Few people recognize dysgraphia for what it is — an enormous stumbling block to academic success. Microsoft Word certainly doesn’t get it. I type “dysgraphic,” and my word processor flags it as a spelling error.
My son has dysgraphia, but there was a time when I didn’t get it either. Doctors are notorious for their illegible handwriting. If they can sail through school with a chicken scratch scrawl, well then, why worry?
What I didn’t realize is that for kids with dysgraphia, bad handwriting is just the tip of the iceberg.
The bigger issue for my son is the way dysgraphia weakens his ability to think clearly when writing. How it makes him struggle to put his thoughts down on paper.
Early on I didn’t see it that way. So I went with the advice of his teacher at the time and pushed him to improve his penmanship. But practice didn’t make perfect for my son.
We tried everything from pencil huggers to alternative grip pens, and special paper with raised lines to keep his writing more uniform. Nothing worked.
In fact, I noticed that as he got older and the complexity of his assignments grew, his handwriting got worse not better. So I tried a different approach.
Henry was in the fourth grade and we were practicing for an upcoming spelling test. On his first practice test, he wrote out the answers longhand and only spelled six of the 15 words correctly. That wasn’t going to cut it.
So, for the next go-round, I suggested he try typing in his answers on my laptop. The result: His score immediately jumped to 12 out of 15 words correct.
It was then I began to understand what it means to be dysgraphic. It was a rude awakening but it opened my eyes to how this learning difference affects almost every task in my son’s school day.
Another realization evolved gradually. Dysgraphia was having a huge effect on my son’s self-esteem. The changes in his personality were subtle, so I didn’t notice over a day, a week or even a month.
As he got older, other children’s writing improved. His did not. And, unknown to me, he would hear about it from the other kids. Classmates would comment on his poor penmanship. He would laugh it off and pretend he didn’t care. However, the constant commentary was slowly chipping away at his soul.
Of course, his teachers had the best intentions by assigning art-heavy projects to keep students engaged. Most kids love to show what they know using poster boards, glitter glue and colored markers. But for my son, whose best efforts wouldn’t even impress a preschool teacher, these assignments were discouraging.
Once I was able to better understand how dysgraphia affects my son, I made it my mission to help level the playing field for him.
I talked to his teachers about how art projects were causing him so much agony. Thankfully, when I brought this to their attention, they agreed to offer other ways for him to complete projects.
Sometimes, my son makes videos. Other times, he creates a PowerPoint presentation. Also, I make sure he always has the option of taking tests and notes with a keyboard. His grades, by the way, have improved greatly.
I’ve been trying to meet the challenges of my son’s dysgraphia for nearly a decade. I know I can’t “fix” his handwriting. But by understanding his struggles, I am able to be his advocate.
This can mean anything from educating friends, family, and teachers to researching the latest assistive technologies. In fact, when my husband and I couldn’t find an app to help our son with math, we developed our own. It’s called ModMath and allows kids to work on math problems without writing their answers out longhand.
The role of advocate is time consuming, and it can be frustrating. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And I will get him through this and ensure he thrives. It’s what we moms do.
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About the author
About the author
Dawn Margolis Denberg is a San Francisco–based freelance writer and a co-developer of ModMath, a free app for kids with dysgraphia.