How to Treat the Symptoms of Dysgraphia
If you or your child has just been diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects handwriting and fine motor skills, your next step is to pursue accommodations at home or in the workplace. Depending on the type of dysgraphia — spatial, motor, or dyslexic — occupational therapy can also be helpful.
There is no cure for dysgraphia, and medication will not help. But problems associated with writing and fine motor skills can be improved — especially if you start early. Plus, understanding parents, teachers, bosses, and friends can be critical for rebuilding damaged self-esteem and providing the support adults and children living with dysgraphia need to find success.
Academic Interventions for Dysgraphia
The most important thing your child’s school can do to help her manage her symptoms of dysgraphia is to take pressure off the act of writing, either by requiring less writing overall or by allowing alternatives like typing or speaking. Some helpful changes in the classroom may include:
– Allow the student to take extra time on tests. Students with dysgraphia take longer to form words and letters — or even fill in bubbles on a multiple choice exam — meaning that extra time will reduce stress and allow them to more successfully demonstrate what they know.
– Provide worksheets. Rather than requiring children to copy down problems from the board — which can put students with dysgraphia at a disadvantage — teachers should print out worksheets beforehand to distribute to the whole class.
– Remove neatness as a grading criterion. Low marks for messy handwriting can frustrate a child with dysgraphia and make him feel as though his effort was worthless. If a child’s handwriting is absolutely illegible, it may be necessary for him to switch to word processing software.
– Reduce the length of written assignments. In math or science classes, reduce the number of problems required.
– Provide the student with the “teacher’s copy” of the notes. If this isn’t possible, teachers can allow another student to buddy up and share notes.
– Allow students to substitute “key words” for full sentences, whenever possible. This cuts unnecessary time struggling with handwriting, while still providing the student with an opportunity to answer the question correctly.
– Create oral alternatives to writing assignments. This can mean allowing an oral version of full exams, or replacing a short worksheet with a quick oral lesson summary at the end of the day.
– Allow for some spelling errors. When possible, teachers should permit the use of a dictionary or spell-checking device.
– Use physical accommodations. These can include pencil grips, erasable pens, and paper with raised lines, all of which help students with dysgraphia work on handwriting skills. Graph paper, which provides visual guidance for spacing letters and numbers, is also useful. For big projects, students can use Ghostline poster board, which is lined with a light grid.
– Allow students to use computers with word processing software, whenever possible. Alternatively, teachers should allow students to use planning software before writing a long answer by hand.
At-Home Interventions for Dysgraphia
In the early grades, especially, it’s important that you work in tandem with your child’s educational team to help improve handwriting at home, as well as at school. Here are several ways you can accomplish that:
– Teach typing. This is an absolutely life-saving strategy for any child with dysgraphia. Invest in a well-regarded children’s typing program, such as Typing Instructor for Kids, for younger kids, or the classic Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, for tweens and teens. Reward your child for practicing on the computer — even for as little as ten minutes a day.
– Help your child get a good grip on the pencil or pen. In situations where typing isn’t possible, it’s important for your child to hold her pencil correctly. Though she might not see the point of changing her grip, the correct grip will reduce hand fatigue and pencil pressure — meaning writing will be easier and less painful. Many kinds of pencil grips on the market today reinforce the “tripod” grip that children should use. The Grotto Grip Pencil Grasp Trainer (pathwaysforlearning.com) — designed and tested by occupational therapists — is often rated the most helpful.
– Encourage your child to dictate sentences into a tape recorder before writing them down. This will take advantage of his speaking skills and allow him to focus solely on letter formation — without getting wrapped up in grammar and syntax.
– Be a scribe for your child. Almost every child with dysgraphia resists any homework that involves writing — and as a result, even simple assignments can take hours to complete. To increase your child’s willingness to write, take some of the pressure off him by agreeing to write for him — in a limited capacity, of course. When writing a paragraph, for example, you can write down the first sentence as your child dictates it, and your child can write the next sentence — and so on and so forth, until the assignment is complete. This shortens homework time, takes stress off your child, and forces him to look ahead to the next sentence and plan his thoughts accordingly.
– Prompt your child to say the words as he writes them. Auditory feedback engages various areas of the brain, helping students stay focused and monitor their efforts.
– Do letter-formation drills (print and cursive). Letters don’t have to be perfect. They should, at a minimum, be fairly consistent and readable. Make sure your child always forms letters from the top instead of the bottom — a common pitfall for new writers with dysgraphia.
– Use Handwriting Without Tears (hwtears.com), a program that includes a workbook and online tools. It’s been proven to be very effective.
– Engage in multi-sensory exercises. Ask your child to write in the air, in sand, or in paint, using his finger. This enables a tactile learner to “feel the letter” and form a memory based on its shape.
– Keep letters inside the lines by writing on raised-line paper (therapyshoppe.com). This type of sensory-friendly paper will help your child get a sense of how far apart the lines are — making it easier to write on regular lined paper in the future.
– Build muscle memory in fingers. Kendra Wagner, a learning specialist, recommends this occupational therapy trick: “Have your child walk her thumb, index, and middle finger up and down a chopstick, placed on a flat surface, as fast as possible. Only the three ‘grip’ fingers should touch the chopstick.”
Workplace Interventions for Dysgraphia
Even if you’ve learned to compensate for dysgraphia by the time you reach adulthood, accommodations at work can still make a big difference in your productivity and overall job satisfaction. Possible accommodations include:
– Allow use of reference materials. A dictionary or thesaurus — or advanced spell-checking or word-predicting software — can make everyday compositions easier and more readable.
– Have a coworker or supervisor proofread important written material before it’s sent out. In instances where spelling or grammatical errors would be perceived as “unprofessional,” having someone else check over your writing before it’s distributed can help someone with dysgraphia manage writing-related anxiety.
– Use text-to-speech software. Read & Write Gold is widely considered the top of its class, and can help employees make use of superior verbal skills to help them compose an email or write a report.
– Allow the employee to respond to questions or instructions verbally. Whenever possible, oral communication should be prioritized over written communication.
– Supply writing aids. Pencil grips, bold-lined paper, or other tools can help adults with dysgraphia manage the physical process of writing.
– Create computerized versions of common forms. If a person with dysgraphia is required to fill out paperwork frequently, ask if it can be transferred to a fillable PDF and typed into instead of hand written.
Treating Dysgraphia with Therapy
You or your child may also benefit from working with an occupational therapist, particularly if you struggle extensively with the fine motor skills involved in writing. Occupational therapy is most often used in treating dysgraphia in children, but some OTs work with adults as well.
Occupational therapy might include manipulating different materials to build hand and wrist strength, running letter formation drills, and practicing cursive writing, which can be easier than printing. Simple repetitive movements, like taking pegs out of a pegboard and putting them back in, can help someone with dysgraphia gain finger strength that will make writing easier and more intuitive.
Adults with dysgraphia who went through childhood undiagnosed may have unresolved feelings of shame or anger related to the condition, and may benefit from seeing a psychotherapist to talk through these complex emotions. Regardless of age, it’s important for people with dysgraphia to recognize that the condition is nothing to be ashamed of, and psychotherapy can be beneficial for dealing with unresolved anger and building self-esteem.