Dysgraphia

What Does Dysgraphia Look Like in Children?

Dysgraphia can affect writing and fine motor skills in a number of ways as your child grows. Here’s what to look out for as symptoms change from preschool to high school.

Boy with ADHD frustrated with writing assignment
Boy looking frustrated with writing assignment

Though dysgraphia — a learning disability that primarily affects handwriting — may seem straightforward, it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all disorder. It varies in its symptoms and severity, and can be easy to miss in kids, particularly in mild cases. If your child has dysgraphia, she may struggle with more than just writing — she might also find it difficult to tie her shoes, use a fork, or zip her jacket.

Experts aren’t absolutely sure what causes dysgraphia in children, though new evidence indicates that it may be linked to “orthographic coding,” which are the working memory skills involved in the process of writing. When children start writing, they need to remember various sets of information very quickly: what they know about the subject, what point they want to make in their writing, and how to physically form the letters as they go. Kids with dysgraphia struggle to recall this information quickly — leading to written work that often doesn’t fairly reflect their understanding of a topic.

Because children with dysgraphia are often skilled at reading or at expanding on a topic verbally, their struggles with writing are often blamed on “laziness” or “carelessness” — though this is far from the truth. Like other learning disabilities, dysgraphia is highly genetic and often runs in families. If you or another member of your family has dysgraphia, your child is more likely to have it, too.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Dysgraphia?]

Symptoms at Home

Dysgraphia symptoms might be apparent from the moment your child first picks up a crayon, but they can also appear much later — most children with dysgraphia are diagnosed in elementary school or middle school. Look for these at-home markers to determine whether the symptoms you’re seeing at various ages are indicative of dysgraphia:

Preschool

  • Resists coloring or drawing
  • Holds crayons or markers awkwardly
  • Often complains that drawing hurts or makes her hand tired
  • Struggles with connect-the-dots, tracing, or other writing activities that require patterns to be followed
  • May have difficulty picking up small objects

Elementary School and Middle School

  • Struggles to draw, trace, or reproduce simple shapes; resists art activities that involve drawing
  • Cannot tie shoes after age 8
  • Doesn’t like helping you with the grocery list, leaving a note for Dad, or any other quick writing-related chore
  • Often tries to get out of at-home writing assignments, or complains that he doesn’t know what to write
  • Trouble using scissors, buttoning clothes, or zipping zippers
  • May eat awkwardly; struggles to use a knife and fork at the same time
  • Movements often don’t appear fluid; opposite arms and hands move out-of-sync with one another

High School

  • Handwriting remains difficult or impossible to decipher
  • Makes spelling errors in common everyday words when leaving you a note or sending you a text
  • May struggle with texting and typing
  • Continues to dread writing-based homework assignments or complains that she’s not sure how to start
  • Can talk confidently about what he learned at school, but balks at the idea of writing it down

Symptoms at School

Like other learning disabilities, dysgraphia is often most readily apparent at school. If your child often brings home illegible notes or melts down at the prospect of writing an essay for homework, ask her teacher to look for the following age-specific signs of dysgraphia at school:

Preschool

  • Struggles to copy simple letters at the same rate as other children
  • Rarely chooses coloring books or other drawing activities when given free time
  • Restless when drawing; jumps out of seat or frequently asks to be excused

Elementary and Middle School

  • Trouble forming letters or spacing words consistently
  • Awkward or painful grip on a pencil
  • Uses a random assortment of letter sizes
  • Spells the same word multiple different ways, even in the same paragraph
  • Difficulty following a line or staying within margins
  • Trouble with sentence structure or following rules of grammar when writing, but not when speaking
  • Unable to read own handwriting
  • Has trouble reading maps or charts
  • Inserts capital letters into the middle of words or forgets capitals when they’re required
  • Forgets or misuses punctuation

High School

  • Difficulty organizing or articulating thoughts on paper
  • Continues to write in simple sentences after peers have progressed to more complex sentence structure
  • Omits letters or word endings when writing quickly
  • Struggles to create outlines for writing assignments
  • Leaves out critical facts or details when writing
  • Blends printing and cursive letters haphazardly
  • Never “gets to the point” in a writing assignment, or repeats the same ideas over and over again with slightly different wording

If you notice these signs of dysgraphia in your child, consider requesting an evaluation from his or her school. Fine motor skills can be improved with occupational therapy, and struggles with writing need not derail learning — particularly now that computers play an ever-larger role in schools across the country. In short, dysgraphia doesn’t need to hold your child back — as long as it’s properly diagnosed, treated, and understood.

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