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Dyslexia and Its Impact On a Child's Mental Health

"When I was in school teachers would ask me if I heard what they said and I wanted to say 'Yes I heard it but I also heard the car driving into the lot next to the window, and I saw the leaf that fell from the tree over there and a million other things.' It wasn't that I wasn't thinking; my mind never stopped thinking." said Brian Zolet, School Counselor at The Gow School. "I have ADHD and I was kind of miserable in school. I hated it and that's exactly why I became a teacher. I can relate to the students who are like me and probably hate school too. Now I can be sure that I am helping them because I know that what I am doing would have helped me," said Zolet. Zolet works at The Gow School A coed college-prep boarding and day school for students, grades 6-12, with dyslexia and similar language-based learning disabilities in New York.

The Gow School cafeteria, filled with children and colorful country flags hanging from the celing

All month long we have been speaking with experts, educators, and individuals who have learning and attention issues to do our part in bringing awareness to both ADHD Awareness Month and Dyslexia Awareness Month. Earlier this month I sat down with an internationally known expert on children with learning disabilities, Rick Lavoie, to understand how much a learning disability impacts a child's life. Last week I had the opportunity to share my dad's story as he discussed his experiences getting diagnosed with ADHD in his 30's.

"I accidentally kind of fell into working with students with dyslexia. I always tell people when you’re in college you’re an idealist. You think; ‘I am going to change the world! They’ve never seen anybody like me!’ The reality is the system isn’t built to be changed overnight. You don’t have that time. I couldn’t just turn around the whole education system and be this educational superstar. I work with a lot of people who want to do really good things but there are only so many teachers and there are SO many kids," explained Zolet. However, it is the parents of the Gow School students who ended up showing Zolet that his dreams have in fact come true. "I have heard things from parents like; 'Thank you for giving us our child back.' or even so much as 'Thank you for giving us our family back.' That is incredible to hear and I realized that this is what I always wanted to do in college. This school saves lives," said Zolet.

Zolet himself does not have dyslexia but his job allows him to work so closely with children who do that he has learned an immense amount about the brain of someone with dyslexia. “Here as a school counselor, it is fun because there is a lot of vagueness to the dyslexia profile and I have learned so much. You can count on a number of these kids not thinking about the second move before they make their first one. Repetition while working one on one helps them and appeals to me because I know that that kind of teaching would have helped me in school. I see them on a number of different levels; academically, socially, etc. and I became very comfortable with them. I am getting as close to understanding how their brains work on a personal level without sharing those challenges that they have.”

"I think of one of the first kids that I’ve taught who now must be in his thirties. He’s from an old Rhode Island shipping family. He could speak about the history of New England shipping in depth for hours with passion but couldn't write his name. You give him a pencil and he just couldn’t. You could give him a book of New England shipping and ask him to read it and he’d get tears in his eyes. It is frustrating to know how intelligent you are but struggle with things like reading. Kids never forget when a teacher asks why they aren’t paying attention. When that happened to me in school I wanted to say 'What are you an idiot? I of course want to learn I am here, aren't I? I know I want to read this book and get out of it what I would but I just can’t do it.' There is so much extra anxiety that these kids have. They walk around angry and feeling completely misunderstood."

The Gow School and educational institutions like it are fantastic resources for children with learning and attention challenges however, that's not the reality for many families. While we had Zolet on the phone we wanted to hear from him what his best advice is for parents who are raising a child who has dyslexia. "A lot of the families who had told me that the Gow School changed their lives were ones that really struggled with the dreaded kitchen table scenario. If you and your child spend 4-5 hours fighting at the dinner table every night stressing over homework you don’t have a whole lot of time to learn or make good family memories. For families that go to The Gow School we kind of become that parent at the kitchen table. We take on that role so they don't have to anymore and that relieves a lot of tension in the house," explained Zolet.

kitchen table

We asked Zolet if he had any advice for families who are similarly struggling with the 'dreaded kitchen table scenario' but do not go to the Gow School. He said, "I think it’s a really, really tough situation. In some ways, these parent-child homework sessions, with many times one or both dreading the coming experience, quickly devolve into an acceleration of discord and can derail the very reason they’ve sat down together. The optimal situation involves the child studying with the aid of a trained tutor, but of course, finances often preclude that. One thing that I’ve suggested to those families trying to bear through the situation is to keep in mind strategies they will use when the situation begins to break down. Humor, humor, humor – no matter how difficult it might seem, breathing exercises, stepping away from the table and regrouping – both personally, or, if possible – together – as in finding some sort of quick activity to do together. It may add time to the process but when there’s discord, how much productivity is really getting done anyway?

There are many therapists skilled in working with families to teach and come up with game plans to put such strategies into place. For what my personal opinion is worth, I think this has got to be one of the most, if not the most, damaging “necessities” when parents try to play the role of supporting these struggling children academically. Things too often veer off from the educational to the personal and increase tension among loved ones. It’s heartbreaking to hear of, to live through, and as one working from the outside to make things better because there are often so few viable options available," explained Zolet.

son and dad looking at computer

"You have to be proactive. Dyslexia runs in families and for example; if high cholesterol ran in your family and you see that your teen has slightly higher cholesterol than normal you would act on it. Every year and moment that you don’t get your child help you are losing valuable time for them. A lot of kids want to deny it but this, unfortunately, brings frustration. They develop ways to get by but for the kids, I worked with at around 6th or so grade it doesn’t work anymore. As a parent, you have to be ready for the worst case. It can’t be accepting advice like ‘Oh I had a cousin with dyslexia this is what we did for her.’ They need proper help. We can’t forget that they are kids and that’s being is a kid is already difficult. They all need a fan."

If you have been keeping up with our blog all month you will recognize the pattern of us exploring the idea that learning and attention challenges impact far more than the classroom. One thing we know for sure is that challenges like dyslexia often have a major impact on a child's mental health. Zolet mentioned this impact throughout our entire conversation and had this to say when I brought up mental health and dyslexia:

"I play chess with a lot of my students. So much of chess is like the minefield of life. I ask them; 'Why did you do that? Okay, what will you do next?' When they tell you “I don’t know” about something it’s not just a teenager being a teenager it’s a kid saying they really don’t know why they did something. So much of their anger is rooted in fear of the unknown. Do everything with a dose of humor. They have been yelled at their whole life in school. Depression runs in my family and I watch my own children very carefully. I’ve seen my mom struggle and I am sensitive to it. The quicker you can help them when they're in a rut the quicker they get the help they need. You have no time to waste. They want to limit anxiety as much as anyone else and chances are they have a lot of it," said Zolet.

We want to thank Zolet for sharing his experiences of both being a student and being an educational professional with us. It is so important that children feel like people understand them and we love to hear the stories of educators who go the extra mile for children who are struggling. While October may be winding down we want to remind you that ADHD and Dyslexia impact a child's education, social life, and mental health all year long.

If you and your child are struggling every night at the kitchen table it may be time for an IEP/504 plan check-up or to get an IEP if your child doesn't have one. If you don't know how to get started our Family Support Partners (FSP's) are always here for you too!

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