Helping Children Stand To Their Full Height

By Michael Ryan Ph.D.

A number of years ago, I began to reevaluate what it meant to be a psychotherapist. I had been dedicated to encouraging children and helping them develop positive self-esteem. Then one day I evaluated a competent, healthy young man for dyslexia. When he returned to my office several days later, he had a stack of bureaucratic forms. I asked him, "What are those for?" He cheerfully answered, "Well, the top one is for the Department of Rehabilitation," (that made sense to me), "the second is for a social security disability" (at this point I was getting angry), "and the last one is so I can get a handicapped license plate." I looked at him in disbelief and asked, "Why would you need a handicapped license plate?" He said, "My dyslexia makes me disorganized. If I could park in the handicapped parking, I wouldn't be late to class." Needless to say I didn't fill out most of his applications and upon reflection; I was surprised by the intensity of my emotional reaction. I was not only angry at him for planning to deprive someone with a wheelchair of a parking space, but I also was angry because his sense of entitlement discredited the real issues that individual with dyslexia needed to address. This was one catalyst that caused me to reevaluate whether my patients needed more from me than simple support and encouragement. After a great deal of discussion and research, I now believe that in addition to encouragement it is important for us to push children with dyslexia past their disability to help them reach their fullest potential. This process involves: helping the child past "I can't ", promoting self discipline, confronting self-indulgent behaviors, promoting excellence and setting limits.

This is not an easy task! The first obstacle is, that like all children when faced with a difficult task, the dyslexic child will say, "I can't." for most children, this means "they don't want to". A good parent or teacher knows that it is important to push the child to accomplish the task anyway. Unfortunately, when dyslexic children say "I can't", it may have one of three meanings. They may be saying, like other children, "I don't want to". However, they may be saying, "I have failed so many times that I'm afraid". Finally, they may be relating the truth "I can't". Because there are many seemingly simple tasks that learning disabled children cannot accomplish. In working with dyslexic children it is critical that we determine which is true. On one hand, if we demand that they (dyslexic children) do something that they cannot do, we insure their failure which will lead to frustration, anxiety and damaged self-image. If on the other hand, we back off and don't insist that the child work to his or her potential, we may be teaching the children to distrust their abilities and it's acceptable to quit simply because they don't want to do it. Although difficult, with the proper collaboration between parents and teachers, it is possible and essential to sort out these difficult questions.

The first step is to identify whether it is possible for the dyslexic child to accomplish the task. If one is unclear, asking for assistance from other adults in the child's life can be very helpful. For example, a reading teacher may have a clear idea of the child's reading level. Or a parent may have examples that illustrate that a child is able to construct three-dimensional models on their own.

If the child can accomplish the task, the question becomes-are they frightened of the task or just unwilling? This can often be determined by talking to the child. Sometimes their words may give you a clue, i.e., "I don't feel like it." More often the tone of their voice or their body posture will provide evidence as to whether the child is genuinely scared or just acting spoiled and pouty. The child who says, "I can't" with a defiant air is much different from the child whose voice cracks and is looking down at the floor. If the response is more fear based, the child still needs to be pushed to finish the task. However, in this case, the child will need more reassurance and a gentle tone which indicates that I believe you can do it.

Self Discipline

Another critical area is self-indulgent behavior. It is very difficult for any child who is allowed to consistently act on their impulses or feelings to grow up living responsibly. All children need a hand in learning self-discipline. However, for the dyslexic child, self-discipline is even more essential. Extensive interviews with many successful dyslexic adults suggest that self-discipline is the antidote to deficits in memory, attention and organization. These problems will not go away, but with proper self-discipline, dyslexics can learn to spend the extra energy it takes to compensate for these deficits. Common sense and clinical experience suggest that in order to be successful, people with dyslexia must work much harder than other individuals. It is only through this self-discipline that dyslexics are able to spend the extra time needed to compensate for his or her disability. Furthermore, because dyslexic children are faced with more frustrations and failures than nondyslexics, they have to deal with more intense emotions. It is, therefore, easier for them to become overwhelmed by the feelings and give up or act out. Dyslexic children need more help learning how to overcome these feelings in order to be successful. Confronting self-indulgent behaviors is an important part of this process.

An individual is self-indulgent when he or she gives in to a feeling rather than doing what makes sense (i.e., what reality dictates). This is not to say that going with one's feelings is always bad. For example, if a vicious dog attacks someone, her feelings would tell her to run. Good idea! In prehistoric times, emotions were good indicators for actions. However, in the more complex modern world, emotions will often cause us to make the wrong decisions. Consequently, children need to think through an action rather than doing what "they feel like doing".

How do we help children override thousands of years of evolutionary programming? Again, this is not an easy process and as adults we get little training on how to accomplish this. First, we must help children learn to recognize their feelings and talk about them. Children with dyslexia may be at a disadvantage because language is more difficult for them. They may not have the vocabulary to express their feelings. Even if they know the words, getting the words out in a fluid fashion is very difficult. This is particularly true if they are stressed and feeling intense emotions. At these times an understanding adult can have the child relax by taking deep breaths and giving the child plenty of time to express their feelings. The adult may have to help the child learn the vocabulary of feelings (fear, love, anger, sadness and happiness).

Expressing their feelings has three major functions. First, it is an acceptable outlet to help dissipate the feelings. Second, it objectifies the feelings. If a child can name it, she begins to realize she is more than the feeling and that she can control it. Finally, when anyone talks to another person about what they are feeling, they usually feel less alone and more accepted.

