Design For Life

How can I give my dyslexic child a little help?

This week, John Brennan advises a reader whose ten-year-old son has just been diagnosed with dyslexia

Some of the world’s most talented and creative individuals suffer with dyslexia. It’s a trait that I believe is a positive rather than a negative. Picture: Getty

Dear Expert,

My ten-year-old son has recently been diagnosed as dyslexic. I would like to help him as much as I can, but I'm not sure how to go about it. He really struggles with his homework and everything takes hours longer than it should. Are there any tips that you could recommend for how to help without either doing the work for him or making him feel bad about himself? He is bright, just not in the ordinary way.

Dear Reader,

Dyslexia is such a stupid name for a condition to do with the interpretation of letters, words and numbers. D, Y, S and X are letters that few, if any, words in the English language have together. But that is the essence of the issue – it is not normal.

“Normal” is another “condition” that we accept and expect everyone to conform to. It may or may not be right, sensible or logical, but if society considers it normal then we accept it. The school curriculum is not normal, but it is the tool we teach and to a large extent judge people by until they find their own feet. For children and teenagers, it is the only game in town. Having difficulty conforming to it can and does cause great anxiety, stress and tension, both at home and in the classroom.

Can you imagine getting up in the morning and going to school with the sole ambition of getting through the day without being singled out or asked a question? Then you return home and have your parents, with good intentions, drilling you to see what you learned and what homework you have to do.

Homework to that person is prolonged agony. To put it in context, a child with dyslexia looking at a page in a book is like a perceived “normal” person looking at one of those puzzles where you have to find words that can run vertical, horizontal and backwards. Pages are a mess, and the more you look at them, the worse it gets.

Having challenges, goals and ambitions is something that many people thrive on. Very often, those with dyslexia do extremely well in later life. In fact, some of the world’s most talented and creative individuals suffer with dyslexia. It’s a trait that I believe is a positive rather than a negative.

From a very early age, you constantly grapple with situations that make you think faster, divert situations you will not be able to deal with and see things differently. This challenge builds a personality that works twice as hard as others. It is always anticipating what’s going to happen next, so as to avoid getting caught and to create situations where you are in control. It’s a wonderful blessing to which many “normal” people are oblivious and, as a result, that part of their brain is dormant. I feel very sorry for them!

You mention the word “bright”, and you are right. In fact, I would go as far as saying your child is brighter than 95 per cent of the others in their class. It is just that the curriculum and our perception of “normal” doesn’t see it.

A schoolteacher I know makes a point of going into the D class on the first day of a new year and saying the following: “No one is proud to be here. You are in the D class and as a result everyone thinks you are thick and stupid. I am a teacher for over 30 years and from my experience, the majority of people in the A class will end up working for you.”

I think that is one of the greatest encouragements a struggling child can hear. It flies in the face of society’s perceptions, but it is 100 per cent correct. Every child is a champion, but not every child is a champion at achieving grades and points. The aim of this system is to deliver for the industry that is third-level education, and not everyone is like that.

Of course, third-level is important for many – Ireland delivers some of the world’s most accomplished graduates. But it’s not for everyone, and being one of those other people is not a bad thing. It’s just different to what the system and society expects.

The biggest challenge for you as a parent is accepting that and championing the brightness you see in your son. Isn’t a happy child doing and learning from what they like the ultimate education for the future? Find the areas your son enjoys and teach him through those. If he likes football, buy all the magazines and books with pictures you can find and he will devour them because he is mentally motivated, interested and stimulated. He will learn to read much quicker than from pages of messed up letters from Wordsworth, Keats or Shakespeare, even if they are proper English!

Smile and be happy. You have a bright child who just needs encouragement and support finding his way, not society’s way. In writing this, I had 48 spelling mistakes and rewrote three sentences. If that is failure, so be it. But you get there, and your child will too – happily doing it their way.


John Brennan is the owner of Dromquinna Manor and co-owner of the Park Hotel Kenmare and the Lansdowne Kenmare. He co-hosts the RTÉ television series At Your Service with his brother Francis, and lives in Kerry with his wife and two children. Brennan’s memoir My Name Is Jhon, which details his battle with dyslexia, is available now in paperback from Gill Books. He hopes his story will encourage parents and young people who struggle in the educational system to realise that there is not simply one path to success, and persuade business people to think about doing things differently.

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