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Difficulty Writing - Middle School & High School

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Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Teens, Preteens, & Young Adults > Difficulty Writing - Middle School & High School


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8th grader's poor writing and test performance

Oct 2009

My son is in 8th grade at an academically rigorous private school. He is clearly very smart, verbal, good-natured, etc. When in elementary school he did a year or so of work with an OT to help with some mild sensory issues involving core strength, hand-writing, etc. He has always had atrocious handwriting, but has muddled through. Two issues at school are causing me to wonder if he is still in need of some help: his handwriting is more legible, but capitalization is, for him, not automatic. He knows the rules of punctuation - proper nouns, first words of sentences, etc. and can very clearly articulate them verbally, but when he sits down to write a paper there are random capitalization errors - it is as if he does not see them He also says that when he writes by hand his hand cramps up, and hurts. He uses a computer as much as possible, but it is not always possible at school. When we proof read his papers together, I am not sure that he even sees the mistakes. By 14, especially for someone who has read at an adult level since about 3rd grade, shouldn't this be more automatic? The other issue is in algebra: he has not done well on quizzes and exams, but when he meets with his teacher he is able to explain and seems to understand the material. It is just getting it out on paper with enough clearly written work shown. I am wondering if the two things could be related, and if he has some underlying processing issues with getting information on to paper. I am a teacher, but of much younger children, so am not sure what could be going on for him. If it is a true issue, that needs help, then I want to get the help and support that he needs. If it is, as some have said, 14 year old laziness, then that will be addressed differently. befuddled mom


Your son's learning issues do not sound like middle school laziness. I would suggest that you get him evaluated, and there may be interventions to help him with his schoolwork. My son's learning issues are very similar; he has a diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NLD). I'm not saying that this is what your son has, because only a trained professional can perform an assessment. However, getting the diagnosis has helped us work with his school so that he only works on his laptop, and he receives math tutoring. Talk to your school about referrals for an assessment. Good luck. Anon
I would say: definitely get him evaluated by a good recommended Neuropsychologist (we used Dr. Terry Doyle who I thought was great). Does NOT sound like laziness; it's just too specific. leia
Dear Befuddled mom, My son turned 15 in September; he is a sophomore at a rigorous private high school in ''B'' level (college-bound). The issues your son is having sound exactly like those I experienced with my son starting in 6th grade, continuing through (a rigorous program) in middle school.

I had my son evaluated by a number of professionals. He has been diagnosed as ADHD-Inattentive. He was never what most people might consider ''hyperactive'', ie. unable to stop moving or talking excessively. But he is not able to pick up on auditory directions or concentrate on lecture-style teaching as well as other students. After much deliberation, I had him put on medication. He is now a sophomore in high school, and his doctor has changed the type of medication and dosages just a few times. His focus and coping skills are improving, but he still struggles considerably with organization.

I am also a teacher of younger children: 1st grade. I firmly believe that this handwriting issue goes hand in hand with ADHD; I see it every day in my own classroom. I've come to realize that I myself had attention issues in school also, but it seems that if a person is gifted intellectually, the inattentiveness can go unnoticed for quite a long time usually because of very high standard test scores.

I urge you to have your son evaluated. You probably will have to pay out of your own pocket for this, as I did. You may email me anytime if you'd like. Hang in there! elain


My son, at a younger age, had some issues with writing that made him very slow at it. He did poorly on tests simply because he could not write fast enough. A local therapist where we were living at the time pointed out that many children have writing difficulties because their upper body is not strong enough to support them. It's difficult to lean on your elbows and handwrite at the same time. Her strategies included developing upper body strength through exercises like hanging from monkey-bars and other general abdominal and lateral muscle strengthening exercises. Also, getting one of those giant pilates balls instead of a desk chair to use at the computer can help build back muscles that atrophy when kids sit around too much. Your son may have some other dyslexia as well that you can check out, but this one is an easy fix, and at fourteen your son may enjoy some bodybuilding. Fiona

10-year-old's writing angst

Oct 2004

My 10 yr old son has extreme angst when it comes to writing. This has been going on since 3rd grade. Whenever he has a writing assignment for homework it literally takes him 3+ hours to finish it, and more than half of that time is spent by him moaning and groaning and just paralized from thinking of what to write. Once he gets over that stage, and this happens when we finally say if he dosen't write something soon, he will have to bring it to school unfinished, he can write a pretty darn good paragraph, essay, etc.

