Nurturing the Social and Emotional Needs of Students with Dyslexia

by Angie Barnett | Oct 19, 2020

Nurturing the Social and Emotional Needs of Students with Dyslexia


After working for Reading Horizons for nine years, I found out one of my nephews was struggling with reading. Having been trained in our method and having access to our materials, I volunteered to work with him. As I began this process, I expected his reading difficulties and ADHD (he had recently been diagnosed) to be the biggest challenges I would need to overcome. However, I was surprised to find out how strong his emotions were in regards to reading and learning. He was in first grade at the time, and struggling was still new to him. I had heard that the emotions of older students were often strong and resistant after years of struggling. I had heard how difficult it was to motivate older students. But, I found my six-year-old nephew in this same state—with much more intensity than expected.

While fighting through his reading difficulties and ADHD did prove difficult, it was his emotional response to learning that really broke my heart and required an equal amount of effort to remediate. Luckily, I had watched videos and read articles about the growth mindset and was able to use those principles to continually encourage him. But, as an outsider to the world of reading intervention, I was surprised how often I had to repeat those principles. I was surprised by how many pep talks I had to give. I was surprised how defeated he was at such a young age.

After months of work, we finished our way through the Reading Horizons method, and he felt he was on pace with his peers again. When I asked his mom if she felt it had worked, she replied, “Yes, he seems to have hope again.” Once again, I was surprised by this reaction. It wasn’t his reading skills that she saw as the biggest benefit to him learning to read; it was his emotional state.

In Reading Horizons’ recent virtual conference, RHCON, our in-house reading and dyslexia expert, Shantell Berrett, MA, discussed the social and emotional needs of students with dyslexia in her presentation, “The Direction of Dyslexia.” In this presentation, Berrett explained that the difference in brain wiring that causes dyslexia can also make these students more wired for depression and anxiety. To help prevent and remediate these emotional triggers, she offered solutions and best practices for nurturing the social and emotional needs of students with dyslexia in the classroom.

As referred to earlier, the growth mindset has been studied significantly by psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D. Dweck has defined the growth mindset and how it contrasts with a fixed mindset. Here are a few examples of these two mindsets and how they differ from each other.

Growth Mindset: Developing Yourself

  • Effort + ability = success
  • We can develop our abilities
  • Challenges are an opportunity to grow
  • We can handle it (self-efficacy and perceived difficulty)

Fixed Mindset: Validating Yourself

  • Effort = bad at
  • No effort = good at
  • Hide struggles and challenges
  • If it doesn’t come easily, don’t do it

Research has found that the growth mindset leads to the best outcomes for our students. In order to create a growth-minded learning environment, here are a few practices Berrett shared that can be implemented in the classroom:

  • Acknowledge fixed mindsets
  • Raise awareness about mindsets
  • Normalize struggles and difficulties
  • Wait/give time to work through a problem or challenge
  • Create a culture that values taking risks
  • Teach individuals to articulate their thinking
  • Encourage deliberately
  • Harness the power of “yet” (i.e., “I don’t know how…yet.”)

In addition to covering the growth mindset, Berrett also covered a model created by Jerome Schultz for helping students feel empowered to deal with the stress that can come from reading (or other) difficulties in the classroom. This model was highlighted in an article titled “From Distress to DE-STRESS.” This article outlines seven steps for minimizing learning anxiety. The first letter of each step creates the acronym DE-STRESS.

D = Define

Collect the information and observations needed to get an accurate idea of the specific learning profile of a student/child. Many parents are hesitant to label their child, but knowing what you’re up against and what is causing your challenge has been helpful and empowering to many students and their parents. During this step, it’s important to look at family history and to meet with doctors or psychologists who can assess and diagnose the problem. This step also includes recognizing and highlighting a student’s strengths so he or she can use those strengths to build self-esteem and confidence.

If a child had dyslexia, this commonly used definition from the International Dyslexia Association could be a good starting point:

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.

These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.

Because dyslexia often coexists with other conditions, it is important to rule out other learning challenges, such as the following:

  • ADD/ADHD – impacts attention/focus
  • Dysgraphia – impacts written expression
  • Dyscalculia – impacts numbers and math concepts
  • Executive functioning – chronic difficulties in executing daily tasks and planning, organizing, memory, and reasoning
  • Speech and language difficulties

E = Educate

Help your child or student understand his/her learning differences. Teach your student to learn how it impacts his/her learning and other behaviors. Self-understanding can greatly reduce and prevent stress from being triggered at school and during homework tasks. Help parents (or teachers) understand the needs of the student. Help family members, close friends, and other important people in the student’s life understand how to be sensitive and helpful to the student.

S = Speculate

Teach the student to think ahead and anticipate how his/her learning differences are going to impact them at school. Help them come up with a plan for when those obstacles do come. Teachers can also work to anticipate these needs. When you know a student struggles with reading or other learning tasks, you can incorporate the following accommodations:

  • Post schedules
  • Use consistent routines
  • Create organizational supports
  • Break down big projects
  • Provide step-by-step instructions
  • Have students orally repeat instructions
  • Create content outlines
  • Make PowerPoints available online
  • Be open to alternative projects that allow students to use their strengths to demonstrate knowledge or understanding
  • Encourage students to respond and reflect during class

T = Teach

The student needs to be taught about stress and how to control it, but they also need to be taught how to overcome their skill deficits. For students with dyslexia, word decoding and spelling is extremely difficult. It is important that they receive phonics-based instruction that is aligned with the structured literacy approach. Researchers have consistently found that this approach is most likely to lead to success for these students.

R = Reduce the Threat

As mentioned earlier, by creating a healthy, growth mindset in every student, you can build a learning environment that is safer for the whole class. If bullying or laughing is common from a student’s peers when they attempt reading tasks or other difficulties, it can be important to teach students about empathy and learning differences. Berrett’s son has dyslexia, and one year she was invited to teach her son’s class about dyslexia. At the end of the school year, her son told her that it was his best school year and the nicest his peers had ever been. Berrett strongly believes that most cruelty comes from ignorance and not a place of harm. When we can help students understand their differences and the normalcy of these differences, kindness and consideration can grow.

E = Exercise

Many students with ADHD have a hard time listening or engaging if they aren’t able to move. In fact, exercise increases every student’s ability to learn. Besides recess and P.E., it can be helpful to give students an outlet for movement during instruction. Allowing students to use some form of fidget toy or incorporating movement into your actual lesson can be very helpful. Simply having students come up to the whiteboard to play a game or write a response to a question can increase engagement.

S = Success

If a student has a learning challenge, you can boost their confidence by having them repeatedly complete a task or activity where they excel or that showcases their strengths.

S = Strategize

Teach students to learn from their past. Help them recognize what has worked and what can be improved to increase their success in the future.

As an educator, we know you have a huge place in your heart for your students and that you truly want them to succeed. Please share the strategies you have found to help your students with dyslexia and other learning differences feel safe and successful in the classroom.

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