The following text is an article I wrote for the ABRSM’s conference on 3 November, for which my colleague and friend, Karen Marshall, a writer and piano teacher with a specialisation in music teaching for children with dyslexia, gave a presentation.
While not specifically relating to music, I think what my son’s and my experience of his dyslexia confirms is that children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia really do need not only specialist support in school to help them with reading, writing and processing information, but also the opportunity to explore subjects outside the narrow STEM-focussed curriculum. Practical and creative subjects such as product design, catering, art, drama and music give dyslexic students an important opportunity to demonstrate their talents, and a dyslexic child who may be struggling with reading and writing and falling behind in class as a consequence, can gain considerable confidence and self-esteem by finding another subject in which they excel – be it music or, in my son’s case, cooking (which led him into a career as a professional chef). The erosion of my son’s confidence at school, due to his dyslexia and attitudes towards it from teachers and other parents, was very hard for him, and me, and when I started teaching piano, I realised that the single most important thing I could do for my students was build their confidence.
The gradual removal of creative subjects from our national curriculum is, in my opinion, an absolute disgrace, denying not only dyslexic children but all children the opportunity to express themselves, explore, broaden their horizons and acquire important life skills such as teamwork, collaboration, communication, confidence and self-determination which will serve them well as they enter adulthood.
My Child and Dyslexia: A Parent’s Perspective
For the parent of a dyslexic child so much is focused around the child’s (and parent’s) experience of the education system – a system which is supposed to be enjoyable and stimulating for children and which will broaden their horizons and equip them for entry into adulthood.
I suspected my son might be dyslexic almost as soon as he started at primary school. Dyslexia runs in my husband’s family and I knew the condition could be inherited. My son was an articulate child, had quite a sophisticated vocabulary in advance of his age and was even able to recognise quite complex words when written down, but he really struggled with reading from the outset. This was the first indicator that there was a problem and it remained a significant issue for my son until he was mid-way through secondary school. The ability to read and process written information is a key functional skill; without it, I worried that my son would struggle with straightforward everyday tasks such as completing forms or travelling – would he be able to read road signs or train station names? And if he couldn’t, would he get lost when travelling on his own?
Reading homework was always a trial, usually resulting in stress, tears and frustration. Written homework proved equally painful, as my son struggled to hold a pencil and form words. I saw no value in making him engage in an activity which was clearly upsetting him and gradually eroding his confidence: growing maturity and awareness meant that he knew he was far behind in class. My cheerful, bright (yes, bright) little boy had turned into a frustrated, uncertain child, and I an anxious parent who didn’t know where to turn. So much emphasis is placed on “attainment” in our education system and a child who falls below the set norms/targets is considered “educationally subnormal”. It was pretty devastating because I knew my son was bright – just not academically bright.
This for so many parents of dyslexic children is the difficult paradox that we face: our children often have average or above-average intelligence. Some are gifted or have a very high IQ, but there’s a discrepancy between their potential and their achievement as measured by standard school tests.
Throughout school, my son felt like a square peg in a round hole. Singled out for Special Educational Needs (SEN) support, he knew he was different, isolated in a school in an affluent, high-achieving suburb of south-west London. The school was reluctant to have him assessed, and hinted on more than one occasion that I should be doing more to support my son’s learning. Since I am neither a teacher nor a dyslexia specialist, this was an impossible task. In the end, after many meetings with the headmaster and head of SEN provision in the school, with me often in tears, begging the school to do something, they reluctantly agreed to have him assessed by an educational psychologist who identified the dyslexia and recommended that he be statemented for special educational needs. This came when my son was 10: I had been telling the school that dyslexia ran in the family since Year 1! The statementing had very little impact on my son’s progress in his final year at primary school, but by that time I didn’t really care about his STATS results. I was desperate for some improvement in his confidence and self-esteem.
Fortunately, his secondary school had a far more proactive attitude and good SEN provision was made ahead of his arrival at the school. The head of SEN was an intelligent young woman who was fully conversant with the most up-to-date research on dyslexia. She was sympathetic and kind and went out of her way to make my son feel included, where previously he had felt ex-cluded. She was also highly perceptive and quickly recognised that he was bright, but bored. The state education system, with its emphasis on regular testing as a measure of progress, is hard for dyslexic children because of the way they receive, decode and process information. Dyslexic children may be bright, but they take longer than other children to get through their schoolwork. The dyslexic brain is wired to do different things to the non-dyslexic brain, and while dyslexics tend to be very good at lateral thinking or “seeing the bigger picture”, these skills are not recognised or valued in an increasingly narrow education system where rote learning and The Three Rs rule. As a consequence, dyslexic children can grow bored and frustrated within the narrow confines of mainstream schooling.
