Like many parents, the lockdowns of 2020 clearly highlighted that my 9-year-old, a very keen learner, was seriously struggling with aspects of classroom learning and unable to keep up.
After paying to get a cognitive and educational assessment, dyslexia was confirmed. Dyslexia is often picked up around age 7 or 8 by observant parents, who notice their clever child who loves to learn, falling behind in reading, writing and spelling - which doesn't make sense.
Traditionally thought of as a learning disorder, dyslexia affects a part of the brain that processes language. It's an alternative way of thinking, with at least one in 10 New Zealanders having it. But it also enables incredible problem solving, flexibility, innovation and the ability to solve complex problems through creative thinking.
Since my son's diagnosis, I've been on a mission to learn as much as I can about this unique, and surprisingly common, way of learning. I've discovered that dyslexia has a distinct advantage and I wanted to hear from others who agree with this concept.
Listening to a podcast interview with Sir Richard Branson on this topic, I reached out to him. He's a vocal advocate for dyslexic awareness, as well as a pretty successful (under-statement) entrepreneur in spite of (or because of) his dyslexia. Amazingly, he agreed to share his insights with me on what he calls, his "superpower".
Dyslexia is an example of neurodiversity that education in New Zealand, and globally, is only just starting to truly explore and understand.
According to Branson, dyslexia is a superpower that needs to be embraced and supported in schools.
He explains, "When I was in school, the biggest challenge was that dyslexia wasn't really well-known. To most people – my teachers, my friends – I was just another kid struggling to read and write. And while we have made great progress in understanding dyslexia, it is still often treated as a disability and a distinct disadvantage. It shouldn't be that way. I believe in the game-changing power of dyslexic thinking".
An entrepreneur since a young age, Branson took the traditional concept of selling cupcakes by the letterbox a little further than most. As a young boy, he ran many businesses and credits his Mum, Eve Branson, for supporting his wild ideas rather than squashing them.
From leaving school at 16 to start a magazine to launching a mail-order record business, thinking outside the box and pushing the boundaries has enabled exciting additions to his companies over the years growing a range of Virgin titled companies, today valued in the billions.
Branson reflects on these milestones: "Once I was freed from old fashioned schooling practices and preconceptions about how things should be done, my mind opened up. Out in the real world, I feel my dyslexia has been a massive advantage: it has helped me to think creatively, to see the big picture where others don't and to view challenges as opportunities".
Branson says neurodiversity can give a business a successful edge. "My dyslexia has shaped Virgin right from the very beginning. The heightened sense of imagination that comes with being dyslexic has been key to many of our successes (as a company).
"It helped me think big but keep our messages simple. The business world often gets caught up in facts and figures; and while the details and data are important, the ability to dream, conceptualise and innovate is what sets the successful and the unsuccessful apart. I've also built a talented team of people around me and learned quickly to delegate the things that I found more difficult."
Recognition is growing globally to value dyslexia as a gift, a superpower of creative brilliance. Branson explains, "One of the strengths people with dyslexia often have is a strong imagination. It's always helped me to have big dreams and to keep looking forward.
"Throughout history, dyslexics have imagined and achieved many things that have shaped our world. Thomas Edison illuminated our lives, Henry Ford made cars accessible to all, Steve Jobs gave us pocket computers. The other strength is problem-solving – I try and find an opportunity in every challenge that comes along. As an entrepreneur, there are always lots of problems to try and solve".
So what role did school have to play in his future success? Little it turns out.
Branson reflects, "I dropped out of school when I was 16, but it wasn't until later on in life that I learned I had dyslexia. At school, my teachers thought I was lazy, and I couldn't keep up or fit in. So, it's not a surprise that school didn't work out for me."
Sadly, stories like these seem all too common here in New Zealand too, with dyslexia often undiagnosed at school. Clever, creative minds who struggle with literacy, can be misunderstood and unable to be truly supported by mainstream education, which has huge implications on New Zealand society. I was shocked to discover that around 50 per cent of the prison population in New Zealand have dyslexia.
