Pre-school unidentified Dyslexics: Progression, Suppression, Aggression, Depression and Repression

Neil Alexander-Passe 

Special Educational Needs (SEN) Teacher, Researcher and Author
Mobile: 07740 422095 
This investigative paper looks at how pre-school dyslexic children cope with their unidentified learning difficulties.
Five solutions were identified, sub-divided into one coping strategy (progression) and four defensive mechanisms (suppression, aggression, depression and regression). Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages, which are possible and logical solutions to hostile situations that unidentified pre-school dyslexics experience.
Progressive solutions would mean that pre-school children are identified and helped very early on in their nursery or school careers. Sadly, this ideal solution is an infrequent position in our present mainstream schooling system.
Suppression as a defensive solution causes children to avoid both tasks and school, and stops these children from experiencing the learning situations that any school can offer.
Aggression as a defensive solution is unappealing and gets in the way of the underlying learning problem. Teachers will see and treat the aggressive behaviours as being of more concern and higher priority than any underlying educational problem.
Depression as a defensive mechanism concerns the internalisation of frustrations, to a point where children self blame and shut down their communications to and from hostile environments.
Regression leading to stammering means the development of a long-term speech impediment, which can be an even greater disability than the underlying dyslexia.
This paper investigates the early years of dyslexic children. Tests of dyslexia, such as the Dyslexia Early Screening Test (DEST), are designed for use from 4.6 to 6.6yrs old, but unless children are identified as ‘at risk’ of dyslexia (maybe from having dyslexic siblings), most are not tested until late into their primary school academic careers. Baseline assessments of children in their first few weeks at school, piloted by the British government, have recently been dropped in preference to assessments over a two year period; thus, identification of ‘at risk’ young children is delayed even further. From this delay, secondary symptoms can develop, which can confuse identification (e.g. behavioural difficulties), and teachers may treat any secondary symptoms as more important than any underlying learning problem, if in fact they have the skills to identify the underlying problem.
From the moment a dyslexic child enters primary school, they must take oral instructions from teachers and remember them long enough to act on them to finish the task. The short-term memory of children with dyslexia will put them at an immediate disadvantage (Thomson, 1996). Their slow and poor phonological awareness will cause slow and inaccurate processing of the spoken language (e.g. slowness to read, becoming confused and ending up copying from others nearby). These problems may affect the child’s ability to participate in classroom discussions or activities. An informed teacher will place the child at the front of the class, allow more time for tasks, repeat instructions, and link the child with a friendly classmate who can prompt where needed.
Where teachers are ill-informed, problems with fine motor skills will make the dyslexic primary school pupil look clumsy and open them up to ridicule from both teachers and peers (e.g. dropping their lunch tray full of food etc.). On top of this, their inability to organise and deal with timekeeping effectively (e.g. taking the lunch time bell to mean the end of day and leaving school for home prematurely) means that they are highly vulnerable at school.
The Audit Commission (2002a) found that ‘the older a child is, the more likely he or she is to have a statement’. In England, they found that the proportion of children with statements varied from 1.3% in nursery, through 1.7% in primary school to 3.2% in secondary school. Dockrell et al (2002, p8) suggest that this increase is ‘likely to reflect both the increase of problems identified in school and the failure of initial programmes to ameliorate the children’s needs’
The Audit Commission (2002a, p5) also found significant variation in the proportion of children with statements between different local educational authority areas and between schools, ‘which calls into question how far special educational needs reflects the real level of need…or rather different institutions ability to respond’. They found that only 15% of primary schools had 3% of pupils with statements, whereas 36% of secondary schools had 3% with statements. This would strongly suggest different identification policies, and that many primary school pupils have been denied the early help they so need. This also means that delay tactics of ‘let’s wait and see’ by primary schools have allowed early intervention to be missed and children to slip through the net.
Early on, dyslexic children are required to communicate with our literacy-based society. Thus, at school, the tasks of reading and writing are deemed to be paramount. Dyslexic children not only have difficulty with their short-term memory, but also have problems processing phonological blending skills. Currently, schools are teaching 5-6 year old children to memorize 45 keys words, but this relies strongly on short-term memory skills, skills dyslexics have major difficulty with.
Bradley and Bryant (1978) and Jorm et al (1986) found that in 3 and 4-year-old children, those who did badly in a rhyming task were at a higher risk of having subsequent difficulties in learning to read. There have been advances in identifying cognitive deficits such as dyslexia in infant and pre-school children, e.g. DEST (Fawcett et al, 1992).
Parents generally become aware of a problem when their child enters formal education: ‘I just knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was’ (Mother of 5-year-old boy with dyslexia, in Riddick (1996, p58). The average age when mothers first ‘thought there might be a problem’ was found to be five and a half. Riddick found that the best indicators of dyslexia were parents commenting that their ‘child [was] failing to learn to read (80%) and … failing to keep up or … making slow progress (20%)’ (p70).
Mothers found that their dyslexic children had specific learning delays in the following educational building block tasks (Riddick, 1996):
  • Difficulties learning days of week/month of year
  • Late learning to ride a bike or swim
  • Difficulties learning nursery rhymes
  • Difficulties learning the alphabet
  • Late talkers
  • Poor at remembering instructions.
Ideally, all dyslexic children would be identified upon entering primary schools, and help would be given at this stage. Silver and Oates (2001) found that early identification positively reduced secondary associated problems such as emotional and behavioural manifestations. Gardner (1994, p85) also notes that ‘there is ample evidence that the earlier a child’s difficulties are diagnosed, and appropriate treatment given, the better the prognosis for remediation’.
