The Problem Child - Dealing with Dyslexia

Ecole Rudolf Steiner de Lausanne

Many people have heard that being alternative, and focusing on creative activities, Steiner/Waldorf schools can be seen as a haven for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and articles like this one from 2009, written by William Little for The Telegraph, merely reinforce this notion: “Jenny Hulme's 10-year-old son, Scott, suffers from dyslexia and dyspraxia and was being left behind at the local state school. […] Hulme moved her son to the Steiner school in Hereford when he was six. "The teachers there transformed Scott's experience. He went from someone who hated school to being wide-eyed and full of what he was learning each day."”

Abigail Marshall, who wrote about Waldorf schools for Net Places, confirms this: “A Waldorf school can provide a safe and nurturing environment for your child with dyslexia, where the child grows and learns in a supportive, family-like atmosphere.”

Yet this ideal flies in the face of Sophie’s experience. What follows is her family’s story.

“My name is Sophie Sion Byde. We live in Switzerland and now homeschool all our children. Before being homeschooled, they all attended our local Steiner school, the Ecole Rudolf Steiner de Lausanne.

“I am completely open to sharing our story on The Steinermentary Project; we still have contact with the school and our children enjoy attending their Christmas and Spring fairs, but I have never been shy about talking about what happened to us. As a result, some teachers and families in the school don’t talk to us anymore – quite amazing, they’ll look at me and when I say hello, they just turn their heads and go away! But some other families have stayed on very good terms with us. I certainly refuse to be frightened into silence and whilst I can see that there are some great things going on in that school (our daughters had excellent teachers and lovely friends), there are some unacceptable practices going on which people should know about.

“We enrolled our son in the school in 2003 when he was four; our daughter started in kindergarten in 2007 and our second daughter started kindergarten in 2009, both when they were three. It was all rosy until... our son started being bullied by the TEACHER! He was ten when it began. He started with that teacher just before he was seven, in first grade. In Steiner schools, children keep the same teacher for six years, but only from 1st grade; he had a different teacher in kindergarten.

“His teacher became convinced that our son wasn’t doing his best and that this was due to "psychological difficulties in our family". We took our child to a very experienced child psychologist who told us after a few sessions that she couldn’t ethically continue seeing our son, as he was perfectly fine and she felt she was taking our money for nothing. The teacher said: “Yes but the psychologist doesn’t see your son in the classroom!”.

“She seemed to suddenly turn on him... but looking at it in retrospect, we noticed that there was always at least one child in the class who was viewed as "having a problem". So in grade 1 there was one child with a problem, and he left at the end of the year. In grade 2 there was another child who took his place so to speak and suddenly became "the problem child". That boy had tenacious parents and he stayed in the class a few years but left abruptly in the middle of grade 4. The story we were told by the teacher was that he had to leave because the parents no longer trusted the school and that it had become impossible to work with them... Shortly after that unfortunate boy left, our son came under the teacher's fire.

“It went on and on – the teacher was convinced our son was disturbed by problems and not doing his best. She started criticising his work, tearing out pages of his books, constantly saying he could do better, even though he kept saying he was doing his best. He started crying every night and every morning before going to school, being sick all the time.

“We tried to discuss the matter, but the teacher got more and more agressive with us, telling us we didn’t trust her, that if we couldn’t trust her we should take our child out of the school; eventually she even hung the phone up on us during a conversation…

“She once kept our son in the classroom during break-time and told him to stop telling us about what went on at school "because your parents make a big fuss every time!"…

“We asked for meetings with the teacher and school mediators (who just happen, by the way, either to be parents or teachers at the school!)... in those meetings the teacher kept her position, even daring to tell me once that she’d heard my daughters were "very fragile" too.

“We wrote to the school. No one lifted a finger to protect us.

“Some teachers told me privately that our son’s teacher was a real pain and totally inadequate, but there was never any official support from the school. When our son was eleven and a half, and had stayed home on sick leave more days than he’d been to school, we finally said – enough is enough, and we took him out. 

“We started homeschooling and loved it so much we took the girls out too.

“I must note that our son wasn't the only victim of the teacher's attacks, but I think he was one of the most sensitive... and we were probably the parents who were the least willing to take any of it. Some parents told us they knew their child was treated unfairly, but it wouldn't kill him/her... However, six children left the class the year our son left, and only one of them left because he was moving; the others all left for other schools or to be homeschooled.


“Three years later we found out that our son is dyslexic and dyscalculic and has working memory problems. He’s fine psychologically! But he has many learning difficulties, which he was able to compensate for very well thanks to his intelligence in his early years at school, but which became more apparent around ten... No one in the school EVER mentioned that could be a possibility while all our attention was taken up with trying to resolve what the teacher and the school were doing to our child.