I need to know if other parents have these issues and how you achieve good results. We try to encourage him, but it dosen't seem to get to the root of the problem. I just hate to see him go through this funk everytime he has to write something, and there has to be a way for him to do it efficiently so that he dosen't spend hours and hours on it. Are there motivational teachers/tutors out there who can help? thanks so much worried mom


Our son had similar difficulties beginning to write. One day I heard an author discussing how she learned to write and overcome writer's block, on the radio. She offered a nifty trick that worked for our son and might work for yours.

She advised beginning each piece of writing with the phrase: ''The most amazing thing happened when...''

This always worked to get our son started, and once started, he was fine.

Once the piece was written, the author said, it was fine to go back and eliminate that first sentence, or rewrite it, as needed.

With this trick in hand, writing stopped being an issue and now our son no longer uses this trick, at all. -Muse


My son had difficulty writing. We had him evaluated and he has some fine motor problems. It is very challenging to formulate an idea, keep it in your head while you make your hand write it, while simultaneously developing and expanding your ideas. Having him dictate to me what he wants to write was very useful. He also learned to keyboard well. He writes much more easily with a keyboard than by hand. Now that he is older, I talk with him about what he wants to write. He can generate ideas in conversation, then types what he wants to write. I help him by editing and making suggestions. He's improved a lot. He also talks with his teachers (or I do) so that he can turn in most assignments typed. He doesn't have a computer at school. understanding mom
To the worried mom whose child has a hard time starting an essay..

Try getting him a graphic orgnizer of some type that will help put his thoughts down in a logical, sequencial order that he can write from. This can be as simple as a piece of pape divided into columns or a web with the subject in the center and individual spokes coming out from it with the subject details.

There is also a great computer program called ''Inspiration'' that is an on-screen organizer. It's possible that once he knows how to organize his thoughts, he will feel more in control, and the writing process will become easier.

I am an educational therapist, and I have helped many reluctant writers develop successful strategies to help them succeed in school. One way I do this is to show students that they have all the words inside them; they just need help in getting them out.

I hope this helps. Feel free to email me. Jamie Keller


You need to have your child assessed for a learning disability. This type of problem is very common with people who have a non-verbal learning disorder (NLD). More info can be had at www.nldontheweb.org or nldline.org. If the assessment shows a learning disorder, then accomadations can be made. Here is how to get started.

To get the ball rolling, write to the principal (if it's not in writing, it didn't happen), and demand an assessment to determine if your child is qalified for an IEP. The school district (SD) then should evaluate him. (If they don't, they have to give you Prior Written Notice, which is a letter (it must be in writing) explaining IN DETAIL why they think your child should not be evaluated to see if s/he qualifies for an IEP. You can then use this PWN letter to escalate your case up the food chain in your SD or in a due process hearing.)

If the SD agrees to evaluate the child, the SD will arrange to give appropriate tests to the child. The IEP team will then review the results of these tests (from standard assessment tools like WISC III/IV and Woodcock Johnson) PLUS parent and teacher observations, medical diagnoses and private testing results, if any, grades, results from standardized academic tests, performance on school work and homework, et al. as appropriate. A dx is not necessary; the IEP addresses the child's actual needs or weaknesses and should not be based on a label.

If he qualifies for the IEP, the team will then develop an IEP, which should include goals for specific deficit areas and MEASURABLE objectives. Then and only then does the IEP team determine the placement of the child (regular classroom, LD class, regular class with pullouts, etc.). Then all you have to do is make sure the school implements it successfully. (This is actually the hardest part.)