Schools now use the ‘Foundation Stage Profile’ (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2001). This profile is based on assessment at the end of the foundation year (i.e. the first year of a child’s primary school), as by the end of the foundation stage all pupils should have reached a certain standard in six areas of learning. Testing for the basic skills of speaking, listening, reading, writing, mathematics and personal and social development were established as a minimum. But a high number of early years specialists and the vast majority of practitioners argue that leaving assessments to the end of the foundation stage is ‘too late to identify special educational needs or other needs’ (SMSR, 2001, p4). Thus, as this ‘Foundation Stage Profile’ stands, early identification will be delayed and children will suffer. There are also concerns about young children being coached to pass tests rather than failing the profile, which would be in their best interests.
However, Dockrell et al (2002) conclude that early identification is only useful if it leads to intervention or support. Thus, when a need is identified, it needs to be acted on effectively and with the right teaching methods. Unless young children receive appropriate instruction, over 70% who are at risk of reading failure at year one will continue to have reading problems into adulthood (Lyon 2001).
Although some schools have good literacy support, without fully recognising dyslexia they miss out vital parts of the puzzle within the child’s overall curriculum difficulties. In the majority of cases, local educational authorities require a deficit of at least two years in reading before assessment is considered. OFSTED (1999) found that deficits of four years plus were not uncommon. This delay can affect dyslexic children’s relationships with their parents, siblings and peers (Riddick, 1996). Importantly, such a delay creates disaffection towards learning, teachers and school. This disaffection lies at the heart of this investigation, as it affects the dyslexic’s ability to cope.
Bentote (2001) investigated Hampshire Local Education Authority’s screening and intervention for dyslexia, which followed 360 infant and primary schools over a three-year period and screened children in their first term of school with three different methodologies. These were: Dyslexia Early Screening Test-DEST (Fawcett et al, 1992), Cognitive Profiling System-CoPS1 (Singleton, 1995), and asking teachers which children they thought likely to experience literacy difficulties in the near future. In total, CoPS identified 15.7% of the at risk pupils, DEST identified 20.9% of pupils and teachers identified 37% of the pupils. Despite the teachers identifying more pupils, both the DEST and CoPS ‘identified pupils that the teachers had not identified’. It was hoped by the local educational authority that the teachers could identify all ‘at risk’ pupils themselves without the need for any additional screening tool, but this study suggests otherwise.
In a main teacher-training manual, Fontana (1995) suggests that children starting school ‘may find an apparent lack of ability means that they tend to receive less teacher approval and praise than other children’. Trying hard, asking for help and not receiving any, can cause children enormous frustration, according to Edwards (1994). It is important for teachers to recognise the frustration that dyslexics feel in classrooms through their inability to express their ideas in written form; inability to read books of interest (rather than for their reading age) and having to work considerably harder than their peers to attain the same achievement level, according to Thomson (1996). When there is a basic mismatch between curriculum content and the needs of the dyslexic (e.g. reading/writing/spelling), there is ‘accelerating failure for increasing numbers of students’, according to Green (1996, p2). Hales (1995) suggests that there is strong evidence to suggest that dyslexics are more disturbed by criticism. Hales found that dyslexics experience considerable amounts of criticism at school, especially before their condition is diagnosed.
Parental/teacher identification and help
Persisting factors (British Dyslexic Association (BDA), 2004).
There are many persisting factors in dyslexia, which can appear from an early age. They will still be noticeable when the dyslexic child leaves school. These include:
  • Confusion between directional words, e.g. up/down, in/out,
  • Difficulty with sequences, e.g. coloured bead sequences, and later with days of the week or numbers,
  • A family history of dyslexia/reading difficulties.
Pre-school (BDA, 2004).
  • Has persistent jumbled phrases, e.g. 'cobbler's club' for 'toddler's club'
  • Use of substitute words, e.g. 'lampshade' for 'lamppost'.
  • Inability to remember the labels for known objects, e.g. 'table, chair'.
  • Difficulty learning nursery rhymes and rhyming words, e.g. 'cat, mat, sat'.
  • Later than expected speech development.
Pre-School Non-language indicators (BDA, 2004).
  • Persistent difficulties in getting dressed efficiently and putting shoes on the correct feet.
  • Enjoys being read to but shows no interest in letters or words.
  • Is often accused of not listening or paying attention.
  • Excessive tripping, bumping into things and falling over.
  • Difficulty with catching, kicking or throwing a ball; with hopping and/or skipping.
  • Difficulty with clapping a simple rhythm.

In the ideal situation, nursery teachers will spot the above conditions and test the child with the DEST (Fawcett et al, 1992) or CoPS1 (Singleton, 1995) to identify the dyslexia. Once the nursery or primary school has acknowledged that there is a problem, initial classroom support is offered in the form of an ‘Individual Educational Plan’. These set out a number of measures for support for the pupil in question in the classroom by their teacher. The child will be put on to the first stage of the special educational needs’ Code of Practice, ‘School Action’, and the school will acknowledge the need for different support within the classroom, possibly with use of a classroom assistant.

Can cope
Dyslexic children who are identified early and, importantly, helped early will be able to cope with their specific educational difficulties, as their schoolwork would be tailored to their needs (Gardner, 1994). The ability to cope comes from not only understanding their difficulties, but having been taught strategies to overcome them in the classroom, e.g. use of a computer, dictation, visual support, being provided with classroom and course notes etc.
Solution: Progression: Coping strategies
Progression for the early identified dyslexic child is made possible by early identification and assistance. Progression will affect not only literacy and mathematical skills, but importantly self-confidence and social skills as well. Literacy progress would therefore give access across the whole curriculum.
It is hypothesized that where progression (coping strategies) is possible, parents and teachers have listened, understood and helped the non-identified dyslexic, resulting in identification, assistance, support and thus the ability to develop alongside their peers.
