new best friend on your very first day?)

Do a dress rehearsal! If it’s possible for you and your child to tour the school and meet the teacher before the first day—go for it. And, before school starts, offer to do a fun role-play, pretend-day to practice the routine of: getting up on time, having breakfast, getting dressed, and getting to the bus stop on time.

If your child is shy about making new friends or greeting previous classmates, practice some opening lines to strike up a conversation or get involved in a playground game. Teach your child how to politely introduce themselves to teachers, grown-ups and kids in the school yard. Let them know that almost everyone is nervous on the first day of school—probably even their teachers and the principal—but with a friendly smile, co-operative and helpful attitude, most children will want to be their friend.

Use positive self-talk: “I’m a big brave dog” or “I’m a good person”.  Encourage your child to use positive self-talk and repeat a familiar, encouraging phrase in their head to help get them through challenging situations. Let them know that you too feel butterflies when you’re starting a new job, finding your way around a new workplace or figuring out the right transit schedules to get to work on time. Remind them of previous times when they have successfully stick-handled new situations. Reassure them…that when the day is all over, they will probably look back and feel quite proud of themselves!

Empathize:  While it is important for all children to learn how to effectively advocate for themselves and when to seek additional help, children with dyslexia and learning disabilities especially need to know their parents are in their court, ready to advocate and support them on their unique learning journey. If your child is struggling to learn to read—get help as early as possible from a trained professional to diagnose the source of the problem and seek one-on-one reading remediation tutoring. Along the way believe and empathize with their struggle, offer encouragement and sincere praise for their efforts.

Learn about an IEP and exercise its purpose: If your child already has an Independent Education Plan (IEP) in place at their school, explain to your child what the IEP is for and that it was created to help them learn in ways that are best suited to their learning style.

For more information about boosting your child’s confidence, self-esteem and encouraging a struggling reader, consult these resources:

  • To build your child’s confidence, as well as inspire their self-discovery and growth, visit this Roots to Action post, Encouraging Words for Kids That Ignite Self-Discovery and Growth written by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD. The Compass Advantage is a research-based positive youth development model to help children understand themselves. It focuses on eight core areas of development: Empathy, Curiosity, Sociability, Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, and Creativity.
  • To learn more about how struggling to read affects self-esteem and, to find tips on interpreting the feelings of a discouraged reader, visit https://www.readingrockets.org/helping/self . Reading Rockets is a US-based public media literacy initiative offering information and resources on how young kids learn to read, why so many struggle, and how caring adults can help. This site offers a vast array of resources for parents and teachers of struggling readers, including PBS TV show links.
  • The Self put downs and comebacks activity on the Reading Rockets site offers parents and teachers comebacks to common self putdowns expressed by struggling readers, insights into how the put downs diminish self-esteem, ways to interpret the phrasing of a struggling reader and respond to common behaviours.

Additional helpful blog posts, from Understood.org include:

Conclusion

I don’t know if the little girl will bring her treasured stuffed toy in her pencil case on the first day of school this fall but I do know the grown-up woman writing this post still likes to have a tangible good luck charm in her pocket when she starts out on any new venture. There’s nothing quite like having an item to hold in your hand to remind you that you are loved, you can do it and—most of all—to think positively!

Marion May is the Blog Curator and Content Writer for The Open Door blog as well as a reading and spelling tutor for The Open Door, tutoring children between the ages of seven and 10. Her blog content is “local, organic and specific” and is relevant for parents of children with dyslexia.

Marion formerly tutored teenaged students in a literacy remediation program at Sir Guy Carleton Secondary School in Ottawa. She also worked as a paid fundraiser and grant proposal writer for The Excellence in Literacy Foundation, a national non-profit aimed at helping marginalized youth. She began her career in radio broadcasting and news writing and has worked in the area of promotional writing for several federal government departments and agencies, including the National Research Council.

Comments?

If you have comments about this blog or would like to contribute your experiences in discussing dyslexia with your child’s teachers, please contact us at The Open Door at: blog@theopendoor.ca

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