Although everyone experiences shame in their lives, people with learning disabilities have to battle shame more often than their non-learning disabled peers. When children with learning disabilities begins school they learn very quickly that adults (and peers) in their lives think less than ideal about them either via implied or direct messages. These messages hurt and make the children feel less-than, worthless, stupid, unlovable… Eventually these messages become shame-ridden scripts replayed over and over damaging their self-esteem and leaving deep scars. Here's a previous post regarding Brene Brown and her research on Shame.
Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is when you feel bad because of something you did while shame is when you feel bad because you believe you ARE bad. For example, when a student fails a test one student may feel bad that they just didn’t study hard enough (guilt) while another student feels that HE/SHE is a failure (shame). Research has provided evidence that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, bullying, aggression, and violence. These are also highly comorbid (common) in students with learning disabilities - this is connected to SHAME! Here's a previous post about Depression in children what you need to know.
Imagine if you will, a first grade student with undiagnosed dyslexia, I’ll call him Charlie. The students in the classroom are learning to read and although the teacher is teaching the students all the same way and Charlie is putting forth great effort, he just can’t seem to grasp reading skills. His teacher feeling her own guilt (and/or shame) because no matter what she does he just can’t seem to learn to read or his reading is inconsistent. Charlie’s parents are experiencing anxiety thinking something is wrong and Charlie overhears his parents discussing their concerns and begins to think something is wrong with HIM.
Charlie’s parents meet with his teacher to discuss their concerns and are either validated and made to feel they are on the right path or dismissed as over-concerned parents and minimized. A variety of scenarios will occur here – the school may be receptive right away and assure Charlie is educated appropriately with an Orton-Gillingham method and parent anxiety is reduced so Charlie is less likely to perceive that HE is stupid or something wrong with HIM – or the other extreme and the school denies Charlie has a disability, blames parents and/or Charlie for his lack of learning, refuses to evaluate, attacks parents for wanting to “label” their child, and therefore Charlie’s parents become more scared for Charlie, his teacher becomes more defensive (due to her own shame or guilt or because her hands are tied by the school) and Charlie now KNOWS that there is something wrong with him that he is stupid. Most scenarios are fall somewhere in between but the point here is how easy it is for Charlie to feel shame because he is struggling with reading all because he is dyslexic and therefore needs to be taught to read via an Orton-Gillingham approach and that many teachers and parents don’t know about dyslexia so they are not able to tell Charlie that there is nothing wrong with HIM.
Charlie may share his feelings of shame by saying things like “I’m stupid” or “I’m a failure” but he also may be displaying his shame behaviorally through depression, anger, acting silly, or even avoiding activities that make him feel bad about himself. When Charlie shares his feelings of shame either verbally or behaviorally, he is validated, minimized, or gets into trouble- then the cycle of shame continues. Charlie’s peers become part of this cycle as well. Sometimes it is as obvious as name calling (block-head) but sometimes (and most often) it is relational aggression where he becomes the student that no one picks to partner with or excluded socially. These only reinforce Charlie’s negative scripts of shame.
Sometimes Charlie finds a strength and will focus on that strength to counter some of the feelings of shame. Maybe Charlie is great at tennis so he excels on the tennis court – for some kids this is enough protection from shame invading their whole life. Charlie, however, is good at some things and could possibly be great if an adult would just step in and nurture his strengths to reduce the pain of the shame. Unfortunately, adults only view Charlie as lazy, unmotivated, not living up to his potential, annoying, stupid, or a trouble-maker so they don’t want to bother with him. Again, more validation that Charlie is right, something is wrong with HIM-- he is not good enough!
I could go on and on about Charlie’s life, explain how shame permeates everything he does, how hard it is for him to be successful because he doesn’t experience much success and when he does experience success he has such a negative self-script that it is difficult for him to accept the success, how teachers and the system consistently add to his bucket of shame (either intentionally or unintentionally) or how the way he deals with shame are often not productive but I won’t because I think you get the picture.
Instead I want to help you see ways we can help Charlie and other kids like Charlie. I used dyslexia as my example but it can be replaced with any type of disability (ADHD, Dysgraphia, Asperger’s…) and the results would be the same. I’d like to point out that the more hidden a disability the more likely that the child will have intense shame. This is because it is not socially acceptable to call a student lazy if she is struggling to get her wheelchair to move instead, we provide her assistance --but it does seem to be acceptable for teachers to call or imply a student is lazy when they are struggling academically and/or socially.
Ways to make change:
We must first recognize the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is “I feel terrible I ate too much over the holidays, I should start working out more” and shame is “I ate too much over the holidays, I’m so fat, I have no self-control, I hate myself…” Or from the perspective of a young child who lost a game: guilt is “Darn I lost, I feel bad so I’ll have to practice and I’ll eventually win” and shame is “I lost again, I’m such a loser.”
We need to openly talk about shame and know that everyone experiences shame. When we hide shame we only allow it to grow more deadly. We have lost too many people to suicide, especially kids – kids are not killing themselves because of guilt they are killing themselves because they feel shame! When we shine light on shame and call it out into the open it can no longer hide and we can battle it head on.
We need to stop putting a negative stigma on mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, bi-polar…) and learning disabilities (I’ll stop calling them disabilities by the way, when we can openly accept and embrace all of them and there is no shame in having any of them – in the mean time I must use the word disability so that educators understand the severity of the problem the student is struggling with)! When we are proud to share that we are depressed, dyslexic, or ADHD and people/teachers do not make judgments but instead accept us as we are, then and only then will shame be reduced.
We must label kids appropriately and as early as possible. Research provides evidence that the earlier a child is diagnosed the less shame and negative effects they experience later on. Sometimes parents are told “don’t label your child” or “why do you want to label your child.” The thing is the child is already getting miss labeled which is filling them with shame. The correct label will reduce this shame. When adults are finally accurately diagnosed there is a sense of relief that they are not all the negative things they thought they were, they were just dyslexic, ADHD, or have Asperger’s. You hear about this from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Susan Boyles, Henry Winkler, and so forth. Wouldn't it be great if we can stop the shame before it even begins?
We need to teach empathy in schools and STOP teaching bullying prevention programs (Empathy is the antidote to bullying). What we focus on expands and therefore by focusing on bullying and differences we are priming our students to look for bullying and differences. When we teach empathy we instill in our students the skills needed to see the world through the eyes of others and a result is a more positive support world where people care openly and honestly about others. A place where there is less shame because when a student hears his peer say “I’m stupid, I failed that test” and that student can tell his peer – “failing a test doesn’t make you stupid in fact, you are so good at [fill in the blank] remember we learn from our mistakes.”
We need to celebrate all students and stop excluding those that don’t fit the ‘super-star’ mold. Have you ever been to a graduation or award ceremony that shames those who are not in the spotlight? This is very common – I wrote about one such event months ago Stop the Shaming but the gist is if the educators had empathy they would be able to see things from the perspective of all the students who were not showered with accolades and at least acknowledge their existence. When students with learning disabilities have to sit in these award events remember they have a negative shaming script running through their heads that tell them the reason they are not getting an award is because they are NOT good enough, they are stupid, or unworthy. Is that really the message educators want to send – no, but it is still happening.
I could continue but want you to digest what I have already written. Don’t worry my Dragonfly friends, I will discuss this again.
**By the way - did anyone think of this Charlie when I discussed the "Charlie" above? I was not referring to Charlie Brown but I hope you can see the shame that Charlie Brown experienced cause if so, you are developing or have empathy!