Stress of Specific Learning Difficulties

School is stressful to children who have any type of leaning difficulty, a 6 hour, 5 day a week stress, at least. For those that are understood, helped to use strategies and develop some competencies, this stress  can be turned into a challenge, a determination to rise above weaknesses and the consequent triumph  of  mastery over negative circumstances. For others, who are thought lazy by their parents or not too bright by their teachers, school becomes a daily dread, spiraling into low self-esteem, under-achievement and depression.

School stressful to children with any type of leaning difficulty.
School stressful to children with any type of leaning difficulty.

But it is not the stress itself that is harmful, it is the belief that you can do nothing about the circumstances that control your life. It is rarely the chief executive juggling between 6 phones, 3 cities and a dozen meetings who collapses from stress. It’s the cog-in-wheel who has no control over the job, how they do it, how long they will have it… who can be made redundant no matter how hard they try to do a good job. So eventually they don’t try, because this is stress that is demotivating. Parents too, experience this stress, no matter how much they put into it, there is no guarantee that the kids will come home for Xmas or not become delinquent, drug addicted or depressed.

It is the feeling of being able to cope with whatever life throws at you that is the stress-proofing armour. Children build up these feelings of control with the help of their parents, who stand on the side-lines, coaching, encouraging independence and ready to step in with the safety net to prevent too severe a plummet to ground. It is this prior experience of mastery which an individual can generalize to a new situation that makes the difference between an exhilarating stress and an overwhelming one. But this prior experience is hard for a child with specific learning difficulties to build up.

They learn too soon that there is a situation they can’t control, an adversity like not being able to read – or write; or pay attention or  catch the baton in the school relay race or make sense of numbers. These are the Dyslexic, Dysgraphic, Attention-Deficit, Dyspraxic and Dyscalculic children, respectively.

Nowhere is the discrepancy between what you put into something and what you get back more poignantly reflected than between the potential of children with specific learning difficulties and their performance; most painfully obvious to the children themselves, at school, every day.

Take the Dyslexic child. He or she may have many advantages; parental backing, an understanding school, good genes and problem-solving ability, comfortable life style, bubbly personality, or  other talents such as music, drawing or sporting ability. But none of these can overcome the stress of finding that, despite their efforts, they can’t make sense of those squiggles on the page, when everyone else in the classroom seems to be able to do so.

Or the Dysgraphic child, who can rattle on fluently about some subject, picking out interesting threads, weaving in subtle complexities and yet, who after an hour will turn in a written account of that subject consisting of 3 illegible sentences. But I tried so HARD!, is the true response to the admonition of the teacher.

The attention-deficit child wishes they weren’t the scapegoat. They don’t want to feel unhappy, but they do. And the more they express this in bad behaviour, the more opprobrium they attract, the worse they feel. In quiet moments they will admit to wanting to learn, to be liked, to be competent, but  something always happens to stop that. They will try to concentrate but within minutes they are thinking of something else, their attention has been dragged away by the slightest noise, movement or sight. Life seems very unfair to them, there is little relationship  between their resolve and the result.

The Dyspraxic child is just as unhappy. Usually labelled the “clumsy” one, their lack of rhythm or  grace attracts bullying. Their emotional touch-paper is just too inviting  for other children not to light it and step back to watch the explosion. Always one step (or more) behind in getting to the right place they miss things and feel constantly out-of-place, incompetent and unable to control their own feelings let alone anyone else’s.

The Dyscalculic child, like the Dyslexic can’t seem to make sense of numbers, and can be shown over and over again but will still make errors the whole class giggles about. This can affect  their performance in the sciences where graphs and measurements have to be made, so there are plenty of opportunities for decreased self-esteem for this child too.

What can a worried child conclude?

“It must be me, my fault” (self-blame is the first element in the stress factor)

Furthermore, our child concludes
“it’s going to affect everything else, from the ‘make yourself a dinosaur kit’  to science”

And worse, our child thinks
“it will always be like this”

These three negative beliefs are the recipe for rising stress and eventual demotivation as the child decides that he or  she can never do it so they might as well not try. As they generalize their specific learning difficulty to previously good subjects alternatives to self-esteem are sought. This is anything that doesn’t involve reading, writing, sports/games or calculating and can range from maladaptive strategies like class clown/bully to artistic, musical and computing abilities – if they have the opportunity.

