Why Can’t/Won’t Johnny Write?
Dysgraphia, the writing disability, is perhaps the least understood of all the learning disabilities although it is probably the most common. Too often it is misinterpreted as laziness, a lack of motivation or just a reflection of a child’s “bad attitude” towards his schoolwork.
As a result, parents frequently take a punitive approach when it comes to their child’s written assignments, often making homework time a most unpleasant experience for both child and parent alike. If this sounds like what goes on in your household, then let’s take a step or two back from the brink, catch our breath and examine this phenomenon a little more closely.
First of all, I’m not saying that all children who resist doing their written homework have Dysgraphia. Children not wanting to do their homework is a common enough parental complaint. But children with Dysgraphia have distinguishing characteristics that may make their complaints more legitimate.
Let’s stop and think for a minute what goes into the act of writing. First, you have to think of what you want to write. Next, you have to organize your thoughts into a logical flow of ideas. Next, you have to write these thoughts down paying close attention to the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling. And, finally, you have to make sure that someone reading what you’ve written will be able to understand what you’re trying to convey. Whew! That’s a lot to keep in your mind at one time!
I sometimes think that writing is the most complex activity we ask our brains to do. And if you’re a kid, I would think it would be that much more difficult since their brains are still developing and therefore are not as capable as that of an adult. In fact, from brain imaging technologies we now know that effective writing requires a coordinated effort involving many different parts of the brain operating “in concert”, so to speak. These same brain imaging technologies also tell us that when asked to write, individuals with Dysgraphia show a significant decrease in the communication patterns among the areas of the brain responsible for written expression.
If your child has trouble writing I am not suggesting that you go out and get an MRI. I just think it’s important to realize that Dysgraphia is a “brain-based” problem and not a case of laziness on the part of your child. And there are many easier ways that the diagnosis can be made, psychological/educational testing being the most common and cost-effective one since most school districts are capable of providing this service.
So what are the signs or symptoms of Dysgraphia that you should look for? In early elementary school, children with Dysgraphia often have trouble forming their letters or fail to give each letter enough space. Letters frequently run into each other and don’t stay on the line. Children with Dysgraphia at this age often mix up their b’s and d’s, p’s and q’s, or write “was” as “saw”, or vice versa. Adolescents with Dysgraphia often have difficulty organizing their thoughts and getting their ideas down on paper and become easily frustrated. In addition, they commonly have trouble with grammar, spelling and punctuation.
The following is a writing sample from one of our 9th grade patients. The assignment was to write about the Respiratory System. Note the misspellings and the lack of proper punctuation. But clearly this student understands the material and actually brings to the assignment a bit of creativity although at a writing level 3 to 4 grade levels below where she should be.
As a result of these difficulties, children with Dysgraphia either write down their thought as quickly as possible before they forget them (see above) or they produce the absolute minimum despite the fact that if you asked them to tell you their ideas instead of writing them down they can go on and on, and quite articulately, too!
So if you now suspect that all the frustrations that you and your child have been going through over their written assignments might be the result of a learning disability, get them evaluated by a psychologist competent in this area.
School systems seem to be somewhat reluctant to make this diagnosis so you may want to consult with a psychologist outside the system.
If it turns out that your child does have Dysgraphia, there are ways to improve his written performance and there are school-based accommodations that can reduce the impact of the disability. But you have to ask; rarely, in my experience, are these issues brought to a parent’s attention by the school system.
If you are uncertain how to proceed, consider contacting the Reynolds Clinic where we have been treating children, adolescents and adults for learning disabilities for the past 20 years. We would be happy to guide you on your journey.