The Early Years: Demystifying labels—Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is the medical term for difficulty with handwriting. In fact, before handwriting skills develop, a child needs to have strong and mature fine motor skills.

By Abha Ranjan Khanna

The primary outcome of early childhood intervention is achieved when children with delays and/or disabilities successfully transition into regular preschools and playschools.

When children develop in inclusive educational environments, where barriers to their participation in age appropriate activities with same aged peers are removed, then children do not get labelled.

Disability, after all, results from the interaction between an impairment and a non-inclusive environment, meaning that if a child with low vision is expected to read from a book with regular print or expected to copy from the board and cannot, then s/he would not be able to function at age level and would be labelled disabled.

The usual tendency over the years has been to label the individual and somehow the insidious implication is that the disability lies in the individual rather than in the inaccessible structures of the environment and the attitudinal barriers in minds of adults.

Once a child is in preschool and displays a delay or difficulties in colouring skills, copying shapes or naming shapes (precursor to learning the alphabet), teachers are quick to use labels such as dysgraphia, dyslexia or dyscalculia.

Dysgraphia is the medical term for difficulty with handwriting. In fact, before handwriting skills develop, a child needs to have strong and mature fine motor skills. These develop through daily routine activities and play. The two sides of the hand, too, differ in their functions; the radial or thumb side develops mobility skills and the ulnar or little finger side develops stability.

Children then need to know how to work in the space on the paper, they need to have directional concepts to understand that writing proceeds from the left side of the paper to the right and from top of the paper to the bottom. Children need to understand letter shapes, consistency of shape, direction in which the alphabets face, orientation of the written alphabet to the writing line and the spacing between letters and words.

If children do not receive timely and appropriate training, guidance and practice in handwriting they develop difficulties with handwriting. Unless there is an underlying neurological, sensory or orthopaedic concern, poor handwriting is just that—poor and messy handwriting!

An observant teacher can determine if the child’s tripod grasp on the pencil needs attention, or muscles of the hands are weak and need strengthening, or that the child’s overall posture and vision needs addressing. Further, a teacher can analyse the handwriting and identify the specific concern:

  • Are the letters consistent in size and shape?
  • Are they adequately spaced?
  • Is the writing oriented close to the writing line?
  • Are the letters turned in the right direction or is the child showing difficulty differentiating “b” from ‘d’ or ‘p’ from ‘q’ and so on?

Once the cause of the sloppy handwriting is defined, writing activities to improve handwriting can be initiated. Also, think back to your childhood and try and recall when you developed the handwriting form you now use as an adult.

Therefore, instead of using a diagnostic medical term, if the writing is analysed and the difficulty understood, every child can improve their writing skills.

Further, with reference to a recent article about schools pressurising young kiddos into the maze of academia, I want to draw attention to the fact that early childhood intervention is not about pushing infants and toddlers beyond their limits. It is about responsive alertness to the needs of young children and being able to recognise a delay in the child’s natural sequence of development and skill acquisition and addressing it immediately and appropriately.

Please continue to watch this space…. the next 2 labels that will be demystified in the coming weeks will be Dyslexia and Dyscalculia!

(The writer is an occupational therapist.)

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