In early March, Dr. Michael Pastor PhD, MFT was a guest speaker at PEN. The title of his talk was Family Dynamics in Families with Children with Learning Differences. Dr. Pastor has worked with children, adolescents and families in his psychotherapy practice in San Francisco for over twenty years. In addition, he is currently Upper School Counselor at San Francisco Day School.
At the outset Dr. Pastor said that the goal for a parent with a child who has a learning difference is to ensure that through the child’s young and adolescent years he/she feels loved, accepted, safe and understood. (I, Ann, the blog writer) think probably the latter, being understood, is the biggest challenge. For the child and most often the parents don’t know why the child is struggling. I know this was my parents biggest dilemma when I was a child.)
When a child is struggling Dr. Pastor re-enforced the importance that parents find ways to have fun with their child even though it may not be easy. Why? You want him or her to remember holidays and trips – maybe simply going to the beach. You don’t want your child to simply remember the struggle. He quoted Jane M. Healy, PhD whose book Different Learners as a good source on this topic. Remember: the family we grow up in is the most important environment for a child.
He moved on to some basic considerations for parents:
- If your child is having problems, don’t be one of those parents who just thinks that things will get better on their own. In most cases this is not the truth.
- Parents get shocked at the complexity and expense of the solutions and often decide to let go the step of an evaluation. This is not helping your child. You may find yourself, like other parents have, that you feel relief when learning the results of the tests. Finally there is a way to improve the situation.
- Some parents find it hard to hear the results – that their child has problems. And, now they have more to handle which might include the recommendation of medications, or a tutor, or possibly a psychologist. All of this costs money.
- Some parents feel guilty feeling they should have addressed this issue earlier. They might also sense it’s genetic and feel guilt for having passed it on. Dr. Pastor pointed out that if these feelings are buried and not expressed they will leak out in other ways – anger, fear, even rage.
- Some parents feel a deep sense of disappointment. Their vision of their child being successful in the way they had outlined doesn’t now seem possible. It’s important to admit this feeling so it doesn’t become toxic.
- Parents need to develop a new level of dialogue with each other. If this skill is not in place the service of a therapist may be wise.
- One of the first decisions parents will need to make is who will take the leadership in obtaining for the child what is required. Most often it’s the wife. And, down the road, anger can build up within the wife for carrying this load. And, it’s not uncommon that the dad’s point of view becomes: “If the child only tried harder.”Remember while parents may be disappointed, it is the child who has to deal with the learning challenge. The parents need to find a way to convince the child that they “aren’t lesser than”, especially in context of their peers. One of the new phraseologies “learning differences” can take the heat off the topic and an explanation that some people have different kinds of brains can give the child something to express to both themselves and others. Remember. the conditions of anxiety, depression and low self esteem are more prevalent with children with learning disabilities. Learning challenged kids come to expect that they will fail (That certainly was my expectation with French which being Canadian I had to take through school and university). So, there are both the neurological and psychological issues to handle with the child.
- Parents need to find a way to help the child not decide that life consists only of being forced to do what you don’t want to do.
- If there are siblings, they often find the learning challenged sibling a pain. The sibling deals with it by being a good child but harbors secret resentments.
- And, the learning challenged child will be jealous of the sibling because they seem to have a much easier life. Remember, children are like sponges, they absorb everything. They pick up what parents are believing and how they are behaving. One caution: Dr. Pastor recommends that you don’t tell the sibling not to tell others. That will backfire in ways unexpected.
- When things don’t make sense, parents look for help and discover that the process of identifying professionals is not easy. The person(s) chosen need to fit both the parent’s and the child’s requirements.
- Parents begin to see that they have to choose when to be firm and when to let an issue go. Sometimes letting it go makes sense because, above all else, you want to preserve your relationship with your child. While you are making the decision the parent needs to assess: is this behavior something unusual? If yes, letting go might make sense. The result could be the child might feel: finally my parent gets me. The fall out with siblings in that situation is resentment. The child with the learning difference gets more attention. The core solution in a family is good communication within the family. Each person listens to each other. Then, when a reaction happens it is more easy to talk to the child.
- Remember, Dr. Pastor cautioned, you can only talk to a child at their developmental level. If the child is three and misbehaving, you might say:
“I am going to try to help you stay out of being sent to your room” and then give them an explanation waiting to see what they have to say. Often the child feels better simply because “mummy” listens to me. Another suggestion Dr. Pastor gave was to say to the child: ” I need time to think over what you are asking.” However, the parent needs to respond not too much later or resentment will build up. Whatever decision you take the sibling will think it’s unfair. If this happens, be sure to talk to the sibling about it. And the reason is: the sibling might think your avoidance means there is something really wrong. They will hear “this is so bad it can’t be talked about.” And, it may have some truth for the parents because they are so ashamed which then means that the parents have a challenge of working out this shame between themselves.
In summary, Dr. Pastor feels the behaviors of the learning challenged child and siblings all starts with the parents behaviors. He stated that there are nearly twice as many divorces in families who have children with learning differences. He cautions: The parents are adults and have to adjust to their children. There is no question that raising healthy children is difficult. Some come out of the womb energetic and hyperactive, while others are quiet. It’s a matter of the parents adjusting to whatever is.
Taking charge of dyslexia in the workplace
Shame is a powerful emotion. And so is fear. You may think they are uncommon feelings in the workplace, but right now there is a one in 10 chance that a colleague is experiencing these disabling emotions.
