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The Dyslexic Label and Low Self-Esteem

Twin boys - different labels

Twin boys - different labels

Several years ago I ran a workshop in Birmingham that was aimed at assisting parents of dyslexic children to gain a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding dyslexia.

The workshop was well attended and some of the parents had brought along their children with them as they perhaps thought it would be of benefit for them to meet me – maybe to inspire them to persevere with their efforts to overcome dyslexia – you see, I was functionally illiterate as a child and it took me from the ages of 18 to 31 to learn to read and write to a good enough standard to get myself into university – I’m now finishing off my PhD in education on the subject of dyslexia.

Anyway, returning to the focus of this post, ‘The Dyslexic Label and Low Self-Esteem’, there were twin boys (8 year olds) attending the workshop – one that had been labelled as dyslexic the other who had not. Yet, both brothers showed very similar issues when it came to reading and writing.

However, I noticed a striking difference between the two of them – the twin that had been labelled as dyslexic had very little confidence when it came to his reading and writing abilities. His brother, on the other hand, was extremely confident and was at times – in typical sibling rivalry – mocking his brother for the ‘mistakes’ he was making whilst writing a short story about his dyslexia. This twin was also keen to show off his literacy skills whilst his brother shied away from writing and at times seemed to be somewhat embarrassed when asked to writing something.

Curiously, the father of the twins spoke to his son who had been labelled as dyslexic differently to how he spoke to his son that had not been labelled in this way. For example, I heard him telling the dyslexic twin that his brain was not normal like his brothers and that’s why he needed to have special treatment at school – a sure way to knock a child’s self-esteem! I also noticed how his attitude seemed different to the ‘dyslexic’ twin, it was almost as if had resided himself to the fact that this son would never achieve academically.

Both brothers produced written work on the day along with a couple of drawings that had speech bubbles coming from the characters they had created. At first glance, I couldn’t tell who had produced what – they both spelt words unconventionally, their handwriting was ‘messy’ and in places illegible, and they both appeared to have difficulties expressing themselves on paper to a level that matched, or came somewhere close to, their verbal abilities. The only differentiating factor between the two sets of work was that they had both taken the time to write their names on the top of each piece of paper. On looking at their work I was puzzled why one of the twins had been assessed as dyslexic and the other one had not.

On reflection, I remember thinking how the lives of the twins would most probably go off in quite different directions as a result of one being labelled as dyslexic – this happening despite there being (in my opinion) very little difference between the two of them in terms of their literacy skills.

I remember thinking at the time how the only real difference between the twins was the perception that they held of themselves in relation to their literacy skill. The ‘non-dyslexic’ brother appeared to have high levels of self-esteem and seemed to view himself as more than able to read and write – whist the other brother appeared to have low levels of self-esteem and clearly doubt his reading and writing ability. I speculated that the ‘non-dyslexic’ brother stood a far great chance of improving his literacy skills over the years as he would more than likely engage with written language to a far great extent than his ‘dyslexic’ brother would.

It was during this workshop that it really hit home just how damaging the label of dyslexia can be for some children.

Article by Antonio Farruggia-Bochnak, 11th January, 2010

'The Dyslexic Label and Low Self-Esteem' have 5 comments

  1. January 30, 2013 @ 8:04 pm Kim W.

    We have just returned from yet another IEP Meeting with a new Chair. The Chair was rather surprised that we decided to “label” our son Dyslexic. It is not school policy to do so. However, our son is profoundly dyslexic with other issues – none which impact his intelligence – so he is VERY much aware of his differences whether or not a label is given. He is 9 and watches how his peers can easily accomplish tasks that are so challenging for him.

    He has received services since the beginning of 1st Grade. He wondered, “What’s wrong with me???” for quite a while. (Note: We did NOT subscribe to the idea that there was something “wrong”, but “different”). When we, as parents, felt he was ready to understand, we told him, “you have Dyslexia”. Yes, other words joined in that conversation, and we made the conversation about how TERRIFIC HE IS and all of the wonderful things he can do, and how SMART he is in other areas. We are very careful about growing & maintaining his positive self image. That’s the key, not making it a bad thing. And not letting the Dyslexia “own” all of him. He is a sum of many wonderful parts, like we all are. We don’t sugar-coat the effort that he will have to make either. But it’s done with love, compassion and a true belief that this wonderful little boy is so much more than “dyslexic”. We don’t refer to him as such, either – only when necessary. He has a name, afterall.


  2. July 27, 2010 @ 3:09 am Mental Disorders 101

    The Dyslexic Label and Low Self-Esteem | Dyslexic Brian – The ……

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…


  3. April 1, 2010 @ 6:01 pm Sue O.

    I have a son that has been labeled “dyslexic.” It was diagnosed at a young age, but, with our blessing, the elementary school which he attended decided not to put him is special programs until the year before attending middle school. Reasons varied, but the main reason we kept him out was our confidence in the teachers at the school and their ability to teach children at all levels. It became necessary to enrole him in special programs as he was leaving the school so that he could receive the benefits from the state for test taking etc., at the higher level. It is interesting to note that in that year that he began attending special classes is when he began calling himself “stupid.” Since our son was a baby we have always felt he was extremely intelligent, but definately an “out of the box” thinker. Very much in contrast to our older daughter who has been enrolled in advanced level classes since a young age. We raised them the same with regard to presenting them with books and reading materials since babies, but it was always clear to us how different they were; our daughter taking to the books and reading the words along with the pictures, and our son who looked at the pictures and made up the words. She is by far less imaginative and creative. I have no doubt that both children will oneday be successful. Although these school years are extrememly difficult for my son, I see his success coming much easier later in life than for my daughter. He has already experienced so many struggles. I like to refer to his dyslexia as a gift from God. It is a bgattle that he fights daily, but it has made him a much stronger individual as he is learing ways to get around it. His social abilities and his athleticism make him strong and he has a very warm and tender personality that make him a joy to be around. It is clear to me that the label itself can be damaging, but at least in our school system the label is necessary to get the benefits of a fair education. Teachers and classrooms today are so boxed in, and much of this is due to the requirements placed on them for state testing. But there are good teachers out there and that is one of the reasons our son is suviving his label. He now beginning to understand his strengths and how to use them, so hopefully in the years to come his dyslexia will be just a small piece to a very strong person.


  4. January 26, 2010 @ 7:37 pm Scott Rickert

    Interesting article and comment by Charlotte. My experiences are very similar to what Charlotte describes, children don’t view the diagnosis as a “label” if it is handeled correctly. All too often, parents and educators “label” the child instead of labeling the phenomena with which they are contending. So instead of calling Mike a Dyslexic kid, we acknowledge that he is a child who is having trouble with reading. Labeling is reductionistic. It oversimplifies kids. The practice overlooks their richness, their complexity, their strengths, and their striking originality. Labeling can be dehumanizing; it can consume a person’s total identity. It is especially concerning to me when I hear people say, “I am ADD.” Can you imagine someone proclaiming, “I am bronchial asthma”?


  5. January 14, 2010 @ 7:56 pm Charlotte Mann

    Giving a child the label ‘dyslexic’ can go either way in my experience. As you observed, a lot depends on how the parents react to it.
    I have worked with families who have been very positive about their child being diagnosed as dyslexic and the child has blossomed. Others get anxious and it rubs off on the child. Some parents are dyslexic themselves and may have had a bad experience at school themselves.
    The important thing is to educate the parents on how to manage their child’s dyslexia and on how important it is to be positive and encourage their children to participate in activities that they succeed in, be it art, drama or football!


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