Dyslexia and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

Kids know how important reading is. They hear it from their parents and teachers starting at a very young age. So when kids with dyslexia struggle with that vital skill, it can create feelings of anxiety.

In most cases, those feelings are passing and limited to situations that involve reading. That might be anything from reading a menu to taking notes for a book report. But sometimes, kids with dyslexia and other learning issues develop a bigger problem with anxiety.

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Metacognition: How Thinking About Thinking Can Help Kids

When kids hit difficult problems — the seemingly insurmountable English essay, a math test that takes on epic proportions, social struggles that leave them feeling frustrated — it can be tempting to give up and resort to four words no parent ever wants to hear: “I can’t do it.”

Kids need to be able to make the transition from ‘I can’t’ to the proactive ‘How can I?’

In order to thrive, kids need to be able to make the transition from the negative “I can’t” to the proactive “How can I?”

To do that, they need to think about why they’re stuck, what’s frustrating them, what they would need to get unstuck. They need to think about their own thinking.

There’s a word for that, and it’s metacognition.

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The Dyslexia-Stress-Anxiety Connection

What is stress?

Stress is the reaction of the body and brain to situations that put us in harm’s way. The stressor may be a physical threat (e.g., a baseball coming quickly toward you) or a psychological threat (e.g., a worry or fear that you will make a mistake delivering your lines in a play or write a passage that won’t make sense to the reader). Stress, or more specifically, the stress response, is our body’s attempt to keep us safe from harm. It’s a biological and psychological response. When we’re under stress, the chemistry of our body and our brain (and, therefore, our thinking) changes. A part of the brain called the amygdala does a great job learning what’s dangerous, and it makes a connection between certain situations and negative outcomes.

How can stress be good and bad?

All human and non-human animals have the built-in capacity to react to stress. You may have heard of a “fight or flight” response. This means that when faced with a threat, we have two basic ways of protecting ourselves. We can run away (flee) or stand firm and try to overcome or subdue the threat (fight). When we have a sense that we can control or influence the outcome of a stressful event, the stress reaction works to our advantage and gets our body and brain ready to take on the challenge. That’s good stress; at the most primitive level, it keeps us alive. It also allows us to return to a feeling of comfort and safety after we have been thrown off balance by some challenge.

On the other hand, bad stress occurs in a situation in which we feel we have little or no control of the outcome. We have a sense that no matter what we do, we’ll be unable to make the stressor go away. Body and brain chemistry become over-reactive and get all out of balance. When that happens, it can give rise to another protective mechanism, to “freeze” (like a “deer in the headlights”.) We can freeze physically (e.g., become immobilized), or we can freeze mentally (e.g., “shut down.”) In these situations, the stressor wins and we lose because we’re incapacitated by the perceived threat.

How does good and bad stress work with dyslexia?

Individuals with dyslexia are confronted regularly by tasks that are, either in reality or in their perception, extremely difficult for them. These tasks might be reading, spelling, or math. If they have experienced success at mastering this kind of task in the past, good stress helps them face the challenge with a sense of confidence, based on the belief that “I can do this kind of task.” If, on the other hand, someone has met with repeated failure when attempting this or a similar task in the past, his or her body and brain may be working together to send out a chemical warning system that gets translated as “This is going to be way too difficult for you! Retreat! Retreat!) That’s bad stress in action. And remember, perception is everything! It doesn’t matter if a teacher, a friend, or a spouse believes that you can do something; it’s that you think you can do it that matters.

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