And the reason? Their dyslexia has been misunderstood, particularly at school, resulting in life experiences that have challenged their self-esteem and identity.
To those of us who might take for granted our ability to peruse a report or express our ideas in an email or document, it is hard to imagine how these seemingly simple tasks can produce such an emotive reaction from so many dyslexic people. But for those whose dyslexia has been misunderstood either in school or elsewhere in their life, the feelings are very real, and understandable.
Richard Taylor, co-founder and co-director of the Weta companies, regularly comes into contact with people struggling with the feelings dyslexia evokes. “Only a few weeks ago I met a young man whose parents brought him to the workshop to see what we could do. He had been labelled in degrading ways in terms of his ability, when actually his motor skills, visual and creative skills were amazing.
“It’s tough at that age, but what I tried to make him understand is how important it is to believe in his own unique capabilities. When he leaves school it will become apparent that he is actually in a unique position to make the most of his exceptional creative view of the world,” he says.
The story is just one of many that Taylor offers when talking about dyslexia, a topic he is deeply passionate about, and its sentiments are echoed by other high profile New Zealanders who experience dyslexia.
“I hid the fact that I had issues with writing and spelling for 37 years, out of shame and fear of being judged a dummy, an idiot, lazy or stupid. At high school, to cover up my issues I just pretended I didn’t care and teachers told my parents I was lazy and didn’t try. You get the picture,” says Paul Reid, CEO of the New Zealand MetService.
Fortunately, for young New Zealanders and those already in the workforce who have dyslexia, a global step-change in thinking is underway. Instead of pigeon-holing dyslexia as a disability, the new thinking focuses on increasing understanding which helps employers to notice the difficulties (or preferences) a staff member has and to adjust their actions in response.
This simple “notice and adjust” approach empowers employees to achieve their potential and demonstrates an employer’s willingness to support genuine needs. This leads to increased job fulfillment for dyslexic employees, and for the employer, an enhanced bottom line.
At its essence, dyslexia is the disparity between thinking skills (which are usually strong) and basic skills such as reading and writing (which can often be weak in comparison). This is a consequence of how the brain is wired, and a strong preference as to where it processes information.
In fact, leading dyslexia researcher Sally Shaywitz, founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity has shown that dyslexics tend to have strengths in higherlevel thinking processes, learning capacity, creative problem-solving, thinking ‘outside the square’ and empathy. She also found that dyslexics excel when focused on highly specialised areas, ranging from medicine and law to science and architecture.
Dyslexics also have great skills in entrepreneurialism. Research from the United Kingdom shows that 35 percent of US entrepreneurs and 20 percent of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
With such strengths to offer, the challenge for New Zealand employers is to find the right way to harness the potential benefits. For Taylor, the emphasis for a good employer needs to be on changing their approach to working with dyslexic employees in order to help them flourish.
“You need to identify exactly what attributes you want in the person you hire. If you expect a more traditional, linear thinking mode you will need to put more support around a dyslexic person to help them achieve that.
“Awareness is critical. You need team leaders who can identify the signs of dyslexia and make simple adjustments so the employee feels valued and empowered. This will involve good peer support and making sure that the challenges you set dyslexic employees are testing, but not outside the realm of their capability,” he says.
These sentiments are echoed by Reid.
“Dyslexia has helped me be a good leader because I’ve learnt to communicate ideas, issues and concepts in different ways. I have had to adapt to succeed but I believe this has actually made me a stronger leader,” he says.
“For example, in moments of crisis, I can take a lot of verbal information, process it, draw conclusions and make decisions on the spot. I deal in concepts rather than in details and I can give a one hour presentation without notes. I spend a lot of time walking around the business talking to people, and I often use the telephone to discuss business matters, rather than email.”
Reid believes that business owners or employers need to rethink traditional principles and rules to help dyslexic employees, and to allow them to help themselves.
“Employees with any form of dyslexia can be of great use to organisations as long asyou don’t put them in the wrong job and expect them to undertake tasks that they cannot perform. It’s about horses for courses and matching skills to strengths.
Reid says many dyslexic adults can work very hard at hiding their weaknesses, instead of using their significant abilities to add value to the business. Employers can lift productivity by helping them identify, and play to their strengths.
“It’s great to see a new model emerging that is based on attitude, where knowing the questions to ask is more important than knowing the answers, and where people areconstructively speaking out. Good communication and understanding strengths and weaknesses is essential for supporting employees, especially those affected by dyslexia,” he says.
Where to learn more
Tips for harnessing the benefits of dyslexia
• Attitude is everything, and it counts from top to bottom. Make an effort to understand the strengths that Dyslexia can offer and do not confuse weakness in basic skills with a lack of intelligence, ability or commitment.
• Accept the challenge to review your company style guides and fine tune them to suit the needs of dyslexic people. It’s not only them who benefit, everyone gains when things are communicated in a way that is clear, concise, well-planned and combines a mixture of words and visuals.
• Focus on communication. Deliver information and instructions orally or visually wherever possible, rather than writing things down. Encourage others to do the same because it is often quicker, more efficient and engages people more effectively in the business at hand
• Value visual information as well as the written, and include diagrams and pictures in presentations and reports.
• Always give an overview and explain the big picture.
• Ask for ideas verbally in meetings instead of always seeking written responses.
• Ensure support structures are in place for dyslexic employees if you expect themto deliver work in a traditional, linear fashion.