Here are some IEP resources to get you started:

Re links on how to craft a good IEP: Here's a memo containing ''Examples and Tips of Making IEP Annual Goals Measurable'' from the Wisconsin public schools http://www.cesa7.k12.wi.us/sped/issues-IEPissues/writingiep/GoalsMeasurable.html brad


There are two main barriers to writing for most kids who have problems with it. The first is that the attention required for the physical act of writing gets in the way of its expresssion. I've heard, ''I purposely use shorter words like 'pretty' instead of 'beautiful' because it's shorter'' from a highly gifted student. You might get him checked out with an occupational therapist to see if there's a problem with pencil grasp or posture.

For this problem, a keyboard may do the trick, with good keyboard instruction and practice. AlphaSmart.com, with the most commonly used keyboards, has three models from $229 to $379 (the latter has a much bigger screen). They're Mac and PC compatible.

The other problem may have to do with organizing ideas and written expression. I really like ThinkingMaps.com because they're purposive - one map doesn't fit all, unlike the bubble ''mind maps'' that have nothing to do with the writing requirement. The web site http://www.thinkingmaps.com/ htthinkmap.php3 or http://tinyurl.com/6ecn5 has an explanation of the pedagogy and links to the individual maps, which can be enlarged. They work for all ages. Sometimes getting out the ideas without first feeling committed to the paragraph can be a big relief.

Sometimes a kid has both problems, which is pretty frustrating and may make the kid eligible for special education or 504 accommodations (e.g., access to classroom computer or school-provided AlphaSmart (usually the oldest model), extended time for writing).

Note: I'm not being paid by either company. Dana Lear, DrPH


Have you tried letting him dictate to you while you type? This helped my sluggish writer lots of time, just as a jump start. Just pretend that you are his secretary and type up whatever he says. I also would give helpful prompts like this: "OK, you need an introductory paragraph, a closing paragraph, and the guts. So which one do you want to start with?" When we got to "the guts" then I might help him break down the topic into smaller pieces and he'd do one paragraph per piece. He would describe the pieces and I would take notes, so that when he finished dictating one paragraph I could remind him what he said the next paragraph was going to be about.

My kid would just get so overwhelmed with a big paper that it would really help to break it up like that, and he'd often dictate a little to me and then take it over once he had a start. I don't know if your child is allowed to do papers on the computer, or if you even have one, but handwriting is lots slower. I think in one case I let his teacher know that he needed to use the computer for papers because his hand- writing was so poor that it just took him too long (another story - he never learned cursive.) Also on the computer you can write the "guts" first, and then easily go back and add in the opening paragraph, move stuff around, etc.

I think my "secretarial skills" eventually got him into the habit of doing this planning for himself, and he can now sit down and write a paper without assistance - he's even taking a creative writing class in college just for pleasure! Good luck. Ginger


6th grader's poor handwriting hampering schoolwork

May 1999

I am the mother of a reflective, bright, 12-year-old 6th grade boy at King who is having a hard time with the handwriting and drawing aspects of his language arts homework. I really like his teachers, but I feel that asking kids to copy sentences out of books and draw pictures is not exactly contributing toward any critical thinking skills, or anything else I can imagine is useful. (But I'd welcome opposing views here.)

This is a longstanding problem. When he was four, he chose not to write his name (a long one), but rather made a capital A, and with a few deft strokes, turned it into a space ship. That was his signature. When he was in kindergarten, there was virtually no writing. His first grade teacher was too freaked out by control issues to work on printing. In second grade, his really creative teacher said "he's got great ideas and has a hard time writing them down; why don't you take dictation for him" and in third grade, the same wonderful teacher taught color theory instead of cursive writing. The summer following, I bit the bullet, pulled out my (deceased 3rd grade teacher) mother's Palmer method handbooks, and tried to make learning to write fun! I only partially succeeded. His fourth grade teacher made cursive happen, with grit, and it wasn't pretty. He has become adept at putting off the horrid aspects of his homework (boy, have we seen some sunrises) and at saying his piece more succinctly than his teachers would like, in handwriting anyway.

I've encouraged him to use the computer to compose, but at this point, I'd really like a referral for an excellent person who can evaluate what's going on, and help us remedy the block or the problem. An occupational therapist? A writing teacher? I don't know. All I know is this is one smart kid who can discuss complex ideas for hours and won't willingly write one iota more than he needs to squeak by -- and barely.