Therefore, mounting evidence strongly suggests that the dyslexic who is identified and helped early will be able to compete academically with their peers and be able to compete satisfactory in the outside world, once leaving school. Socially, they will be more adjusted and feel able to reach university level education, if they so wish.
These scenarios are unfortunately too common in current mainstream school systems.
Parental/teacher identification and help
Riddick (1996) found that the vast majority of mothers with dyslexic children felt that something was wrong by the time their child had been through infant school. Initial identification of dyslexia was made in over two-thirds of the cases by a layperson (mother, friend), and in less than one-third by a professional (teacher, professional relative). Parents found that when asking if ‘their child was dyslexic’, the school was dismissive (50%) and non-committal (25% of the time). Schools often saw the mothers as ‘neurotic and over-protective’. Most (71%) mothers thought that their child became stressed and unhappy from their difficulties at infant school, being ‘quiet and withdrawn’ and showing ‘an increase of temper tantrums, nervous habits: stuttering, insomnia and bed-wetting and increased crying and reluctance to go to school’ (Riddick, 1996, p71). This also was found by Porter & Rouke (1985), Edwards (1994) and Bruck (1986) and was due to the demands and expectations of school, rather than parental expectations.
Booth (1988) found that there were four stages that families typically went through, when getting their child’s dyslexia identified:
  • Growth of suspicion (parents thinking something was wrong)
  • Seeking professional advice (parents tell the school)
  • Suspending judgement (parents told to give child more time: ‘He’s immature. He will catch up’; suggestion of non-serious problem just needing time)
  • Further growth of suspicion (at the child’s continual lack of progress, with parents becoming determined not to be ‘fobbed off’ by professionals).

Interestingly, the Audit Commission (2002b, p20) confirms that ‘most parents said that they had to fight to have their child’s needs formally assessed. This was often linked to the perception that the local educational authority was trying to control its expenditure’ As one parent remarked, ‘I found it difficult to start the process. I had to phone, I had to beg…I asked myself if I was being a good parent…it was frustrating and draining’. OFSTED (1999, p7) also found that ‘had it not been for their persistence, such a diagnosis – with its consequent formal statement – might not have been made…there was a strong perception …by parents [that schools had wasted] valuable time for early specialist intervention and [had caused] a significant lowering of the child’s self-esteem and confidence’.

Schools & Teachers
According to Peer and Reid (2001), there is a real issue about the non-recognition of dyslexic learners, causing much difficulty for all concerned (dyslexic child, parent and teacher). One head teacher responded to the question ‘is my child dyslexic?’ with ‘He’s not dyslexic – he’s just a silly little boy who won’t concentrate for more than 10 seconds: What he needs is a good kick up the backside!’ (Fawcett, 1995, p10).
It would be hoped that such comments are a thing of the past, but the evidence sadly suggests otherwise. The Audit Commission (2002a) noted the unwelcoming attitudes of some schools towards pupils with special educational needs (these include dyslexic pupils) and exclusion from aspects of school life. Hostility was found by parents in schools (even in the schools’ special educational needs departments), with difficulties in getting their children assessed and getting specialist tuition (Audit Commission 2002b). The Audit Commission (2002a) found that commonly, only children with a physical difficulty were identified earlier and more reliably, as most needs are ‘not clear cut’, and different professions may reach differing conclusions as to the underlying cause, with significant implications for the level of support offered. Although government policy emphasises the importance of early intervention, the Audit Commission (2002a, p53) found that ‘arrangements for funding additional provision to meet children’s special educational needs in the early years sector remain incoherent and piecemeal’.
In the majority of cases, a school will often argue (incorrectly) that it is best able to serve the remedial needs of the ’dyslexic pupil’, even though the pupil has already experienced high levels of failure in that school. The school is therefore either asking for another chance, or saying that they are doing nothing wrong (with the problem lying with the child) and that they are fully trained to handle such educational needs. OFSTED (1999 p6) confirmed that there is ‘reluctance on the part of the teachers to accept that the school could not meet the pupil’s needs’. Where the school gave its own specialist provision out of its own resources, then in ‘pupils’ progress, particularly in reading, the discrepancy between what might be expected and actual performance was often considerably worse’.
Thus, most schools are unable to truly provide the specialist help that dyslexic pupils need most, but are loath to admit it.
Teacher expectations
A number of studies have revealed that in some situations, teachers’ behaviour and expectations can affect children’s behaviour (Cohen & Manion, 1995; McGee et al, 1986). These teacher expectations were found to be affected by factors with little or no relationship to ability (Douglas, 1964, Mackler, 1969; Nash, 1974; Good and Brophy, 1974; Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1973). More importantly, ‘these expectations can determine the child’s level of achievement by confining his learning opportunities to those available in a particular class’ (Cohen & Manion, 1995, p268).
Teachers' expectations of pupils can impact on whether they are placed in a high or low ability set, and thus pupils will achieve to the expectations of the classroom. It was found that children placed in a low ability-grouped classroom are unlikely to reach their true potential, as the teacher doubts this potential, and consequently their achievement and motivation will be affected.
Teacher Assumptions 
Cooper (1993) found that teachers are expected to speak with authority (create assumptions) about each of their pupils’ levels of interest, motivation and progress. They constantly work on the assumption that they ‘can’ answer these questions, with seldom enough time to question how correct their assumptions are. Thus, teachers will develop settled perceptions about their pupils from an early stage. It will be hard to change such ‘EBD’ (children with emotional and behaviour difficulties) labels without the teacher losing face, being seen as incompetent and being viewed by others (e.g. colleagues and parents) as not really knowing their pupils.
Teachers make snap judgements about the abilities of their pupils; in many cases (Hargreaves et al, 1975; Cooper, 1993) they are more inclined to define pupils as deviant, regardless of the pupil’s actual behaviour, if the child is so defined by other staff, or if the child has deviant siblings.
