Confused Neurons: The Effects of Dyslexia in Children
Gregory’s preschool teachers knew and praised him for his wild imagination, sense of
humor, and extensive vocabulary. He had a spark no one else had; surely he was advanced.
There was nothing he couldn’t build from a couple hundred LEGO bricks. His fascination with
battles, ships, and history came to life with those bricks. Creations of tiger tanks, a howitzer
cannon, and a mighty ship which he named El Bismark were proof of it. Gregory came home
from kindergarten to watch documentaries on George Washington, Winston Churchill, and
General Patton. His reenactments of their wars were nothing less than accurate. There was
something brilliant about the way his mind worked.
In first grade, Gregory got in trouble constantly for misbehavior in class. In second grade,
his teacher noticed he was struggling academically. He read much slower than the other students
and fought with math. He was labeled as “dumb” by his classmates, and he started to believe it.
His teachers tried to help, but keeping him in during recess to catch up wasn’t working. He
became lost during instruction and couldn’t understand the lesson material.
During this time, Gregory was tested for dyslexia at school. As many as one in five
children are affected by dyslexia (Thompson 4), but the negative test results claimed he wasn’t
one of them. It is typically thought that children with dyslexia will display classic symptoms
such as mixing up letters while writing or struggling to read out-loud. However, these symptoms
are not always present in a dyslexic child, and thus their disability goes unnoticed and their poor
academic performance is attributed to “unintelligence” and “laziness.” It is known that
undiagnosed dyslexia could pose challenges to academic performance. However, dyslexia also
has a detrimental effect on a child’s external social life, internal self-esteem, and can lead to
unhealthy coping strategies. It is critical that children affected by dyslexia receive support and
guidance to gain the confidence they need in order to learn and progress in a healthy
environment and develop their gifts.
Background of Dyslexia
Dyslexia is a complicated learning disability that unfolds during early development of the
brain. Malcolm Gladwell, a renowned author and journalist, explains in his book, David and
Goliath, that as a brain develops in a fetus, neurons are sent to specific areas in the brain,
enabling them to carry out their appropriate and indispensable functions. However, in dyslexic
brains, the neurons get lost along their way to their designated areas (Gladwell 99). When
neurons arrive to the wrong region, they are not able to carry out their intended functions, and
the areas of the brain that were supposed to be filled with cells don’t have any. This creates a
problem when a dyslexic person looks at a page and begins to read. Their brain has to work
harder to accomplish a task because their neurons are not in their assigned areas.
Dyslexia used to only be defined as a condition affecting the way words are seen, but that
view has since changed. It was thought that the letters of words were jumbled and turned
backward in the dyslexics’ mind. However, dyslexia is often a more complicated disability that
affects the way words are heard and sounds are manipulated. The English language is built on
the expectation that a human brain can recognize and understand the subtle differences between
sounds (Gladwell 101). Language is made up of sounds that pass by in mere milliseconds.
Because of developmental differences in a dyslexic’s brain, they take more time to decipher
sounds and create words. Their disability is based on the fact that sometimes the sounds of words
simply pass by too quickly for them to comprehend.
Dyslexics take more time to decipher between sounds because they use their right, or
more conceptual side of the brain to carry out the process of reading instead of using their left
side. Reading is a meticulous and precise process, and because dyslexics use the wrong side of
their brain, they take considerably more time to decipher between words and sounds of language
than the average person (Gladwell 100). Dyslexia defines a difference in the way a brain is
developed, and thus, the disability has a profound effect on the way dyslexics think. The areas of
their brains are different and they use abnormal regions of their brains to carry out tasks.
Consequently, when they try to think like a typical person, it takes them much longer.
Problem in the Education System
Undiagnosed dyslexia creates many problems, especially when a child enters into school
systems. Dyslexia, while labeled as a disability, is really just a different way of thinking. This
developmental problem requires those affected to use different parts of their brains to think than
the average person. The negative effect of dyslexia surfaces in the education system when
affected children are told to think like the typical student. This is impossible for them to do and
frustrates their ability to learn in traditional schools. Their brains do not function like the average
student, so how can they be expected to perform like the average student?
The obvious solution to this problem is to teach dyslexic students differently, in a way
that their brain can understand. But, because dyslexia is so complex and “covers a wide range of
learning issues…encompassing visual and auditory processing skills and memory capacity, it can
be very hard to identify these difficulties in childhood” (Olds). This makes dyslexia very hard to
diagnose, and most of the time the disability goes unnoticed. Even in instances where
discrepancies are noticed in affected students, little action is taken. Lise Roll-Pettersson and Eva
Mattson of the Stockholm Institute of Education state that there has been a “trend” for educators
to use a “wait and see attitude.” This attitude attributes “perceived problems in reading and writing [to] possible indicators of immature development rather than a dyslexic difficulty” (Roll- Pettersson and Mattson 411). The unidentifiable attributes and the unacknowledgement of dyslexia greatly impacts affected children and their ability to learn. Their disabilities are pushed
to the side and are left untreated. When children with dyslexia are left undiagnosed, they struggle
in school and their grades suffer. S. Gunnel Ingesson of the Department of Psychology at Lund
University in Sweden conducted a study into how dyslexia affects a student’s academic
performance. As shown below in Figure 1, her study states that 80% of affected students believe
that dyslexia negatively impacted their school and academic achievements “quite a lot” or “very
much” (581). This disability not only leads to poor grades, but affects the child externally with
social anxiety, internally with low self-esteem, and leads to unhealthy coping strategies. A majority of the students in the study found dyslexia to negatively affect their academic achievements “very much” while an additional 10% found dyslexia to affect their academic
achievements “quite a lot.” (Ingesson 581).