Thanks!
A tired mom


We have a friend whose son is disabled and can't write easily to take notes or produce assignments, although he can think well. They bought him a smallish laptop type of computer for taking notes at school. (It has a name which I could find out for you if you're interested.) Then at home he transfers them to the computer to store, work with, word process etc. He produces almost all of his homework on computer. Maybe check with the special ed teacher for ideas on how to complete work. Consider how much effort is reasonable in this day and age where all the kids are starting to use the computer. Maybe he shouldn't have to produce decent handwriting and you can all sleep in!
This is in response to "A Tired Mom" concerned about her son's handwriting. My son, who is now in 7th grade, was evaluated in 3rd grade because his handwriting was so immature compared to his ability to read and articulate. Short version...the testing was very helpful and revealed a challenge in his visual to motor ability: difficulty writing, drawing, spelling, and spatial relationships. It also revealed that his reading comprehension was extremely high and auditory recall was exceptional. The coaching that I received has been a lifesaver for me through these last four years. It equipped me with the language and strategies in working with teachers and where to offer support to my son. I was reassured that eventually it would pose no problem, once he uses the computer and spell check (spelling was also very immature). It also helped in choosing the appropriate level of classes. For example, he had difficulty with transcribing from one column to another (spatial) in math, which has been a source of anxiety for him...There are so many aspects of learning. It was a relief to both of us to understand what his particular style of learning was and how best to assist him.
This is for the mother of the 12 year old who thinks of all kinds of inventive ways to avoid writing. It certainly sounds like he's a bright kid whose hand can't keep pace with his ideas. I have an 11yo with a mental age of 17-3 and a written expression equivalent of 9-6 -- he qualifies as special ed with a disability in written expression. The cause can be anything from poor pen grip to visual or aural processing problems. There are all kinds of accommodations the school can provide. Start by addressing a letter to the principal describing his problem [i.e., what you wrote to the list] and requesting evaluation for special ed and/or 504. The school office will be able to give you info explaining these acts and their procedures/timelines. The school then has a defined period of time to conduct an evaluation - you don't have to pay for it. Do it NOW before school ends, or he will get lost in the shuffle of requests at the beginning of next year. This goes for any kind of learning problem. Do a search for URLs about dysgraphia and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); start with LDOnline and the MiningCo.
Kids have real problems getting their thoughts down on paper and feeling good about it. The "smarter" they are, sometimes, the harder it is. Especially in today's public schools. Some teacher's don't often spend enough time encouraging creative writing with all the other burdens they have to bear. Kid's have a hard time, because it is another step in the process. As in reading to oneself and reading out loud, those are separate, increasing in complexity tasks. My son has gotten better at reading and writing by being on the internet. Mavis Bacon teachs typing is a good "learn to type" program as is the Mario Brothers program. I think a good creative writing class could be helpful. One that combines art and writing.
June 1999
My daughter, soon to be 15, also had trouble with cursive writing. Her 6th grade teacher made no effort to require cursive or to help kids. My daughter can write her name in cursive and that is all. Interestingly, her father also could not write in cursive. (So, maybe some of this is genetic?) Printing is definitely the slow way to go..... I was told (by someone -- and it wasn't her 6th grade teacher) that if a kid doesn't have this skill by 6th grade, it's not going to develop. I would not take this as a given, but I know it's too late in my daughter's case. I think a person has to really be interested in mastering this and also have certain "fine motor skills" (is that the right expression? You probably know what I mean...).
June 1999
Here is something that might help your son while you are trying to get a more professional evaluation of his needs: a fountain pen. I know this sounds bizarre (what could be harder to manage for a non writer than a fountain pen?), but your description of your son's writing issues could have been written about both of my boys (now age 15 and 11). Someone brought them inexpensive school child fountain pens from France (cost about $5, they use cartridges). Something about writing with these pens seems to change the whole dynamic of writing for them. The 11 year old especially. If I catch him and remind him about the pen before he starts an assignment, he writes legibly (!), coherently, and at least at grade level. He also seems focused and, maybe it's the novelty (although this has now been true this whole school year), he doesn't spiral into a frenzy about hating to write. If he starts the assignment or anything else writing with another pen or a pencil, you would think he didn't know how to write either physically (cursive or printing) or conceptually. Plus his frustration quickly skyrockets.

