Posted December 3, 2019
By Dr. Steven Dykstra, reprinted with permission
Don Meichenbaum, one of the world’s leading experts on trauma and violence, and one of the most influential mental health professionals of the last century, said one thing is more important to traumatized children than anything else. More important than therapy, more important than social programs, more important than anything else. The research shows that the single most powerful predictor of their ability to overcome the trauma and survive their circumstances is the ability to read. If they can read, they have a chance to find success in school and overcome all those terrible things in their lives. If they can’t, school will only be another source of pain and failure added to all the other sources of pain and failure. If they can read, they can benefit from therapy and everything else we may try to do for them. If they can’t read, all of that is a waste of time.
I work with severely traumatized children everyday. I work with victims of torture, abuse, and every kind of crime and trauma you can’t imagine. I see places and go places everyday that many of you will never see. My advice to all of you who teach is to resist your good, natural, maternal, parental, protective impulse to save these children from what surrounds them. Do what you can to clothe and comfort them, but know it will never be enough. You will not save them. Instead, understand that teaching them, and especially teaching them to read is the salvation you have to offer and the salvation they most need. Don’t let their poverty, stories, and circumstances distract you from that, not for a minute.
Most of these children have figured out ways to live with the tragedies in their lives. As terrible as it is, they’ve reached some kind of balance with much of it. What they can never learn to live with is illiteracy and ignorance. They know how to get through their neighborhood without being killed, and they’ve learned to fall back asleep after the nightmares wake them up. You couldn’t do it. I can’t do it. But they can. Necessity has forced it upon them. But there is no way around it if they can’t read.
As a girl told me, she could live with the rapes. She could get over the years sleeping on the floor, or a couch, and being homeless and hungry. In time, all of that would get further and further behind her. But not being able to read was “everyday, forever.” It never went away. It would be there again, tomorrow, “f*****g with my life” in a way all the trauma never could.
Contrary to what we imagine, most victims of trauma, even those with PTSD manage to live with it fairly well, even without therapy. We can’t say the same of illiteracy and academic failure.
Yes, all those other problems make teaching them to read harder, sometimes much harder. Climb that mountain. Don’t waste time trying to tear it down.
Dr. Steven Dykstra is a psychologist, advocate, and troublemaker in the reading world. He has worked with the most severely traumatized and mentally ill children for more than 25 years. His passion for reading comes from the recognition that the thousands of children he has served often pay the highest price for our failures and mistakes. Dr. Dykstra is part of the Advisory Group for the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction.