The Mental Health of Struggling Readers

Sitting at my desk, I wait for my latest student to walk in. I know very little of his background, only what has been verbally conveyed, but as a fifteen-year-old, he is a non-reader and unable to read the simplest of sentences.

He arrives at the door with his head down, without making eye contact, and sucking the pointer finger of his left hand. At this point, his body language reads: “I would rather have the earth break apart and swallow me than walk between this door and that desk.”

I’ve seen this stance before. It’s the cover for every child who, for many reasons, has fallen between the cracks. They have failed to learn to read.

Everyone pays a price:
The child
who says: I cannot read, therefore I must not be “whole.”
The teachers who have worked so hard, yet failed to make an impact.
Society, who has a member who struggles with the most basic of tasks such as the filling out of forms and as many statistic show, either spends time in prison or the worst-case scenario—commits suicide. 

I try not to wonder if this could have been a possibility for my now-30-year-old son, Nicholas—the reason I’m in this specialty field to begin with. Or how his struggle—and later successes—might not have occurred if we had not had the privileged life of international travel, which impacted both our lives so much.

Age six-and-half years old, Nicholas failed first grade. At the end of this year, he could read only ten words. Nicholas never looked “smart.”

Statistics show that children who struggle in school usually drop out.

“Never looking smart” hid Nicholas’ talents. He was excellent at doing puzzles; he had wonderful concentration for building, but no memory for language. His entire education depended on his ability to express himself and learn the language. Without our privilege, without my time in Oxford—the center of his young learning—I can so easily imagine a different life for Nicholas.

At seven years old, the school diagnostician called Nicholas “the worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching.” Later, she said: “He may learn to read, but he will never write.”

What is the diagnostician really meant: “Your child is slow. He cannot learn. He has too many deficits.”

What his reading teacher said: “He’s doing the best that he can.” In other words, the problem lies within him, not in the teaching.

These are the attitudes which limit our children and condemn them to a life of illiteracy and affects their ability to take part of our world and their mental health.

Nicholas has always had a brilliant brain, and now a Ph.D. holder, he’s proven that he is “smart” and can learn. He’s always been brilliant at puzzles and has always had incredible concentration. But without the language or without learning to read, these skills are worthless. Nicholas’ life and health depended upon his learning to read.

How we send children to school every single day with the possibility of failure will severely impact their young lives—and their future mental states.

My son was one of the few lucky ones.

Thanks for reading, and recognizing October as National Dyslexia Awareness Month.