By Suthasha Kelly Bijay, senior educational therapist
Most children enjoy colouring with colour pencils but writing is usually a different matter altogether. But if your child shows a disinterest in writing tasks, is painfully slow when doing it and tries to avoid writing when possible, there is a chance that he or she may be struggling with or is at risk of dysgraphia.
Dysgraphia is a neurological-based condition that causes difficulty with written expression. The term comes from the Greek words dys (meaning ‘impaired’) and graphia (meaning ‘making letter forms by hand’). It is also known as ‘an impairment in the written expression’ – this is the phrase that doctors and psychologists use.
How to tell if your child may be struggling with dysgraphia
Children who have dysgraphia often exhibit the following signs:
- Inability to write letters accurately
- Slow, laboured writing
- Unreadable handwriting
- Dislike for colouring and any writing tasks
- Holding the wrist, arm, fingers or paper in an awkward position when writing
- Lagging behind in writing skills compared to peers
Being mindful that child development is dynamic, the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) usually considers a formal diagnosis by a psychologist for any specific learning difficulty after a child has turned six years of age. However, unusually slow or laborious writing when compared to same-aged peers is usually a sign that your child is at risk of learning difficulty and it is a call for you to take action.
Writing requires a complex set of fine motor, mental and linguistics skills. For children with dysgraphia, the writing process is harder and slower. Without help, a child with dysgraphia may have a difficult time in school, which will affect their self-esteem and academic success. Waiting too long to get help only makes matters worse.
Children with dysgraphia struggle with the simple task of holding a pencil such as using a tripod grasp, let alone forming letters and keeping those letters on a line. Thus, even if they produce messy handwriting, you should praise and appreciate them for their effort. Many children also struggle with putting their thoughts on paper concisely as they have difficulty in spelling, word retrieval, organising thoughts and putting words into writing.
It is crucial that you seek professional advice and early intervention to help your child if they have dysgraphia.
If you suspect your child has dysgraphia or any other specific learning difficulties, do take your child to the child development clinic (CDC) for consultation. CDCs usually collaborate with primary healthcare and community services for early identification of children with developmental delay and learning difficulties so as to facilitate early intervention. Children with dysgraphia usually require multi-disciplinary intervention services such as occupational therapy, guided targeted support at home, along with other services such as early literacy intervention, which are available at DAS. Additional services such as speech and language therapy may also be necessary if other co-occurring difficulties are evident. The doctors and paediatricians at the CDC will be in the best position to point you in the right direction.
What can be done at home for dysgraphia?
Here are some strategies to consider when helping your young hesitant writer. Don’t try several strategies at once, but instead, use one strategy at a time and take note of their individual effectiveness.
Here’s what you can do:
- Start with games that strengthen fine motor skills. For example, use their hands and tools such as tongs, spades, chopsticks and cutters, to play with clay, play dough and kinaesthetic sand to strengthen their hand muscles.
- Let them use a squeeze ball to improve hand and wrist muscles and coordination. Other activities such as tracing, beading, lacing and using scissors to cut along lines are great for fine motor development.
- Doing some hand exercises before writing activities can help your child relieve tension. These exercises include shaking hands in the air, stretching out all the fingers in a cracking knuckles motion and doing the ‘okay’ sign in pinching motions, alternating one finger at a time rhythmically.
- Fill a cream piping bag with shaving cream, glitter glue, play dough or other materials to practise forming letters in a creative way.
- Provide opportunities for your child to express himself in other ways when possible to take the pressure off writing.
With guidance and advice from professionals, you can also try the following strategies:
- Use short and fat pencils or pencil grips for writing
- Use suitable writing paper for your child to practise handwriting.
- Get your child to start writing letters in large fonts, move to medium and gradually shrink letter sizes further to help with the formation of appropriate letter sizes consistently.
Your child needs explicit writing instructions on where to write, where to start, where to stop and how to write. When they are forming letters of the alphabet, talking through movements and letter strokes clarifies confusions, and acts as a cue and memory anchor that facilitates automaticity. For example, when they make the letter ‘P’, tell them to draw the princess’ long straight hair, and then her pretty face.
Even with these strategies, it is best that they are carried out with the guidance and advice of a professional who is well aware of the specific needs of your child such as an educational therapist and an occupational therapist, who will help build fine motor skills and dexterity.
It is best to keep an open communication based on trust, peace and non-judgement with your child. This will help you understand what your child is going through and get the needed help. Many children have managed to overcome and work around their writing difficulties, so, with the right support, your child can do so too.
Suthasha Kelly Bijay is a senior educational therapist at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. She is a key member of DAS Preschool Literacy Intervention Programme and is involved in curriculum development, early literacy intervention, teacher training and awareness talks.
DAS specialises in literacy intervention that supports children at-risk of or diagnosed with specific learning difficulty through its Specialised Educational Services Preschool Programme. Older pupils can be enrolled in its MOE-Aided Literacy Programme. For more information, call +65 6444 5700 or visit das.org.sg.