My hands and feet started shaking at the mention of the Headmaster’s office.  This became a quivering in my chest and constriction in my throat during the short walk there.

In his office was another teacher I had never met.  I wasn’t in trouble, but the next 10 minutes were perplexing, mysterious, even bizarre.  I was asked to do some “exercises.”  Closing one eye, then the other, reaching for objects, moving around the room.  They nodded to each other, repeated some opaque phrases, reviewed their notes, reached a concealed consensus then dismissed me back to class.

This confusing and stressful event was never mentioned again.

My suspicion it had to do with my “worst in the class” spelling was never confirmed.  There were no pedagogical changes in class and I continued memorising my spelling lists for 40 minutes a night only to forget them 24 hours later.

Even now I can’t spell, I remain unsure if “uncle” really shouldn’t have a “k” instead. While I can easily read any individual word, a full page of text remains daunting. Spellcheck, Dragon and Grammarly are my writing buddies.

I see my experiences reflected in hundreds of school kids I have worked with who struggle to spell, read or write – they feel bewildered, frustrated, discouraged and a disappointment to home and school.  Worse, they feel very much alone, as I did 40 years ago.

Dave was 10 when, with excitement and fire in his eyes, he told me he was going to be an Emergency Department Nurse (he had discovered the old TV series “ER” on YouTube!).  Two years later his plans soured after deeply disappointing Year 5 & 6 school reports – “that’s too hard – you have to be really smart” he told me.

Three months later cognitive testing revealed a very bright kid with literacy skills a year behind his peers and two years below where they should have been.  School started extra literacy support but he was now disengaged, angry and rejecting of help.  With antagonism crossing over into the home and Year 7 becoming a train wreck, we looked for a different approach.

I spent about 2 hours over a few weeks going through the cognitive testing with Dave and explaining what dyslexia was and was not.  For the first time he understood why he struggled, that he was not just stupid and there was hope for the future.  He engaged with the education plans rather than fight against them.  With extensive support and lots of hard work, Dave’s school reports improved every year until in late 2017 he achieved an ATAR of 88.  Now, in 2018, he is following his childhood dream and has begun his Bachelor of Nursing.

Guiding our children through the complexities of neuro-developmental conditions, physical health problems or even adolescent, existential angst is daunting but not impossible.  Necessary conditions for progress are: respect for children’s autonomy and self-efficacy, humility that no one person has all the answers and willingness to spend time and be accountable to both parents and child.

The rationale, process and consequences are straightforward:  first acknowledge there is a problem and give it a name rather than perpetuate a transparent sham that everything is OK.  Confirm that the problem is common and well understood, countering the recurrent feelings of isolation and hopelessness.  Gather a team, including child and parents, and articulate a clear, structured plan with measurable goals promoting confidence and accountability.

Knowledge, openness and hard work won’t solve all our problems and endlessly buttress self-esteem; but denial, avoiding “labels” and/or obfuscation induces fear, erodes self-efficacy and damages our children.

Long ago we stopped lying to children about serious health problems: it is time we became more open and honest about neuro-developmental conditions like dyslexia and other learning difficulties.

Dr Geoff Donegan is a Consultant Paediatrician who focuses on helping children with complex cognitive and neuro-behavioural difficulties. He works in private practice and at the Royal Hobart Hospital. Here he writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at