Children with dyslexia often struggle when it comes to integrating with their peers. Because children with this condition may find it hard mingle and communicate with others, their social lives suffer.
“Besides making reading and other language-based tasks difficult, dyslexia can also affect a child’s social skills,” confirms Fanny Foo, Director of Learning Centres and Outreach at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS). “Not fitting in can take a toll on a child’s self-esteem. Therefore, it is most important to help a child with dyslexia build confidence, improve working memory, develop strong social skills and avoid feelings of hurt,” says Ms Foo, who has a dyslexic child.
Children with dyslexia may have problems:
• understanding jokes or sarcasm
• finding the right words to comment on a topic
• responding quickly
• picking up on body language, facial expressions and other social cues
Ms Foo’s daughter, who is 12, faces some of these difficulties. “When communicating with her peers, as they seem to be on different wavelengths. She tries to tell a joke but they don’t get it. Sometimes, she tries to join in their group activities but they think she’s a nuisance.
“When she was younger, I tried to help her by encouraging her to tell me her jokes first. If I didn’t find them funny or if they didn’t make sense, I would tell her not to share it with her friends. Over time, she has learnt that what she finds funny may not be so in the eyes of others. I feel that helping her to understand societal norms has helped her to fit in and to be confident in her own skin. This is the best thing that I can do for her.”
Understand the Condition
Then there are children who do not have dyslexia, but may not understand the condition or know how to respond to fellow schoolmates who have it. This is where parents can help by bringing awareness of the condition to their children. Angeline Daniel, mum of a 10-year-old child with dyslexia, suggests these first-to-know points. Tell your child:
• Children with dyslexia don’t have a contagious disease. They are wired differently and, as such, need to be taught differently. It is perfectly okay to play with them and to make friends with them.
• If a person has dyslexia it does not mean that he or she has a low IQ. Some dyslexics are brilliant and simply need to be provided with the right learning environment to shine.
• Do not compare dyslexic children with typically developing children who are academic achievers.
• Dyslexic children may suffer from poor self-esteem. Don’t ask them to perform tasks – such as reading aloud – that are beyond them in a group setting.
• Respect individuals for who they are. Do not judge them for what they are not.
• Know that what may seem easy for you may not be as easy for others.
“Reading stories that touches on dyslexia is a good way to help children understand that dyslexia does not make their friends any different,” suggests Anaberta Oehlers-Jean, Programme Director of Specialised Educational Services and Head of DAS International, Dyslexia Association of Singapore. She has an 18-year-old son with dyslexia.
Parents can also encourage their children to offer peer support to their dyslexic classmates in daily activities by helping them read or sharing notes with them when they do not have time to copy everything down.
“Parents without dyslexic kids must first understand the importance of inclusiveness of all humankind,” adds Ms Foo. “Once you have nurtured compassion and kindness in children, you don’t need to teach them anything else for them to mix well with dyslexic kids.”
Give them Opportunities to Thrive
Dyslexic children thrive in certain areas and here is where parents can encourage them to excel. This will help with their self-esteem and social skillset.
“Many dyslexics are talented in music, art, leadership and creativity,” explains Nor Ashraf B Samsudin, Director of Specialised Educational Services at DAS.
“Parents can help their children leverage on these strengths and nurture them. Getting them to actively participate in activities that tap on these strengths would help bring out the best in them and raise their self-esteem.
The DAS conducts a Speech and Drama Programme that focuses on acting and vocal expression. Through drama activities, children are given opportunities to express their imagination and creativity freely, bolstering their self-confidence and fostering fluency in a manner which they are comfortable with to communicate their ideas.
Building an Inclusive Environment
In school, integration for dyslexic children comes in two forms – academic and social.
Ms Daniel, whose 10-year-old son is dyslexic, shares her experience:
“The school has a supportive environment for children with special needs, providing pull-out support during lessons, a buddy-reading system, workshops to build their self-confidence and a strong parent support group that meets regularly to share new information, ideas to manage and support children at home and learn from the experts in the field.
Social integration in school has been tough as some children are not that understanding and can be unforgiving with their words. They have called him names like ‘LSP kid’, ‘slow’, ‘stupid’ and ‘weak’ because he was identified to attend the Learning Support Program (LSP). There were times when my son returned home from school asking, ‘What is wrong with me?’.
Relatives and friends have unintentionally passed comments such as ‘he is slower than his elder brother?’ I wasn’t too sure if I should be telling them about his difficulties. I was concerned about him being labelled but I could not run away from people comparing him with his peers. I decided then that if I wanted a supportive environment for my child, the closest people in my social circle must know about the learning difficulties that he has, the challenges he faces and how they can help him and manage that.
That changed a lot of things. It put a name to his learning difficulties and the comparisons stopped. But now I have new challenges, as some people look at him with pity, as if they are feeling, ‘He is so bright but…’
Tough as it is, I have chosen times like this to be ‘teachable moments’ about how everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. We focus on his strengths. This makes him feel special. My son is a sociable person and I have capitalised on that to help him try and see beyond his difficulties. Things have certainly improved over time.”