So, I don't know why this works, but it might be something to try. (And I'd surely like to know if anyone else has had similar, or a different, experiences. I might have to rethink my opinion, based on my childhood memories, of learning the Palmer Method!)


I think the fountain pen is a great idea. Also, making writing an art activity. With a fine paint brush and watercolors and large sheets of white paper, is a way of awakening the art of fine penmenship. Have them practice with their name or a simple phrase like thank you or welcome. Or copy a spcial saying or poem and draw a picture.

7th grader's unintelligible handwriting affecting grades

March 2004

Looking for help for my 12 year-old son. He will receive his first bad report card this month as a 7th grader in a private school. A big part of his problem is currently unintelligible handwriting, a skill his teachers in the public schools didn't teach, for which he shows no aptitude, and with which his teachers no longer have any patience. Because it's hard for him he is also averse to writing, and underperforms on written assignments: a classic example being using synonyms instead of definitions on a vocabulary test... He types when possible, but still avoids writing more than necessary (or slightly less, hence the grades). He also has much poorer drawing skills than his peer group, but the repercussions from that have been slight.

This year is the first year that his generally sweet demeanor has not gotten him out of the problems his chicken scratch gets him into. Because he has other organizational issues (losing assignments, forgetting to do homework, etc.) and a family history of ADD, it may be that an assessment for related learning problems is in order.

But... because he is a 12 year-old boy, it may also be that this is a stage he's going through, and that all he needs is help with his handwriting, and consistent support from his parents.

One question is whether to consult an OT, or get a broader evaluation, but in the larger sense, I'm hoping someone else has been on this road before and can tell me which way to go -- all suggestions gratefully accepted.Thanks! Anonymous for my boy's sake


Your description of your son sounds like classic dysgraphia. If this is the case, his instinct to rely on keyboarding is right on. Dysgraphics don't get enough info from their fingers to their brains, so the brain needs to call in other areas to take up the slack. This means these areas are not available for other operations, often making the child feel stupid. Their handwriting is often illegible, and spelling doesn't develope. Dysgraphics are also often affected by organizational issues.Middle school is a classic place, because of the way it's structured, for the kid's system to break down. I suggest you read Mel Levine's book ' A Mind at a Time'. He gives beautiful descriptions of the manifestations of various learning differences, as well as discussions of the hidden gifts and talents in these diffferences, and recommendations for strategies to work around them. I also recommend that you get him tested! My son has dysgraphia. I can't describe the relief it was for him to have a name for what is going on instead of just having a vague sense of failure. He now has tools to help him get his wonderful thoughts out into the world, and strategies to approach school work that free him from struggling with thiings that aren't gong to work. Now he can use his time and efforts to learn and he is successful. anonymous and relieved mom
In response to some of your concerns, I can share some of what I've gone through. My son is 13 years old and has illegible handwriting, sometimes he can't even read his own writing. He has severe dysgraphia. A fancy way to label his poor motor skills. He was diagnosed in 3rd grade, after alot of testing, including an OT eval. As far as your concerns go, I don't know how long your son has had handwriting issues. My son currently goes to a holistic OT in Oakland, that he started just this year. He doesn't like it too much, as intervention at this age is alot more difficult, but more importantly he doesn't want to change his handwriting. He will transition to a laptop this year to use in class and for homework.

