I knew my son had a problem with writing when I saw that his first-grade journal contained mostly drawings and only a few sentences. In second grade, Austin was still reversing the letters b and d, something most of his peers had outgrown.
His teachers called it laziness, but as he did his homework, I saw him labor to form letters correctly. He worked slowly, erased a lot, and cried. One day, after he'd struggled with a paragraph for two hours, I had him type it at the computer. He was finished in 20 minutes.
Austin has dysgraphia, a learning disability that can accompany attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD). Dysgraphia affects handwriting, spelling, and the ability to put thoughts on paper. It makes the process of writing maddeningly slow, and the product often illegible. Forming letters requires such effort that a child may forget what he wanted to say in the first place.
The act of writing something down helps most of us to remember, organize, and process information, but children who struggle with the mechanics of writing learn less from assignments than do their peers. Work often goes unfinished, and self-esteem suffers. Fortunately, there are strategies for helping children with dysgraphia, in school and at home.
If your child has persistent problems with writing—a tight pencil grip, unfinished words, a mixture of letter sizes—consult the school's special education staff. If they can't test for dysgraphia, look for an occupational therapist, pediatric neurologist, or a neuropsychologist with experience in the disorder.
Once your child is diagnosed, meet with the school's evaluation team to see if she's eligible for services or support. Reducing the emphasis on or amount of writing allows most dysgraphic children to work successfully in school. Helpful changes in the classroom may include extra time on tests, worksheets to reduce the amount of copying needed, removing neatness and spelling as grading criteria, and reducing the length of written assignments or the number of math problems required.
Your child may also benefit from working with an occupational therapist on letter formation, fine-motor skills, and cursive writing, which can be easier than printing for a dysgraphic child.
Tactics and tools
Learning to type can be a lifesaver: Invest in a children's typing program, such as Jump Start Typing ($19.99), for kids ages seven to 10, or Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing ($19.99), for kids ages 11 and up. Have your child practice on the computer for 10 minutes a day. A lightweight keyboard, like those available from AlphaSmart, will allow him to type notes in class and transfer them to your home computer.
Graph paper with large squares, which provide visual guidance for spacing letters and numbers, is also useful. For big projects, use Ghostline poster board, which is lightly lined with a grid.
To ease homework woes, have your child try pencils of different thicknesses and plastic pencil grips. Encourage her to dictate sentences into a tape recorder before writing them down. Occasionally, offer to do the typing while she does the research.