Shame Avoidance

Avoiding Print

I could see even with the nine year olds that when they were unable to read it seemed to me that, even if I had a magic bullet, they didn’t even want to try it. They had already started to avoid print and a lot of these kids would become active and look, in a sense, attentionally different and possibly would have been diagnosed as ADD. But their attentional difficulties were just simple avoidance. They would become distractable and fidgety when they had to read. Why? They wanted to get out of it. So that affected me, both in my head and in my heart, to watch these tender kids who have to perform in the most visible academic thing called reading and not be able to do it.

What I’ve learned, after studying kids and asking kids how they feel about reading, is that kids look at reading, as a proxy for intelligence. So when they see kids who are not able to read, they judge those kids as not as bright as they are or something like that. When kids don’t learn to read, obviously it internalizes. And that really blew me away. Actually, at this point a bunch of things were blowing me away: 1) I didn’t know what I was doing, 2) I needed to know what I was doing because my job was much more than learning how to read, it was the development of social and emotional competencies and all kind of things like that. 3) And, I also saw this tremendous impact on the kid’s self-awareness, self-concept and so forth.

G. Reid Lyon, Past- Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health & Human DevelopmentNational Institutes of Health, Current senior vice president for research and evaluation with Best Associates.  Source: COTC Interview –

Shame Avoidance

Dr. Paula Tallal:  What happens to you when you can’t trust your own brain to take care of this for you? What are the kind of defense mechanisms you might develop? Attention problems, impulsivity, acting out, being the class clown – anything is better in many ways for your self esteem and sense of well being than believing that you can’t trust yourself to even process the information in your world. That’s very scary.  So, I think that you develop these other mechanisms.

David Boulton:  This is shame avoidance.

Dr. Paula Tallal:  It’s a shame avoidance to one self. It’s not only the external. I think we often think about the child who is developing behaviors to cope in terms of how other people are going to treat them, that’s certainly important. But I think ultimately it comes down to how you feel about yourself and can you trust yourself to get through the world, to keep you safe, to perform well, to make you feel good about yourself. And a lot of that has to do with automatic processing and automatic control of the information that’s coming into your world. I think a lot of children who are struggling with that will develop a lot of compensatory behaviors to try to gather a sense of being in control. Even if it makes them get in trouble, at least they were in control of getting in trouble. Whereas they cannot be in control of failure if they really can’t do it, and that feels a lot worse. That’s just a theory, it’s not scientific.

Paula Tallal. Board of Governor’s Chair of Neuroscience and Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University.  Source: COTC Interview –

Shame Avoidance

David Boulton: The work of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in summarizing the reading research, seems to indicate that while there’s many different problems, there’s a spectrum of related problems involved here and that one of the first consequences, almost across the board to children who struggle with learning to read, is that they feel ashamed of themselves. They feel as if there is something wrong with them.

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Part of the complex of reading failure is increasing frustration by individuals, children who are failing to read at their success in school and what school is all about. And it can in some cases, in desirable casesresolve in greater motivation to try to get help and succeed. But in many cases it generates a sense on the child’s part of helplessness; helplessness not only with reading, but helplessness with school. You find those children turning to other avenues to gain reward to gain self satisfaction.

So, they don’t read well, so they don’t read. They may play a computer game because they’re better at that. So you find individuals shifting their activities into areas which they are getting a sense of satisfaction, a sense of reward, and away from activities that are frustrating, and that’s certainly the case for reading.

So, you see a pathway taken for children who are failing to read and it’s a way of preserving their self-concept of succeeding, but it’s a pathway that is not ultimately to their benefit because it takes them away from the activities from which they can derive knowledge and develop the skills that are important for success in school and in life. 

David Boulton: At a somewhat more implicate level the emerging emotional sciences, with respect to ‘affect’ and its driving and directing influence over cognition, have suggested that we operate in a way that once shame gets to a certain threshold level we want to move away from it. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development research studies are saying that children, because of the way we contextualize this whole reading experience, are feeling that there is something wrong with them because they can’t do this. 