Evidence suggests that school-aged dyslexics at non-specialist schools experience both emotional bullying and humiliation at school from both peers and teachers, according to Edwards (1994) and Eaude (1999). Riddick (1996 p124) notes that there is particular concern by dyslexic school children about public indicators of their difficulties, e.g. finishing last or being required to read aloud. One dyslexic commented, ‘reading in front of the class; anything that shows me up and makes me different’.
As Edwards (1994) found, if dyslexics are treated as different, inferior, stupid, less valuable by teachers, then the rest of the class will pick up on that in the playground and the child will submerge into himself, never to be seen again. They are basically outcast from their peer group.
Can’t cope
Children with underlying dyslexia problems who are either not identified or identified (maybe privately) but not helped in the classroom suffer significant problems, as they are unable to cope and in many ways are ignored or side-lined as being slow or difficult. Many are labelled ‘slow’ or ‘lazy’ by teachers, andare then expected to fulfil these labels.
If dyslexic children are unable to cope, they must find other ways to deal with the situations and issues that face them (defensive mechanisms).
Suppression (internalising)
Suppression is a common way of handling angry feelings, especially where public expressions of anger are considered socially undesirable or unacceptable. Suppression can be of both positive and negative emotion, but on the whole it is the suppression of negative emotion e.g. anger. Suppression is a conscious act to conceal our anger after a situation and put up a calm front, whilst the inner self is seething with the anger unresolved. Frequently internalising the suppression of anger can cause physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach ulcers. Long-term suppression can be compared to a boiling pot waiting to explode.
Aggression (externalising)
Aggressiveness is often a child's response to frustration, discomfort, or fear. If we can understand the triggers, we can often help the child to feel more comfortable and behave better. Children who are too young to express their negative feelings in words have little choice but to act out. ‘The aggressive child sees the world as an unsafe place in which there are only victims and victimizers, so he (unconsciously) chooses the latter and becomes a bully’ (Spock & Parker, 1999, p645).
Depression (internalising)
‘…. depressed children just don't derive pleasure from the same things as a typical 3- to 5-year-old child… They're less joyful when they encounter the pleasures of daily life and use play to explore themes about death and sometimes even suicide.’ (Luby et al, 2003, p346).
Luby et al also found, as in older depressed children and adults, that very young children tended to have more than one psychiatric disorder. 42% of depressed children also had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD as a co-morbidity of dyslexia is discussed later). 62% also had oppositional defiant disorders (ODD), and 41 percent of depressed children had both disorders. Another 29% of the depressed children had anxiety disorders. But the symptoms of depression – anhedonia (the absence of pleasure or the ability to experience it), sadness and grouchiness, low energy, recent changes in energy level, low self-esteem, crying and play themes involving death -- were much more common in children with depression than in those who had only ADHD or ODD without depression. In fact, among the children in this study, anhedonia was unique to those who were depressed (Dryden, 2003)
Regression (internalising)
Regression is a reaction to a major emotional situation or trauma which causes such deep traumatic reactions that the individual regresses emotional and developmentally to a level where they are most comfortable and safe. One example of this is sucking one’s thumb as a reminder of the feeling of safety in the mother’s womb. In the case of pre-school children, regression can mean losing language skills (babbling or stammering) or bladder control. Such children can also show excessive irritability, immature behaviour, sleep disturbances, emotional distress or fear of being alone, according to Newton (2001).
Reid (1988) found that ‘when pupils feel unwanted, rejected, uncared for and disillusioned … they start to manifest their disaffection by staying away, disrupting lessons, or underachieving’.
Symptoms of suppression/repression, depression and regression are widespread and are best understood by their possible defence mechanisms, which are hypothesized to split into four solutions:
  • Suppression: Task and School Avoidance
  • Aggression: Getting Angry, Deviant Behaviour and Delinquency
  • Depression: Withdrawing, Hiding and Self-Blame
  • Regression: Stammering and Bed-wetting

SUPPRESSION: Task and School Avoidance

Anxiety causes humans to avoid whatever frightens them, and dyslexia is no exception. However Ryan (1994) notes that teachers misinterpret this avoidance as laziness and apathy, rather than anxiety and confusion.
Task Avoidance
If academic success cannot give dyslexics self-worth, then they begin to withdraw from classroom activities (negative environments), according to Morgan (1997). There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that children with dyslexia avoid tasks that highlight their difficulties. High on the list of causes are the ways in which teachers and schools deal with failure (Fontana 1995, p168): ‘Too often the teacher instils in children a fear of making mistakes and of showing their failure to understand, and this leads to conservative and stereotyped patterns of learning which inhibit reflective thinking and a genuine grasp of the principles upon which knowledge is based’.
Avoidance techniques can be as simple as constantly breaking the tips of pencils, so as to spend maximum time sharpening them and consequently less time at the desk doing work, although dyslexics (especially females) tend to prefer less obtrusive ways to avoid academic work, by rarely putting up their hands or sitting at the back of classes to be invisible (i.e. not picked on by teachers to take part in the class). Riddick (1996, p131) suggests ‘by secondary (school) age all children claim that they avoid difficult to spell words and over half of them claim that they put off or avoid doing writing’.
Avoidance strategies deflect attention from low academic ability and under-performance, and teachers see these avoidance strategies very differently, with perceptions such as laziness and lack of parental support. Riddick’s (1996) study found that children avoided words daily, especially those words that were difficult to spell or pronounce, and had difficulty in focusing enough to start new work, such as. homework. See Table 1.
