Homeschooling with Dysgraphia

Hispanic boy doing homework on floor
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If you're a would-be homeschooling parent with a special needs child, you may feel that you're not qualified to meet hir or her needs. However, you may find that the one-on-one attention you're able to provide in a homeschool environment makes you uniquely qualified.
Shelley offered insight into homeschooling a student with dysgraphia. I've invited Shawna to discuss the challenges and benefits of homeschooling students with dysgraphia and dyslexia, focusing on dysgraphia, the lesser-known of the two.

Shawna Wingert writes about motherhood, special needs, and the beauty of everyday messes at Not the Former Things. She is also the author of two books, Everyday Autism and Special Education at Home.

What unique challenges do students with dysgraphia and dyslexia face?

My oldest son is 13 years old. He started reading when he was only three years old. He is currently taking college-level courses and is more advanced academically than any other child I know.

And he struggles to even write his full name.

My youngest son is 10 years old. He cannot read above a first-grade level and has a dyslexia diagnosis. He participates in many of his older brother’s courses, as long as they are verbal lessons. He is incredibly bright.

And he struggles even to write his full name.

Dysgraphia is a learning difference that affects both of my children, not just in their ability to write, but often in their experiences interacting in the world.

Dysgraphia is a condition that makes written expression very difficult for my children, and for many just like them. It is technically a processing disorder – meaning that the brain has trouble at one or many of the steps, and/or the sequencing of the steps, involved in writing a thought down on paper.

For example, in order for my oldest son to write, he must first bear the sensory experience of holding a pencil appropriately. After several years and various therapies, he still struggles with this most fundamental aspect of writing. For my youngest, he has to think about what to communicate, and then break that down into words and letters. Both of these tasks take much longer for my children than for an average child.

Because of this, a child with dysgraphia inevitably struggles to keep up with his peers, and at times, even his own thoughts as he laboriously puts pen to paper. Even the most basic sentence requires an inordinate amount of thought, patience, and time to write.

How and why does dysgraphia affect writing?

There are many reasons that a child may struggle to communicate well in writing, including​ the following issues​:

  • Graphomotor – trouble with the fine motor coordination required to manipulate a writing instrument
  • Attention – difficulty planning and seeing writing tasks through to completion
  • Spatial ordering – challenges in organizing letters and words on the written page
  • Sequential ordering – difficulty in determining the logical order to letters, words, and/or ideas
  • Working memory – trouble recalling and holding onto the information the writer is trying to communicate
  • Language processing – difficulty in using and comprehending language in any format

In addition, dysgraphia often occurs in conjunction with other learning differences including dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder.

In our case, it is a combination of several of these difficulties than affect my sons’ written expression.

I am often asked, “How do you know it’s dysgraphia and not just laziness or a lack of motivation?” (Incidentally, I am often asked this type of question about all of my sons’ learning differences, not just dysgraphia.)

My answer is usually something like, “My son has been practicing writing his name since he was four years old. He is thirteen now, and he still wrote it incorrectly when he signed his friend’s cast yesterday. That’s how I know. Well, that and the hours of evaluations he underwent to determine a diagnosis.”

What are some of the signs of dysgraphia?

In all fairness, the truth is that dysgraphia can be difficult to identify in the early elementary school years. It does, however, become more and more apparent over time.

The most common signs of dysgraphia include:

  • Messy and difficult to read handwriting
  • Slow and laborious pace in writing
  • Inappropriate spacing of letters and words
  • Trouble gripping a writing instrument or maintaining grip over time
  • Difficulty organizing information when writing

These signs can be difficult to assess. For example, my youngest son has great handwriting, but only because he painstakingly works to print every single letter. When he was younger, he would look at the handwriting chart and mirror the letters exactly. He is a natural artist, and so he works very hard to make sure his writing “looks nice”. As such, it can take him ten times longer to write a sentence than most children his age.

Dysgraphia causes understandable frustration. In our experience, it has also caused some social issues, as my sons often feel inadequate with other children. Even something like signing a birthday card causes significant stress.

What are some of the strategies for dealing with dysgraphia?

As we have become more and more aware of what dysgraphia is, and how it is affecting my sons, we have found some strategies that help minimize its effects. 

  • Writing in other mediums – Often, my sons are better able to practice the art of written expression when using something other than a pencil. When they were younger, it meant practicing spelling words by writing them in shaving cream on the shower wall. As they grew, they both graduated to using sharpie markers (making grip much easier) and then finally onto other implements.
  • Allowing larger text – My sons write much bigger than the lines on the college ruled paper in their notepads. Often, they write even larger than the wide ruled paper in their elementary notepads. Allowing them to write a bit larger, enables them to practice the sequencing and motor skills associated with writing, without also having to moderate the size of their text. Over time, as they have become more comfortable, their written text has become smaller.
  • Occupational therapy – A good occupational therapist knows how to help with pencil grip and the fine motor skills required for writing. We have had success with OT, and I would highly recommend it as a place to start.
  • Accommodations – Speech-to-text applications and programs, offering additional time for written testing, allowing keyboarding for taking notes, and taking frequent breaks are all accommodations we employ to help my children write more effectively. New technologies have become an invaluable resource for my children, and I am grateful we live in a time where they have access to these types of accommodations.

Dysgraphia is a part of my sons’ lives. It is a constant concern for them, not just in their education, but in their interactions with the world. In order to eliminate any misunderstandings, my children are aware of their dysgraphia diagnoses. They are prepared to explain what it means and ask for help. Unfortunately, all too often there is an assumption that they are lazy and unmotivated, avoiding unwanted work.

It is my hope that as more and more of us learn what dysgraphia is, and more importantly, what it means for those it affects, this will change.  In the meantime, I am encouraged that we have found so many ways to help them learn to write well, and communicate effectively.