Effects of Dyslexia
External Effects: Social Anxiety
A dyslexic child’s inability to understand and learn as easily as their peers creates social
anxiety in their lives. They begin to feel isolated and alone as they watch others succeed and
move on in their studies. Jonathan Glazzard, an author for the British Journal of Learning
Support conducted interviews with affected students and concluded that dyslexia brings feelings
of isolation. One of the students interviewed said, “‘I felt left out because everyone was going off
ahead and finishing their work. They would get to play with games once they had finished at
primary school and I’m still there working. I knew I had more problems than the rest because I
was always last to finish’” (Glazzard 65). When students struggle academically, they begin to
feel self-conscious of their inability to do the things that their peers are doing. This instantly
creates a wall of separation and the dyslexic child does not feel like they are included.
Students also experience social anxiety relating to their self-image when their peers and
teachers begin to notice their inabilities. Neil Humphrey, a doctoral author, explains that as
children enter into secular education, their teachers and peers become their most influential
figures. He says it is “in the presence of one whom we feel to be of importance [that] there is a
tendency to enter into and adopt … his judgement of ourself” (Humphrey 131). Children view
themselves from the perspective of admired individuals. Therefore, esteemed teachers and peers
have to ability to, “reflect an image of [a] child which, if consistent and stable (although not
necessarily accurate), is incorporated into [that] child’s developing sense of self” (Humphrey
131). Thus, it is very important to a child that their teachers and peers view them in a positive
way. They want and need to feel loved and included. Dyslexia, however, poses a threat to this
As a dyslexic child continues in the education system, their continuous and constant
failure becomes obvious to their peers. When learning disabilities such as dyslexia are present,
bullying and teasing significantly increases. Up to half of dyslexic students are verbally bullied
by their peers (Glazzard 66). When a dyslexic’s peers belittle them and view them and their
struggles negatively, it hurts their self-image. They begin to see themselves as their peers do and
their self-esteem falls into a damaging downward spiral.
While teachers do not usually verbally bully dyslexic students as their peers might,
teachers have a tendency to disregard dyslexia. They might overlook the student’s struggles to
see if the student outgrows them, or they may simply label the student as “lazy” or “dumb.” In
both cases, teachers brush the disability away and do nothing to help the struggling student–
sometimes even after they have been officially diagnosed. One of the students interviewed in a
study describes the following experience (italics added for emphasis), “‘[My teacher] was getting
on at me because I couldn’t do the spelling test. She said you shouldn’t be at this low level.
You’ll be kept in at break if you don’t get higher marks. She refused to accept that I had a
genuine problem. She said I was lazy’” (Glazzard 65). It is detrimental to a child’s self-esteem if
a teacher completely disregards their struggles and fails to help them. If teachers are not able to
recognize dyslexia, children will continue to struggle academically and emotionally.
Internal Effects: Low Self-Esteem
Dyslexia greatly impacts the way a child views themself and can have detrimental effects
on their self-esteem. As a child ages, they begin to notice and compare the results of their peers
to their own. Studies point out that, “around the age of eight… self-referential statements (the
statements children make about themselves) shift from the absolute (‘I am good at math’) to the
comparative (‘I’m better at math than most other children’)” (Humphrey 132). When the
dyslexic begins to notice their consistent academic failures and they compare it to their peers’
successes, they quickly become disappointed in themselves. Glazzard’s study found that 89% of
dyslexic students felt feelings of being stupid and disappointed because of the comparisons they made against their peers (64). This comparative tendency harms a dyslexic’s feelings of self-worth. They think they are “stupid” because they don’t know where else to place the blame for their failures.
The comparisons dyslexic children make are detrimental to their internal value of self.
Dr. Neil Humphrey of the University of Manchester and Dr. Patricia M. Mullins of Liverpool
John Moores University conducted extensive research into how dyslexic children associate
attributes with characteristics. They found that children with dyslexia associate happiness and
intelligence with being a good reader more than children without dyslexia (Humphrey and
Mullins 200). This shows that dyslexic children think that if someone can read, they are smart
and will be happy. A dyslexic child will always perceive themselves as unintelligent until they
can match their peers’ reading level. This can be detrimental to their self-esteem because as a
result of their disability, they will never be able to level up to their peers’ reading capabilities.
With failure peeking around every corner in a dyslexic’s academic life, they begin to feel
inadequate and helpless. In fact, their fruitless efforts start to become so much a part of their life,
that they truly begin to think of themselves as failures. Their self-worth plummets as they begin
crediting their failures in school to internal factors such as their “unintelligence” or “laziness”
and their small successes to external factors such as a good teacher (Humphrey and Mullins 201).