Again, we’re back to our beginning points: most of our children are to some degree in this space, for some degree of their education, feeling ashamed of how they’re learning. And if shame causes us to want to move away from what causes shame, then we want to move away from learning. 

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Yes, that’s certainly true. And we need solutions to this. We need curriculum solutions so that fewer children experience frustration and difficulty during the task of learning to read. We need to change the context of schooling so that the child who’s struggling in reading in third grade can have that problem addressed in a way that isn’t stigmatizing to the child and doesn’t generate the sense of shame. We need in some way to break out of the lock-step nature of elementary education so that if you don’t have what the other children have in first grade for some reason you are forever doomed and will never get the opportunities to pick up that information.

So, it is a very significant problem and the emotional and social consequences of reading failure are extremely important and are the soquali of the bad experiences that come from sitting down with text and not being able to figure out what’s going on, or not being able to figure out what’s going on at the level of one’s peers.

It’s often the implicit comparison with what other kids are doing in the classroom that generates not only the shame, but in some cases, the lack of motivation to do better. That is, if the overall expectations for that classroom, those children are low, then there’s no shame on anyone’s part with reading failure or low level reading success. The teacher isn’t ashamed, the school district isn’t ashamed and the state isn’t ashamed.

We need to create a context in which people understand that there is a problem, that they need to deal with it, but the child doesn’t experience shame for having not benefited from the type of instruction or societal support necessary. 

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education SciencesU.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview:


Typically, from first through third grades there is a lot of oral reading, and there are interactions where the kids are expected to read out loud, orally or in round robin.  When kids are hesitant, disfluent, inaccurate, slow and labored in reading, that is very visible to their peers and remember the peers, the other kids, again look at reading as a proxy for intelligence. It doesn’t matter if this kid is already a genius and can do algebra in the second grade, reading produces particular perceptions. Better said, lousy reading produces a perception of stupidity and dumbness to peers and clearly to the youngster who is struggling. That is the shame. There are very visible differences between kids who are doing well with print and youngsters who are struggling with print.  They feel like they’re failures; they tell us that.   (More “shame stories”)

One of the things that is both great but also sad, is that we have had the opportunity in my job working with all of our scientists at all of our sites to follow kids from before they enter school until, in many cases, they’re now twenty-three. And what is wonderful about that is we can walk through life with folks who are going to become very good readers. Sadly, we also walk through life with kids, adolescents and then adults who never learn how to read. And sadly, when we talk with these kids, adolescents and adults who’ve had a tough time with the shame of not learning to read, we find it is further exacerbated by the fact that they can’t compete occupationally and vocationally; they don’t do well in school, clearly the adolescents show us a level of pain that this society doesn’t even see. Most of society takes this for granted, but all of this begins to build up together and keep kids further behind. 

G. Reid Lyon, Past- Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development,
National Institutes of Health, Current senior vice president for research and evaluation with Best Associates.  Source: COTC Interview –

Low Literacy, Isolation and Shame

Dr. Timothy Shanahan:  It is a kind of shame and they do hideout. Again, you see that participation in professional organizations and honorary societies are more linked to high literacy than low literacy. Well, that’s not surprising to anybody. But then you start to look and you see that adults who are low literacy are less likely to participate in athletic organizations. They’re less likely to participate in religious organizations. They don’t take part in as many of the social activities. They essentially get isolated. 

You talked about it being an intellectual aversion, I think that’s part of it, but I think it’s even bigger than that. I think there’s a kind of a pulling back, there’s an embarrassment.

David Boulton:  A shame aversion to everything that can stir up thkind of shame they want to avoid.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan:  You got it. It plays out in terms of I’m not going to participate in an intellectual discussion or debate, or whatever, but I’m also not going to participate in a lot of other social activities as well. So, they really are losing out on big chunks of their lives. 