Table 1. Children’s reported coping strategies: dealing with spelling & writing difficulties (Riddick 1996):
Coping strategy  Primary (N=10) Secondary (N=12) Total (N=22)
Avoids hard to spell words 5 11 16
Writes less 3 8 11
Gets classmates to help 4 6 10
Puts off starting/avoid doing work 2 6 8
In a study of dyslexic school children (primary and secondary), Riddick (1996 p130) also found pupils commenting that they ‘daily avoided using difficult words to spell, wrote less (avoiding making mistakes) and put off starting work as coping strategies’. In fact, out of 45 noted strategies, avoidance featured in 35. The other 10 were characterised by asking classmates to help. These findings are similar to those of Mosely’s (1989) study concerning adults and children with general spelling difficulties. Pollock and Waller (1994) found that dyslexic children were perceived as immature (in their vocabulary choice and mode of expression) by schoolteachers and examination board markers, as they preferred using words they knew how to spell. But, if they do use words where the spelling is uncertain, they are accused of being careless and risk lower self-esteem. Thus word avoidance has attractive advantages to young dyslexics – they think it is better to be seen as immature than to risk embarrassment.
School Avoidance 
Gardner (1994) found that dyslexics are prone to withdraw from situations in which they perceive they cannot cope (e.g. spelling tests). This withdrawal can be both from specific lessons and for whole days. Withdrawal for long or frequent periods can also be caused by a reaction to certain teachers who humiliate them in front of their peers.
Another aspect of school refusal is shown by those individuals who develop psychosomatic disorders or other illnesses to avoid school: ‘I used to pretend I was sick, make myself puke, and say I don’t wanna go today’, one dyslexic teenager commented (Edwards 1994 p110). A powerful example of psychosomatic pain is the following story of a 12-year-old dyslexic: Trevor developed a pain in his right leg requiring crutches. To him it felt like a rare disease. The hospital doctor concluded that he was dyslexic but intelligent, was therefore frustrated, and that the frustration was expressed as pain in the right thigh, which occurred about once every six months and could last for 10 days at a time (Edwards, 1994). Strangely enough, this same teenager was reluctant to truant, as he felt there would be ‘repercussions and (that it) was pointless anyway’ (p39). This suggests a main difference between normal truants and dyslexics avoiding school (social conscience). Another 12-year-old called Gareth used to get into fights with larger or other (dyslexic) children to get off school. The injuries were for mutual avoidance reasons, not anger, and usually meant two to three days off school.
It is hypothesized that suppression: avoidance symptoms are caused by the dyslexic’s own frustrations of not meeting their own expectations or those parents, teachers or peers.
To summarise, the dyslexic who is unable to cope with their underlying dyslexia, who feels that they receive no help or assistance from their parents or teachers, will cope by developing defensive mechanisms of suppression causing task and school avoidance.
AGGRESSION (Getting Angry, Deviant Behaviour & Delinquency)
When learning doesn’t go to plan or is more difficult than one’s patience can stand, emotions can turn to aggression as a way of firstly dealing with the internal anger and secondly demonstrating reactions to certain types of teaching.
Getting angry
Morgan and Klein (2001, p61) found that lack of understanding at school and home and bullying by teachers and peers can lead to violent reactions. One dyslexic tutor recalled her own experiences at school (as a dyslexic); she actually stabbed a teacher’s hand with the sharp end of a compass, because ‘she called me stupid once too often’. Van der Stoel (1990) reported that one dyslexic commented concerning his time at school ‘I was forever being told off and was the laughing stock of the class. Turns at reading aloud were a disaster. Well then I really threw in the towel! I’m quite a spitfire and my self-control went completely’. Critchley (1968), Jorm et al (1986), Rosenthal (1973), Rutter et al (1970), and Pianta and Caldwell (1990) all found correlations between acted out anti-social aggression and problems in reading.
Edwards (1994, p139) noticed in her sample of severe dyslexics that all exhibited behavioural manifestations from their experiences at school. Most, in fact, were hostile and disruptive towards teachers and showed aggression and cheekiness as early as primary school. Examples of these acts ranged from ‘sabotaging the ladies’ loo as revenge on teachers and hitting other pupils’, through ‘destruction of school property’ to ‘fights with other pupils’. Edwards found that this was often linked to dislike of the teachers’ methods, boredom with the subject taught, inability to do the class task required and conflict with the class teacher.
Deviant behaviours
One explanation is that of Svensson et al (2001, p63): ‘early failure on a socially, highly valued skill such as reading would cause an almost traumatic frustration leading to aggression, acting out behaviour and eventually, in severe cases, to conduct disorders’.
Fergusson and Lynskey (1997) also suggest that a reversed relationship can be true, i.e. that ‘social, emotional and conduct problems can lead to reading difficulties’. Whilst this does not mean that such problems can cause dyslexia, it would suggest that arguments given by teachers as to why dyslexia is not seen by them could be a valid reason for literacy problems. One could postulate that teachers in inner city districts would give such explanations, to explain why their poor students were not achieving (delaying dyslexia diagnosis).
There are suggestions that both unrecognised and recognised dyslexics receiving insufficient or inappropriate support can feel devalued at school and turn to deviant behaviour. This is a response to their sense of low self-esteem induced by school, and as a way of gaining recognition from their peers (Kirk and Reid, 2001). Riddick et al (1999, p78) suggest that low self-esteem among dyslexics may ‘lead to a pattern of anti-social or maladjusted behaviour, which could lead to more serious forms of deviant behaviour and ultimately imprisonment’.
Dockrell et al (2002, p34) note the comments from one head teacher of an EBD school:
‘I find it devastating that in a special school, an emotional and behavioural disabilities (EBD) special school, we get children coming to us because of behaviours they have demonstrated in mainstream school and nobody has tried to identify the cause of that behaviour’.
