As a Dyslexia Specialist with dyslexia, studying Psychology at the Open University, my bowl is never empty. The month of September offers reflection time as the puzzle pieces of ‘Investigating Psychology 2’ of my Open University Module are integrating. My friends have tired of the mentioning of the ‘bio psycho social model’ – which in simple words consists of the overlapping, multiple and interacting factors [the name is a bit of a give away] that make us who we are.
Today Psychology; the study of how individuals think, feel and act; brings together different disciplines into new understanding and new practices. Research and knowledge in biology, developmental, cognitive and social psychology allow a more holistic and full picture of the complex interplay that affects human beings. This affects educators in the field of dyslexia and consequently gives rise to questions on how we can apply this new understanding.
Over the last years of being a part time student these questions have worked on my conscious and unconscious mind alike. Here I want to address the interactions between biological (genetic) and social aspects affecting individuals with dyslexia. Based on my experiences of private practice as a Davis®Facilitator, this has been of particular interest to me. And yes – I am presenting one small window in a vast landscape, and this one is taking the gaze towards biological psychology to start with.
There is strong evidence of the genetic effect on dyslexia. Research by Molfese et al (2008) estimates a 40% likelihood that the son of a dyslexia father would be dyslexic. Gavin Reid and Jennie Guise (2017) (*1) point out in their recent informative and inspiring publication ‘The Dyslexia Assessment’ that much of the research focuses on the heritability of literacy. Though warning against a generalisation of genetic evidence, they emphasise the genetic aspect as a pointer for early identification of dyslexia. Knowing that parents or other relatives are dyslexic can be a valuable indicator to offer early support for this group of children as a pointer for early identification of dyslexia.
Scotland shows resistance to early identification of dyslexia and comments like ‘we do not want to label the child’ are still common within the context of a system sadly struggling for funds. But research has shown that early support and intervention are most effective long term for both academic success and wellbeing. The Scottish Government (2009) (*2) includes in its definition of dyslexia ‘The impact of dyslexia as a barrier to learning varies in degree according to the learning and teaching environment, as there are often associated difficulties such as:
- short-term and working memory
- sequencing and directionality
- organisational ability
- auditory and /or visual processing of language-based information
- phonological awareness
- oral language skills and reading fluency
- number skills
We know that dyslexia is different for every one. The list above shows a wide variety of areas it can impact on. By adulthood a dyslexic individual is likely to have overcome more obstacles and found more strategies to manage than non- dyslexic learners. Challenges include literacy and numeracy as well as organisational skills, time management and working memory (the amount of pieces of information we can hold as we are working on a task).
Today’s everyday life expects an increased amount of prioritisation and ordering, not only of things like clothes and cutlery but a never-ending amount of files and data and of course – our own thoughts. The challenge in the 21st century is less the access to information but how to sort and prioritise data and how to efficiently store, label and ensure efficient access to it. Abilities to memorise, organise and prioritise are key to be able to manage life successfully. Therefore weaknesses in these areas impact productivity and are likely to affect a person’s self-confidence.
Nevertheless, skill training in areas of organisation and memory has been proven as very effective for dyslexic individuals across the age range. Davis® Programmes build new skills and new patterns of behaviour and increased levels of self-awareness. This in turn impacts the brain by creating new neuro-pathways. For example in my own practice clients shared that after completing a programme they were more in charge of their decision making due to a clearer understanding of what matters most to them. Managing the diary became an easier task due to more realistic planning and better focus. This great potential for change and new solutions should be viewed in connection to the initially mentioned biological or genetic aspects of dyslexia.
Considering the impact genes have on dyslexic tendencies, the social environment also has a considerable impact. Adults who have had the opportunity to address their own challenges in gaining skills and self-confidence are likely to contribute to their child’s environment. A positive domino effect gives way to new opportunities. A dyslexic child that struggles with organisation and structure is likely to benefit from a well-organised home environment and a daily routine. These skills are necessary for academic development although it is not always the case that a child will follow the example of an orderly parent : )
Learning happens by example and natural modelling as well as support that is continuously structured into busy everyday lives. Parents can find it a challenge to offer this continuity in learning support that most dyslexic children benefit from. Shortage of time and other resources can get in the way of good will. No-one is an island – we are all part of systems at school, work, in our families and of course in the contemporary society we live in. Each person’s success or challenges affects his or her social environment and vice versa
As our society increasingly values and utilises the abilities of dyslexic and other neuro-diverse thinkers, their benefits from developments in contemporary Psychology offer new insights not only on ‘who we are’ but also ‘how we can become’ – because of or despite of circumstances. This means that the steps adults take to overcome challenges contribute to a more resourceful pool for the coming generations. This hopeful view offers positive applications for educators and parents. Being dyslexic has consequences and irreversibly affects individual biographies (lives). However, the interplay on how these factors are positive, negative or neutral are dynamic and interactive.
My studies and work experience over the last year inevitably affected my practice of working with dyslexic individuals between 6 and 60+. While part of a Davis Programme is to work with the parents or guardians, to train them in essential follow up work, I have now chosen to take this further step. Aware of the individual as part of a system – none is an island – my focus now includes more intensive work with parents. These sessions are designed as a space to not only transfer knowledge but also invite experience; both aspects are invaluable. Despite the constrains of everyday life, work and after school activities, I consider this as one of the key stepping stones to help young people with dyslexia to unfold their potential on all levels.
(1) Reid and Guise, The Dyslexia Assessment, 2017
(2) Scottish definition of dyslexia can be found at https://www.dyslexiascotland.org.uk/definition-dyslexia