Do you know what dysgraphia is, and why you should investigate potential handwriting struggles early? This often overlooked condition isn’t as well known as other learning differences. But it can quietly derail your child’s long term academic progress. Find out more.
In an age where kindergarteners are learning about computers, it may seem silly to worry about perfect penmanship. But if your child really struggles with producing legible handwriting that could potentially be a sign of a significant problem. One that could undermine her future academic success in almost every subject. Read on to find out more about dysgraphia, and why you should start looking into potential handwriting problems early.
DYSGRAPHIA: WHAT IS IT?
Dysgraphia is a language based learning disability that impairs written expression. And, it essentially impairs the ability to write and think at the same time. The production of legible handwriting that makes sense requires a combination of fine motor skills and language processing skills. Dysgraphia can interfere with both.
This condition will often be categorized as either motor based or language based. Some experts also include a category focused on visual-spatial based issues.
Dysgraphia impairs fundamental handwriting abilities like the proper sizing of letters, the spacing between words, and basic spelling. And, for a child with dysgraphia, the actual process of writing can be slow, labor intensive, and physically painful. And, despite best efforts, the resulting work product will often be difficult or impossible to read. Obviously, these are major obstacles to your child’s ability to communicate the thoughts in her head on paper.
Dysgraphia can also impair language processing. It impairs child’s ability to organize and express the ideas that form in his mind. At least when it comes to translating those ideas in written words made up of letters. And when it comes to arranging those written words in a way that makes sense.
Related Content: 5 Fast Facts For Families: Dyslexia
KEY SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
If many of the dysgraphia symptoms noted below seem to match your child, you should seek out a professional assessment.
Overview of Typical Symptoms
Although dysgraphia isn’t just about poor handwriting, poor or illegible handwriting is a hallmark sign. The handwriting will be illegible or will appear immature compared to a child’s age and education level. And, the deficiencies won’t appear to have any connection to cognitive abilities or past level of instruction.
And, there may be a stark contrast between how well a child can speak and how he writes. For instance, he may speak in grammatically correct sentences, but can’t do it in writing. He may independently come up with his own complex or sophisticated ideas, yet be unable to write them down in a coherent fashion. So, for instance, a child who can orally describe in vivid detail something that happened to him, or the highlights of his favorite show, can barely squeeze out two sentences when asked to write a summary of the same.
Problems usually appear in a noticeable degree by elementary school. But there will often be signs that pop up before then. Like, for instance, a preschool child who hates coloring.
Problems With Writing Mechanics
- Persistently illegible handwriting – print or cursive
- Trouble with letter formation spacing and spacing between words
- Difficulty keeping writing on the line and within margins
- Holds hand, body or paper in an awkward or strange position when writing
- Routinely mixing upper and lower case letters
- Tires quickly when writing
- Experiences cramps or pains in hands
- May have other fine motor difficulties like tying shoes, correctly holding a pencil, using scissors, and troubles with buttons and zippers
Problems With Writing Content
- Unfinished or omitted words from sentences
- Impaired ability to write and think at the same time
- Difficulty conveying thoughts on paper in a coherent manner
- Ideas not presented in a logical order
- Jumbled or partial sentences
- Lots of run-on sentences devoid of punctuation
While signs of dysgraphia will often start to be noticed in elementary school, they may grow more pronounced and intrusive in middle school. The higher grades have increased academic demands, increased daily homework and writing assignments, and more note taking requirements. Thus, a kid who may seem to have been doing okay and treading water in elementary school, may start to sink once they arrive at middle school.
The best person for diagnosing dysgraphia is a psychologist who specializes in learning disabilities. But, kids with dysgraphia often have other conditions as well, like dyslexia, ADHD, or autism. So, if you are already working with an occupational therapist or a speech-language pathologist, you may be able to get some preliminary assessments through that route.
A full assessment for dysgraphia would include an assessment of fine motor skills, language processing, and academic performance.
DYSGRAPHIA CAN BE A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO SUCCESS
In many ways, dysgraphia can be a stealth learning disability. It can be easy to overlook or dismiss in the classroom. For a child otherwise perceived as smart and capable, dysgraphia symptoms such as poor handwriting, frequent spelling errors and grammar issues may be misattributed to insufficient care and attention. And, a child who has good ideas, but can’t seem to present them well, may be simply be encouraged to try harder.
But untreated dysgraphia can lead to a cascade of negative consequences that accumulate over time. Don’t underestimate the consequences of impaired handwriting on academic progress.
Less Access To Learning
You know how experts say that writing something by hand helps you remember and learn better? Or, that the act of writing can help you process information better? Kids with dysgraphia don’t get those benefits. So handwriting struggles can prevent kids with dysgraphia from learning as much, or as quickly, as peers who don’t have dysgraphia. Thus, while a child may have the capacity to learn a great deal, dysgraphia can slow down that process and ultimately lead to him learning much less than he could or should.
