Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Today I am going to focus on Dysgraphia for learning disability awareness month. In the DSM-V, Dysgraphia is now referred to as a learning disability with impairment in written expression, but I will refer to this learning disability as Dysgraphia in this post. It falls under the category of Specific Learning Disability in the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
I will never forget the day I walked down the kindergarten hallway on my way to my youngest son's IEP meeting and saw his project hanging on the wall with about 60 other kids' projects. Yes, his picture wasn't drawn well, but hey, I'm no artist! There was, however, one thing that glaringly stood out to me: out of the entire kindergarten class (3 sections), his was the only one that did not have the writing prompts filled in and glued on to the bottom of the page.
I honestly couldn't tell you how many meetings we were up to at this point, but I can tell you that each and every time we sat down with his IEP team, we brought up our concerns about writing and referenced Dysgraphia multiple times each meeting.
The response we typically got was, "He CAN do the work. He just CHOOSES not to."
Have you heard this before? If so, I am sorry. You see, our son could do the work. He just needed accommodations to complete it. That day he had joined us near the end of our meeting (likely because he was having behavioral challenges in the classroom and was removed) and on our way out we stopped by his picture. I glanced at the writing prompts from one of the other kids' projects and I asked him the questions (they went something like this):
Me: "What would you name your planet?"
Him: "Pizza Planet."
Me: "What would the people eat on your planet?"
Him: "Pizza and bananas."
I had both answers in less than 10 seconds and one little boy with a huge grin on his face. A very simple accommodation, speaking and having someone scribe, could have saved a whole lot of frustration and embarrassment. If you think a child doesn't notice that his project is the only one missing something, you would be mistaken. He had ideas he wanted to share. He was unable to put them on the paper due to a "hidden" disability.
This is just one of many examples of the struggles we had in the 1 1/4 years he attended elementary school. After completing two evaluations, where we specifically requested a focus on writing skills, the consensus was it was still a choice. It always came back to behavior.
At the last IEP meeting we attended before we pulled him from school, we gathered around a table so full chairs had to be added to the outside. All parties were finally present and after the OT for the area presented their report, I had one questions: "How familiar are you with Dysgraphia?"
The response: "Well, I've heard of it, but am not very familiar with it. We are unable to evaluate for that here."
A quarter of the way through his second year, it was disheartening to see how little his team understood his challenges and to finally learn we would need an outside evaluation to diagnose what we already knew was there. We had come prepared and requested an IEE (Independent Educational Evaluation) at public expense. It was approved. It took the neurologist at the Tourette Center of Excellence less than 2 minutes to determine Dysgraphia was in play.
Dysgraphia is very prevalent in people with Tourette and those with ADHD and Autism. It is very frustrating for a child when they cannot get their ideas from brain to paper, particularly for a gifted child who has a lot to say. Being punished for an unidentified disability leads to embarrassment, shame, frustration, and more often than not, behavioral outbursts. This is why awareness is so important.
When it comes to Dysgraphia, people will ask, “What am I looking for?” Here are some signs: (Source: www.smartkidswithld.org)
-Awkward pencil grip -Unusual position of the wrist or paper -Tires quickly when writing, hands hurt -Poorly formed or inconsistently formed letters -Poor spatial planning on paper -Spells well on spelling tests but not in actual usage -Lack of punctuation -Mixture of lower case and capital letters in sentences -Failing to finish words or omitting words from sentences -Difficulty following spelling and grammar rules in writing. -Poor sequence/organization of words in sentence. -Produces minimum content on a page despite oral ability to explain ideas -Avoids writing
This is an example of my son’s writing. At the time he was 6 1/2. As you can see, he has very poor spatial planning on paper, mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, and poorly formed or inconsistently formed letters.
His words all run together and go up and down on the lines. He had a lot to say. It was just extremely difficult to put into writing, which led to a lot of frustration and still does to this day.
You may be wondering how can a child with Dysgraphia be supported in the classroom? There are options! In a technological world, accommodations are really not a challenge.
-For a younger student, having a scribe write what the child dictates can allow a child to get their ideas out onto the paper and fully participate in activities requiring writing.
