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Writing Fix: How My Daughter Got Beyond Dysgraphia

Poor handwriting skills affect my daughter’s writing between the lines, but not the creative stuff outside of them.

Yesterday, my daughter Lee and I drove back down the old, familiar road to her elementary school for the first time in four years. Lee had been asked by Mrs. Rose, her favorite teacher, to volunteer in second-grade art class.

I followed as Lee ran into the room and gave Mrs. Rose a hug.

“Wow, everything’s so small now!”

Mrs. Rose laughed and said, “Welcome back! I’m reading a story about a dragon, and when the kids come back from recess, I want you to teach them how to draw him.”

“Can I practice first?” Lee asked, grabbing a marker and heading for the whiteboard. The next thing we knew, she was drawing, lines, shapes, a cat, an anime girl, and a dragon at a dazzling speed. Then she wrote on the board next to the cat, in handwriting that could pass for one of the second-graders she’d be teaching, “Can’t wait to meet you.”

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

I wondered for the millionth time, how she could have such messy handwriting and be so gifted in art? The words that her occupational therapist had said many years ago, “Look at the ability, not the disability,” rang in my head.

It took me until fifth grade to realize Lee’s cramped, tortuous pencil grip and poor handwriting was due to dysgraphia, a learning disability that is associated with ADHD. In first grade, Lee pushed her pencil so hard it tore through paper, and writing within the lines was an impossible feat. Three years of occupational therapy helped her gain a little control over her fine motor skills, but it didn’t really improve her handwriting. By the time she got to middle school, accommodations like dictating or using a keyboard turned out to be the solution for writing essays or long homework assignments.

In the meantime, she loved to draw, images pouring forth from her lively imagination. She spent hours, fingers cramped down on the pencil, constantly erasing, drawing pencil over pencil line, crumpling her paper, smoothing it out again, and using a Sharpie to mark the best line. By fourth grade, her drawings were more finely sketched. In sixth grade, she paused a television show for hours to copy a cartoon character with precise pencil strokes and shading. By the time she got to high school, she never went anywhere without her drawing notebook, despite a sore hand and pencil lead staining her fingers.

Back in Mrs. Rose’s classroom, I watched Lee force herself to slow down and draw each shape and line of the dragon on the whiteboard so the second graders could follow. One of the boys said, “How’d you get so good?”

“It took a long time,” Lee said. “You just practice and practice and get better and better.”

“But I keep making mistakes,” the little boy said.

[Why Praise Is So Important for Our Kids]

“There is no right or wrong when you draw,” Lee reassured him. “Everything, even if you have to erase it, is perfect right now.”

Her words lingered in the air, words spoken from her heart that no learning disability could erase.

[Helping Students Who Struggle with Handwriting]