And, it’s very easy for a kid with dysgraphia to fall behind in school. It takes substantially more time to write and complete assignments. Note taking becomes more of an obstacle than a resource.
Also, a child who is judged on deficient written expression that’s not reflective of his actual knowledge and cognitive abilities can be tracked for classes that are less intellectually stimulating and challenging.
Inadequate Assessment of Performance
For a kid with dysgraphia, the amount of effort required to produce words on paper crowd out the thoughts of what to write. So, kids with dysgraphia may have lots of knowledge and ideas in their head but the dysgraphia prevents them from showing it.
Likewise, trying to show how much they’ve learned by writing out answers on a timed essay test won’t effectively or accurately reflect their work. This can lead to a large disconnect between the reality of what a kid may know and how it’s reflected on his report card.
Negative Emotional Consequences
Not surprisingly, dysgraphia can be extremely frustrating for a child and lead to increased stress and anxiety. And, a repeated pattern of falling short erodes self-esteem, self-confidence and any sense of one’s self as a smart learner.
As with other learning disabilities, there’s no actual cure for dysgraphia. But there are strategies and treatments that can lead to better overall outcomes. The most effective treatments involve early intervention and basic skills enhancement.
A formal IEP or 504 plan can set up specific accommodations to help your child succeed. But, even absent a formal accommodation, there are some simple options you can pursue that will help your child. Confer with your child’s teacher to see if any or all of the following can be arranged:
- Getting copies of class notes from the teacher.
- When notes presented on a chalkboard or bulletin board, allowing your child to take a picture of it rather than laborious copying.
- Permission to record lectures.
- See if your child (or the entire class) can be allowed to type rather than write assignments (including using typed work for posters or presentations)
If your child seems to particularly struggle with the physical aspects of writing, consult with an occupational therapist (OT). An OT can assist with strategies and exercises to improve fine motor skills. This can improve handwriting skills. And, an OT can include targeted work on letter formation, learning cursive writing or cultivating keyboarding skills.
You can also consult with a speech-language pathologist to assist with language based issues. They can help your child develop the skills necessary to translate what’s in his head to paper in an understandable fashion. And, some professionals will offer intensive programs over the summer if you are more interested in a focused experience.
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STRATEGIES FOR PARENTS AT HOME
You can find several strategies and tools to use at home that will help address different elements of your child’s dysgraphia.
Tools To Help With Writing
Have your child learn keyboarding skills as early as possible. You can find an on-line option that’s tailored for kids with language-based learning differences through the Touch-type Read & Spell program (TTRS). They offer a multi-sensory modular based program that works with a wide range of age groups and abilities.
If you are looking for free resources to help your child learn typing or improve her keyboarding skills, check out 10 Fun Typing Games For Kids. And, your child can also work with voice to text software to help get his ideas down on paper. A free version of such software is available through Google Chrome.
Try Pencil grips to improve proper grasp of writing instruments and reduce physical discomfort.
Practice hand exercises and activities that strengthen hand muscles and reduce cramping. For instance, playing with clay can help make hands stronger. For other great ideas, checkout Hand Strength: 35 Fun Activities For Kids.
Practicing Fine Motor Control and Letter Formation
Play games that involve you and your child drawing letters on each other’s backs and trying to correctly identify the letter.
You can also use traditional paper and pencil games to practice fine motor skills and motion control. Games like mazes, or connecting the dot games.
Likewise, try playing fun writing-based games like Mad Libs (a timeless classic). You can find a set based on many themes your child will enjoy. For instance, you can now find Mad Libs based on Diary of A Wimpy Kid, The Avengers, or on unicorns and mermaids.
Assistance With Composition
A child with dysgraphia who faces a blank page (or screen) may freeze up. Suddenly no thoughts can be found in his head. A graphic organizer can help get ideas out there first, without having to worry about coherence and structure. Using graphic organizers can help formulate ideas and organize papers. You can find a variety of free printable ones on the internet.
Work with your child on developing a habit of self-editing and proofreading. Provide a simple checklist that should be used with all written work product. For example:
- Take a short break and then do a complete read through.
- Read the words out loud.
- Check for spelling.
- Look for proper capitalization and punctuation.
- Fix run-on sentences and other grammar issues.
The act of written expression requires fundamental skills that cut across almost all subject areas. Dysgraphia is a condition that impairs written expression, and the ability to write and think at the same time. Dysgraphia can easily overlooked, but untreated, it can lead to a cascade of negative consequences that accumulate over time. Investigate potential handwriting problems as early as possible.