When Your Child Does Not Write Right

Washington Parent Magazine, Nov 1998
Kay Kosak Abrams, Ph.D.

My 10-year-old son Daniel cannot write right. He wraps his thumb around his index finger as his fist trudges across the page. Words leap past the margin and letters stretch beyond the limits of the lines which fail to contain him. His spelling is filled with trial-and-error sound associations. For him, to invest mental energy in the mechanics of writing, while transporting thoughts onto paper, is like trying to juggle while roller blading on a balance beam. So, to "bow out" makes perfect sense. When it is time to write, students like my son are daydreaming, talking or heading for the water fountain.

The age of computers brings hope for students who have difficulty with written expression. Technical assistance, such as spell checking programs, are nothing less than a blessing, as are word processing programs and computerized typing tutors. In anticipation of Middle School, we cringe as we wonder how he will take notes during class lectures, how he will get through an essay exam and how he will manage to write explanations for problem-solving in "Open Math."

Most importantly, beyond relying on teachers, and beyond trying to convince the school of his legitimate needs to receive resources and accommodations in the classroom, how do we as parents help our son to help himself?

Misunderstood Underachievers

My son, and many children like him, has always been at great risk of being dismissed or misunderstood. If your child is bright and self-assured, most teachers and parents logically assume, "Sam could do it. He is just lazy." Alternatively, if your daughter is quiet or a daydreamer, expectations for her academic success may quietly evaporate with explanations such as, "Suzie is more interested in her friends than her school work." The behaviors that frustrated or apathetic students turn to in order to escape are understandable given the challenge they face. Writing is an arduous task for most of us, so motivation certainly matters. But, for many capable students, there are neuromuscular deficits--more commonly known as "developmental delays"-- that can kill motivation.

Professionals who specialize in understanding learning disabilities know that neurology is destiny when it comes to strengths and weaknesses in the classroom. Excluding significant emotional and familial problems contributing to poor performance, it is our individual "wiring" that largely determines our behavior in the classroom or on the job. Weaknesses naturally lead to avoidance behaviors, while strengths are naturally reinforced. If Katie cannot keep a beat, you won’t find her on the dance floor. Similarly, if Tom is tone deaf, you won’t see him signing up for chorus.

But, for the child who cannot write right, there is no legitimate escape from frustration and failure in school. Having a writing problem concerns productivity (output) more than "smarts." That is the root of the misunderstood "underachiever." "Underachievers" are known as capable, bright students who do not live up to their potential.

If you have a child who does not "write right," this article was written to help you begin to empower yourself and your child with tools of understanding and intervention.

The Task of Writing

When a child has limited written output, he bcomes involved a diagnostic quagmire because any number of mental or motor processes may be contributing. Writing involves coordination of multiple brain functions, including language comprehension and production, motor skills, working memory and short term memory, attention, as well as organization skills. It is truly a miracle when attention, motor and memory processes orchestrate to produce written expression!

Writing deficits may be indicative of a developmental delay or a learning disability. Development across brain domains is rarely perfect for any of us. Our adeptness growsat different rates, and so we have discrepancies, or what we refer to as "strengths and weaknesses." Significant discrepancies can result in enormous frustration and failure.

Further confusing our ability to understand the cause of a writing problem, attention deficits, anxiety and/or depression can play a part in eroding thought or motor processes. For some children, alleviation of a mood disorder or of situational stress results in improved performance in the classroom.

When your child can form letters but lacks written fluency, that is, he cannot write without really concentrating on the motor effort in his fingers, there is likely much more than "laziness" to blame. Memory, motor processing speed and attention are significant factors in a child’s neurological development that directly influence the ability to "flow" when it comes to writing.

Motor and Memory Skills that Impact Writing Fluency

In addition to fundamentals such as understanding language, attention skills, utilizing both working- and short-term memory, spelling, an ability to take perspective and to initiate work, there are specific memory and motor skills that impact the writing process. Typically, teachers, tutors and education specialists assist students in the cognitive process of writing, while occupational therapists (OT’s) or developmental psychologists assist in the neurological aspects of handwriting. The following skills are delineated by Mel Levine in his text, Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children with Learning Problems at Home and in School. These are neuromuscular skills because they involve our nervous system working in harmony with our muscles.

Given how complex the task of writing is, it is understandable why parents and teachers alike feel humble in the face of neurology. Schools appear to have progressed further in facing the challenges of reading delays than writing delays. The advice most often relied upon by educators when it comes to helping children with handwriting problems is "learn to touch type. " Particularly in the age of computers, it is simply easier to accommodate than to remediate poor graphomotor or spelling skills.

How Can You Help Your Child?

What can be done to improve your child’s writing is directly tied to his specific deficit. An understanding about the nature of a child’s learning and performance difficulties can be acquired through a thorough psychoeducational battery at his school or outside the school. Psychoeducational evaluations or consultations can be obtained from a neuropsychologist or psychologist who specializes in assessment of developmental learning disabilities. Education specialists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists all play an important role in obtaining a thorough evaluation.

Meanwhile, do not overlook the most obvious source of information--your child. Listen to his thoughts about what gets in his way. Our son once told us that he writes so little because he feels rushed to finish so he will not be held back from recess (for not completing his work). He knows he is slow, so his goal is to get it out quickly to reduce both his potential loss (recess) and his internal feeling of anxiety when faced with a writing task. Careful observance by parents, teachers or your own child may stimulate efforts to obtain resources for greater success.

The following ideas are intended to provide hope and direction for you, as parents, at home as you begin your journey to find suitable solutions for your child.

Finally, have patience and hope. There are many successful adults who had an early history of poor handwriting or language processing deficits. While I was at the beach working on this article and so aware of the complex task of writing, I was naturally tuned in to observing my son, Daniel. We wondered how long he would last when he chose to play Scrabble with his family and friends. Then the "miracle"

happened, putting our minds at ease. Daniel, the kid with a spelling disability, consistently won at Scrabble. How could this be?

The "miracle" is an illustration of how personality can override any weakness in our brains. Daniel simply became a whiz at adding onto others’ words. "Ox" becomes "oxen," "tore" became "store" and so on. His creative mastery reminded me of the time he rushed to produce a poem for his school’s writing contest after his parents insisted he contribute something. He took what he thought was an easy out, by choosing to write a humorous poem. He won Honorable Mention for his poem.

It is in these moments of relief and hope that we are vividly reminded of how our weaknesses are so often our greatest strengths!

Copyright 2002 - Dr. Kay Abrams