Dyslexia and Competition… If you don’t take part you can NEVER win! How do we get children to take part!
As a dyslexic I hate competition. Hate is perhaps not the right word. Fear is probably a better word to use. When I use the word competition I mean anything that forces me to be compared to other people, anything that might have a time limit attached, anything that might reinforce my hidden feelings of not being good enough, not feeling clever and feeling like I have not worked hard enough. Competition makes me feel physically sick, uneasy and anxious. I feel my heart beat race, the cortisol surge and I loose all power of rationalisation. An outsider would never notice this because I swallow it down and force a massive great big smile to hide my true feelings.
This competition is hidden everywhere in our daily lives but I bet you have never noticed it. Dyslexics notice it because our condition causes us to notice everything we can’t do. We dread coming across things which might catch us out. We like to stay ahead of the game so we live constantly on the edge trying to stay a step ahead. Competition does not let us do this. Competition exposes our weaknesses and competition makes us feel bad.
Let me give you an example of something which you won’t view as competition… I ask my children to get dressed every morning at the same time. I used to follow this with the first one to get dressed can sit in the front of the car… I don’t anymore because world war three begins. Not between my children but I can see it raging within my sons dyslexic brain, it rages till he can’t be rational. The girls scurry off grabbing their clothes, they are on it, they are younger than him they want to win, they won’t care if they loose, it won’t hurt them. My son does something interesting… he immediately removes himself from this contest by either having an almighty melt down and telling me his uniform is not ready or he will tell me he is unable to compete because he can’t find his uniform or he has hurt his leg… He is not lazy, he is not difficult. He is scared of loosing… Genuinely terrified.
You may say this is ridiculous and this has nothing to do with reading and writing so therefore can have nothing to do with dyslexia… It doesn’t on the surface but my son knows he is going to school in the next half an hour and he knows he is going to loose competitions all day at school so why would he want to start the day by loosing one? His self-defence mechanism is to immediately remove himself from the ‘competition’ to protect himself from feeling bad. His behaviour tells me he is anxious about competition, he is not a bad looser, he is not ultra competitive but competition genuinely makes him feel bad. He is not weak or not resilient, he is switched on, clued up and mighty intuitive. He knows that he can protect himself by not taking part…
I know the ultra competitive of you out there will be sceptical but you are misinterpreting the behaviour by not looking below the surface. This reaction or behaviour could be misinterpreted and read as disengagement, awkwardness and poor sportsman ship… I don’t believe this, I see a vulnerable and terrified child who just wants his efforts and attempts to be noticed. If he is not first dressed, despite trying really hard, doing his best and busting a gut, his effort is not rewarded or acknowledged because he doesn’t have the prize. Kids focus on the prize, I am wrong to reward for something I need them all to do, and that I know that they can and will all do, so why should only one of them get the prize?
During the school day there is competition in every hour, sometimes several competitions an hour… Here are some examples…
There is competition in mental maths. A question will be asked and he will be able to work the answer out but his thinking is slower than the majority of his class so by the time he has worked it out they will be 4 sums ahead… He feels bad because he is not quick? The next one is given to the class and he tries really hard again, working it out, getting frustrated because his brain won’t work quickly enough. This time he feels bad because he feels he must be stupid. The third one is given… He has switched off. Not because he doesn’t want to engage but because he is hurting, it’s pointless and he can’t keep up. Why would you put yourself through something that you know you can’t do in the perimeters set? Self defence… I won’t engage or I just won’t try, then I can’t fail…
The writing task is next… My son has been engaged and enthused by the topic of the rainforest. He has loads to say verbally… He knows what a chronological report is, he has great ideas. This shouldn’t be a competition, his thinking is outstanding however he won’t get an outstanding, his work won’t even be recognised. He can’t get his ideas onto paper quickly. Firstly he does not have a fluent handwriting style, his writing is messy because it doesn’t flow… He knows his work never looks nice, he tells me this, he tells me his writing is not neat. He crosses every other word out because he attempts to spell words which are brave… He never manages to write more than a few sentences, this is not because he is lazy but because he is battling with his brain to find the words, write the words, remember or work out how to spell the words, and write neatly. It’s no wonder he no longer even tries in written activities. What’s the point, he won’t finish, his effort won’t be recognised, he might even be told at the end of the lesson ‘next time try to write more.’ I know, because he tells me, he would love to write more, he would love neat writing and he would love his effort to be noticed, but in the competitive environment of a classroom… To a 10 year old boy there is no hope.