For my son – and other dyslexics – reading and writing were laborious and tiring, and he would regularly come home from school exhausted and bad-tempered, yet unable to get to sleep at night because he was anxious about what the next day at school might bring. He was bullied by other students, including his former best friend who claimed that being dyslexic meant he could not skateboard or ski, and on one occasion a teacher called him “stupid” because of his lack of application in class (a teacher who later went on to give my son crucial support ahead of his GCSEs). Some days I would keep him off school so we could do pleasant relaxing things together (cooking and art, or a walk in the park), just to take the pressure off him. I found the effort of supporting and advocating for him equally exhausting. Frustrated, dismotivated and bored at school, by 15 my son’s behaviour had become particularly challenging. He fell in with a rather unpleasant group of boys and took to missing school and staying out at all hours, or not coming home at all, preferring to sleep over at a mate’s house. If we criticised his behaviour, he would become argumentative and on occasion aggressive.
Strangely, alongside this rather difficult scenario and a generally negative attitude to school, my son was now reading, though not at the expected level for his age. The breakthrough occurred a couple of years previously during a holiday in Italy, when we were confined to our apartment due to bad weather: he picked up a book and suddenly he was reading, unaided, reasonably fluently, and, more importantly, enjoying it. Perhaps it was because the pressure off: away from school he could choose to read, rather being expected to read. Other mini milestones followed, largely due to the support of two particular teachers who recognised and encouraged a bright spark of creativity in my son, and when previously he was scoring Ds and Es for tests, my son was now achieving Bs and Cs. As he approached his GCSEs there was a noticeable improvement in his confidence. He was offered a place at a local college to study professional cooking and he gained better-than-expected GCSE results, for which he received a special prize from the school. While he refused to return to the school to collect the prize (understandably, he wanted to put the negative experiences of school behind him), it was a significant moment and he entered his college course with a distinct spring in his step – and beautiful new chef’s “whites” in his rucksack. Within weeks of commencing his course, he was a different person. Regularly scoring Distinctions for his practical work, he was now top of the class where previously he had been consigned to the bottom. He had found his creative niche and a practical skill in which he could excel. He forged (and has retained) strong working relationships with his tutors, who treated him with respect (something often lacking in school), and went on to attain a Level 3 Diploma in Professional Cooking. He is now a chef at a top hotel in London’s Mayfair.
It can be tough, being the parent of a dyslexic child, and it’s all too easy to let the label define your child – and you. Other people can be very judgemental, often under the guise of being well-meaning; there were some who suggested my son was lazy or stupid or that I had failed as a parent because he didn’t read until he was at secondary school. Such attitudes reveal how much ignorance still surrounds learning difficulties like dyslexia – from both teachers and educators and other parents. As a consequence, my son and I had to develop higher levels of resilience and some days it was very hard to remain positive.
We all want the best for our children and as a parent I believe it is our job to support, encourage and advocate for our children as far as possible to enable them to achieve and thrive, and to instil in them confidence and a sense of self-worth. I was determined that my son understood his strengths, and differences, and that we celebrated them. We discussed dyslexia openly at home, citing the achievements of famous dyslexics such as Richard Branson and Albert Einstein. As it turned out, a subject such as professional cooking, which combines highly-skilled technical application with creativity, suited my son perfectly: lateral thinking, problem-solving and the ability to spot connections between different ideas, objects or points of view – all dyslexic “strengths” which my son possesses – proved an asset in a fast-paced professional kitchen, and he drew much inspiration from the achievements of Jamie Oliver, who is also dyslexic.
I never pushed my son while he was at school, because I recognised that this would be counter-productive. Instead, I did my best to support him to enable him to find his own way in this competitive world. Today my son, at 20, is a confident young man with a burgeoning professional career, mature-beyond-his years, and living in his own flat. He reads books by Noam Chomsky and George Orwell, and can articulately express his views on world politics, or current trends in food and the hospitality industry – and much more. I am immensely proud of him and respectful of the struggles he endured to get to where he is now. He knows he could walk back into his primary and secondary schools with his head held high and display his achievements. In that need to find one’s niche and true passion, and to celebrate one’s personal achievements lies the success of the dyslexia story.
Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, music reviewer, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Her son, Max, is a Chef de Partie at The Connaught in Mayfair.
Dishes cooked by Max Wilson