Today’s guest post is the first in a three-part series; thanks to Karen Hollis for her time and thoughtful reflections.
Many people on the Well-Trained Mind boards have children who for a variety of reasons struggle with writing to an extent that goes far beyond the problems all of us have in setting words to paper. If these difficulties are neurologically based, they are bundled together under the term dysgraphia.
Homeschooling parents of dysgraphic children know what this looks like: the dysfunctional pencil grips and the deep grooves pressed into paper, the contorted posture (my daughter rests her nose on her paper about two inches from her pencil tip), the desperate faces and tears of frustration. The resulting letters are transposed, reversed, or dropped; punctuation disappears, as do spaces between letters, margins, indentations; letters ramble about the page, spilling out of ruled lines, mixing upper and lower cases. Usually these kids have a terrible time doing copywork, but they can also have difficulty lining up numbers for math problems and problems generating a few sentences even to the most specific prompt. This is true not only at age five or six, when a lot of other kids are still struggling too; it can still be true at eight, ten, or twelve.
In an education system based on written production as evidence of learning, or even in a more enlightened system in which writing is a tool for learning, there is a lot of pressure on these kids to catch up. Usually what happens is that even the brightest child gets stuck in “remediation,” endless repetitions of basic skills like letter formation, spelling, and dictation that remain difficult for these kids despite all the extra practice. Usually accommodations are also suggested: let kids write with different pencils and pencil grips, on different types of ruled paper. Give them extra time for written essays. Allow them to use the keyboard for much of their work. Grade mechanics separately from content or some – or all – work. Require fewer, or shorter, papers. Perhaps, on occasion, a child may even be allowed to show what she has learned in a format other than a written report.
However, all these suggestions are formulated from within the conventional education system. Because working within the system is taken for granted, no one steps far enough away to rethink entirely how a dysgraphic child’s education might look outside this model, away from all our ideas about incremental progress, from forming letters to spelling words to writing sentences, paragraphs, rough and final drafts. Homeschoolers are ideally placed to explore these possibilities rather than to go the usual route of extended remediation in the grammar stage.
But is it even possible to conceive of an education that is not grounded in writing –not only in the very early years, but until the time when a child’s neural wiring catches up with the rest of his mind and his body? What would such an education look like? How could it possibly work?
There are some major philosophical leaps to take before we can look at practical details. They seem very much like a leap off a cliff in the dark; I know, because I took them myself, and it was terrifying. I felt as though I was gambling with my child’s future. At the same time, I knew that a conventional education was not going to work with a child whose challenges included Asperger’s Syndrome, fine motor deficits, visual-spatial difficulties, and dysgraphia. I could either have a stressed out, exhausted, frustrated child who would quickly begin to think of herself as stupid because she could not physically manage the act of writing and was stuck in repetitive low-level practice; or I could challenge her, interest her, engage her, while at the same time working on the skills she would need eventually when she was ready and able to write.
1. The first thing to do is, if at all possible, seek a thorough evaluation.
I have learned that dysgraphia can take many forms, have many roots. Some elements of dysgraphia may be vision-based, so it’s of vital importance to have our child’s vision sorted. This means having an examination not by a regular optometrist, whose concerns are fairly specific and limited, but a developmental optometrist or vision therapist who will look at a broad range of issues such as convergence, eye teaming, peripheral vision, depth perception, etc. Many of the posters on the WTM boards have discovered visual deficits in their children which has been part and parcel of dysgraphia.
My daughter’s full neuropsychological evaluation has proven amazingly helpful, not only in the short run but as a long-term road map for my child’s development. Such an evaluation takes place over multiple days; my daughter’s totaled eleven hours of testing, games, and discussion plus another two to three hours of discussion with me. You will get a precise breakdown of how well or how poorly specific neurological systems are operating, as well as a plan for how to address weaknesses and build on strengths. With dysgraphia as an official diagnosis, moreover, your child will have documentation of any problems that may be long-term and eventually require accommodation in public schools or college.
2. Now throw away all timelines.
I’m referring to the kind of developmental or educational timelines that tell you what your child should be doing in written form at any given age or grade. Stages, schedules, and timelines offer a good general overview of how a neurotypical child’s capabilities evolve. However, if you have a truly dysgraphic child, that child’s mind is differently wired and all bets are off. There is not an alternate dyslexic timeline, or an Asperger’s timeline; there is only the developmental timeline that is particular to your child. Nothing else has any validity.
Your child will eventually become more comfortable with the act of writing, gain physical stamina for holding and using a pencil, and be able to produce coherent sentences and paragraphs. But this will not happen on anyone’s schedule but his or her own.
You provide the background experiences that will make the eventual attainment of full written literacy as stress-free as possible. Then you wait. You can prime the pump, so to speak, but you cannot hurry that moment when neurological maturation happens and it all comes together.
3. The next thing to do, which is even harder than the first two, is to accept that learning – even rigorous learning — does not necessarily need to be paper-and-pencil based.
Believe it or not, a child can learn the basics all the way up junior high with minimal writing. This is a very, very difficult concept to swallow. Our entire education system, homeschool as well as institutional school, is grounded in the production of written work.
So what I’m going to say will sound heretical at first: it is perfectly possible to lay the groundwork of an excellent education, even in math and language arts, with minimal writing. Of course you still have your child practice handwriting, you try to find a spelling program that works. Your child will be writing, but writing will not yet be the centerpiece of education.
You will be working on writing, very slowly; but you will be focusing on building up the underlying neural connections between hands, eyes, body, and brain that are necessary for writing. These connections have somehow gone astray or become tangled or compromised in dysgraphic kids, and before they can write with confidence and ease – or sometimes even write at all, even print their names — they need to sort out some those tangles. As I mentioned earlier, part of this is a biological process that cannot be hurried or rushed. But other pieces of it can be tackled, and one of the ways in which to approach those pieces is to work on interconnections between the mind and body.
Next time I will talk about specific ways to work on some of these pieces of the dysgraphic puzzle.