Reflecting on the issue of dyslexia in schools today, Branson says, "It's very common that dyslexia isn't picked up in schools. One in five children are dyslexic and have exactly the thinking skills needed for the future of work. But according to the British Dyslexia Association, 80 per cent of dyslexic children are never spotted at school, and it may be similar in New Zealand".
Schools aren't set up to support different thinkers, says Branson. "Despite the world really needing dyslexic thinking, children are still being taught to conform and do well on tests. We should be supporting children with dyslexia to realise their potential, starting at school and running right through to the world of work. Many of the skills that dyslexic children have are the skills we desperately need more of – from creativity to problem-solving to imagination".
Here in New Zealand, what is the Government doing to support schools to do more to address this increasing lack of support for this learning need?
In 2018 the Government announced the draft Disability and Learning Support Action Plan with the aim of strengthening learning support needs in schools, in particular for children with mild to moderate needs and gifted students. Funding of $619.7 million was allocated to learning support with this spend initially rolling out over the last three years to create 623 Learning Support Coordinator (LSC) roles in school.
Unfortunately, this fund hasn't yet fully benefited schools at the coalface. There is a huge demand for more on the ground support and training for teachers, so students can access practical learning support and a lot of work to be done over the next few years.
In recent years, SPELD NZ has experienced a huge increase in demand for assessment and tuition from parents desperate to find support for their children, with inquiries growing significantly since lockdown in 2020, when many parents, like myself, noticed something wasn't quite right with our child's learning. Currently, in its 50th year, SPELD NZ is a not-for-profit that also offers courses for educators, as well as parents, to develop more understanding around how to support the dyslexic mind.
Demand for SPELD NZ training has also increased exponentially, alongside the growing awareness of dyslexia and pressure on classroom teachers to provide more support.
SPELD NZ's Executive Officer, Jeremy Drummond, explains, "Teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand, as in many parts of the world, are not well prepared for the teaching of literacy. Many graduate and in-service teachers lack current knowledge and understanding of how the brain actually learns how to read, known as the Science of Reading.
"Meanwhile parents of children with learning difficulties often have to go outside the school system for specialised, user-pays literacy support. This is an inequitable situation, as only those with access and the financial means can benefit from this critical help. This creates huge distress for families – something SPELD NZ deals with on a daily basis. It is now 14 years since the Ministry of Education officially recognised dyslexia exists. Finally, the ministry's Learning Support Action Plan is being implemented. This is a great step forward but there is still so much to be done," says Jeremy.
SPELD NZ receives no government support. It constantly fundraises to be able to subsidise its assessment and tuition costs for families in financial hardship. Fundraising also helps them to keep down the cost of training teachers. As one parent puts it, SPELD NZ has been picking up the pieces of our flawed education system for years.
For my child, he is very fortunate to have a dyslexic tutor I pay for weekly, a teacher aide who helps edit his work, he attends a one-day school for dyslexic thinkers, and I tutor him once a week using a dyslexia teaching resource I purchased.
It's a significant weekly cost, not to mention the time involved, that many families wouldn't be able to afford. Seeing the challenges he faces and the support he receives, I often think about the students all around the country without this hands-on help and wonder how they will cope.
Yet, for parents of a dyslexic child, there is hope, with positive at-home support being really important for a child's confidence and success. Richard Branson's message to parents is simple. "The most important thing is to realise it (dyslexia) can be a gift. Don't be discouraged. Dyslexia is just a different way of seeing the world, a different way of processing information, and a different way of coming up with great ideas".
"Help your child discover what interests them and support them to pursue that passion and fulfil their potential. I was very fortunate to have very supportive parents who helped me along the way. They taught me that every day is a fresh chance to achieve something new.
"I'm proud to support Made by Dyslexia, a global charity led by successful and famous dyslexics, who are helping the world properly understand and support dyslexia. Made by Dyslexia calls on policymakers and schools to ramp up their efforts to better identify dyslexics early on and introduce more supportive ways of teaching dyslexic students. They have also launched their 'Connect the Spots' campaign, which is free training for all teachers and educators, to help them better spot, support and empower dyslexic children".