Dealing with Dyslexia: Stress and the Brain
The key to getting a child reading confidently is to be able to identify any underlying cause of difficulty and fix it. One cause of difficulty that can stand alone or be combined with any of the others is stress. Some children develop a downward spiral of stress when reading that leads to a virtually complete breakdown in ability.
To understand why, let’s take a look at both reading and stress in the brain.
Reading in the Brain
Reading is a complex task for the brain to perform, co-opting parts of the brain in a specific sequence: the visual cortex interprets the patterns in text on the page; the cerebellum and motor cortex visually focus on the words; the auditory cortex maps the letter-to-sound relationships; Wernicke's Area makes sense of syntax, grammar and other linguistic patterns; the prefrontal cortex examines meaning.
In fact, every lobe of the cerebrum is involved! So this is no simple process, even though once we know how to read we cannot stop ourselves from reading a word.
Stress in the Brain
Stress causes chemical reactions in the body designed to protect us from danger – you may have heard of the classic “fight, flight or freeze” stress response. Our brain elevates the hormonal levels of adrenaline and cortisol to give us the burst of energy we need to fight or run. Blood flow to the higher brain functions is reduced as our basic brain stem takes over in order to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze. The analytical function of the cerebrum is reduced by 60% or more. All non-essential body functioning shuts down to conserve energy - this definitely includes reading!
So we have reading – a complex higher brain function – and stress – that shuts down higher brain function. Sometimes not quite adding up here…! The two are virtually incompatible.
And yet learning to read can be one of the most stressful activities of a child's life. It is very demanding and often involves a lot of "public" failure. And by public I am not only referring to being at the front of peers or being on stage. A failure can feel public when a child is sitting on the sofa with a parent and getting stuck on the word was yet again. Children hate to fail at things just as much as adults do and early reading practice in English can be seen as a series of failures. The symptoms of a stress pattern like this are fairly obvious: strong negative emotions to reading, coupled with an apparent ability to read satisfactorily at moments when not stressed.
In order to disable this stress response to reading, a structured learning environment must be created where the child is presented with small, achievable tasks. You can that by reducing the task into elements or giving far more assistance than is normal in a conventional setting. For instance, you might show a child a word and ask him to select which one it is from three options that you provide. Encouragement should be liberally given as the child slowly advances through attained goals.
Once a good level of self-confidence has been reached, the reader regains an interest in reading and good learning progression can start up again.
David Morgan is Managing Director of Oxford Learning Solutions and creator of the Easyread System, an online course which teaches children how to read and spell. Easyread specializes in helping children with dyslexia, highly visual learning styles and auditory processing deficits. For more information, please visit www.easyreadsystem.com