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kids-copingI am so happy to introduce you guys to one of my favorite colleagues today.  Sarah Forrest specializes in helping kids with reading problems and today she is here to share the link between stress and reading.  Thank you so much Sarah for being willing to share your expertise here!

If you think stress might be an issue for your kids, you can find lots of resources on the Helping Kids Cope page.


How Stress Can Cause Reading Problems

by Sarah Forrest

We all know that when a child is struggling to read and falling behind in class, stress and frustration inevitably result.

But stress can actually be a significant cause of reading difficulty as well.

Learning to read is one of the most difficult things we do in life, and it happens right at the beginning of our formal education. If a child is prone to anxiety, the whole process – in conjunction with being introduced to a learning environment where suddenly you are being compared with your peers – can become a recipe for trouble. Some children who find it more difficult than others become so stressed about their inability to read that the downward spiral of frustration leads to a complete collapse of reading ability.

To understand how stress can induce that kind of response, we need to look into the neurology involved.

Reading is a higher brain function that is based in the cerebral cortex of our brains.  It utilizes areas of the visual cortex, auditory cortex, linguistic cortex, prefrontal cortex and motor control cortex. As you can see, it is not a simple process and in fact every lobe of the cerebrum is involved!

Given the complexity of reading, we can now take a look at how stress works. The origins of our stress response mechanisms have an evolutionary explanation. When confronted with a dangerous situation – perhaps encounters with aggressive animals or groups of other humans – the best form of response was “fight, flight or immobility”. Different people respond to danger in different ways, but in almost all cases the cerebrum closes down and the very basic brain stem takes over to analyze which of these three options to take.

Unfortunately, this stress response can be misapplied to situations which aren’t really life threatening – like a job interview, a driving test, or any task which makes us feel anxious.

So for children who are struggling to learn how to read, stress actually shuts down the higher functioning of the brain that is so necessary in order to coordinate all the different parts of the reading process neurologically. It is virtually impossible for them to do it.

If you see this spiral in a child, it is essential to provide a structured learning environment where the child is only faced with small steps towards success and where failure is highly unlikely. Frequent encouragement is an absolute must, along with creating achievable goals which you as a parent are confident will be met.

Once a child’s stress response has been disabled, confidence grows and the child regains an interest in reading again. At this point, good progress can begin again.


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Sarah Forrest is a System Coach for Morgan Learning Solutions and the Easyread System, an online phonics course that helps children with highly visual learning styles, dyslexia, auditory processing disorder and more. Visit for more info.

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