Next, the child needs to understand that it is good to experience their feelings but know they are only feelings. Often we have to recognize the feeling then put it aside and do what needs to be done. For example, it is fine to "hate Math" but you still have to do your math homework. Protesting activities that the child dislikes is a healthy response, but it should not continue more than a couple of minutes. The adult can empathize with the feeling of the child but also let hem know that their work has to be done.

Both children and adults get stuck in strong feelings and lose perspective. Sometimes this problem is so severe that they need professional help, but often a gentle nudge can help them get back on track. If someone is stuck in sadness or fear, diverting their attention with enjoyable activity or exercise can be very helpful. Many of these children will replay an event over and over in their mind. This can lead to feelings of helplessness or rage. However, if caught early many children can learn to turn off these feedback loops and focus on something more positive. Being too understanding can unwittingly hurt the child.

Another adult response that interferes with the development of self-discipline is unnecessary rescuing. When a child is vulnerable and struggling, it is natural to want to protect them and shield them from pain. Obviously, sometimes this is necessary. However, there are many situation children face that they can conquer. Buying an X-Box game for themselves, calling their basketball coach or introducing themselves to a new adult are excellent opportunities for the child to push past his fears and accomplish an important task.


We must learn to push dyslexic students toward excellence. It may seem cruel after watching a person struggle so hard to learn basic literacy skills to push them even more. And yet, this quality is present in all great teachers, particularly the gifted teachers of the dyslexic student. Alice Ansara, Alice Koontz and June Orton are all examples of brilliant teachers who wouldn't let their students settle for mediocre achievement. Instead of letting them rest on their laurels, they continually pushed them to achieve and reach their exceptional potential.

Ironically, many gifted children without learning difficulties do not receive this help. Their product is so much better than other children; no one considers that they might be able to achieve even more. They, therefore, do not get an opportunity to push themselves past their comfort zone and develop self-discipline. Perhaps this is why so many brilliant PhD. candidates never finish their dissertations.

A good way to start this process is to find an area in which the child excels. It might be bicycling, dance, or drawing. Then, in addition to encouraging and recognizing her accomplishments, the adult identifies instances in which the child has not done their best. Again getting help from experts, teachers, or coaches can be very helpful. Next, positive encouragement is indicated. This should include ways the child can improve and the message "you can do it". (i.e., "I believe in you") Negative statements such as "You can do better then that" or "You are being lazy" should be avoided.

Once children have learned to push themselves in areas in which they are comfortable, these examples can be used to help the child excel in areas where they struggle. "This is like the time you took 20 seconds off you mile time". "If you could do it then, you can do this". This process can be very difficult for empathetic adults. They have seen how the child struggled to get to this point. Pushing the child even further can seem like "too much" or even harmful. I have often been struck by how many severely dyslexic individuals grow up to be very successful in areas that demand a great deal of effort and persistence. One "gift of dyslexia" is that it provides an "obstacle course" to learn the skills of persistence and self-discipline. Most children need help maneuvering this "obstacle course".

It is important not to confuse excellence with perfection. To push children to always improve and do their personal best is very different from demanding perfection. Helping the child focus on realistic improvements rather than on the product leads them towards healthy motivation. Also assisting children to accept their mistakes and learn from them is an antidote to perfectionism.

Setting Limits

All children need limits but dyslexic and ADHD children have a greater need because they tend to perseverate. Perseveration is a neurological condition that inhibits an individual's ability to stop their behavior. In other words, they keep repeating the same action or thought. This might include repeatedly hitting their little sister, singing the same line of a song over and over or continuously demanding a particular X-box. These kids cannot find the off switch.

By repeatedly providing consistent limits, we help the child learn self control. They internalize the limit setting and can begin to do it for themselves. Whereas typical children can learn a fact or behavior in five to ten trials, the dyslexia/ADHD child may take 40 to 50 trials. Not understanding this, many parents and teachers give up way too early and these children never learn this important skill. In effectively setting limits, it is very important to think clearly about authority and use it appropriately. Many adults are uncomfortable using authority and therefore under react or overreact. This difficulty is particularly likely if one did not have a role model who was strong and fair. It is also important to keep in mind how critical steady limits are for these children.

When setting a limit with a child with dyslexia or ADHD it is essential that you get their attention. This may involve turning off the TV or lightly touching the child on the shoulder. The communication should be short and clear to avoid memory or receptive language problems. Because of memory problems, it is important that limits be enforced consistently. Letting the child slide "this one time" only confuses them. The limit should be delivered firmly, at times even sharply but not angrily. In fact if one is overly angry it is better to wait a few minutes or to have another adult set the limit. Most children are masters of diverting attention or changing the subject. So it is critical to bring the topic back to the limit and briefly restate it. If one feels like a broken record, you are probably setting the limit correctly. Long-winded explanations do not work. Explain the reason for the limit later. Setting limits is one of the least enjoyable parts of working with children, but for kids with learning problems, it is one of the most valuable gifts we can give.

Because dyslexic children are faced with more frustration and failure, they need more help dealing with their feelings, Overcoming their fears, developing self-discipline, striving for excellence and respecting limits are critical skills these children need to develop. Children with dyslexia hold great potential. It is only when we encourage their self esteem and challenge their character that they can develop the courage and self discipline to fully use their gifts.

Perspectives, Volume 30, No. 4, Fall, 2004