Parents of children with special needs often worry that they're not qualified to homeschool. They feel that they don't have the knowledge or skill to meet their child's needs. However, the ability to offer a one-on-one learning environment along with practical accommodations and modifications often makes homeschooling the ideal situation for special needs children.
Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are three learning challenges that may be well-suited for a homeschool learning environment. I've invited Shawna Wingert to discuss the challenges and benefits of homeschooling students with dysgraphia, a learning challenge that impacts a person's ability to write.
Shawna 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 quite academically advanced, yet he struggles to 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. He, too, struggles 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 extremely challenging for children. It is considered a processing disorder - meaning that the brain has trouble with one or more 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 children with challenges such as dysgraphia and dyslexia than for an average child.
Because each step in the writing process takes longer, 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 with effective written communication, including:
- Graphomotor processing - trouble with the fine motor coordination required to manipulate a writing instrument
- Attention disorders - 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 of 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?
Dysgraphia can be difficult to identify in the early elementary school years. It becomes increasingly apparent over time.
The most common signs of dysgraphia include:
- Messy handwriting that is difficult to read
- Slow and laborious writing pace
- 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 so he works very hard to make sure his writing “looks nice”. Because of that effort, it can take him much 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 aware of what dysgraphia is, and how it affects my sons, we have found some effective 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 larger 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 larger text size enables them to focus on the sequencing and motor skills associated with writing. 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 occupational therapy as a starting point.
- 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.
's Eileen Bailey also suggests:
- Using paper with raised lines
- Breaking writing assignments into smaller tasks
- Not penalizing students for spelling or neatness on timed writing assignments
- Looking for fun writing activities
Dysgraphia is a part of my sons' lives. It is a constant concern for them, not only 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 people 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 our children learn to write well, and communicate effectively.