Alm & Andersson (1995), Antonoff (1998), Kirk and Reid (2001) and Morgan (1996) have all identified very high percentages of dyslexic adults and young people among offenders. These studies from England, the USA and Sweden suggest that 30%–52% of the prison populations in these countries are dyslexic. Such figures should be compared to the accepted estimates of dyslexia (in the general population), which in England are between 4% and 10%, according to the BDA, and in America are 15%, according to the International Dyslexia Association (2000).
Morgan’s (1997) study of delinquent/criminal dyslexics found that when dyslexic children fail to keep up at school, their self-esteem drops as they begin to question their academic abilities (develop inferiority complexes). Nearly all of Morgan’s dyslexic (criminal) sample felt they were not given appropriate remedial support at school, and by the time they reached their teens, they voted with their feet, played truant and mixed with (criminal) delinquents. Similar findings concerning dyslexics and crime have been found by Devlin (1995). This would suggest that many young dyslexics could be prevented from drifting into crime by better support at school. Edwards (1994) also found that school avoidance/refusal/truancy started at primary school, and that the extra time on such children’s hands meant they were at the mercy of boredom, deviant company, street culture and crime. The Dyspel Pilot Project (Klein, 1998), which identified dyslexia among offenders, found that only 5% had also been diagnosed as dyslexic at school
It is hypothesized that aggression, deviancy and delinquent symptoms are caused by the dyslexic’s own frustrations about their intellect being misunderstood by their parents, teachers and peers.
To summarise, the dyslexic who is unable to cope with their underlying dyslexia, who feels misunderstood (in terms of their intellect) by their parents or teachers, will cope by developing defensive mechanisms of Aggression (Getting Angry, Deviancy and Delinquency), which are caused by externalising the frustrations of the misunderstanding (however, these secondary symptoms are further misunderstood by teachers).
DEPRESSION (Withdrawing, Self-Blame and Hiding)
Riddick (1996) found that dyslexic primary and secondary school children reported themselves as disappointed, frustrated, ashamed, fed up, sad, depressed, angry and embarrassed by their dyslexic difficulties.
Depression is a frequent complication in dyslexia, according to Ryan (1994). Although most dyslexics are not clinically depressed, children with this type of learning difficulty are at higher risk of intense emotional feelings of pain and sorrow. Evidence suggests that dyslexics commonly manifest low self-esteem, explaining why many dyslexics (especially female) internalise such sorrow and pain.
Depression in school-aged children may be manifested by being either more active in order to cover up painful feelings (extrovert) or being loath to enjoy anything from their day (introvert). Both types will manifest negative thoughts about themselves and see the world in a very negative way. The depressed child may become more active or misbehave to cover up painful feelings. However, in the case of masked depression, the child may not seem obviously unhappy. Ryan (1994) notes that depressed dyslexic children tend to have three similar characteristics:
  • First, they tend to have negative thoughts about themselves, i.e., a negative self-image.
  • Second, they tend to view the world negatively. They are less likely to enjoy the positive experiences in their lives. This makes it difficult for them to have fun.
  • Finally, most depressed youngsters have great trouble imagining anything positive about the future. The depressed dyslexic not only experiences great pain in his present experiences, but also foresees a life of continuing failure.
In Butkowsky and Willows’ (1980) study, it was found that poor readers (these would include diagnosed and undiagnosed dyslexics) gave up more easily in the face of difficulties. Average to good readers attributed their success to their ability, while poor readers attributed their success to luck. Poor readers tended to blame themselves by attributing failure to their own incompetence, and success to environmental factors such as luck. There are also correlations to ‘learnt helplessness’ (Diener and Dweck, 1978; Miller and Norman, 1978).
Edwards (1994, p61) also noticed that some dyslexics suffer from competitiveness disorders, with many withdrawing both academically and socially: ‘Gareth only tries hard if he thinks he can win, if not he merely gives up…. Nevertheless, he had to be very sure of his good standard before making himself vulnerable again’.
In large schools, this avoidance of competing or reaching potential goes unnoticed, compared to smaller schools. This extreme non-participation through lack of confidence is a recurring characteristic in dyslexics.
Nearly half of Riddick’s sample (1996, p147) openly avoided telling their friends and other school pupils that they were dyslexic. Reasons for not telling included ‘I don’t want to tell anyone, because I think they’ll tell everyone else, and then everybody might tease me…. Some people I do tell, some I don’t. Most of them would just make fun of me… Only my best friend knows’. Also ‘I don’t want to tell anyone, because I think they’ll tell everyone else, and then everybody might tease me’. See Table 2.
Table 2. Children’s explanation of their dyslexia to other children (Riddick 1996)
Strategy Primary (N=10) Secondary (N=12) Total (N=22)
Don’t explain (avoids telling) 5 3 8
Only tells best/close friends 4 4 8
Teacher explained 0 1 1
Yes, will explain (to all) 1 4 5
 Riddick (p149) also found that half of her dyslexic school-aged study sample had been teased specifically about school difficulties related to dyslexia, thus giving a foundation to their fears. Others commented ‘she (member of her peer group) kept saying I was thick because I was always last on our table (to copy things down)’. Or ‘they said I was dumb and a nerd because…I couldn’t spell things’.
It is hypothesized that ‘Depression: Withdrawing, Self-Blame and Hiding’ symptoms are caused by the dyslexic’s own feelings of embarrassment, and by their perception of not being normal.
To summarise, the dyslexic who is unable to cope with their underlying dyslexia, who feels misunderstood by their parents or teachers, will cope by developing defensive mechanisms of Depression (Withdrawing, Self-Blame and Hiding), which are caused by the internalising of their embarrassment.
