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Kids With Reading Issues May Face a Unique Type of Anxiety, Study Suggests

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD on

Many kids with learning and thinking differences have anxiety. Now, a small study has found that kids with reading issues may experience a unique kind of anxiety.

The study, the first of its kind, was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. One of the authors is Fumiko Hoeft, an Understood expert and leading dyslexia researcher.

The small study looked at how kids with specific learning disabilities (SLD) in reading react to anxiety-inducing words, compared with kids who don’t have SLD. It included 83 kids between the ages of 9 and 16. Fifty of them had SLD; 33 didn’t.

All the kids took the “dot-probe test,” a psychological test that measures attentional bias. This is the tendency to avoid or pay attention to certain things.

In the test, two words flash briefly on a screen. It happens so quickly that kids aren’t consciously aware of them. One of the words is non-threatening, like candle. But the other word is chosen to trigger anxiety. When the words leave the screen, an arrow appears. Kids press a key indicating which direction it’s facing.

Based on how quickly a child clicks, researchers can measure what that child’s brain is paying attention to. And that can show which words trigger anxiety—if, for example, the child avoids or fixates on them.

The study tested kids on three types of words:

  1. General threat words that all people find stressful, like bomb or harm.

  2. Stereotype threat words that reveal negative views about kids with learning differences, like disabled or slow.

  3. Reading threat words that might trigger anxiety for kids with reading issues, like grammar or read.

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We interviewed Hoeft and her study co-author, Stephanie Haft. Understood expert Bob Cunningham also reviewed the study. Here’s the takeaway.

Key Findings

There was little difference in how the kids with and without SLD reacted to general threat words. There was also little difference in how they reacted to stereotype threat words.

But there was a difference in how they reacted to words related to reading.

“Compared to typically developing kids, the kids with reading issues seemed to avoid words related to reading,” explains Haft.

“In the world of math, it’s common to talk about math anxiety,” she explains. “But there’s almost no research attention on what might be ‘reading anxiety.’ That’s why we think this is a really interesting result.”

Both she and co-author Hoeft caution, however, that the study is exploratory.

“It’s difficult to draw big conclusions, and this is really a starting point,” says Hoeft. “What we need is more research into reading anxiety to better understand what’s happening with these kids.”

Hoeft also notes that just because the study didn’t find stereotype anxiety, doesn’t mean it’s not there. “These kids were from private schools that supported learning differences,” she says. “So they may not have felt anxiety from stereotypes of learning disabilities.”

Key Takeaways for Parents

“This is a small study, but it has strong results,” says Cunningham. “It also builds on a lot of what we know through previous research on anxiety.”

Cunningham explains that there’s a difference between general anxiety and anxiety that’s triggered by a specific thing.

“The study suggests that the anxiety that kids with reading issues struggle with when faced with reading tasks is more like a phobia, rather than general anxiety,” he says. “That difference could have implications for how you might treat kids with reading issues who have anxiety.”

Although the research is in its early phase, Cunningham says there’s an important takeaway for parents.

“You have to pay attention to your child’s emotional relationship with reading,” he advises. “If your child is stressed about struggling with reading, keep working on it. But do so in a way that’s supportive and helps the child experience success.”


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