Handwriting and the DCD Child
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Recently, I tackled the long overdue task of sorting through the boxes stacked in the corner of my home office, containing the classwork sent home from the last two years of my children’s school life. As I sat on the floor next to a garbage bag sorting through workbooks and artworks, deciding what to keep and what to ditch, I stopped to enjoy some written works done by my son.
There is mind-map with “G’day Mate Spring Break” written in the centre, where in each thought bubble coming from it he talks about the fun had with extended family on a visit to Australia. There is the wish list for summer holidays, where – alongside all the movies he is looking forward to watching – he states that he would also like to earn his driver’s license and set booby traps to catch criminals. These goals would be for the summer he was aged 8.
I smiled at his creative imagination and his enthusiasm and his powers of observation. And I felt my breath catch in my throat as I took in his writing.
The letters are large, uneven in size. There is a complete lack of any spacing between words or ability to follow the lines. Some lines of text slope steeply downwards on the right hand side. Some words are written in all caps and there are many letter reversals. There are words that have been erased over and over so many times that the page underneath is grey with smudges, rendering the final word written over top almost illegible. The pencil lines are thick and dark and the page creased by the strong pressure he places on the pencil.
Some simple words are misspelled, yet other more complicated ones he has nailed. Often there are letters missing. But I am his Mum and I can hear his voice in his words and imagine the sparkle in his eye as he thinks up strategies for the booby traps he is designing.
I have to say that I am incredibly proud of how far he has come. The handwriting of this little boy, who today is about to finish grade 4, is so vastly improved from the writing of this same boy, who at the time of these grand ideas, was finishing grade 2.
He has worked so hard and has come a long way. He can now write well within the lines when he is well rested and focused. When he is tired and his muscles are sore from the effort of a full day at school, not so much. His letters are more uniform in size and while there are still some reversals and spacing remains a challenge, there has been significant improvement in all areas. This has come after hours of practice at school and at home, and the support of occupational therapy.
However, another parent or teacher may look at his written work and consider it not to meet the standard expected of a boy completing grade 4 in Canada.
Yet, for him, this is a remarkable achievement. My son has Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the way children learn to move. It is difficult for him to learn new motor skills, and something as complex as handwriting is exceptionally challenging. Due to the cognitive strategies he needs to employ to form his letters, combined with the low muscle tone in his hand and hyper-mobility of his joints, holding the pencil with appropriate pressure is difficult and he fatigues quickly.
Yet he perseveres, and now writes and illustrates his own comic books.
Indeed, it was difficulties and delays in handwriting in his kindergarten year that initially led us to seek the help of an Occupational Therapist, which in turn eventually led to his diagnosis of DCD.
For a child with DCD, new motor skills will always be a challenge to learn, and will take more effort and practice for the child to be able to mange them. And there is a large delta between management and mastery. Many DCD kids will learn to manage to write, but mastery may elude them.
It was toward the end of grade 2 that my son came home in tears, feeling he was somehow behind his peers. The reason was math: his peers would finish before him and despite his best efforts he was not able to keep up with the written output. The computational skill to complete the work was not the issue – math had always been something he enjoyed and felt he was good at.
In 2018, a research team led by Dr Jill Zwicker published an article in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy titled Developmental Coordination Disorder is more than a motor problem: Children describe the impact of daily struggles on quality of life. Their research highlights the “perils of printing” as one key theme: the challenge to keep up with the written demands of the school day was one major factor influencing children’s ability to participate fully in the classroom and be successful in the academic sphere. (1)
Another excellent article on the topic by Cheryl Missiuna, Lisa Rivard and Nancy Pollock titled They’re Bright but Can’t Write: Developmental Coordination Disorder in school aged children addresses the ways DCD can present in the classroom, particularly the juxtaposition of an otherwise intelligent and engaged child who is unable to meet the written demands of the classroom environment. (2)
It was armed with this article that I requested a meeting with his teacher to address the issue of written output in math. For my son, it would appear that the physical effort of writing, combined with the cognitive effort of number formation and math calculation were all contributing to slow writing speed and a written output lower than class expectations. I explained to her that it was my desire to continue to foster his confidence in math, and requested that if he could still demonstrate understanding of the concepts in different ways, the written output could be reduced. Thankfully she was open to this suggestion and enacted it.
I was delighted that the teacher was willing to having a thoughtful discussion on the topic and was prepared to make accommodations. Some weeks later, I would discover that – in a well-meaning effort to not make my son feel singled out – she had reduced the written output for the WHOLE CLASS, thereby spectacularly missing the point and leaving my son in the exact same space of overwhelm as where he started.
At the age he is now, and even with the significant strides he has made, he still struggles to meet the written output required in class. We are working on introductory keyboarding, optimistic that the ability to manage a keyboard will help him participate more fully in the classroom. For some children with DCD, keyboarding is the skill that opens up a new realm of academic achievement. For others, the motor planning challenges that make handwriting difficult make keyboarding troublesome as well. For our son, we are still persevering with the keyboard, and the accessibility of this as a tool for him is still being explored.
We will try, and if needed, we will move on to other tools, such as talk-to-text. We are on a journey to discover the tools, techniques and strategies that will help make the tasks of daily life and school more approachable and achievable for our son, for the ways we can help him participate to his fullest ability and realize his potential.
And we celebrate his achievements. We enjoy the comic books he writes and illustrates, marveling at the characters he creates and relishing the humour in the stories. We don’t compare his writing to that of other children. He has worked hard to gain the skills he has. We acknowledge his tenacity and persistence, encourage his creativity, and celebrate the ways he continues to grow.
(1) Zwicker, Jill G; Suto, Melinda; Harris, Susan R.; Vlasakova, Nikol and Missiuna, Cheryl. (2018) ‘Developmental coordination disorder is more than a motor problem: Children describe the impact of daily struggles on their quality of life’, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, Volume 81 (2), 65 - 73
(2) Missiuna, Cheryl; Rivard, Lisa; Pollock, Nancy. (2004) ‘They’re Bright but Can’t Write: Developmental Coordination Disorder in school aged children’, TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, Volume 1, Issue 1,