Practical Strategies & Tools to Help Kids with Dysgraphia
Increasing muscle strength, using screen filters, and eliminating fluorescent lights are just some ways to treat dysgraphia – a disability that impacts writing abilities – and to improve handwriting for a lifetime.
Dysgraphia – a learning disability that affects writing – has no quick, permanent fixes. The condition, characterized by illegible, messy handwriting and difficulty putting thoughts on paper, is usually treated by a combination of fine motor skill training and compensatory accommodations. But writing – from the mechanics to the cognitive processes – is much more complex than it seems. Effective interventions reflect this complexity.
The methods and tools below are practical ways to address the underlying issues and help children improve writing.
Build Core, Arm, and Shoulder Strength
It might come as a surprise, but building strength in arms, shoulders, and core muscles can help with dysgraphia. Handwriting requires a foundation of postural stability and motor skill. Decreased core muscle tone (the state of muscles at rest) and strength (the state of muscles in use) negatively impacts postural control and hand use, as is often seen in individuals with dysgraphia.
Activating postural muscles improves core, upper body, overall bodily strength and stability. Play, exercise, and movement are great ways to do this. Some suggested exercises include:
- Strength training
- Horseback riding
- Dynamic seating – sitting on a ball chair (#CommissionsEarned) or a Movin’ Sit Jr. (#CommissionsEarned) cushion can activate the core and help children with ADHD who may benefit from moving and fidgeting for focus
To build shoulder and arm strength, consider the following:
- Play Zoom Ball (#CommissionsEarned) – a two-player toy where a ball is propelled back and forth
- Climb on playground equipment
- Help with chores – vacuum, pull wet laundry out of the machine, move furniture, garden, cook
For hand strength, dexterity, and endurance, try:
- Using clay or putty: Play-Doh (#CommissionsEarned) for younger children and Therapy Putty (#CommissionsEarned) or Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (#CommissionsEarned) for older kids
- Playing with resistive toys such as pop beads(#CommissionsEarned), Squigz(#CommissionsEarned), snap-together toys
- Incorporating slant boards, easels, writing paper taped to the wall or even underneath a table to reposition the wrist and thus improve grasp
Adaptive Writing Tools
Less is more when it comes to writing utensils. Use short pencils, crayons, chalk and other smaller-scale items that provide easier grip. Identify the “holding stripes” on crayons and markers or add tape to pencils and chalk to teach children where to place their fingertips (not their fingerpads).
Pencil Grips for Better Writing
Commonly used to improve grasp and handwriting abilities, molded pencil grips soften the writing tool and train the fingers to develop a stronger, more functional grip. Use popular products you can find online and in some toy or stationary stores such as these:
- Writing Claw (#CommissionsEarned)– has small cups for inserting fingers to help kids learn proper finger placement
- The Pencil Grip(#CommissionsEarned)/The Crossover Grip(#CommissionsEarned) – The Pencil Grip is a cushiony grip with three sides while the Crossover Grip adds a thumb blocker for kids who wrap their thumbs around their pencil
- Firesara OWL(#CommissionsEarned) –this cute grip has two cups for the thumb and index finger, and a loop beneath for the middle finger; producing a mature, efficient grasp
Paper Choice for Better Writing
Poor design of the writing paper itself can make handwriting and letter formation more difficult. Writing paper for early learners often features multiple lines and dashes that confuse more than they help. For children with dysgraphia, who tend to have visual sensory issues, a very busy page or a poorly printed worksheet can also impede writing.
Find paper with simple guidelines or get a blank sheet of paper and draw out lines that work for your child. For inspiration, look to the double-lined paper offered through the popular handwriting curriculum called Handwriting Without Tears. The paper guidelines are relatively intuitive and provide early writers with a baseline to anchor letters which you can further darken if needed.
Multisensory Approaches to Dysgraphia
Sensory issues – from hypersensitive hearing to visual overload – are common in children with dysgraphia and can be part of what makes writing challenging. Handwriting instruction should use a multisensory approach to help children deal with sensitivities and provide alternative methods to encourage writing.
- Use different mediums – encourage your child to write in paint, sand, foam, or even food and roll out Play-Doh or clay to form letters.
- Try assistive technologies – as an alternate to picking up a pencil or crayon, apps like Letter School and iTrace are great for practicing letter formations and learning to write sight words. Have your child switch from using their fingers to a stylus every so often so they can get used to the feel of a writing tool.
- Play games like Tic Tac Toe and Connect Four to teach diagonals which are often tricky for children with dysgraphia to perceive and reproduce.
- Start keyboarding work sooner rather than later. Handheld writing tools will always be essential, but keyboarding is an important skill that lets your child express their ideas and think creatively without the chore of handwriting holding them back. Learning Without Tears has a keyboarding program for young children. Typingclub.com is a good free, online typing tutorial for students who use computers while Taptyping is a useful tutorial for those using tablets such as the iPad.
Build Visual Skills for Better Writing
Preventing eye strain and modifying the environment helps address the sensory issues that tend to affect vision and thus impact writing abilities in children with dysgraphia.
- Get a comprehensive eye exam performed by a developmental optometrist. Find a specialist in your area through the College of Optometry and Vision Development.
- Follow the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes, have your child look at something about 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This is especially important if your child is learning remotely or uses screens a lot, as it helps to rest and refocus the eyes.
- Use blue light blockers on screens. Blue light blocking filters can be added to eyeglasses or placed on top of a screen to block out blue light known to interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and can interfere with sleep, which is often a problem already for kids with ADHD. At the very least, activate the built-in nighttime settings or use the f.lux app which both darken the screen as the evening progresses.
- Try color filters for those who are sensitive to harsh white light and those who experience contrast sensitivity in which dark letters on a white background are hard to read and may even appear distorted. Most computers and tablets have colored filters built into their accessibility options (go to system preferences > accessibility > display). This is also built into the iPhone while Android users can download the Irlen Colored Overlay app.
- Eliminate fluorescent lights. Very sensitive people can hear or see these lights as they flicker, which can interfere with writing and general focus. Switch to warm LEDs, incandescent lights, halogen lights, or diffused natural light.
- Keep light sources at eye level as much as possible. Overhead lights beaming down can be troublesome for kids who are sensitive to glare.
- Keep work areas clear of clutter for less visual overload.
Dysgraphia: Additional Support
Writing is not just about putting pencil to a paper. It’s a combination of neuromuscular, motor, cognitive, perceptual, and linguistic skills. Dysgraphia complicates these components, and often comes with other sensory, motor, and information processing challenges that require the attention of specialists.
Occupational therapists use techniques that help build physical strength, stability, and dexterity, improve letter formation, and deal with visual processing and sensory challenges.
Educators and speech therapists can help with phonemic awareness (listening and identifying individual sounds) which helps children process and reproduce words and sentences. These professionals can also work on conceptualization – identifying what to write about – and thought organization.
You can find more information and learning strategies in my books, Raising a Sensory Smart Child and Sensory Processing Challenges, and by visiting my website at www.sensorysmarts.com.
Dysgraphia Treatment: Next Steps
- Read: How to Treat the Symptoms of Dysgraphia
- Learn: How to Recognize Dysgraphia In Your Child
- Watch: Overcoming Dysgraphia and Writing Challenges – A Guide for Teachers and Parents
The content for this article was adapted from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “My Child’s Handwriting is So Messy: Strategies for Improving Dysgraphia in Children with ADHD” by Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L (available as ADDitude ADHD Experts Podcast episode #322) which was broadcast live on September 1, 2020.
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