Dysgraphia: Signs of Sloppy Handwriting Could Mean More than Poor Fine Motor Development
This article provides helpful information for children struggling with dysgraphia, handwriting and organizing thoughts on paper. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
It isn’t uncommon to hear some people joke about bad handwriting. My own signature is quite hard to read. As a profession, doctors frequently get a bad rap for their illegible scripts. This reminds me of a quip that a doctor once said, “I have such good handwriting, patients don’t believe I’m a real doctor.” Many people have bad handwriting, but sometimes there is something going on that is more serious.
Writing is not an easy skill. It is one of the most complex functions that a human can do. It’s not just about forming a sentence and typing on a computer, but actually writing with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper. Writing requires organization of thoughts and the ability to express ideas, along with the skill to get the hand and fingers to form those thoughts on paper, letter by letter. Bad handwriting is not unusual in children either as they develop their fine motor skills, but handwriting that is extremely difficult to read, or that doesn’t improve much as the child gets older can point to something more serious. The problem could be a learning disability that is brain-based called Dysgraphia.
What Is Dysgraphia?
Dysgraphia is a learning disability that involves problems with the skill of writing. This condition affects processing in a child’s brain that involves the skills needed to write. This problem can affect one or more of the following abilities in a child:
- Organizing thoughts
- Expressing ideas through handwriting
- Forming letters and numbers correctly
- Spelling correctly (dyslexia.org)
For many children with dysgraphia, holding a crayon or pencil is very difficult. They struggle with the fine motor development that secures the execution of this skill. Some of the problems dysgraphic writers experience appears to relate to a lack of fine motor control. When there is a disconnection in the brain, and the child chooses their movement path, it results in the pencil going in the wrong direction, and it creates an inability to control the grip or the relative size of the symbol that is being written. (Developing Motor & Visual Perceptual Skills).
Organizing letters and words on a line is another struggle that kids with dysgraphia face. Their handwriting tends to be messy and does not show much improvement despite consistent practice, especially in the beginning elementary years. Many will struggle with spelling and putting their ideas and thoughts down on paper. The child will get frustrated with the amount of energy it takes to write and then they start to refuse to even try.
Children with dysgraphia usually lack what is called “graphic maturity,” a handwriting process that becomes automatic for children without this disability. For a normal child, when the art of handwriting is mastered, the brain then shifts its focus to content rather than the process of writing a word. With this lack of “graphic maturity” the child will start to rebel and protest the idea of writing.
What Causes Dysgraphia?
Let’s discuss what doesn’t cause dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a problem that is not caused by attentional problems or lack of handwriting practice. Handwriting that is sloppy usually deteriorates over the years. Dysgraphic handwriting shows poor structural form from the beginning when the child is just learning how to form letters. Researchers and experts are not sure of all the causes of dysgraphia and other impairments with writing in children. However, it may be an issue with the steps that are needed for written expression.
One area that may show weakness is when the child tries to organize ideas and information that is stored in their memory. According to the dysgraphia information sheet from the International Dyslexia Association, some experts believe it involves a dysfunction between brain systems that allow a person to translate mental language to written language. Also, a child will struggle to get words or symbols onto their paper.
Working memory may also play a role in dysgraphia. When a child sees a new word, the brain places it in the visual area of their working memory. Sometimes, coding words and letters do not go as planned and the problem lies in the lack of getting that word stored for immediate use. Another theory describes that dysgraphia may represent a type of motor memory deficit in the child. The muscle memory of how to write letters, how short or long a stroke needs to be, or the direction of the curve all plays into the dysfunction. A child will show an inability to remember the motor pattern of certain symbols (letters, shapes, numbers etc.)
What does Dysgraphia look like?
Dysgraphia goes much further than sloppy handwriting and beyond a child’s love for writing stories. Dysgraphia has some distinct symptoms that show in different age groups as the child matures.
What you see at school: Your child frequently tells you that coloring makes her hand tired. They copy letters and numbers much slower than other children, even after practice. Your child will move around a lot when trying to draw, because children with dysgraphia often get discouraged as it becomes harder for them to use a crayon or pencil.
What you see at home: When tracing letters and numbers, your child either makes the letters too big or too small. Your child will struggle with activities such as dot-to-dot and will rarely choose coloring books or have a desire to read books during playtime.
What you see at school: Your child will spell the same word differently, even in the same story or page. Their papers are filled up with crossed out words or letters and lots of erased marks. At school, your child struggles with writing enough substance for an assignment. They often repeat words or phrases in their writing.
What you see at home: Your child will often complain that he or she has no ideas for the writing assignment. By fifth grade, your child still forgets most punctuation marks. This is due to the lack of a well-functioning working memory because remembering all the rules of language is difficult. If your child leaves you a note, it is filled with simple words that are misspelled.
What can be done?
Handwriting exercises can prep the brain for planning, reviewing, organizing, attending, expressing and speaking. Forming letters, words and sentences must eventually become automatic for children. If children cannot identify one letter to the next, they won’t be able to communicate their ideas or turn expressive language into well-written text.
One of the best tools to aid your child in developing their fine motor skills and handwriting is through the Rewiring the Brain Handbook. It provides parents, teachers, Occupational Therapists, Pediatric Therapists, and educators with several fun, playful learning activities to ignite learning and includes some of the following:
- Instruction to Rewiring the Brain
- How handwriting exercises benefit your child’s learning development
- Line exercises for letter development and recognition
- Mazes, dot to dots, tracing, coloring, hole punch activities and more
- Curves, boxes and shapes
- Fun fine motor activities you can try at home
The Rewiring the Brain Handbook contains 41 pages of fun activities that can easily be printed from your home computer. All activities require adult supervision in the beginning and can be used in conjunction with music therapy and gross motor development. To get your copy, click here.
In addition, there are some good options for tutoring programs as well as activities you can try at home if your child is struggling with dysgraphia. Here are a few options you can try with your child:
- Play games that strengthen their motor skills, both gross motor and fine motor skills.
- Encourage play dough activities; strengthening exercises with stress balls to help the hands, fingers and elbows; and incorporate activities with tweezers or clothes pins to help them pick up objects.
- Take notes about your child’s struggles with writing and handwriting. List details about common trends, triggers, or situations that lead to a better or worse experience.
- Look into a tutor or an Occupational Therapist (OT) for writing. The tutor or OT can assist with anything from re-teaching the correct way to form letters and instruction on sentence structure to utilizing those ideas and thoughts as they write them on paper.
Videos for strengthening writing skills
For additional exercises to strengthen your child’s writing skills, view the following videos:
- Strengthening Wrists and Hand Arches for Penmanship
- Fine Motor using beads, coins and letter blocks
- Using foam balls for hand strength and handwriting
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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