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Video Game Victory: “Screen Time Solved My Son’s Really Crappy Handwriting”

A mom taps into Guitar Hero to beef up keyboarding skills.

When people think of learning disabilities, they assume it means trouble with math or reading. While this is often true, there’s another stumbling block to academic success that teachers often don’t consider. It’s called dysgraphia, the clinical term for really crappy handwriting.

When I explain this to parents whose kids don’t have dysgraphia, many will commiserate telling me their kids also have the problem. But guess what? When I look at their child’s writing samples, their penmanship might not be “within the lines,” but the writing is decipherable. With dysgraphia, the act of writing is so mentally taxing for a child that it impairs his ability to put cogent thoughts down on paper.

Before my son Henry received a formal diagnosis of dysgraphia, I knew we needed to get him keyboarding. But our public school curriculum didn’t introduce typing until fifth grade. Despite an IEP directive that said my son should start keyboarding earlier than that, his classroom teacher didn’t comply. This was one of many problems that led to our departure from the public school system.

I learned quickly that, if you want your LD child to succeed, you don’t rely on mainstream teachers to determine what’s best for him. So I got Henry to start practicing on a keyboard.

It wasn’t easy to get a seven-year-old-boy with ADHD to sit for keyboard lessons. However, we did make marginal progress with SpongeBob Square Pants typing program. Needless to say, he didn’t embrace this type of “screen time” with the same enthusiasm he had for Lego Star Wars or Madden Football.

We decided to try an unconventional approach: We re-classified Guitar Hero as an educational game in our household. This meant he could play it as often as he wanted. Moreover, he didn’t have to ask permission before playing it. At the time, we were strict with our kids about home much time they could spend watching TV and playing computer games. Now that they’re both teenagers, we’ve loosened the reins a bit, but, back then, the idea of unlimited access to a game like Guitar Hero was unprecedented.

Given his poor motor skills, it seemed improbable that he would be successful. He often gave up quickly on any task that taxed his hand-eye-coordination. But Henry desperately wanted to keep up with his sister, who quickly worked her way to the game’s hardest level. There’s something to be said for sibling rivalry. Henry refused to give up. Within a few weeks, he was giving his sister a run for her money. Within a few months, he could beat all challengers.

Some might argue that I was letting my son waste his time on mindless video games. I beg to differ.

Guitar Hero taught Henry taught several lessons. He learned to assign one key to each of his five fingers. He also learned to look up at the screen instead of at his fingers to follow a pattern. It was, I believe, a major turning point.

Once he recognized what he was capable of, we convinced him to try transferring those skills to a program called MasterKey. It was a low-frills program, but his older sister’s school used the program to teach keyboarding. So Henry was inspired to progress.

I wish I could wrap up this story by reporting that, thanks to my efforts, my son sailed through his keyboard lessons and currently types 80 words per minute. That is wishful thinking.

He has, however, developed a system that yields serviceable results. We had to add assistive technologies, which I’ll write about in future blogs, to his arsenal to get him where he needs to be. I’m certain he now has what it takes to circumvent his dysgraphia. Once he completes his formal education, he can choose a career that best suits his strengths-professional typist will not make the short list.