What it means is that we’ve put through the civil rights laws of the 1960s and we’ve done so many things to try to facilitate full participation, but literacy still is there as a barrier holding people out, even though politically the barriers have been taken down.

David Boulton:  In a recent report from ProLiteracy, according to their surveys and also by American Medical Association research, they find that most of the people that can’t read go to inordinate lengths to hide it. Something like sixty percent haven’t told their spouses. One projection was that when low literate Americans walk into a grocery store or department store they are stirred with anxiety trying to make sure that they can get past the cash register without making a mistake that they can’t afford but that they can’t know they’ve made because they don’t have the skills.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan:  This hiding of the problem is real common. I don’t have a lot of statistics on it, but I have many personal experiences. For example, the mother who had come into one of our literacy programs – her kids were eight or nine and she was taking literacy classes because she didn’t want to hide it anymore. Her children, even at their age, didn’t know she didn’t have literacy. It was really surprising that she could hide that from them living in that household for so long. She said she always had to be on guard.

For example, she told us that, ‘When the kids come home from school I always make sure I’m busy – I’m washing, I’m ironing, I’m doing something so that if they come in and say here’s a letter from my teacher it allows me to say set it down I’ll get to it later, I don’t have time for that right now.’ She would depend upon her husband to do her reading.

In North Carolina we held a seminar on literacy for some teachers and we brought in a local business man who was low in literacy and he was willing to come in and talk to the teachers. The thing that was important was only two people in his life knew about his literacy problem: his wife and his business partner. Nobody else knew because he feared that if any of potential clients knew of the problem, he wouldn’t get contracts. He wanted this kept absolutely secret. We literally had to smuggle him onto the campus where we were working and put him in a room where we pulled the shades and had a guard at the door.   (see Shame Stories)

These fears, sometimes it’s just a personal thing, that I don’t want my children to think less of me, and in other cases it really has larger meaning in terms of I don’t want to be discriminated against. 

Shame Avoidance and Dependence

David Boulton:  Sometimes it’s so powerful and fast and operating before those kind of rational reasons to just be an avoidance. One of the dimensions that we’re trying to bring to this is our work with emotional scientists and cognitive scientists and neuroscientists and bringing together just what is going on here. There’s no question human beings generally do not like to feel shame. We’re learn very young to become escape artists.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan:  Absolutely.

David Boulton:  We’re being put into circumstances, with this learning to read challenge, in which day after day, week after week, month after month, in some cases year after year, we’re forced to do something we’re not good at. It’s not like basketball or sewing or music or other things that are an option –you can’t avoid it. And these kids are developing a shame aversion to the feel of their own learning.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan:  Absolutely. And when they become adults it ends up becoming a part of the social reality of their lives. It’s not just harder to learn then, but emotionally that whole network that builds up around you makes it tougher. So if you’re that low on literacy what usually happens is you have to find somebody you can depend on. I might not want the whole world to know, but maybe my spouse knows that I am illiterate or maybe it’s one of my older kids, but nobody else does. What that does is it builds a dependency. If I were especially low on literacy and my wife knew it she would do certain things for me to take care of me and make sure that I’m okay. But what happens to the relationship when I decide this is terrible, I have to go learn literacy, I’m going to go enroll at the local library program or whatever. How much does that threaten the partner who has come to depend on my dependence?

Quite often when an adult who is really low on literacy goes off and becomes literate it leads to divorce. There are many cases documented where women are beaten or abused in various ways, either verbally or physically, certainly emotionally, because the partner who is depended on doesn’t want to give that up. The reason you’re going for literacy classes is because you want to get away from me.

Even when it’s a child who is the one who is being depended upon, the children get quite angry. It’s like mom wants to leave me or mom doesn’t love me anymore and that’s why she’s doing this. The trick is to catch this thing early enough so we don’t get to that point where there are those kinds of problems in people’s lives. That is essential.