REGRESSION (Bed-wetting and Stammering)
Children who are unable to deal with situations develop defensive mechanisms to allow them to move forward. Where the child feels unable to use external reactionary mechanisms, such as deviance, anger and avoidance, they will use internal mechanisms to react to their traumatic situation. It is hypothesized that dyslexic ‘pre-school children may lose bladder control and develop speech disfluencies, such as stuttering’ (Newton, 2001), as a regressionary reaction to their inability to cope with their difficulties.
Nocturnal enuresis is a condition in which a person who has bladder control while awake urinates while asleep. The condition is commonly called bed-wetting and it often has a psychological impact on children and their families. Children with the condition often have low self-esteem and weak interpersonal relationships, poor quality of life, and poor performance at school (Von Gontard, 2004; Van Hoecke et al 2004). If parents are aware that a bed-wetter has no medical problems but is having difficulty with paying attention in school, concentrating on academic material, impulsive behaviour, fidgetiness, intermittent explosive tantrums, or conduct disorder, then dyslexia may be the underlying problem. Therapeutic Resources (2004) notes that in a study of 1822 children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, (a condition with co-morbidity to dyslexia, see Fawcett & Peer, 2004; Gilger et al, 1992; Ramus et al, 2003), 48% had been bed-wetters.
Robson et al (1997), comparing a large sample of 6-year-old children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder with a control group, found that the 6-year-olds with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder had 2.7 times higher incidence of nocturnal enuresis and a 4.5 times higher incidence of diurnal (daytime) enuresis as compared to the control group
Watkins (2004) believes ‘…sometimes enuresis (bed-wetting) may be due to anxiety, a change in the home situation (such as the birth of a sibling) or an emotional trauma. We particularly look for emotional factors in children who were previously dry and start to wet again. A child with shaky bladder control may be more likely to revert to wetting when under stress’.
Defining Stammering
Stammering is ‘characterised by stoppages and disruptions in fluency which interrupt the smooth flow and timing of speech. These stoppages may take the form of repetitions of sounds, syllables or words, or of prolongations of sounds so that words seem to be stretched out, and can involve silent blocking of the airflow of speech when no sound is heard’ (British Stammering Association (BSA), 2004). It is further defined as follows:
  • It is widely accepted that 5% of children under the age of five will go through a phase of stammering at some stage in their speech and language development.
  • In the under fives, twice as many boys stammer as girls.
  • The causes of stammering are still unclear, with many researchers looking at the condition as a neurosis, caused by anxiety, as a learned behaviour, or as an organic disorder (genetic, central nervous system, sequencing and timing, temporal programming).
Stammering as a defence
‘a defence mechanism where personality is disturbed and speech reverts to its earlier labelling pattern (Glauber, 1958).
Children turning to regression as a defensive mechanism would have experienced numerous stressful situations where they had tried to cope, but failed. When the situation gets just too much for the young preschooler, regression starts and they turn inwards to protect themselves, just as a turtle will when sensing danger. Blood et al (1997) found that stammerers scored high on communication apprehension and use of emotion-based coping strategies.
Stammering is a psychological and physical cry for help, and sadly these secondary symptoms are often treated without investigation of the primary cause. Thus continuous regression is likely in many cases. Unfortunately, such symptoms become a life long ‘hard-to-break’ habit (Van Riper, 1982, Conture & Caruso, 1987, Starkweather, 1987), and many perceive anxiety as the cause of stuttering (Messenger et al, 2004; Ezrati-Vanacour & Levin, 2004; Bloodstein, 1987). Individuals react to situations and academic pressures differently; thus, it should be noted that what may be stressful to one may not be to another. One could ask, is the person disfluent because of the anxiety, or is the anxiety the result of the act of being disfluent?
Johnson (1961) found that disfluent children often came from families where the parents placed strong demands on them to achieve – speech is a major milestone and thus could be interpreted to be a predictor of later achievement. However, not all children from demanding homes become disfluent and visa versa, so there must be another factors (such as possible dyslexia).
Both dyslexics and stammerers are affected by their conditions. Their reactions (avoidance of difficult tasks such as reading, writing & speaking situations) could be explained as a neurosis, defined as unpleasant feelings, an inability to understand these feelings, and symptoms and patterns of behaviour that maintain these feelings. Their avoidance strategies could be explained as defences against the unexplained and inappropriate anxiety.
Importantly, Van Riper (1982) noted that, ‘The neurosis symptoms (stammering) may at first alleviate the unpleasantness (by reducing academic pressures) but soon contribute towards it (further unhappiness)’, in a form of ‘conflict and trap’ scenario, which has also been noted by Starkweather (1987).
Stammering as a learnt behaviour
The cognitive learning theory by Conture & Caruso (1987) suggests that stammering is a result of the relationship a child has between their abilities and their environment; thus, if a child’s abilities fall short of what their environment requires (parents, peers or teacher), then they will learn behaviours that will either lower the requirements (e.g. a parent expects less from someone with a known disability such as a stammer) to cope (a threat/response scenario). So disfluency could be a learnt behaviour, especially in situations children perceive as anxious. Thus disfluencies could lower these parental predictions (stress), thus reinforcing the stammer as a useful coping strategy.
Studies (BSA, 2003) suggest that most children who develop a stammer in early childhood (possibly as a coping strategy for attention) have spontaneous recovery in 2 out of 3 cases. A third recover within 18 months of the onset of the stammer and another third before adulthood (both cases possibly as a reaction to the readjustment of academic expectations).
Stuttering could be explained as a learnt behaviour (operant conditioning) as a consequence of punishment and reinforcement. According to Shames & Sherrick (1963), repetitions in stammering which produce desired consequences (e.g. gaining parental attention) will increase in frequency until they become a major feature of communication. However, if the child gets punished, he will take steps to avoid speaking. Whilst researchers (Van Riper 1954, Moore 1976) have been unable to make established fluent speakers stammer, in children where all language skills are still developing, operant conditioning may be more influential. Wingate (1988) notes, “if stuttering is learned then it must be continuously reinforced, grown and perpetuated”.
