“My daughter’s school psychologist called after her year evaluation and told me: ‘We’ve diagnosed her with dysgraphia.’ And I said ‘With what?’ I have four kids with IEPs. We’ve been involved with special education for 10 years. I thought I knew the ropes, but this was brand new.” -Massachusetts parent
This is a pretty common response to hearing the word “dysgraphia.” So let’s first talk about what it is and what you can do at home and at school to make it easier. There are tools and it’s likely you’ve heard of at least some of them already.
What is dysgraphia?
There are different types of learning disabilities and dysgraphia is a learning disability that is specific to writing. Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder of written expression that impairs writing ability and fine motor skills. It is a learning disability that affects children and adults, and interferes with practically all aspects of the writing process. Some people with dysgraphia struggle with spelling, letter or word spacing and sizing, legibility (or writing that is hard for others to read), or the ability to express their ideas in written form. For all people with dysgraphia, writing requires an incredible amount of energy, stamina and time.
Dysgraphia can get in the way of a student’s ability to express their ideas.
Writing is not a simple process. Expressing ourselves in writing requires many things to happen at once: organization, memory, attention, motor skills and language abilities. When holding a pencil and forming each letter takes significant effort, there is less brain power available to hold all the other parts of writing.
What does this look like? The teacher may report that a student needs to stay in from recess to finish an assignment. Parents might notice that their child regularly does not complete their homework. Maybe the student reports they have a hard time paying attention. Imagine trying to complete an assignment but the class is moving on to the next topic. How frustrating!
So, in our world of computers and voice-to-text, why does dysgraphia matter?
This is a common question. Providing the student with an opportunity to use a laptop or speech-to-text is an excellent accommodation to support their ability to succeed in school without being bogged down with writing. Technology has come far and classrooms are often equipped with alternatives for students that require support. If you feel as though your student could benefit from a laptop or a speech-to-text option, ask their teacher and they can help you start the process. A calmer, more relaxed and supported student is an engaged learner. That’s the goal.
But, we still need to create opportunities for the student to build the skills needed for writing—even if they’re using accommodations in the classroom.
Accommodations take away some of the stress of completing school assignments for dysgraphic students, but what happens when they are required to write? When they are handed a form to fill out at the doctor’s office, or they are required to write a report with pen and paper for a future job? Stress-response! Increased heart-rate, sweaty palms, hard time focusing. But we can take some of that stress away by helping the student to develop writing skills.
Now what? How do I help my child to develop their writing and overcome their dysgraphia symptoms?
Well, now we’ve taken away the academic stress by implementing accommodations. You’ve decided you will also create time to give your child a chance to build this skill. But how?
You can talk to an Occupational Therapist, the provider who gave the diagnosis, or your child’s teacher to help you connect with resources for your child. For many students, strength and dexterity, or fine motor skills with fingers and hands, are the most important part of an intervention program. Incorporating sensory experiences like sand, chalk or shaving cream while forming letters can be helpful. For older students, learning cursive writing can be great practice in control while not having to lift the pencil up off the paper after each letter. Some students respond well to the rhythmic feel of cursive writing, too. For more ideas for home, check out the OT Toolbox for activities to improve handwriting.
If you are wondering if your child’s messy handwriting could be a sign of dysgraphia, use our Resource Directory (en espanol) to seek an assessment near you— look for a Psychologist for a full assessment of your child’s cognitive and learning profile.