Now analyze any lack of parental or school support, unstable, unhappy home etc. and some parents can’t help taking on board any negative interpretations from the school (lazy, careless, unmotivated, even stupid) an added stress. Such early adversity generates a life-long vulnerability to stress,

It is the lack of advantages that determine the particular reaction to stress, from bad behaviour and truanting to anxious withdrawal. But even under the best circumstances and with good remedial teaching, children with specific learning difficulties are constantly working to the limits of their endurance. They put in so much for so little reward. That ‘unfairness’ is stressful. Lack of control starts when input and effort are not matched by outcome.

Even when adequate literacy, numeracy, motor or attentional skills have been achieved in later life there is a slowness in processing rapidly presented information, visual, auditory or kinetic, now matter how intelligent the person. Words  and numbers have to be listened to, remembered, and written down. Milliseconds in timing can make the difference between ‘getting it’ or not.

At the visual level some Dyslexics are not only slow hearers they can also be slow “see-ers” (see above notes on Dyslexia) of the printed word. Opticians and audiometricians can’t measure this and despite their complaints the child is often given a visual and auditory clearance and their symptoms  dismissed as psychological, at best.

Fine and gross motor skills remain important throughout life as does the ability to concentrate and remember, so busy/noisy lecture rooms, projects or reports and memos read or written to a deadline are debilitating stresses to the adult who is coping with the residue of specific learning difficulties, when they may be only challenges to the normal  reader and writer and memoriser. Exams are stressful for everyone but as much a matter of technique and confidence as knowledge, so are even more stressful to the specific learning difficulty child or adult who can least cope with the loss of rationality, memory and sequencing ability that desert  everyone  under stress.

Research shows that Dyslexics, Dyspraxics and some AD/HD children can take ten to twelve times longer to process information and to develop skills from letter formation to riding a bike. However, once achieving automaticity they can reach a competence similar to matched non-specific learning difficulty children.


It is the negative or positive belief in the ability to cope that decides which side of the stress curve the Sp.l.d child is going to be. Stress symptoms themselves are stressful, so as the average child develops more or less mastery of information at school or College, the misunderstood Sp.l.d individual  develops stress symptoms more rapidly and more intensely, and it takes longer for those feelings to subside. These feelings are just as powerful in the adult Sp.l.d individuals, possibly because they have been storing them up longer. The feeling of difference, especially when it is perceived negatively, grows stronger, and can make them isolate themselves from the support they would otherwise get.

It is up to us – parents, teachers and society in general, to see that the Sp.l.d child can grow into a Sp.l.d adult feeling worthy, hopeful and able to perceive inevitable stress as a challenge that can be surmounted.

And we can do that by expressing in word and action the conviction that;

(i) It’s not their fault (parental genes, ear infections, birth trauma, immune reaction, prenatal nutrition)  and more have been implicated over the years of research.
(ii) It doesn’t affect other abilities (Sp.l.d’s are unrelated to intelligence or other abilities such as general knowledge, musical or other talents.
It won’t always be like this (specialist remedial teaching, effective coping strategies, nutritional intervention, strengthening of sensory capacities) and information technology can be used to compensate. Anyway the 21st century will have a better place for the image makers than the word makers.
So instead of feeling useless, and that everything is hopeless and that nothing will ever change (the negative belief) the Sp.l.d. child can be helped to feel that a specific learning difficulty is an obstacle that can be overcome and that they will get credit for being able to do so, (the positive belief). This plan for guided mastery will allow the Sp.l.d individual to feel they have a future they can work towards, where their potential can be fulfilled in some, maybe as yet unexplored way.
For good advice on how to maintain motivation and positive attitudes in Sp.l.d children see;
Seligman M (1991) “Learned Optimism” and (1996) “The Optimistic Child” Harper-Perennial Goldstein. S  “Rising the Resilient Child” on