I hope some of this information is helpful. It would be helpful to know what is the underlying problem, as you mentioned you might need to do some kind of evaluation. An OT eval might be a good place to start, or maybe consulting a pediatric behavioral and developmental physician. Good luck to you and your son vivian


My mom is an educational psychologist, and I know what she would say to you: get an assessment done. You can go to the school district even though he's in private school, or your insurance may cover it. It may be, as you say, simply a case of being twelve and having had little coaching in the way of study skills and penmanship. But he could also be in need of a little fine-motor physical therapy and maybe some help in other areas. In any case, you can't lose by getting an evaluation. At least then you'll know where to begin, and both you and your son will feel more in control of the situtation. It turned out in my brother's case that he had a combination of what's now called ADD (then it was ''hyperactivity''), mild dyslexia, and a perfectionist streak. He never loved school, but with intervention he was able to do pretty well, taking honors classes in high school and going on to college. And hey, piano lessons, begun as a way of helping him develop better fine- motor skills, ultimately led to his becoming a professional musician! Anonymous
At about the same age, my daughter had not developed a skill with cursive writing. I was concerned, but her 6th grade teacher was lackidaisical at best and wasn't interested in trying to address the problem. I later talked to someone else about this who said it's a skill which if not developed by age 12 probably won't happen. At 19 she still *prints*. She uses cursive only to sign checks, etc. Her father was the same in this regard. I'm from the ''old school'' on this: handwriting was taught in elementary school and it was a skill all students were expected to develop. My daughter thinks she may have ADHD, but I'm not sure. She was psychologically evaluated (for other reasons) but ADHD wasn't a diagnosis. I wish you the best in unraveling this issue. a Mom
Your son sounds similar to mine. He probably would have been diagnosed as add or adhd if I'd been interested in having a diagnosis, which I wasn't. I think kids range wildly in their ability to pay attention, sit still, and focus, and I knew I was never going to put him on medication, so we just did the best we could with the personality we had. All through elementary school, teachers would say he was very bright but had trouble sitting still. He also hated writing and drawing and was not good at either. His writing was very difficult to read. When he started receiving grades in middle school, they were mediocre to poor. He failed a couple subjects because he wouldn't do homework, and didn't turn in assignments. In middle school at least the handwriting was no longer an issue, because everything is pretty much typed. We (the parents) have always stressed how important education is, and how he'll have difficulty getting into college if his grades didn't improve by high school, and we asked him how he thought he could do well in high school if he didn't understand the material in middle school. We've had these discussions probably once or twice a week for years. He always said, ''Don't worry, I'll do the work when I have to.'' Sometimes I would watch him from a distance when he was with his friends at lunch or recess, or P.E. class. The other kids would sit down, or walk around some, my son was hanging from trees, climbing the goalposts, jumping around like someone who'd had way too much coffee. I asked some other parents with older kids what they thought. They said that the kids mature dramatically by high school. Another thing I heard repeatedly was that I should get him involved in sports--which he'd NEVER been interested in, despite our encouragement. I didn't really believe that, but in 8th grade he somehow decided to do track, and absolutely loved it. Now in 9th grade he lives for running, doing cross country and track. He's getting almost straight A's. I think the exercise helps burn off excess energy, and helps him focus. This is just my experience, but maybe it will give you some insight. a mom
Hey, Our son (13) also had a lot of issues being successful in school. This is so overwhelming that I think it is hard to sort out where to start. It also sounds like the teachers are overwhelmed and not able to provide the support he needs. First,my suggestion is to take it one issue at a time. while the handwriting is the biggest one you mentioned, maybe that's not the first one to address.

If he has organizational problems (as our child did) try helping to sort that out. That will weed out a lot of his confusion and inablity to keep up. Our son's teacher paired him with an A student and she showed him how she writes down assignments and organizes her work. That helped a lot. Sometimes too, the kids are overwhelmed with advice from teachers and parents and shut us out. So if you can get another kid, or older kid to help him, that works great - they listen much better - it's amazing! A friend of mine also had a specialist teach their kid how to organize themselves too - see if the school has one they recommend. Does he have a ''system''? A schedule/assignment book where he writes everything down, broken down by subject? Our son had to write down assignments in his book, then check them off as he completed them, then check them off a second time as he double checked that they were in the proper area of his folder. Find out what ''system'' the teachers have - some write the assignments down on a corner on the board, or hand out sheets, ask them so you can remind and go over this with your son. Also, I'd talk with his teachers to let them know you know what the issues are and work out a plan - in phases to help him out. It really takes a huge commitment on your part to make it happen. Anytime we slacked on our son, he slipped immediately back to old habits. Check in with him every day on homework, help him plan which assignments to tackle first, etc. Basically, do everything you can for him until he can handle it on his own and give him one new thing to do at a time. So if that means you tell him what assignments to do, how to organize them, where to put them in his notebook (so they don't get lost), to pack his bag before he sleeps, wake him up and make sure he has his stuff etc.

