woman in discussion at a table

Linda Siegel is a renowned scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. Her most recent book titled Not Stupid, Not Lazy obliterates outdated stereotypes and explores the truths of the dyslexic mind. Here is the last chapter of her book about dyslexia titled “Final Thoughts” published by the International Dyslexia Association.

There will always be people who struggle with reading, writing, spelling, and mathematics, just as there will always be people like me who cannot carry a tune. This should not stop us from trying to help people with learning disabilities as much as possible. It is not an excuse for failing to identify the learning problem early, providing good teaching, and trying to understand the strengths of people with learning disabilities. Agatha Christie, William Butler Yeats, Winston Churchill, and many others were able to succeed despite learning problems, but they did so with help, with supportive families, and because they were given the chance to develop their abilities. So, let school systems and families search hard for each person’s talents and make sure that he or she has the opportunity to develop those talents, in spite of learning difficulties.

The message is clear. Find the problems early and do not assume that children who have difficulty with reading, spelling, or arithmetic are merely being difficult. Teach them using a variety of strategies visual, kinesthetic, and verbal. Celebrate their talents. Never call them stupid or lazy or emotionally disturbed. Educators who failed to understand and provide help for learning problems have ruined too many children’s lives. Parents and teachers must learn to recognize the signs of learning disabilities. If a child is having problems learning to read or spell or print or do mathematics, then these difficulties are signs of possible learning disabilities.

Sometimes behavioral problems, such as aggression toward other children, defying authority or appearing to be unconcerned with doing homework, are signs of a learning disability. Behavioral problems often get misinterpreted. One young man related that for a long time his school referred to him as having “an attitude problem’’ rather than dealing with his learning disability. He ran into difficulties with peers and school staff. He got into numerous fights at school. He would often bring his anger and frustration home from school as well. Once he threw his lunch box against the wall after a particularly difficult day.

“Educators who failed to understand and provide help for learning problems have ruined too many children’s lives. Parents and teachers must learn to recognize the signs of learning disabilities.”

Learning difficulties cause problems with self-esteem, which can lead children to act out to get the attention or approval of their peers. Sometimes children with learning problems can be easily led to do inappropriate actions to get approval. One girl whom I tested confessed that her “friends” urged her to shoplift some candy. When she was a bit older, she recognized how vulnerable she had been.

Parents should be alert for signs of school phobia. If a child has stomach aches on Mondays or weekdays but these pains disappear on the weekend, this may be a sign of a learning disability. Remember, however, that sometimes a stomachache is just a stomachache. One Monday morning my six-year-old daughter told me that she had a stomachache. She had shown no signs of a learning disability, but I was alert to possible behavioral signs. I asked her if she felt well enough to go to school and she said yes. Shortly after she entered the classroom, I received a call from the school telling me that she had vomited. I learned my lesson. The flu is not a sign of school phobia.

If children become withdrawn or have tantrums, these are possible signs of a learning disability. Be alert to bullying and teasing. Children may be ashamed to talk about it and feel that it is their fault.

What is the difference between individuals with learning disabilities who end up on the street or as criminals or committing suicide, and those who lead productive lives? Most often, the difference is having sensitive, helpful, non-critical parents, and schools and teachers who help them develop their strengths and make accommodations to help them learn and help build their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Self-esteem is fragile in all of us, and especially in people with learning disabilities, who often experience failure, scorn, and merciless teasing. Self-esteem must be fostered and developed, not destroyed.

Many of society’s serious problems, including antisocial behavior, homelessness, and suicide, can be reduced if we identify learning disabilities and provide appropriate help to people who have them. Lives are wasted, even ruined, by not developing the skills and talents of people with learning disabilities. Solving the puzzle of learning disabilities will not cure all the evils in the world, but it would be a giant step forward.

Learn more about Linda Siegel’s book by visiting the website at www.notstupidnotlazy.com.