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Learning in a lockdown: When you’re a young person with dyslexia

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Guest Blog Post by Margaret Rooke. Margaret wrote the book “Dyslexia is my Superpower (Most of the Time)” and asked some children “what is the best way to deal with this shutdown period?” Here are her findings:

For many children and teens with dyslexia finding themselves away from school for a giant length of time may feel like a dream come true: a relief to be separated from everything they find challenging and overwhelming. For others it will add to their concerns about not coping with the educational demands being placed upon them.

I asked some of the 100 children and teens who contributed to the book ‘Dyslexia is my Superpower (Most of the Time)’ for their thoughts on how best to deal with this time of shutdown and isolation.

It’s three years since the book was published and it’s clear from many of these contributors from the USA, UK, Australia and Ireland that the classroom environment for children with dyslexia still feels, in the words of one, ‘fast-paced, competitive and isolating’. Online home learning can truly feel like a step forward.

Rocco, 14, from London, UK, is staying positive and gives a perspective that might interest others. “School is a daily reminder of everything I struggle with. It’s better for me to be at home where I’ve more freedom to work without the loud distractions that disturb me in the classroom.

“I can work at my own pace and not be rushed. I can listen to music while I’m working which helps me feel less stressed. And when I’ve hit a block, I can go outside and chill for a bit before trying again.”

Grace, who’s 18, from County Kildare, Ireland, agrees, I think that this time off is a great time to focus on your schoolwork at our own pace especially for students with dyslexia because we need more time to learn things and revise. This time is perfect for catching up on work that has been pushed aside in school due to lack of time. It can be difficult to focus at times like these because there is so much going on in the world but keeping a busy schedule can help with these stresses.”

That sense of working at your own pace is so important for students with dyslexia – the rushing speed of school can disturb and disadvantage them in so many ways. But for Addison, who’s 14, from Ohio: “Even working at my own pace is difficult because I don’t enjoy school and what I learn there. I would rather work more on music and can keep myself busy all day playing the drums and guitar. Focusing on my other talents has been so much better than my boring schoolwork,” he says.

Of course, for some what they excel at and what gives them confidence is found at school, such as sport in its many forms, and the ability to connect with others.

A lack of confidence can be tackled at home, believes Evelyne, now 20, from County Wicklow, Ireland.

“Children and teens with dyslexia may not feel confident enough to ask questions in class for fear that it's a 'stupid question' but when learning is online it may be easier for them to speak up,” she suggests. “At home there’s more time to focus on where you struggle in academics and perhaps more help is available from siblings and parents.”

Evelyne’s also a believer in making the most of those hours stretching ahead each day. “Putting academics aside, there’s more time to spend on talents like art, dancing, and being a great big brother or sister. This can give you more time to discover abilities you didn’t know you had. This is vitally important because when you don't thrive in academics you tend to have quite low confidence and self-esteem.”

On the other hand, eighth grader Abby, 14, from Illinois, USA, finds it harder to learn without teacher guidance and tougher to read and do math on the computer. She still says, “Students should try their best. This time should be a mix between academic work and relaxation. If you slack, you will be behind.”

She has advice for parents and teachers. To parents she says, “Be patient and help your children as best as you can. My mom helps me by explaining, clarifying and simplifying things I don’t understand. Friends can do this too, and teachers if you can contact them.”

To teachers she stresses, “If you’re using Google Classroom, make it organized and easy to access which will cause less stress for your students. Make your material user friendly and allow an option to have material read to students.”

Her brother Cole, 12, a 6th grader, finds school “taxing”. This time at home, for him, means “less stress and better sleep. This should have been a time not to focus on academics but on other skills and relaxing,” he says. But he too is keen on Google Classroom. “I like the tab that shows all the assignments that have been posted by various teachers on one page, listed by their due dates. This helps me to organise myself.”

One other plus: “I can work through my assignments more quickly because teachers tend to waste time talking.”

For Phoebe, 13, from Victoria, Australia, online learning is tough and she believes teachers need to expect less work. “At school the teacher interacts with you. I get distracted easily so at home I don’t have anyone there to make me get back to work.”

She finds the teachers set work without giving a full explanation. “I’ve just answered some maths questions, but I don’t know if I’ve answered them correctly. I’ve done some other work and it hasn’t been marked for a week. If I do something wrong multiple times it goes into my brain and think I’ve done it right when it isn’t.

“What we need is a call line open so we can log into it and ask teachers to help with what we don’t understand.“ The online system used by her school has failed to work for three days in a row. For a frustrated Phoebe the only good thing about not being at school is, “You have a lower chance of getting the coronavirus.”