Dyslexic children do not have the mental capacity to see themselves as successful. The effects of
this on a dyslexic’s self-esteem is absolutely devastating.
In order to compensate for their unknown disability, diminish their feelings of social
anxiety, and heighten their self-esteem, dyslexic children will begin to develop unhealthy coping
strategies and self-handicaps. Some of these handicaps include procrastination, not trying very
hard, and making up excuses for their failures (Alesi, Rappo, and Pepi 953). These handicaps do
not fix the problem; rather they help to cover it up. Elly Singer in the Department of Education
of the University of Amsterdam conducted a study to understand the coping strategies of students
affected by dyslexia. She found that the largest encompassing profile describes dyslexics as
students that try and hide their problem to protect their self-esteem. They did not ask for help
from teachers or peers because they were bullied for their poor academic performance (Singer
326). While this method helps to conceal a dyslexic’s difficulties, and might be effective in early
years of schooling, it will ultimately create much larger problems for them. As they age and enter
into more advanced studies, their lack of ability will catch up with them and their old methods of
coping will not be effective anymore.
When a dyslexic reaches the point where they are not able to stay in pace with the rest of
their peers, they become discouraged and frustration of failure overtakes them. As they realize
there is absolutely nothing they can do to succeed, they start to believe that there no point to
continue putting forth effort in school. An interviewed dyslexic said, “‘I felt….kind of
disappointed with myself because I couldn’t do stuff, so because I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t
bother doing it. I failed a lot. If a teacher asked me to write something I wouldn’t do it. I found it
hard so I just gave up’” (Glazzard 64). Their frustration with their inabilities leads them to a life
without purpose. Dyslexia causes so much frustration that some children take this a step further
and instead of doing nothing, they act up. The same interviewed dyslexic as referenced above
continued by saying, “‘I’d be just naughty in general. I would not do the work purposely just to
annoy the teacher. I used to try to get sent out of lessons so I needn’t do as much work’”
(Glazzard 64). This effect of dyslexia can lead down a dangerous path. As dyslexic children’s
frustration increases, their acts of resistance escalate. In fact, children with dyslexia are more
likely to end up in the juvenile system because they misbehave (Gladwell 102). It is imperative
that children with dyslexia are helped in their studies so they can continue to progress and learn
in a positive way.
Dyslexia is not a disability affecting intelligence. In fact, some of the most brilliant and
influential people in history were dyslexic. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Disney, and Pablo Picasso were all dyslexic (“Psychology Degree”). About one-third of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic, including Steve Jobs and Richard Branson (Gladwell 106). This is because dyslexia allows for a different way of thinking. Children with
dyslexia do not understand this, and thus they see dyslexia as a burden that keeps them from
excelling to the level of their peers. They need positive reinforcement in their lives to overcome
the negative effects of dyslexia. There needs to be support in the home, but more importantly at
school. Shally Novita of the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories found that while a
child’s self-esteem is negatively impacted and their anxiety is heightened in the classroom, these
problems are not as apparent in the home (280). It is essential to have positive influences
available for dyslexic children at school to support them. Studies have shown that support from
teachers helped dyslexics to learn and helped heighten their self-esteem. This happens through
making classroom adaptations or even just by developing a relationship with the dyslexic student
(Glazzard 65). This would provide the student with someone safe to go to when they need help
and accommodations to allow more time for assignments and reinforced instruction. With the
help of teachers, children can learn to see dyslexia as a gift instead of a disability (Olds).
Teachers have the unique position to nurture a student both emotionally and academically. By
aiding to these needs, teachers can greatly impact the course of a dyslexic child’s life.
Dyslexia can detrimentally change the course of a child’s life academically,
emotionally, and socially if left alone. Dyslexia is a condition that describes differences in the
way a brain has developed. Thus, symptoms are not limited to and don’t always include
problems with reading and writing. Affected children need more time to make connections with
words and sounds in order to make meaning out of them. Children with dyslexia think differently
than the average child. They need support and help from their teachers in order to understand and
overcome their limitations and differences. It is only through this support that they can begin to
see dyslexia in a new light.
Gregory continued to struggle in school, attributing his consistent failure to his
“unintelligence.” He had no idea why he was having problems until he was tested for dyslexia
again in fifth grade, only this time more extensively and by a licensed psychologist. The test
diagnosed Gregory with dyslexia, not just because of his poor reading skills, but because of the
way his brain functioned. He went to special teachers and counselors that helped him understand
and work through his academic and emotional problems. He found out that his heroes, George
Washington, Winston Churchill, and General Patton all had dyslexia, too (“Psychology
Degree”). After receiving support and guidance, he no longer labeled himself as “dumb.” He
began to progress and achieve academically. His grades soon rose from C’s and D’s to A’s and
B’s. As dyslexia continues to negatively affect many children, it is clear that teachers need to
understand this disability and provide the support needed to help the child advance academically
and emotionally to achieve their full potential.
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