“I do think that the idea of a simple learning difficulty such as dyslexia was never an option for the teacher or the school. Nothing could convince them that our son was doing his best and simply finding it difficult. There was another boy in the class who had a proper diagnosis of dyslexia and who had treatment outside the school; it was the same for him - the teacher was still convinced he wasn't trying hard enough!

“I am still incredibly angry at the way we were treated... There was no respect of our child or our family, no respect for the fact that we’d been in the school all these years, paying our fees and helping out and supporting the school. I’m appalled at the way they shoved everything under the carpet, refusing systematically to answer our questions or even to simply dialogue with us; it still astounds me the way they made us feel we were the problem, when it was our child who was the victim! Just like in your case!


“I have since heard so many stories from that school and others... of bullying between children, bad treatment of kids by some teachers, odd relations between teachers and parents. It’s frightening!”


Sophie’s account is far from unique. Similar issues within this education movement crop up again and again online the world over, making it clear that this system may be far from ideal for children with learning difficulties, as the following handful of examples illustrate:

A Parent, on the 10th of November 2011: “If your child has any learning disability at all, keep them away from this school [The Waldorf School of Mendocino County]. The teacher wasn't really sure what dyslexia was, much less able to help with it.”

MamaLuna, on the 23rd of June 2007: “I attended a Waldorf seminar in which one of the presenters described the problems her son had had in a Waldorf school with reading and writing, she described her son as having nearly every classic symptom of dyslexia (though she refused to label it as such). He was very frustrated in school because the Waldorf way does not support kids with such issues.”

Cathy, on the 15th of July 2009: “dyslexia isn't recognised except as an ''incarnation problem''. Everything is about karma. Our youngest was encouraged to change from being left handed, and had to do things right handed (left handedness is to do with a weakness in a past life), children are classified by medieval ''temperaments''- melancholic, phlegmatic etc, which, along with their race and roots, dictates how the teacher treats them.”

Ruby, on 1st of January 2011: “A new teacher arrived in class 4. She told us our child had multiple issues and was terribly behaved. We now realise she has mild dyslexia and dyspraxia and needs some specific teaching. The Steiner school did nothing but condemn our child as the problem. They have totally betrayed our trust and loyalty.”

feathered_head, on the 1st of April 2013: “so what happens if your kid has dyslexia or other learning disability? They will send you to an anthroposophic "Doctor" who will prescribe homeopathics and silk caps. Like my daughter's friend, they will be illiterate -- maybe for life -- because their problem was treated as some sort of spiritual failing instead of an organic disorder.”

A Parent, on the 14th of October 2007: “We were really let down by this school [Washington Waldorf School]. At first we were intoxicated by this colorful approach to education.The art and music were truly beautiful. However the school had no idea how to handle bullying. As much as they say that they educate the whole child they really dropped the ball with our child. There was no leadership, no boundaries set and we felt our child was unsafe. In addition to that his educational needs (dyslexia) were not being met. Needless to say we left. We thought this school held the promise for greatness in does not.”

A Parent, on the 3rd of March 2011“My son attended Summerfield Waldorf in Sonoma Co, CA for for a few years. We were also sold a bill of goods... few of which were true. My son really struggled with reading, and Summerfield's solution was to have him do extra eurithmy, wake up 90 min early every morning for a nature hike before school(he was 8 at the time), and take nightly baths with speical, very costly oils. At this point I took him to 2 different, non-Waldorf related specialists who diagnosed his dyslexia. At first, the school was willing to work with us and allowed my to hire a tutor for help. Soon after, I guess they had a change of heart and did everything they could to humiliate my son in front of his classmates. My son was continually told to write things on the board that the teacher was well aware he could not write. The teasing got so bad that one day when we got to school, my son refused to get out of the car and just sobbed. I went to his teacher and told him what was going on, just to have him say.. "oh yes, I've noticed some difficulties with his writing and I don't think the tutoring is working, we can do more eurithmy" That was the last time we stepped foot on that campus. I'm angry at myself for thinking this was a good place for him...”

A parent: “I would like to see much more information given to prospective parents about the schools' aims, beliefs and practices, such as the fact that they are very reluctant to call in outside agencies like educational psychologists. This was refused to me for two of my children, both of whom have subsequently suffered from not receiving early help for their dyslexia.”

“I'm not sure what will become of Steiner schools in the long run”, Sophie concludes.“It's such a shame they just can't recognise problems when they come up and admit they are sometimes wrong...

“I still see the good stuff they do when they do their work properly, but what happens when they don't is just unacceptable and I fear that in the long run they really will find themselves in trouble. Which is a pity, because in my opinion we need some schools which do things differently, stay close to nature, do a lot of art work with the children, etc.”

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