Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Watching your child go through his school career can be a particularly terrifying time for parents. If you have recently found out your child is dyslexic or has another learning difference, this can amplify the terror. Learning differences can make school life truly horrible for some kids resulting in defiant behavior, stress and/or anxiety, and frequent outbursts where she declares she hates school.
Take some deep breaths. There is hope.
One of the best things you can do to help your child through this time is to find a way to associate school with fun and friendship rather than humiliation and torment.
Finding the right extracurricular activity or elective for your child to participate in could radically change their school experience. Instead of waking up in the morning knowing they are going to struggle for 8 hours, they may begin to wake up excited or at the very least with a new attitude as they look forward to joining their new group of peers.
The key to helping them select the right extracurricular activity is to first get a really good grasp on your child’s particular strengths and gifts.
Ben Foss, author of The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, gives some great advice in his book on understanding your child’s strengths as well as a short quiz that can help you narrow it down and give you a good idea of what to focus on. We highly recommend checking this book out. You can also check out his website and some of those tools here.
We will be basing the strengths mentioned in this post off of his work.
Getting them in the right activity may not be as obvious as signing them up for basketball tryouts (although this is ideal for some kids) and may require a little digging and creative thinking on your part.
Once you know some of your child’s top strengths, do some research to try and match their specific skills to an activity. Remember, the whole point of this is to find something they are naturally gifted in or have an advantage in to remind them that being able to read and spell isn’t the only important thing in life.
Below are some of my favorite options because they have so much to offer. Keep in mind this is not a complete list of all the options at your particular school.
Speech and Debate - Verbal Skills, Social Skills, Narrative Skills
If your child has a knack for public speaking, this is the place for her.
This is my favorite extracurricular activity on this list, but I must admit I’m a little biased. I was a member of my high school’s debate team and I loved it. I made a lot of great friends and it gave me something to look forward to at school. Plus I participated in all the debate events on the weekends which made me feel I was a part of a group.
These were always so fun because they lasted most of the day and between the events I was competing in I got to hang out with my team who later became my friends - but enough about me. Here is why it is a great option for your child.
It is a really broad club with tons of events to participate in.
Speech and debate are lumped together in many of the competitions, but they are two distinct categories with many different event opportunities depending on your students’ interests.
The debate events tend to be more politically and educationally focused and work to build critical thinking and verbal skills. Your child will learn a lot about research and fact checking and how to build an effective argument. Plus this comes with the bonus points of looking amazing on a college application if that is your child’s goal.
Your child can participate in events solo, with a partner, or in a whole room of people. If I’m being totally honest, jumping into debate can be extremely intimidating - it definitely was for me. But if they stick with it, man is it one heck of a confidence booster.
The speech events are more theatrical and tend to be less research based and more performance oriented. There is little to no reading involved during the actual events and is almost entirely based on speaking and acting abilities.
Just like with debate, there are many different speech events they can participate in and can either go at it solo or with a partner. If your child is interested in both speech and debate, most of the time they can participate in both.
If your child gives it some time and works hard, the speech and debate world as a lot to offer in terms of friendships, skills building, critical thinking, and potential to repair and rebuild self-confidence.
Click here to go to the National Speech and Debate Association’s website and learn more about the events they offer. If your school doesn’t have a speech and debate team, do some research and talk to them about how you can help your child get one started!
Theater and Tech Theater - Verbal, Narrative, Spatial, Kinesthetic, Visual, and Musical Skills
The theater is another big world with many opportunities. If your child doesn’t like acting/public speaking - stick with me here!
Tech theater is a great way for kids with spatial, kinesthetic, and visual skills to get involved and do what they are good at. These are the people involved with everything that doesn’t have to do with acting… and there is a lot of that in theater!
Potential abounds in tech theater and, depending on how advanced your school’s tech department is, they can build some pretty impressive things! Tech theater involves designing, building, painting, and constructing complex or simple sets, putting together costumes, hair and makeup design, lighting and effects, and especially people who just have their stuff together and can help everyone work together to keep things moving.
