What Is Dysgraphia?

Sometimes bad handwriting is a sign of something more serious. Here's what to know about dysgraphia symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

An image of a little girl writing.
Photo: Getty Images.

"Hi moms," began the post in our neighborhood Facebook group. "I'm looking for advice on how to improve my son's handwriting. It's sloppy and unintelligible. We make him erase and write over, but nothing helps. He doesn't seem to care."

Immediately, my spidey senses began tingling. My daughter was the same way. In kindergarten, she brought home lined handwriting sheets to practice forming letters. The skyline, plane line, grass line, and worm line (terminology used to help young children form uppercase and lowercase letters) seemed like mere suggestions rather than something she should use. No amount of erasing and re-writing did any good, but it wasn't until third grade I discovered she has a condition called dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is the inability to produce clear handwriting in a timely manner "despite sufficient teaching, motivation, and mental and physical health," explain authors Brock Eide, M.D. and Fernette Eide, M.D. in their book, The Mislabeled Child. They also note that dysgraphia is far from uncommon; as many as 1 in 5 children have serious difficulties expressing themselves through handwriting.

But despite the condition being quite common, it's rarely talked about in most parent groups. So if you've never heard the term before, you're not alone. Read on to learn about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment for dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia Symptoms

It's important to note that not all kids with dysgraphia have poor handwriting. Some can focus intently enough to make their letters neat, but eventually, when kids shift from learning how to write (grades K-2) to writing to demonstrate comprehension (grade 3), they can't keep up.

Beth King, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist specializing in dysgraphia and also happens to be a mother to a daughter with the condition. Here, she lists the possible signs a child has dysgraphia:

  • Word spacing is irregular and unpredictable. Some words may be crammed together while others are spaced apart. Writing may start in the center of the page rather than the left.
  • Writing wanders above and below lines.
  • Children may throw random capital letters in the middle of words or won't capitalize words at the beginning of sentences, even though they know the capitalization rules.
  • They complain their hand hurts after writing. They may grip the pencil strangely or write with their bodies in an unusual position.
  • They resist writing assignments.
  • Spelling mistakes are common (but not always).

Dysgraphia vs. Dyslexia

While kids with dysgraphia can also have dyslexia (like my daughter), the two don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading, trouble hearing sounds, connecting letters to the sounds they represent (phonics), word decoding, oral reading fluency, and spelling.

"Dysgraphia is an output disorder that has nothing to do with reading," says Dr. King. "These children have trouble getting the thoughts in their heads out on paper because letter formation isn't automatic. They are concentrating on how to write versus what to write."

My daughter never wrote more than three words to answer a question until I started scribing for her during remote school. I tried it as an experiment, and once I took writing out of the equation, she gave long and creative answers to assigned work. Dr. King says this is common.

Dysgraphia Testing and Diagnosis

If you suspect your child may have dysgraphia or an issue with written expression, the first step is to talk with your child's teacher. Together, you and your child's teacher observe your child most consistently and will be able to put together the most comprehensive picture of what is going on. The Learning Disability Association of America (LDA) recommends the following steps:

  • Discuss your suspicions about a learning disability with your child's teacher and get their input and observations.
  • Collect information on your child's school performance (report cards, conference notes, emails from school staff).
  • Request a comprehensive educational evaluation from the school administration to determine if your child is eligible for special education services.
  • Learn about the laws protecting students with disabilities.
  • Join an advocacy group in your state, like a local LDA chapter, for support.

A comprehensive evaluation for suspected learning disabilities includes psychological assessments and input from parents, teachers, and school psychologists. Federal law requires that public schools provide this type of evaluation, but parents may also seek out a private evaluation at their own expense if they prefer (for example, maybe you want to find a neuropsychologist with dysgraphia knowledge). If the school coordinates the evaluation, federal law requires completion within 60 days.

Legal Protections for Students With Disabilities

Two laws primarily protect the rights of students with disabilities. Section 504 is a federal law that protects students with disabilities in programs that receive financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education (including public schools). This law requires that school districts provide an appropriate public education to students with disabilities, including special education accommodations.

The second law is the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law is similar to section 504, but with a narrower definition for disabilities. Therefore, more students qualify under section 504 than under IDEA.

In order to receive accommodations under these acts, a student must first receive a diagnosis.

Dysgraphia Treatment and Accommodations

There's no cure for dysgraphia, but there are ways your child can thrive in a school environment. Dr. King runs a Facebook group called Thriving with Dysgraphia: Tips, Tricks, Strategies to Help Your Child Soar which is a great ongoing resource for support and tips. When it comes to tactical changes you can make now for a child with dysgraphia, here are the accommodations that can help the most:

  • Start keyboarding as early as possible. (Dr. King prefers adaptive typing over standard keyboarding. Because kids with dysgraphia struggle with automaticity and working memory, they should look at the keyboard as they type and use whichever fingers are most comfortable. Their typing speed will progress with their workload.)
  • Kids should use lined or 1/4" graph paper for math.
  • Kids with mild dysgraphia can benefit from learning cursive (but not all find this easier) or using a slant board.
  • Allow the use of spell check (Dr. King recommends Co:Writer), and don't mark off for spelling or punctuation mistakes. Work should be graded based on intellectual content alone.
  • If a writing assignment can't be done on the computer, reduce the scope of the work and allow for extra time to complete it.
  • Some schools may allow the use of talk-to-text software, but talk-to-text is error-prone, especially when it comes to recognizing children's voices. Kids also can't or don't want to use it in the classroom when other children are present, and it doesn't help with math or science.

The Bottom Line

As a parent, it can be heartbreaking to see your child struggle. Handwriting is not something kids can hide from their classmates, so sometimes you may have to help your child deal with embarrassment in addition to their dysgraphia. While you can't cure or protect your child from every challenge, you can support them through it.

"The goal is to get them to a place where they feel good about themselves," says Dr. King. "Most of these issues work themselves out as they grow."

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