-For a child of any age, utilizing a talk to text program such as Dragon Education Solutions or Google Docs Voice Typing. If articulation is a challenge, Dragon will adjust.
-For a child who can type 20 or more words per minute, keyboarding is a wonderful option. A Chromebook (or similar device) is a wonderful accommodation to ensure a child’s education is not being impeded by their disability.
-Utilizing apps on an iPad or other tablet can allow a child to work on skills requiring writing at their desk.
Consider what the purpose of the assignment is and accommodate accordingly.
-Spelling test? Have the child speak the letters aloud to spell the words or provide letter tiles (think Scrabble!).
-Comprehension of story? Have the child utilize a scribe, voice to text program, or type.
-Math problems? Utilize an app on an iPad.
-Parts of a story? Scribe, voice to text program, or type.
You get the drift, right?
Some important words of advice here: do not engage in a power struggle. It will not end well. As exhibited in the picture below on the left, the child will become increasingly frustrated and their self-esteem will continue to decline. A child with Dysgraphia is not being defiant when they refuse to write. They have a written expression disability. They need supports and accommodations put in place so they can be successful. If a child is scribbling all over the paper, ripping it, becoming increasingly agitated, or aversive to writing, an evaluation for a written communication disorder should be recommended.
Look at the amazing work that can be accomplished when a child is given the support they need. As exemplified in the picture on the right, accommodations can allow a child to perform without frustration, while still checking for understanding of the skill they are working on.
Let’s walk through this example from 1st grade. This particular piece was shared with us at parent/teacher conferences and raised some serious red flags.
This photo is a graphic organizer. This is a great tool to organize a written piece, but for a child who struggles with a written expression disorder, not only is it a struggle to fill out, all of the corrections can be disheartening. Many of the corrections made are directly related to Dysgraphia (example: a mix of upper and lowercase letters). Instead, this tool could be provided and a scribe could write down what the child says.
The second photo was their first attempt to get him to write this full opinion piece. As you can see, there are scribble marks all over. What you cannot see are the erase marks. One thing really stuck out to me, though: outside of the Husky, the little amount he wrote did not match up with his graphic organizer at all. There is nothing about Huskies wearing a costume or being funny on that organizer. At conference time this was presented to us as ”he was refusing to work.” He was “choosing to not do the work,” therefore they made him rewrite it again later that day.
The last two photos are of his final piece. They were so excited to show us this. To prove to us that he could do it, he was just choosing not to. If you look carefully, you will see several erase marks and tracing over letters.
On the top right corner (not shown in these pictures because his name is also there) are two times: 12:20-1:45. This opinion piece took him 1 hour and 25 minutes to complete. It took 1 hour and 25 minute minutes to copy 5 sentences from his original graphic organizer.
When I brought this to their attention, it got quiet. No one really knew what to say. They thought we would be ecstatic. We were not.
You see, writing was a huge trigger for our son. He escalated more times than I can count in the short amount of time he spent in elementary school and ended up secluded in the principal’s office. This would often escalate him more and he would be restrained. When he wouldn’t calm down, I would have to come and pick him up.
When we referred back to the communication we received from the school about the events that transpired leading to the outbursts, more times than not, the trigger was writing.
“We told him he had to complete his work or he would not be allowed to do x.”
“He wouldn’t do his work. He got upset and became aggressive. Two of us had to transport him to the office. He escalated from there.”
Do you see a pattern here?
Identification. Support. Accommodations.
Behavior is communication. Knowledge is power. While our son definitely has challenging behaviors, school could have been much different for him had his needs been properly identified and supported.
Accommodations work. The first picture is him attempting to put his ideas on paper. The second is dictation to his 1:1 aide. Had this been consistent, he could have been more successful. The boy has a lot to say!! What a great story!
If your child struggles with writing, please have a conversation with their teacher and/or administrators. Create a resource binder and include samples of work, concerns expressed by teachers, and handouts pertaining to Dysgraphia. I have found many educators are not familiar with this term. While it can be very frustrating, it can be a learning experience for all who work with your child. Knowledge is power!