As he approaches his Leaving Certificate, Henry, 17, from County Carlow, Ireland, says an attitude to academic work in these disjointed times will depend greatly on the year the student is in. “Academic work is my absolute priority,” he says, “Though if someone was planning to do an apprenticeship their time could be better used supporting that.

“I find work can be completed quicker now as it’s given in bulk rather than a piece at a time. I get nearly instant feedback by emailing a teacher and it’s a more relaxing environment which for me works better. But I miss out on the direct pen to paper correction and critiquing, and I miss the ‘craic’ – the banter in school.”

Nick, 22, who’s usually at university in Norfolk, UK, advises, “Use this as time to get a base understanding of the curriculum with online support, such as Seneca Learning. Last minute cramming for exams is a risky strategy.

“And enrich yourself! There's nothing better to do right now. The breadth and depth of freely available information out there on the internet is astounding. “For students with dyslexia in particular, if you're not harnessing the power of YouTube tutorials and audiobooks, you're missing out. I learned my passion for cooking from YouTube tutorials and I've been developing my graphic design and media skills in the same way. The internet is a godsend.”

Annabel, 20, from Wiltshire, UK, who’s also at university, says flexibility is key. “Don’t let anyone tell you how to study – find the best way for you. If an hour and a half is too difficult, do less. I do 30 minutes and then I have a break and I’ve found my productivity has skyrocketed. Also find the time of day that works best for you. For me, that’s the afternoons. If you’re feeling unproductive, take a break and start again later. Divide everything into manageable steps, write these into a list and do one at a time so you get the satisfaction of crossing things off. And don’t work in bed – it makes everything more difficult.”

Physical exercise is the answer for Miles, who’s 16, from Victoria, Australia. “This is what helps me when I can’t really concentrate at home. Then I get back home and try again. It helps when my parents are home and I go to the room where they are because they know what I’m meant to be working at.” He misses the help he gets from his friends at school – they pass him their notes to help him revise. Unlike some other teens with dyslexia he finds typing slower than writing so this is another disadvantage about being at home. “When I write I remember information, even though what I’m doing is less legible,” he says.

Leah, 16, from Surrey, UK, is using the time to be more creative. “This time at home has allowed me to do more art and textiles,” she says. “I’ve found YouTube videos really helpful with my schoolwork. I really like Mr Bruff’s dyslexia videos for English, freesciencelessons for science, and for all other lessons I use Seneca Learning which is really good.”

She adds, “The main benefit for me is that everything is so much more chilled. I can take more time on the subjects that I struggle with and I can play with my cats.”

Echoing Leah is 13-year-old Isaac from Edinburgh, UK. "I think this time is bad but we have to focus on the positives,” he says. “I think it's about doing a bit of both - relaxing and schoolwork. I've been able to spend more time on art and music and that makes me happier overall. School doesn't really focus on the creative subjects as much as I'd like, so now is a good opportunity to have the time which means you can improve on your creative subjects faster than if you were at school."

Molly, 16, from Buckinghamshire, UK, says, “You need to keep going with your studies and I think your teachers still need to tell you what to do each week. I am getting emails and we can even work in online teams.

“I do feel really reliant on my teachers so feel I am missing out, as they haven't been able to answer my emails"

Reggie, 12, also from Buckingham, whose mother is self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, says, “If you’re in year 10 and above, you need to learn for your exams. I think if you’re younger than that you should focus on new skills so that you have a better opportunity for a job like learning a language or music. I'm learning Japanese once a day for at least 5 mins. I'm using the 'Duolingo' app on my phone.”

He tries to do his schoolwork during school hours so he can play online games with his friends afterwards.

He adds, “I have a tutor once a week for 45 mins and we still do that on the computer through Zoom. That’s great because when I don't understand what the school wants me to do, she can help me with it. I also have a key worker at school who’s checking on me once a week to see if I have any questions.”

Grace, 17, of County Kildare, Ireland, agrees that it’s important to stick to a routine. “Often times breaking a routine can encourage demotivation and stress. Therefore, I think that students should balance their time on work and their focus on their individual skills into a schedule.”

She adds, “It’s very easy to feel alone and become stressed about the situation around the world. Stay in contact with your friends and family and videocall people. Even though the world is physically separated at this time, we are all joined as a global community.”

So in a nutshell, the word from the kids is:

* Work at your own pace;

* Find ways to help yourself focus and worry less;

* Get all the support you can;

* Use the internet and all it’s amazing resources;

* Explore your passions;

* Reward yourself after you’ve finished your schoolwork and

* Build your confidence now you’re outside of school.

Or to quote Cole from Illinois, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and don’t worry too much about due dates. Don’t stress, take it easy and do one assignment at a time.”

by Margaret Rooke
Author of "Dyslexia is my Superpower (Most of the Time)" (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)