The psychological term burnout has been around since the 1970s when it was coined to describe a kind of emotional exhaustion experienced by those in the helping professions. Today it’s a term familiar to just about anyone who has to do one task over and over.
For students with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities, “over and over” describes the way learning happens: repeat, repeat, repeat until the skill is mastered. Little surprise, then, that students with learning differences may feel burned out with school work.
We recently had a conversation with Lexercise therapist Amanda Bush, a Texas-based Certified Academic Language Therapist who works primarily with elementary- and middle-school kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. During a monthly Zoom session with Lexercise therapists, Amanda described her experience with Lydia, a 5th-grader, who was feeling unmotivated, negative, and resistant.
Amanda has been working with Lydia for almost two-and-a-half years, since well before the COVID-19 shutdown. Hardworking, committed, and great at completing her practice, Lydia understands that repetition is helping to “rewire” her brain and make her new reading and spelling skills automatic.
As Amanda explains, for students with dyslexia, the 15-minute daily practice “can be looked at like a daily routine that you don’t even think about. Much like brushing our teeth, we may not always enjoy the activity, but we do it to keep our body healthy and pretty soon it is just a part of our schedule.”
But when summer came around, Lydia became frustrated and distracted. She felt like “they were forcing me” to study and she was missing out on fun activities. She was resentful that her practice had to be completed before she could be with her friends or go to the pool. She might refuse to complete her work or not try her hardest, saying, “Why do I have to do this and no one else does?”
This kind of resistance is not unusual. Amanda has seen it in other students, who would rather watch videos, play with the dog, or make excuses to leave the online lesson. Students with dyslexia and other language-processing disorders may under-perform, not be able to focus, and not take their practice seriously.
When Amanda encounters resistance in a student, she explains, “I always take a few minutes to brainstorm with the student to get to the root of the problem. Do I need to adjust my delivery? Is the content truly too challenging? Do I need to adjust the duration of sustained focus on the practice or lesson? Does the student have external factors that are distracting them from completing work? Do they understand the directions? Are they just bored? Do they need a bit of novelty to spice things up? Have they been working with me for so long that they have lost motivation/excitement? Is there a miscommunication between the parent and me as far as the expectations? Is the student overwhelmed with other school assignments?”
“Once I get a better idea of what is truly causing the frustration, we can brainstorm solutions together. I find this step to be critical because it helps when the solution is the student’s idea.”
Lexercise is based on the Orton-Gillingham structured literacy therapy model, which is a diagnostic, systematic, and explicit teaching method that follows a very specific approach to learning. Lexercise gives therapists the freedom to tailor and implement therapeutic decisions to create the best learning experience possible. Lydia understands that “it is important that we keep the format and content the same,” Amanda says, but that still leaves plenty of room for creativity and flexibility.
In their conversation, Lydia and Amanda agreed on a number of changes:
Amanda also engaged the support of Lydia’s parents and grandparents. “I asked them to be mindful of how Lydia is feeling. We are asking her to do something multiple times a week that is inherently difficult for her. I try to help parents have empathy for their children. I ask parents about something they feel they are not very good at and do not like to do, like public speaking, singing karaoke, running a mile, or solving a quadratic equation. What if they had to do that thing every day when they’d rather be watching a movie?”
“Knowing what to expect and when to expect it is key to making dyslexia intervention more approachable. Having some control is also a huge factor. Being in a safe, positive, and encouraging environment with some novelty, incentive, and fun is what has worked for my students.”
“We can’t control that we have dyslexia. We can’t control that we need to work harder and practice. We CAN control our choices: when we practice, our attitude, our environment, our amount of effort, our positive or negative self-talk, our learning space, our writing tools, our posture, etc. Kids can feel like nothing is fair, they are always being told what to do, they are bossed around all day by adults. It helps to know that they can do some things to change their situation, perspective, or attitude.”
The change was immediate, Amanda says. Once Lydia had her new setup, “she was very excited to show off her study zone. She felt independent and more mature. It added the touch of newness that motivated her to do her best. She wants to do more projects. Lydia is excited, reinvigorated, motivated, refreshed, and energized for learning. She even shares her experience with dyslexia with her peers at school. Lydia is an advocate for students who learn differently. She is confident and open-minded.” As an unexpected benefit, Lydia’s sister was inspired to create her own desk, so now the two of them can work without distraction.
Amanda adds, “Is Lydia doing the same research-based practice that she had done before? Yes. Did her attitude toward the experience change? Yes. By focusing on what we CAN change rather than things that are out of our control, we were able to unlock some powerful modifications that will result in continued literacy improvement.”
Amanda has plenty of other creative ideas up her sleeve for combating burnout and boredom. Students can earn points for small privileges, such as very short (under one minute) “brain breaks.” This time, tailored to the student’s interests, may be used for a Pictionary-like guessing game or even “a quick peek at the San Diego Zoo live webcam to see what the polar bears or penguins are doing.” It’s important to offer positive feedback on what the student has done well, even if they haven’t done everything perfectly.
Amanda also notes that “Lexercise encourages therapists to share ideas with one another and continue to improve. They promote professional development and collaboration to ensure we are at the best level we can be. Lexercise is life-changing.”
The Lexercise team is hugely grateful to Amanda Bush for generously sharing the story of her success – and we are also very grateful to Lydia and her family for allowing us to tell this important story.
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Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.