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Stress Spirals

How stress can actually cause reading difficulty

Stress is talked about so much nowadays, that it can be hard to focus on what it really is.

The body is designed to react to fear and excitement in very clear ways that help us survive in dangerous situations. Historically, fear and excitement were normally linked to danger in the form of other tribes coming to visit or bumping into large carnivores in the woods!

At those moments, survival depended on how you reacted. You really had three options: fight, flight or freeze (so that you went unnoticed). Our stress reaction is designed to achieve one of the three.

In all three cases, the brain shuts down the higher thinking areas of the frontal cortex and moves control to the more basic ones of the brain stem (the “lizard” brain). So you will see raised emotion and a much reduced ability to think clearly. But you will probably run, get aggressive or freeze, which are often better options than almost anything else when faced by something dangerous.

But nowadays we can have lots of other causes of stress that activate the same reactions. In these modern situations of stress, the body’s natural reaction is often not so helpful.

Reading is very much a higher brain function. So it is no surprise that stress is generally a negative input when learning to read. However, as anyone knows who has helped someone struggling to read, stress levels can rise very quickly, sometimes for everyone involved!

So it is very easy to get into a negative spiral of failure… leading to stress… leading to cerebral shutdown… leading to more failure and eventually crisis. In fact, the conventional experience of learning to read for many children is an inevitable series of public failures as the learner stumbles over words that cannot be read.

Symptoms of stress spirals

The key symptoms are:

  • Can do OK sometimes, but confidence tends to collapse
  • Frustration leads to anger, running away or sullen silence
  • Can read better with some people than with others

The solution for stress spirals

I would rate psychology management as 50% of the content of DM Easyread. If a child is not happy and excited to be doing Easyread, particularly over the first weeks, then our task is far harder than it needs to be.

There are various ways to achieve that and avoid these stress spirals.

First is to make the process genuine fun. We use silly and sometimes slightly rude imagery that gets children laughing.

Second is to make it seem OK to find the whole thing hard. We talk to the children quite a lot about that.

Third is to create a path that seems achievable. There are many elements to this, but in DM Easyread our Trainertext is probably the most important. It gives the learner the capability to work through difficult words without needing help. So that moment of failure has been turned into a moment of triumph.

In that way, we aim to reverse the spiral of failure into a spiral of success and growing confidence. That often starts to kick in from day 1.

If you are helping a child with other resources, then to avoid stress you need to create a scaffolded environment where the learner is doing tasks that are challenging but doable.