The Social and Emotional Impacts of Dyslexia
By Dr. Jan Hasbrouck, Author and Educational Consultant
In our series on understanding and addressing dyslexia, adapted from Dr. Jan Habrouck’s book, Conquering Dyslexia: A Guide to Early Detection and Intervention for Teachers and Parents, we’ve explored Dr. Hasbrouck’s research on defining dyslexia and understanding common myths, grade-specific approaches to supporting students with dyslexia (including English Learners), and assessing dyslexia.
In her research, Dr. Hasbrouck also recommends that educators, parents, curriculum developers, and other stakeholders take into account how dyslexia affects students’ social and emotional experiences. The following is an excerpt of Dr. Hasbrouck’s writing from the white paper, Addressing Dyslexia, on the emotional, behavioral, and social impacts of dyslexia.
In addition to providing students with structured, explicit, and intensive interventions as early as possible, it is incredibly important to acknowledge the traumatic, profound, and far-reaching emotional, behavioral, and social impacts of having dyslexia on the individual, their families, and society at large.
These challenges can often arise early. Most preschoolers who will later show evidence of dyslexia typically enter their first academic experience with the same joy and excitement and confidence as other young children. However, once formal academic instruction starts and they are having difficulty with the tasks that their peers seem to master with relative ease, they often begin to demonstrate anxiety, anger, shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem (Ryan, 2004). Early learners, who lack an understanding of the situation, frequently struggle with their feelings of frustration and may start to believe that something is ‘wrong’ with them or that they are not ‘smart.’ While parents and teachers may believe that this once happy and confident child, who otherwise is capable and successful, is just not trying hard enough, or that the answer is to “just wait a while longer for reading to develop naturally.” As we have already discussed, nothing could be further from the truth!
Once formal academic instruction starts and they are having difficulty with the tasks that their peers seem to master with relative ease, they often begin to demonstrate anxiety, anger, shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.
What are the impacts of dyslexia on students’ social and emotional functioning?
Livingston, Seigel, and Ribary (2018) reviewed 97 articles from international research published in the years 1980 to 2018 that investigated the impact of dyslexia on emotional and social functioning. They concluded that individuals with dyslexia are at increased risk of negative outcomes in emotional, social, educational, and occupational domains. They also found that the behavioral and emotional proﬁles associated with dyslexia vary, in part because dyslexia is a spectrum disorder that varies in both the severity of impairment (from mild to severe) and the way in which individuals respond to their learning disability (Riddick, 2010).
Both externalizing (disruptive) behaviors and internalizing (depressive, withdrawn, and anxious) behaviors are associated with dyslexia. Individuals with dyslexia have reported anger, stress, embarrassment, shame, aggression, guilt, isolation, insecurity, anxiety, low motivation, low self-esteem, and related social problems. Adolescents with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, have also found to be at twice the risk of emotional distress, including risk for violence and suicide attempts (Svetaz, Ireland, & Blum, 2001). The memories of these experiences can have lasting damage into adulthood.
Dyslexia has an impact on the family as well. Dyslexia is associated with increased parental distress. Caregivers can play an important role in protecting their children from the misunderstandings and trauma associated with their dyslexia. However, the parents of children with dyslexia may be overwhelmed or so focused on the reading diﬃculties and academic challenges of their children that they sometimes miss the need for emotional support, or they are simply unable to provide it. Parents of children with dyslexia have also reported feeling guilty for their inﬂuence in genetically passing on their dyslexia or for having wrongly assumed their child was not trying hard enough. While we know that students with dyslexia and their parents experience a disproportionate amount of stress compared to their neurotypical peers, we also know that social-emotional support at home when combined with intensive, explicit interventions at school, can help mitigate or eliminate these issues.
Studies reviewed by Livingston, Seigel, and Ribary (2018) also documented the impact of dyslexia on the broader society. Students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and especially those students of color, are far more likely to be labeled as “disruptive” and are approximately twice as likely to be suspended throughout each school level than without disabilities. Such excessive exclusionary discipline negatively impacts classroom engagement and results in missed class time. It also increases the likelihood that excluded students will be retained in grade, drop out of school, or be placed in the juvenile justice system (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). Students with learning disabilities and those with other academic diﬃculties are over-represented in both the homeless and prison populations. This is especially true for students of color. A majority of adolescents who are homeless were found to have a reading disability that was not attributable to a history of substance abuse, maltreatment, or educational experiences.
Students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and especially those students of color, are far more likely to be labeled as “disruptive” and are approximately twice as likely to be suspended throughout each school level than without disabilities.
How can children with dyslexia be supported?
To compensate on a psychological level and improve both academically and socially, a child with dyslexia will often require help to develop coping strategies that can reduce the impact of the stigma and personal reactions to diﬃculties with learning (Terras, Thompson, & Minnis, 2009). Livingston, Siegel, and Ribary (2018) identified three factors that can help a child with dyslexia develop useful strategies that can help them cope with the related academic, social, and emotional consequences. Children with dyslexia benefit by receiving:
- A clear and understandable explanation of their diagnosis
- On-going parental support
- Appropriate intervention provided as early as possible
Reading is the most fundamental of all academic skills and is essential to success both inside and outside the classroom. However, for a significant number of students, learning to read, write, and spell can be incredibly challenging, difficult, and frustrating. These students are usually just as eager to start school as their peers. However, they become deeply discouraged as they begin to struggle with reading, writing, and spelling while their classmates excel.
Luckily, in the past century, we have made great strides in understanding dyslexia, its causes, and how we can effectively address it with instruction and intervention. We now know that with scientifically proven instruction, intensive intervention, and adequate support, students can not only overcome dyslexia, but we can potentially prevent symptoms from ever manifesting. Best of all, these instructional methods can help ALL readers — not just those with dyslexia — excel. We also know that with the right interventions and supports, we can address the needs of all struggling readers, regardless of the cause.
Jan Hasbrouck, Ph.D., is a leading educational consultant, trainer, and researcher. Dr. Hasbrouck worked as a reading specialist and coach for 15 years before teaching at the University of Oregon and later at Texas A&M University. She served as the Executive Consultant to the Washington State Reading Initiative.
Dr. Hasbrouck works with educators across the United States as well as internationally. She helps teachers, administrators, and specialists design and implement effective assessment and instructional programs targeted to support low-performing readers. Dr. Hasbrouck earned her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Oregon, and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. Her research in areas of reading fluency, reading assessment, coaching and consultation, and second language learners has been published in numerous professional books and journals. She is the author and coauthor of several books, including training manuals and administrator guides for GHA to support professional development and help educators change practices in schools.
More on dyslexia:
See additional research on effective instruction for students with dyslexia:
K-12 Intervention Program Research | Direct Instruction | McGraw Hill
Thought Leadership on Direct Instruction
Or, read more on Inspired Ideas:
Using data to inform and guide the instructional decisions of administrators, teachers, and specialists as they support…