Research shows the earlier the intervention with a child who is dyslexic the better the outcome.
So, how well are we supporting these children with dyslexia in the early years of education?
Learning support primary teacher, Mary Whelan says 10 years ago children with dyslexia were eligible for resource hours on a one-to-one basis. This meant they were high on a priority list to be assessed by an Educational Psychologist from the National Educational Psychological Services (N.E.P.S).
She says that today every school is looking for more resources, “so therefore if you got a child who has a speech and language difficulty or behavioural difficulty or is somewhere on the spectrum then they are going to get pushed to the top of the list because you are going to get resource hours for them which is going to mean more teachers.”
Ms Whelan says the diagnosis is not only important as a specific guide for the learning support teacher but also for the child’s self-confidence.
She explains that when one of her students was assessed and diagnosed as dyslexic “it was like a weight lifted off his shoulders”. “Up to that he was inclined to say ‘I am thick, I am stupid’ – it is soul destroying for a child. They need someone other than their parents telling them they are wonderful, they need to see it in black and white as well.”
Children at primary school with learning difficulties such as dyslexia are currently supported by the Department of Education through N.E.P.S and the General Allocation Model (GAM).
The N.E.P.S aim is to get the school to take responsibility for initial remedial intervention for pupils.
This intervention involves three stages – support within the classroom, support by the learning support teacher and direct contact between pupil and the N.E.P.S psychologist where the school is unable to make progress. The NEPS Psychologist acts as a consultant to the school during these stages supporting 15 to 40 schools.
According to the NEPS: “The school authorities provide names of children who are giving cause for concern and discuss the relative urgency of each case during the psychologists visits.”
In the NEPS outline of their model of service the Students Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a key element of the remedial intervention within the school at all stages. The additional support hours required for the child with special needs comes out of the General Allocation Model (GAM) serviced by the learning support teacher.
However, there is a problem with the Individual Education Plan (IEP) – it is not a statutory requirement.
The Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act (EPSEN) 2004 says that any child with special needs should be given an IEP. While this is envisaged in the EPSEN Act – all the parts of the act have not been fully enacted.
When the Department of Education was contacted with regard to the full implementation of the EPSEN act the response was that some of the sections have commenced. These include the setting up of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and the sections promoting an inclusive approach to the education of children with special needs.
However, the NCSE have advised the Department that the full implementation of the EPSEN Act would cost up to an additional €235m per annum over a number of years.
In a statement issued last May, the Department of Education said: “Given the costs involved and current fiscal constraints, addressing this issue will be very challenging. The Department will be considering how we can develop a plan to implement the objectives of the EPSEN Act so as to deliver improved educational outcomes for students with special needs.”
Mr Ewing from the Dyslexia Association said – it is important to acknowledge we already have structures and resources in place to support children with special needs and it is about making these more effective: “stopping and thinking about how we do more of the right thing, rather than just ‘more’.”
He believes there is a need to build the capacity of teaching professionals in the school to diagnose and support children with dyslexia.
In Finland they stopped and radically reformed their education system in the 1970’s making it one of the best performers internationally today.
Author Pasi Sahlberg outlines the key education reforms in Finland in his book Finnish Lessons.
Special education reforms include – identifying children’s potential learning difficulties as early as pre-school. Pre-school is free and attended by 98 per cent of children.
Intensive support is provided for students with special needs in the early years of primary school. Grade based assessments are not used in the first five years of school in Finland – to prevent children being ranked according to their educational performance.
Ireland’s two main teacher training colleges – Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and St Patricks College in Dublin said special education is very much embedded across their teacher training curriculum. They also have modules in special education including dyslexia as well as literacy modules explicitly referring to dyslexia.
But perhaps, before we get too caught up in how we can do more of the right thing to support children with dyslexia – we need to stop and reflect on our understanding of dyslexia and the particular strengths of the dyslexic brain.
American neuro-learning experts and authors of The Dyslexic Advantage, Drs Brock and Fernette Eide present a different view of dyslexia based on their research.
Dr Brock Eide says “there’s a large and growing literature supporting the existence of various advantages in dyslexic processing”.
“At a time when every study of employment needs shows clearly that every company and every country has a critical need for workers who can think critically, solve problems, innovate, work in teams, and understand the perspectives of others, the dyslexic community is full of individuals whose brain wiring predisposes them toward the development of all these skills,” Dr Eide says.
“It’s simply in all of our interests to support the development and flourishing of this group of high potential individuals.”