It is hypothesized that regression, bed-wetting and stammering are caused by unfair parental or teacher comparison of academic abilities with siblings or classmates.
To summarise, the dyslexic who is unable to cope with their underlying dyslexia, and who feels that they receive unfair academic comparison from their parents or teachers, will cope by developing defensive regressionary mechanisms such as bed-wetting and stammering where there are perceptions of parents and/or teachers unfairly using academic sibling comparison.
Whilst the hypothesis of this investigation looks at regressionary correlations between dyslexia and stammering, there is other evidence to support correlations between dyslexia and stammering. Jariabkova et al (1995) found dyslexic boys with symptoms of both speech and language disorders and Stackhouse (1997) suggests that children with spoken language problems (stammering) may have difficulty developing phonological awareness skills. This is supported by the findings of Mecrow (2001).
In many ways, dyslexia is very similar to a speech disorder such as stammering, in that those who stammer are very self-conscious of publicly identifying themselves as different. Like dyslexics, those who stammer will avoid tasks that would show them to be different to their peers, e.g. reading aloud in class. Dyslexics fear being unable to read the words correctly and those who stammer fear their inability to pronounce the words correctly. Thus, both fear many of the same tasks. The following extract from the Disability Discrimination Act (HMSO 1995) supports this view
"In some cases, people have 'coping strategies' which cease to work in certain circumstances (for example, where someone who stutters or has dyslexia is placed under stress). If it is possible that a person's ability to manage the effects of the impairment will break down so that these effects will sometimes occur, this possibility must be taken into account when assessing the effects of the impairment." [Paragraph A8, Guidance to the Definitions of Disability].
Jancke et al (2004), Ozge et al (2004) and Curry & Gregory (1969) investigated cerebral dominance in stutterers and found left dominance, hemisphere asymmetry, and conflicting lateral preferences, as also found in dyslexics by Galaburda et al (1985) and Galaburda (1989). Furthermore, Webster (1990) and Van Riper (1982) theorise that stammering is a disorder of sequential timing and Webster (1985), Walla et al (2004) and Ludlow & Loucks (2003) found stammering to be a disorder of motor speech control processes; both these issues have also been found to be dyslexic problems by Wolf and Bowers (1999), Miles (1994) and Fawcett & Nicholson (1999).
This paper looks at one possible coping solution (progression) and four possible defence mechanisms (suppression, aggression, depression and regression) for unidentified pre-school dyslexic children:
  • Progression: Coping strategies
  • Suppression: School and Task Avoidance
  • Aggression: Getting Angry and Deviant behaviour
  • Depression: Withdrawing and Hiding
  • Regression: Bed-wetting and Stammering

What are the advantages of these actions?

  • Progression: the advantage of learning to deal with and overcome learning difficulties.
  • Suppression: the advantage of avoiding activities or environments that are perceived as harmful.
  • Aggression: the advantage of alleviating excess emotion through anger and deviant behaviours.
  • Depression: the advantage of protecting oneself from harmful outside influences.
  • Regression: the advantage of lowering other people’s expectations of oneself.
What are the disadvantages of these actions?
  • Progression: no significant disadvantages
  • Suppression: the disadvantage of missing activities or environments which could be advantageous to learning.
  • Aggression: the disadvantage of covering up the primary learning difficulty and thus being misunderstood.
  • Depression: the disadvantage of internalising emotional hurt and shutting out others who could help.
  • Regression: the disadvantage of having a stammer that makes one fearful of interacting with others for fear of embarrassment.
These discussions can be better seen in Table 3, which describes how these four defensive mechanisms fit into a matrix. It is envisaged that preschool and young children can move from one to the other depending on both their strength of emotion and whether they internalise or externalise their emotions.
Table 3. Matrix of defensive mechanisms
Variables Internalising emotions Externalising emotions
Weaker expressions of emotions (but can be 


REGRESSION Bedwetting Stammering
Task avoidance
School avoidanc
Stronger or major expressions of emotions
(but can be health threatening)
Getting angry
Deviant behaviour

This investigative paper looks at how pre-school dyslexic children who are unidentified deal with their situation in learning environments at home and at school.
Five solutions were identified, which can be sub-divided into one coping strategy (progression) and four defensive mechanisms (suppression, aggression, depression and regression). It is envisaged that preschool or young children are able to move from one to another, based on whether they firstly internalise or externalise their emotions, and secondly, whether they have strong or weak expressions of such emotions.
Progression as a coping strategy is the ideal, as this would mean that dyslexic children are identified and helped to achieve their potential from a very young age. Sadly, this is not a possibility for most children, as most nurseries or primary schools can’t or won’t label very young unidentified dyslexic children as ‘dyslexic’. In the majority of cases, local educational authorities require a deficit of at least two years in reading before assessment is considered. OFSTED (1999) found that deficits of four years plus were still common.
Each of the four defensive mechanisms (suppression, aggression, depression and regression) has distinctive advantages and disadvantages for the child, but it should be noted that in the heat of battle in the classroom, dealing with the frustrations of coping with an unidentified learning problem, ‘fire-fighting’ may be the only way the child can remove themselves from hostile situations, psychologically or physically, without any thought for long-term habit forming conditions.
It is hypothesized that weaker expressions of emotion (regression and suppression) are habit-forming and can have longer-term negative consequences. Stronger expressions of emotion (depression and aggression) are more psychologically based and can impact on the health of the individual.
It is hoped that from greater education of parents and teachers, progress can be made in terms of getting help where needed, as soon as it is required, without children needing defensive mechanisms.
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