teacher is smiling while helping two students with their workbooks
teacher is smiling while helping two students with their workbooks

Dysgraphia: what to look out for and how to support your child

Does your child go into a complete panic, sometimes to the point of a complete meltdown, at the thought of having to write a story or even a sentence?

Need to know

Does your child go into a complete panic, sometimes to the point of a complete meltdown, at the thought of having to write a story or even a sentence? If you and your child’s teacher are concerned about your child’s ability to meet writing-related expectations, despite adequate instruction and their cognitive potential, it is probably worth looking into dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to express themselves through writing. Unlike the more commonly known learning disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD, dysgraphia specifically hampers the skill of handwriting, making it difficult to produce written work that is legible, organised, and coherent. These struggles extend beyond penmanship and can manifest in various forms, ranging from difficulties with spelling and grammar to challenges in organising thoughts and translating ideas onto paper.

Why it’s important

As a parent who is watching their child fall behind at school, it is really important to approach your child’s writing challenges with curiosity rather than assuming that they are simply a result of a lack of effort.

Dysgraphia is poorly understood and is often undiagnosed. It has a high rate of co-occurrence with other learning and developmental differences. Dysgraphia can occur on its own, but it is often linked to dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Writing problems can also be seen in children and adults with ADHD, cerebral palsy, and Autism. Studies have found that auditory and visual processing challenges can impact the level and type of dysgraphia challenges a child experiences.  Developmental coordination disorder (DCD), which affects motor development and skills, can also impact writing (in approximately 50% of cases).

Recognising the signs of dysgraphia is crucial for early intervention and support. Here are some common signs to look out for:

In pre-school children 

  • An awkward grip or body position when writing: Your child may use an unconventional pencil grip rather than the typical “pincer grip” or they may twist their body/arm in an awkward way. This will reduce your child’s stamina to complete writing tasks.
  • Poor fine motor skills: Dysgraphia can affect a child’s fine motor skills, making it challenging to hold and control a pencil or pen. Your child may experience fatigue or discomfort when writing for extended periods.
  • Reluctant to draw or avoid tasks that include drawing: Due to the challenges they face, children with dysgraphia may show resistance or avoidance when it comes to engaging in drawing. 
  • Difficulty with letter formation and spacing: Your child may struggle with properly forming letters and maintaining consistent spacing between words. They may reverse or mix up letters, leading to spelling errors.
  • Difficulty staying within margins: Children with dysgraphia often face difficulties in spatial awareness and organisation on the page. They may have trouble staying within the given margins, resulting in uneven or cramped handwriting that extends beyond the designated space.

In school-aged children 

  • Illegible handwriting: Your child’s handwriting may be messy, inconsistent, or difficult to read. Letters may be poorly formed, uneven, or improperly spaced.
  • Reluctance to write or avoid writing tasks: Due to the challenges they face, children with dysgraphia may show resistance or avoidance when it comes to writing activities. They may feel frustrated or embarrassed by their difficulties.
  • Switching between cursive and print: Your child may not maintain a consistent handwriting style. They might frequently switch between cursive and print, or their handwriting may be a combination of both.
  • Difficulty with word-finding, sentence completion, and written comprehension: Dysgraphia can impact a child’s ability to express themselves in writing. They may have trouble finding the right words or completing sentences fluently. Additionally, written comprehension can be challenging, as they may struggle to understand and interpret written information accurately.

In teenagers and young adults 

  • Trouble organising thoughts on paper: Dysgraphia can make it difficult for children to organise their thoughts and ideas coherently. They may struggle with sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Difficulty with written syntax and written grammar but don’t have syntax/grammar issues in oral tasks: A child might have no trouble constructing grammatically correct sentences while speaking but struggle to apply those rules consistently when writing. This disparity between their oral and written language skills can be a strong indicator of dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia not only disrupts the learning of writing skills but it also has broader negative impacts on a child’s learning. For children with dysgraphia, any writing task can be extremely difficult and frustrating. This frustration can take away their ability to focus on the more important aspects of the task, such as the content of their writing or understanding the topic they are writing about. 

Tips & strategies

1. Provide alternative tools: Try alternative writing tools such as pencil grips, specialised pens, or adaptive technology to assist in improving handwriting or alleviating physical discomfort.

2. Break writing homework into manageable steps: Break down writing tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Focus on one aspect at a time, such as letter formation or sentence structure to reduce overwhelm and build confidence.

3. Encourage typing or dictation: For longer written assignments, consider allowing your child to use a computer or voice-to-text software. This can help relieve the physical demands of writing, allowing your child to focus on expressing their thoughts.

4. Practise fine motor skills: Engage your child in activities that promote fine motor skills, such as colouring, drawing, or using playdough to help strengthen hand muscles and improve coordination.

5. Provide visual aids and graphic organisers: Use visual aids like lined paper or highlighted lines to help your child with letter placement and spacing. Graphic organisers, such as mind maps or outlines, can assist in organising thoughts before writing.

6. Focus on content over form: While legibility is important, prioritise the content of your child’s writing over perfect handwriting. Encourage them to express their thoughts and ideas without excessive focus on neatness.

7. Collaborate with teachers: Maintain open communication with your child’s teacher. Share information about dysgraphia and work together to evaluate strategies that fall under: 

(I) Accommodations – offer supportive or assistive resources without changing the educational content to decrease stress associated with writing. For example: 

  • Special pencil grips and paper with raised lines for tactile feedback
  • Extra time for homework, class assignments, and quizzes/tests
  • Alternative ways of demonstrating knowledge, such as oral or recorded responses instead of written exams
  • Technological support like spellcheck, voice-to-text recognition software, tablets, and computer keyboards

(II) Modifications – adapts your child’s educational goals and objectives as well as provides services to reduce the effect of the disability. For example:

  • Scale down large written assignments 
  • Break up large projects into smaller ones 
  • Grade based on a single dimension of work (e.g., content or spelling, not both).

(III) Remediation – provide specific interventions to decrease the severity of your child’s disability. For example:

  • Include additional activities to develop fine motor skills 
  • Teach grip control and good writing posture
  • Teach to write using evidence-based approaches

8. Celebrate progress: Acknowledge and celebrate your child’s achievements, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement and support can boost their confidence and motivation to improve their writing skills.

References

  1. Developmental Dysgraphia: An Overview and Framework for Research
  2. Disorder of written expression and dysgraphia: definition, diagnosis, and management
  3. Cognitive Profiles of Developmental Dysgraphia
  4. Understanding Dysgraphia

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