Then there is the more obvious side of theater which involves the acting part. If your child is gifted with verbal, narrative, and/or musical skills, they might fit in well here. Or your child could certainly do both!
The theater kids tend to be a tight knit group because they spend so much time together during after school and weekend rehearsals and can offer a great group of peers for your child to connect with.
Mentorship Clubs - Social skills, Verbal Skills
This is another broad category because it depends on what kinds of programs are offered at your school. If your child has excellent social skills or just a big heart, this could be a great opportunity for him. There are programs where high school juniors and seniors mentor younger kids going into high school, where high school students of all ages mentor elementary students, and where students help other underprivileged/struggling students.
There are also programs that prepare you to be a teacher and allow you to spend a portion of your day in a classroom at another school helping the teacher out or doing some teaching of your own.
Helping other people has a powerful impact on us and could really make a difference in your child’s life. Even if your child doesn’t have the best academic skills, it’s important for her to see that her social and people skills are just as important and serve a very valuable place in our society.
Look into what kind of mentorship or volunteer classes and clubs your school offers.
Student Government - Verbal Skills, Social Skills
What a great opportunity for your child to get involved in school and really feel like she is making a difference! There is even great potential here for your child to help educate his peers on learning differences and advocate for himself and others. Talk about empowerment.
Some positions in student government are elected and your child would have to campaign for them. If they are up for the challenge then get yourself involved and help them any way you can. Just remember to let them take the lead and do most of the work - success is so much sweeter when you know you’ve worked hard and earned it yourself.
There are a lot of other options beyond what is listed above. If your child is kinesthetically gifted, there is likely a sport they would excel at. Start taking them to tryouts and see if there is anything that catches their interest. Art is another option for the visually and spatially gifted, and choir or band for the musically gifted.
Even if some of the more obvious things like sports, band, or cheerleading are not something your child is interested in, there is most likely something else they would love doing and just don’t know about it yet.
Go onto your school’s website and get a list of what they offer. Some of the things might surprise you! In doing some research for this post I looked at my old high school and realized they actually offered many clubs and extracurriculars I was never aware of including ballroom dance, broadcast team, fashion club, and a bunch of others.
I truly believe extracurricular activities can make or break your child’s school experience, especially if dyslexia or other learning differences are involved. These students in particular often spend their days feeling like failures.
Considering how long they will have to be in school, just giving them one space and time during the day where they can use their skills and do something they love and are good or even better at than their peers, can radically transform their overall outlook. Below are a few tips on how to proceed:
1. Encourage them. Trying something new can be very scary. You might have to ease them into the idea. Just make sure they know you are on their team and that you aren’t forcing them to do something they hate. Empathize with them and show them you want to help them have a little more fun and show off their talents.
2. Be patient. It may take some time for them to find their niche and they might be trying a lot of different things. This is one circumstance where I think quitting is an option. The goal is to find what they are good at, so they will likely need to try and quit a lot of things before they find it. Your support is vital here. After all, if you force them to stick with or finish an activity they clearly hate, you are counteracting all your attempts to give them some fun during the day.
3. Get creative. There is a possibility that your school may not offer something your child is interested in. That doesn’t mean you give up. Find out what your school’s requirements are for starting a club or a class and make it happen. If your student has some leadership skills or a lot of passion, maybe he can even start his own dyslexic/learning difference society/club at school as a way for him to connect with others like him and spread awareness to his peers.
4. Aim for activities during the school day. This one is important but may not always be doable. The ideal scenario would be to find an activity or class she can participate in during the school day as opposed to after school. This way she can not only get some relief during the day but also eventually link school with something positive.
If your child is really struggling in school, the best thing you can do is be there for them and help them see that school is not all there is to life. Yes, we want them to learn and succeed, but we also want them to know that they are uniquely gifted and will have opportunities to exploit these gifts and be successful all throughout their life.