Competitions you don’t notice are in school and hidden everywhere… Levelling work, spelling tests, getting changed after PE, questions in inputs, collecting and organising equipment, reading schemes, multiplication tables, finishing work (dyslexics rarely finish work… Or finish ultra quickly and don’t get the best out of what you need them to do!) head teacher certificates, star of the week, following instructions, understanding the basics… I could go on but I think you might have the point now! Dyslexics see everything as competition because they always feel like the underdog and never feel they are noticed because generally they are not.
I never ever got an A for an assignment when I was at school. For years and years, until I had counselling as an adult I genuinely believed I had never got an A because I had not worked hard enough. I always felt I should have perhaps done more, then I might have got an A. The thing was I had spent hours reading and rereading books, reading study guides and researching, possibly longer than other people but my ‘effort’ or ‘taking part’ was never noticed. When you have bust a gut this hurts, it’s damaging, not because your ego needs stroking but because as human beings what drives us forward is feedback and encouragement. If we never receive positive feedback we loose interest or maybe even give up. I was lucky I had an inbuilt determination and supportive family that drove me forward but I can see why kids become disengaged in the classroom when their ‘taking part’ is not acknowledged or noticed regularly.
In the classroom all the children are in the same competition, getting through the day having learnt something new, having moved their learning forward and having learnt new skills. Lots of children… not just dyslexics find this challenging for many reasons. I think for me personally as a learner and as a teacher I have seen the best progress when feedback is given and when effort is praised, even if the end result has not quite been achieved. It spurs you on.
Competition in the classroom for dyslexics is like a marathon. In a marathon there are only a handful of people who can seriously win it and be competitive. This doesn’t stop people entering because they will take the same journey, just at their own speed. It still has a purpose and they will learn something from it.
In a marathon you will always have the elite athletes who want to win, that’s ok, they have trained to win, it is their purpose for entering, they chose to put themselves in that position and they will be disappointed with themselves if they don’t do their best. The elite athletes only make up a small percentage of the numbers running a marathon… The rest are made up with amateur runners, runners who run for fun or runners that are running for charity, there is a purpose to them running but it sure as hell is not to win. Does this make it pointless for these runners that are not in it to win it? Does this mean it’s not worth them even starting?
The aim of many of these runners might be to beat a personal best, or just cross the finish line so they can raise money for charity. Because they didn’t make it to the finish line first, does that make them losers? Because they are not wishing to be ultra competitive and simply running for personal achievement does that make the effort less worthy?
The one thing all the runners have in common is running the race. Every single runner in the race will be focused and determined on reaching and crossing the finish line. As the crowd watches the marathon it is possible that the amateur runners and the people who are running for charity are the ones who get the biggest and loudest cheers, the most encouragement! Why is this? I believe it’s because we acknowledge that they are the ones who have worked harder, have pushed themselves outside of their comfort zone, have purposefully trained and developed the skills and might be the ones we can see are struggling but want to cheer on and help them on their way!
A classroom should be no different to a marathon.We need to spend more time focusing on the struggling. That is not that we ignore the elite, but the elite are motivated and determined and can set their own goals to drive themselves forward. We must support them with this… but the elite spur each other on in their drive to cross the winning line first.
Our struggling learners, like the amateur runners behind, don’t yet have the skills or stamina to keep going, to keep running for an entire marathon, or know what strategy to employ to get them through the tricky and challenging parts. We have to help, encourage, teach and constantly reevaluate and reflect on what they need to keep them going.
The minute the marathon becomes only about winning there would only be a few people left in the race. Classrooms need to stop focussing on ‘winning’ they need to stop focussing on the end product and start focussing on HOW to get to the finish line. More emphasis needs to be on getting children to the start line so they can at least have a chance of crossing the finish line. If children are too scared to stand on the start line then there is no hope and no chance of them taking a risk to try to cross the finish line first. It does not matter if once at the start line it takes them five times as long to cross the finish line because they will get there, but only with the right support and encouragement. It is our job to recognise when a child is scared and it is our job to coax them to the start line and it is our job to praise effort and individual achievements no matter how small.
We need to stop thinking of our class or our own children as elite athletes, because they might not be there yet and might not have all the skills they need to spur themselves on. They might not be ready to be in a competition or competitive situation they might just need to be seen as an individual. This is how they are going to make the best progress, this is how they will gain the skills to become elite and outstanding at whatever they choose. When they have gained the appropriate skills in confidence, resilience and wanting to take part is when they are ready for any competition. They can enter the competition knowing that they too have a chance to win.
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