Parent Question: My 10-year-old son has been diagnosed with the writing disability dysgraphia. Because he has difficulty with writing tasks, he tends to avoid them. His teacher has expressed that my son seems to be unmotivated and oppositional regarding writing assignments. How can I make sure the school fully understands my son’s disability and what modifications should I suggest?
Expert Answer: The perceived motivational deficits associated with handwriting difficulties are a result of the struggling performance in school not the cause of it.
My general response to parents, educators, and other professionals who do not understand learning problems is to ask, “Do you get up every day and go to work to fail?” Of course, the answer is “no.” Then I talk about how children want to be successful in school, but sometimes the effort is just too much. I share the analogy of an adult trying to wade through a graduate level chemistry textbook having never taken an undergraduate chemistry course. The adult would be unmotivated to continue reading, since the effort is unrewarding.
We can think of handwriting in a similar way. Handwriting problems and the struggle with written output are not apparent by looking at a child. If difficulty is observed, it is usually messy handwriting, which is frequently attributed to motivation. I try to get parents and educators to think about handwriting problems in the same way that they would examine disorders in reading, mathematics, or attention.
The perceived motivational deficits associated with handwriting difficulties are a result of the struggling performance in school not the cause of it. Human beings are innately wired to learn. so, if children are not motivated, adults need to discover why and provide help and assistance.
In order to help children with dysgraphia in the educational setting, the following modifications and accommodations are appropriate:
- Stress to school personnel that slow or messy work habits are often a result of graphomotor difficulties and do not reflect deficits in motivation.
- Allow students to use the writing system that is most efficient for them, after they have learned both script and cursive writing.
- Give students extended time to complete written work and reduce the volume of written work both throughout the school day and at home. Many times, teachers will remark that the required writing in their classes is not great; however, if the demands for the entire day are tallied, they may be substantial.
- Teach students to type using a word processing program; most find this to be a useful strategy.
- Speech-recognition software may be helpful, because it allows hands-free operation of a computer through dictation. Speech-to-text technology programs are compatible with most word processing software programs, automatically insert punctuation, and contain comprehensive vocabularies. Many programs also contain text-to-speech technology that allows students to hear text read aloud.
- Students should be provided with lecture, overheads, and pertinent in-class information in written form, such as teacher-prepared handouts or copies of notes. The best option is for students to have copies of teachers’ notes; otherwise the student is beholden to the note-taking skills and availability of other students.
- If a student’s typing speed is adequate, he or she should be allowed to take lecture notes using a computer, when available.
- Some students may need alternate test formats, such as short answer or multiple choice questions rather than essay questions or the option to provide oral answers to exercises, quizzes, and tests.
- When writing compositions, students should use a staging procedure, which includes focusing on one component of the task at a time. For example, first the student would just generate ideas and write them or type them, or have someone else type up the ideas for them. Then, they would focus on improving and organizing their ideas. Subsequently, they would focus on spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. They could have a manual that contains all the rules they have learned up to that point in time. They would then refer to this manual when proofing and correcting their work.
- Because of the need to write and revise their text using computer software, students should be given the opportunity to write in-class papers on a computer or allowed to work on them outside of class.
In summary, children who struggle to write often avoid writing tasks, not because they are poorly motivated, but because the task of writing requires an inordinate amount of effort for them. Additionally, the tendency of many professionals to label them as unmotivated does not help them perform more successfully in school. They need specific accommodations and modifications that will reduce and/or bypass the demands for written output in the educational setting.
I wish you well in your endeavor to help your child and hope that at least some of the above strategies will be useful for him.
—Glenda C. Thorne, PhD
Glenda Thorne is the Vice President of Clinical Services of the Center for Development and Learning. She has conducted psychological, psychoeducational and neurodevelopmental evaluations of children and young adults for over 20 years.