Rick Lavoie "Ear" Story

I’ve heard some amazing stories from people. I was speaking not too long ago at a community college in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and this young man approached me and said, “I really want to talk to you about something. Can I set up an appointment?” He set up an appointment and came to see me a week later and he said, “I’m a student here at the community college. I have severe learning problems. I had a horrible time in elementary school and middle school and high school. It took me five years to get through high school. I finally graduated from high school.”

He wanted to tell me his story. He said, “I was born here in Cape Cod and my dad was a lobster fisherman. He was a very, very hard working guy who took his job seriously. My mom was a housewife and she took her job seriously and did real well at her job.

“It was made very clear to us as the kids in the family that it was our job to do well in school. There would be no excuses, everyone had their job to do and we were to do well in school.”

“I got into first grade and I couldn’t read. The other kids could make the books talk. They’d pick the books up and words would come out. To me it just looked like lines and circles and squiggles, I had no idea where the words were.”

He said, “I realized some seventeen years later I was diagnosed as dyslexic, but all I knew at the time was that I was a six year old kid and I wasn’t doing my job.”

“Around the middle of October the teacher began hassling me because I wasn’t able to read and by the end of October the kids were making fun of me because I couldn’t read. And I realized it wasn’t going to be too long before my mom and dad found out that I wasn’t doing my job. So I was scared. I was really scared.”

“But I was also a real resourceful kid and I looked around the room and I noticed there was another kid in the class who couldn’t read. This kid couldn’t read a lick – and yet nobody made fun of him because he couldn’t read and the teacher didn’t hassle him because he couldn’t read – because he was deaf. He wore a hearing aid, he had a hearing loss. And because he was deaf no one expected him to read on time.”

He said, “So I figured in my six year old mind the solution to my problem was to convince everyone that I was deaf. And if I could convince everyone I was deaf they’d stop hassling me about the reading. So I went on a one-man campaign to convince everyone in my life that I couldn’t hear.”

“I’d be sitting in class and the teacher would call my name and I would just ignore her until she came over and tapped me on the shoulder. What? I didn’t hear you, I didn’t hear you.”

“I trained myself not to respond to loud noises. There would be a loud noise outside of the classroom, all the kids would run to the window and I would stay at my desk working like I didn’t hear it. We’d be out at recess, the bell would ring and all the kids would come in from recess and I would stay out in the jungle gym until the principal came out and said, ‘Daniel, didn’t you hear the bell?’ No, sorry, I didn’t hear the bell.

 “At home I’d be having dinner and my mom would ask me to pass the salt and I’d just ignore her until she tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Dan I asked for the salt.’ Mom, I didn’t hear you.”

“My dad would call us to come in from play and I’d stay outside until my dad finally came out there. ‘Dan, I’ve been calling you for ten minutes.’ Dad, I didn’t hear you.”

He said, “I even remember when my parents would go for an evening out, I would be watching the television and as soon as I saw the lights of the car coming down the driveway I would run over to the television set, turn up the volume as high as it would go and be standing with my ear cocked against the speaker when they came in.”

“They took me to hearing doctors and audiologists all over Cape Cod and they put a cup on my ear and they’d say, ‘Do you hear that beep?’ And I’d say no I don’t even though I did. “

“After a while I convinced everybody that I couldn’t hear and everything was fine until June.”

I said, “Well, what happened in June?”

At this point, seventeen years later, he began to shift in his seat and tug on his collar a little bit and his voice cracked a little and he said, “I’ll never forget it. My mom and dad sat me done the last day of school in June in the first grade and said ‘Dan, we’re really worried about your hearing. You don’t seem to be able to hear. We’ve taken you to hearing doctors and audiologists all over Cape Cod and nobody can figure out what it is. So we’ve made an appointment for you and you’re going to go to Boston Children’s Hospital next week and you’re going to stay there for four days and three nights and they’re going to do exploratory ear surgery and have your adenoids surgically removed.’”

And this six year old kid went through three days of surgery rather than tell his parents what he had done. Can you imagine the trauma of a six-year old child going through surgery that only he knows he didn’t need?  

