Perceptions of competence, contingency and control are all constructs related to coping and to emotional distress. Competence refers to the degree to which the individual believes himself or herself to be good (competent) at a task or skill. Contingency is the degree to which the individual believes that outcomes are contingent on their own behaviour. Control describes a general construct that measures how much control the individual feels in a given situation or for a given task. In the book Success and Dyslexia, authors Nola Firth and Erica Frydenberg take as their starting point that the coping strategies used by students who have dyslexia (and presumably other learning difficulties) tend to be passive and negative. These strategies typically betray a lower sense of competence, contingency and control than their higher-achieving peers. They recognise that passive and negative coping strategies not only adversely affect school performance but that they have the potential to lead to emotional distress. To help alleviate this problem they have developed an 11-step coping program.
The program is designed for middle primary students and runs on two fronts: as a whole class program with additional small-group work for students who have dyslexia. Four sessions (1-3 and 5) are devoted to developing awareness of helpful and unhelpful coping strategies and to help the students understand their own coping mechanisms. Session 4 is a goal setting session in which students are encouraged to develop a realistic goal they want to achieve over the course of the program. Although the authors do not explicitly say so, presumably helping the student attain a goal with effort and active coping will help develop a sense of competence, improve perceived contingency and make it more likely they will be motivated by opportunities to develop competence in the future.
Sessions 6-11 teach cognitive-behavioural principles to help students become aware of the link between cognitions (thoughts and images), emotion and behaviour. There is a large psycho-education component and skills training that some teachers and clinicians will be familiar with from social skills programs. For example, students are taught about positive self-talk and how to use assertive language and body language. While at times the authors seem to confuse the cognition and behavioural components of the cognitive model, they have done well to simplify the core component of the program down to a choice between helpful and unhelpful choices.
The book includes sufficient information and materials to allow a clinician or educator to run the program with reasonable fidelity. Other positives include the focus on the affective and strategic aspects of learning difficulties that are too often ignored and the way in which class teachers and non-LD students are involved directly in the therapy. Teachers are also provided with a list of useful accommodations for students who have dyslexia (pp. 7-8). Implementing these strategies alone would likely lead to better academic, emotional and behavioural outcomes. However, in my experience, professional development, including ongoing support from a skilled learning support coordinator would be necessary to ensure successful application of the accommodations within the classroom.
On the downside, it was unfortunate that the authors felt the need to highlight the dubious practice of including an IQ test in the “diagnosis” of dyslexia (p. 6). It might also have been good to draw attention to the possibility that the Success and Dyslexia program is not a substitute for intensive skills intervention. Given the current state of practice in this Australia, one cannot presume that a student who gets to middle primary grades as a poor reader has had the systematic intervention that we know can significantly reduce the effects of dyslexia. It is hard to imagine that a student will develop a strong sense of well-being when their perceptions of low competence and control are entirely rational. Indeed, most adults would leave a job that made them face the daily failure that students with dyslexia typically experience. Perhaps the Success and Dyslexia program would work best in combination with an intervention designed to directly improve academic skills.