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Forced Schooling, Anxiety, and "Learning Disorders"

Early academic pressure creates learning blocks, diagnosed as disorders.

Source: RODNAE/Pexels

Our standard schools operate on the assumption that all children of a given age should learn the same lessons, in the same ways, at the same time. That assumption is blatantly false, and it leads to endless agony. Schools in recent decades have pushed, ever harder, to squeeze all students, regardless of the shapes of their interests and personalities, through the same square holes. It doesn’t work. One result is a growing tendency to label children who can’t be squeezed through as disordered. Instead of admitting that the school system is disordered, an abnormal environment for children’s learning, unable to accommodate normal human variation, the school bureaucracy chooses to label the children as disordered, that is, as having some kind of biologically based abnormality, such as ADHD or a specific learning disorder (e.g., dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia). The psychiatric community obliges by providing official diagnostic criteria and categories to support the labels.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the research literature does not support the common claim that specific learning disorder categories represent specific deficits in the brain or even specific cognitive deficits. The kids who get the labels are those of normal or above normal intelligence who, for whatever reason, are not learning the skills taught in school according to the school’s schedule and by the school’s methods (for evidence, see Benson et al., 2020). In another previous post, I described the results of a small survey of parents whose children had been diagnosed with dyslexia while in a conventional school and who were subsequently removed from that school for homeschooling. All 10 respondents that met the survey criteria reported that their child, when first removed from school, was experiencing strong anxiety about reading, which led the child to resist even trying to read. Only with the passage of time, with all pressure to read removed, did these children begin to show an interest in reading and a willingness to accept help in learning to do so.

Children labeled as learning disordered suffer from high anxiety, which inhibits learning.

Other research has shown consistently that schoolchildren who are labeled as having a specific learning disorder suffer from anxiety—especially anxiety related to their academic work—at much higher levels than do other schoolchildren (Nelson & Harwood, 2011; Panicker & Chelliah, 2016). A great deal of research shows, not surprisingly, that anxiety inhibits learning (summarized in Gray, 2013). Schools, almost by design, are factories for creating anxiety. Imagine that you are a sensitive child who, for one reason or another, is not quite up to your peers in catching on how to sound out words in school reading lessons. [Actually, I don’t even have to imagine this; I can remember it. I was one of the poorest readers in my class in the early grades and was constantly embarrassed.] You are called on to read, aloud, in front of those other children, who all seem to be better than you. You freeze. You want to scream, you want to run away, but you can’t. This is true no matter how kind the teacher is. In fact, it may be worse if the teacher is kind. You can’t blame that kind teacher—it’s all your fault.

Now imagine that you, the anxious kid who freezes up about reading, are diagnosed with dyslexia. It can feel like a relief. “Oh, so I’m not stupid after all; I just have some kind of hole in some specific part of my brain that makes me not able to read.” But it’s an odd kind of relief. It’s not necessarily the kind of relief that makes you want to read; it’s the kind of relief that might make you think, “well, reading isn’t my thing, why try.” The diagnosis may help you feel better about yourself in some ways, but not better about reading. When pressured to read, the old anxiety may well return and manifest itself in a declaration of hatred of reading, as occurred for the children in the survey. The reason so many dyslexia-diagnosed kids overcome their reading problem when removed from school and placed into a setting for Self-Directed Education or a relaxed homeschooling environment is this: The pressure is off. Nobody is judging you about your reading. People value you for who you are, for all the great things you can do, and for your kindness. Reading isn’t all of life. In school, nearly all learning after about second or third grade depends on reading, but that’s not true elsewhere. And so, anxiety about reading declines with removal from school, and then, at some point, the child starts reading.

I’ve focused here on reading, because that’s the most central skill for school success and because dyslexia is the most common specific learning disorder label. But the same is true for other academic areas. Some freeze up about math (in fact, there’s evidence that school-induced math phobia is the most common phobia in America, see Burns, 1998), or about writing.

Children in an academic preschool became "learning disordered" at higher rates than control children who stayed home.

I turn now to one of the reasons why diagnosed learning disorders continue to increase. We are now trying to teach academic skills to children at ever younger ages, in ever more pressured situations. As a society, we have accepted the premise that the earlier we start to teach something the better the kids will learn it. This premise has been repeatedly shown to be false, yet we persist blindly as if it were true. Well-controlled experiments (here) have shown that attempts to give children a head start by teaching academics in preschool or kindergarten backfire. By third grade, those otherwise similar children who did not get the early training regularly outperform those children who did—academically as well as socially and emotionally.

Here is one research study that examined not just academic ability overall as a function of early training, but also looked at how many were eventually diagnosed with a specific learning disorder. It’s the Tennessee Pre-Kindergarten Study (Lipsey et al., 2018). I described it in a previous post (here), but now I want to present some of the results in a bit more detail.

The Tennessee study began when the state provided funding for a pre-kindergarten program for children from low-income families and researchers at Vanderbilt University took on the task of studying its effects. There were more applicants for the program than places, so a random process was used to determine which children would be admitted and which not. Those not admitted constituted the control group for the study. The researchers found that those who were in the program performed better than the controls on academic tests at the beginning of kindergarten, but the advantage was soon lost. By third grade, those in the program were performing worse academically, and in other ways, than those who had not been in the program. Apparently, being home, even if you are poor, was better in terms of ultimate academic development than attending this academically-oriented pre-K program.

Not only were the kids in the program performing overall worse academically, but, in addition, more of them, by third grade, had been diagnoses as having a learning disorder. In fact, by third grade, those in the pre-K program were 46% more likely to have been diagnosed with a specific learning disorder than the controls, and they were 43% less likely to have been diagnosed as intellectually gifted. Since the children were randomly assigned and the differences were statistically significant, those differences were not due to innate brain differences; they were due to a debilitating effect of the pre-K program. This is the first time such an effect on learning disorders or on intellectual giftedness has been documented in an experiment, but that’s because it’s the first time such an effect has been looked for in an experiment. My bet is that this is happening all the time, not just in pre-K, but in kindergarten, first grade, and beyond, where our push to make kids learn academic skills that are boring and meaningless to them, under coercive conditions, creates anxiety and learning blocks specific to the very skills that the schools are trying to teach.

Of course, the school bureaucracies continue to ignore such findings. It’s easier to put your head in the sand than to make real changes that would benefit our children.

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Benson, F. N., et al (2020). A national survey of school psychologists’ practices in identifying specific learning disabilities. School Psychology, 35, 146-157.

Burns, M. (1998). Math: Facing an American phobia. Math Solutions Publications.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why releasing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.

Lipsey, M., Farran, D. & Durkin, K. (2018). Effects of the Tennessee prekindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45, 155-176.

Nelson, J., & Harwood, H. (2011). Learning disabilities and anxiety: A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44, 3-17.

Panicker, A., & Chelliah, A. (2016). Resilience and stress in children and adolescents with specific learning disability. Journal of Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 25: 17-23.