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You have just been told your child may have dysgraphia – what to do next?
Dysgraphia is a difficult diagnosis. It is best understood as a condition which causes trouble with written expression. The label is usually applied to seemingly neurotypical, or ordinary, students who have serious trouble putting words onto paper.
Frequently, dysgraphic students go undiagnosed during the early years or will be labelled work-shy or lazy by teachers, since there does not seem to be anything explicitly wrong with them. Part of the trouble with diagnosis is that dysgraphia presents in a number of different ways. Its symptoms are grouped under the DSM-5 manual of psychiatric disorders as
“an impairment in written expression”.
Understanding these differences are essential for parents who wish to help children presenting with the condition.
Dysgraphic children often display high verbal articulacy and developed debating skills, yet they struggle to communicate precisely in writing. Poor fine motor skills will produce problems with pencil grip and irregular letter forms while visual-spatial weaknesses may lead to issues in letter discrimination and spacing (i.e. words get bunched together irregularly.) But by far the biggest issues arise from weaknesses in language processing and working memory. Students with dysgraphia will struggle to come up with what to write in response to a creative or analytical prompt, or else they will write in generalities. Oral examination will almost always reveal deeper understanding, but there is a gap in how they process the oral language and commit it to paper.
Dysgraphic students normally also struggle with the conventions of written language and may use homophones incorrectly and repeat or miss words in their sentences. When you read a sentence like the following, it is easy to understand why a child might be labelled as careless within the classroom; it also illustrates the real challenges for conducting a literacy intervention:
“So I think that the reason William the Conqueror beat Harold was because his his army was better. And he had better tactics. Harold was a week ruler. So that is why William won.”
An intervention to support a student with dysgraphia should be approached from various angles. To develop expressive language, models for writing are essential. Work from an assumption that a dysgraphic child knows more language than they will express and ask leading questions which force them to substantiate their ideas. Only by first expressing language orally, and then using a thesaurus to generate synonyms, will a student learn to write with greater precision and in more depth. Repetition is also key. A neurotypical student may learn how to use parenthetical commas in a day; for a dysgraphic student, this will certainly take longer, but with patient repetition the skill will be acquired.
Just as their writing may seem unstructured and disorganised, children with dysgraphia tend to struggle with other areas of executive function and present generally as disorganised.
Worksheets get scrunched in the bottom of bags; pencil cases are frequently lost. Structure and accountability here are key. Dysgraphic students need to be held to account both in terms of their application to their writing and their overall organisation. Help create a nightly checklist to ensure sharpened pencils, pens, erasers and the like are placed in the schoolbag in advance and train the student in maintaining a filing system at home. This is not a practise that will come easily to the child so it is best to reward with appropriate delayed gratification for compliance (e.g. a cinema treat.)
If a diagnosis has been made independently, then it is important to reach out to your child’s school and update classroom teachers who may be able to make adjustments to formal assessments. For older students, a psycho-educational evaluation should also be used to request special accommodations on public exams (e.g. use of a word processor and/or extra time.) Large, undifferentiated classrooms will always disadvantage dysgraphic students so provision of one-to-one learning support in school can be very beneficial if targeting writing.
Lastly, it is important to mentor the dysgraphic child to support their self-confidence. Remind them regularly of their self-worth and ability recognising that their writing difficulties do not come from laziness, but equally that a refusal to address them is unacceptable. Practise affirmations and reward effort taken to check and edit work independently. A holistic approach which simultaneously targets self-confidence and self-application leads the dysgraphic child towards growth, development, and fulfilment of their academic potential.
Written by Jerome Barty-Taylor (BA, MSc Oxon.) Managing Director of BartyED, a boutique educational consultancy