Rick Lavoie, Learning Disabilities Specialist, Author: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On: The Social Implications of Learning Disabilities. Source: COTC Interview


David Boulton: So, we’ve got millions and millions of children growing up feeling ashamed of their minds and wanting to avoid confusion…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: Which decapitates learning.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. They don’t want to read because they’re not good at reading. They avoid reading. They’d rather clean the bathroom than read. Got it. Absolutely.

David Boulton: So, the interesting thing here is that not only is this all of the emotional trauma that we can imagine, but from a cognitive point of view, the moment this shame starting to trigger, it burns…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Yeah, that’s right.

David Boulton: The brain resources necessary to process the code in the first place and a downward spiral kicks in.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: The teacher has got to get this.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. Absolutely. That’s right. It basically takes the cognition hostage. It paralyzes the child. Absolutely. You’re right. It’s a tough one.  

Edward Kame’enui, Past-Commissioner for Special Education Research where he lead the National Center for Special Education Research
under the Institute of Education Sciences. Source: COTC Interview –

Reading Exercises Intelligence

David Boulton:  So what you’re talking about, why reading is this gateway, is not as simple as it’s often made out to be, ‘when they can read they can acquire knowledge’. It’s much richer and much more detailed, which you’ve given great voice to. It’s a cognitive exercise environment of an entirely different kind that has emotional consequences, serious consequences. Have you yourself, as an add to the Matthew Effect – something like I was suggesting in the downward spiral of shame – have you given attention to or can you speak to the emotional processes that are concurring with reading?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Well, I think that it’s not something that has been part of my research program but it’s certainly something that I experience in my study of reading development and the differences between children and how they acquire it, or adults, who can not read very well or adolescents, and the type of avoidance that they exhibit as a result of not being skilled enough to engage in this cognitive act. One can only speculate having learned to read myself with relative ease, but certainly my students who come up to me even at university and share the inordinate shame that they feel as adults in trying to hide it and stay up with their peers much less what children experience.      

Anne Cunningham, Director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California-Berkeley. Source: COTC Interview: –

Suffering From Self-Esteem Loss

I think low self-esteem causes a child to pull back, to not engage. Why go out there and put yourself on the line if you know it’s going to be another failure and you’re going to be called on it either by your teacher or your classmates and you will be open to shame, to disapproval. Kids aren’t dumb; they know when something isn’t working and they know what’s going to hurt, so they pull back.

Shame Avoidance and Army Recruits

David Boulton: This is my sense of the miraculous intersection, because whether you care about the children as bots for the machine, or you care about their human potential, you arrive at the same place, which is how they participate from the inside out. The health of their learning is at the core of how they’re going to serve the system and how they’re going to grow to be who they are.

Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams: But what we said our goal was with public education was that that every human being would have the right to choose. But they can’t choose what they can’t do. If they want to choose to sit on their thumbs – that’s fine, they can choose that. But they can’t choose what they can’t do.

David Boulton: But it’s not a choice to sit on your thumbs unless there’s a bunch of other options to be considered. And so often it’s shame avoidance.           

Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams: On the shame avoidance thing, one thing you might want to look at just to make people feel really bad, that I think is a real heartbreaker, is the ‘Be all you can be’ ads.

It turns out that the majority of the recruits until Reagan changed the bill so that he only recruits when he’s having a war — the majority of the recruits were getting thrown out in six weeks because they said, ‘Well, guess that’s all you can be.’ Because they couldn’t read or write.  

Isn’t that awful? You can’t even join the Army. Reagan changed it when they started closing bases and stuff. They stopped enlisting so many kids. But those statistics are around.

What we want when you finish is for everybody to say, ‘Yes! This is a team sport, and we can do it. It’s not the kids’ fault, it’s not the parents’ fault; it’s not the teachers’ fault; it’s simply a team sport.’  

Marilyn Jager Adams, Chief Scientist of Soliloquy Learning, Inc., Author of Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Source: COTC Interview –