Also, our son was so overwhelmed he would try to avoid or lie to us and say he was ''fine'' or doing ok. So his teacher wrote us a note every day for about 2 weeks to let us know if he actually did what he was supposed to do. Not every teacher is this supportive, but perhaps they can write a weekly note home about where he did and did not follow through on assignments. It makes an incredible difference when kids know the adults are paying close attention. Let him know you are his partner in figuring this out - and whatever you do, don't lecture! Both me and my partner work full time so this was quite tiring for us, but well worth it. They just can't do it on their own. Even though sometimes you want to ''believe'' they are doing ok, just so you don't have to work as hard yourself! And this age comes with so much to deal with. They also transition from elementary to middle school with several different teachers and social pressures etc. Our son has shot up 8 inches in 6 months and is going through so much it's amazing he handles all he does. He now does his homework and is done before dinner! We really can't believe it ourselves.

Another thing that helped was getting an outside tutor. If you can't afford it, look into a local program that may be free or low-cost. Our son loved having others he felt comfortable to ask for help, instead of parents who might slip into lecture mode. Also, find out which teachers are available at lunch and before/after school to help. Our son had to go to school early every day and go to lunch or after school to clear up any confusion.

Our son also was a chicken scratcher, but once the other muddle cleared up, so did his writing. it's amazing how neat his work is now. Before, he'd literally scratch his name on the top of the paper like the tazmanian devil and not notice how awful it was. But i think when they are overwhelmed, disorganized and frustrated, you have to take it one issue at a time and it literally helps clear up the rest. once he realized how writing neater helps him w/ his work, then it wasn't an ''issue.'' For us (and maybe your son) the messy writing was more a symptom - not the cause. Your son is definitely old enought and capable of making this change - it's just helping him do it in logical steps. Good luck to you! stick by his side


Hi! My son is 8 and in a Public School. He ha major issues with writing which we recognized when he was about 6 years old. He is super bright, but his writing gets him behind his peers in school. We started him on OT 2 years ago. It has made a little difference, however on a day when he is not being extra slow and careful, the writing is not at all readable. I want to ask you if he ever had a fall in his life where he landed on the back of his head?

We have moved our son to doing homeopathy and acupuncture. Both holistic systems recognize the individuality of a child and don't treat them on a generic level. The other symptoms that you mention also seem familiar and again for those I have used homeopathy and seen wonderful results.

Other than that - Be patient and understand that your child is probably going through embarrassing moments in school which must be affecting his self esteem. My son is 8 and I am already seeing signs of low self confidence. Best of Luck. anon


My son had the same problem at the same age. Then he got interested in grafitti. Not writing it on the wall, but practicing fancy alphabets in a notebook. He also really got into skateboarding, so the''writing'' (as grafitti art is called) went along with a whole pre-teen identity. Anyway, the weird thing is, his handwriting transformed as a result of hours of making this careful lettering. I think the fact that he attained some personal power by creating a mildly counter-culture identity helped too. Today he has beautiful handwriting and is finishing a masters degree in American Sign Language (he is a hearing interpreter).

I'm not saying you should make your kid write grafitti, but at his age the combination of a self-determined, self-directed activity involving eye-hand coordination (could be drawing, knitting, building stuff, maybe a computer drawing program) that builds confidence and sets him apart as an individual works wonders. been there


My 12 year old step-son has and has had exactly the same issues about writing. In our research about this possibly being ADD related (as this is one of the traits in ADD), the advice was instead of nagging them about it or making them do penmanship excersises (as I think at 12 it's too late to undo the poor penmanship) the advice was to teach them how to type. The idea is that it is more important WHAT they write versus how they write it. In anycase most of his teacher prefer typewritten over handwritten anyway and they have told us that they don't mind if he doesn't do all the typing himself. So often we do the typing for him as he dicates to us what he wants to say. Since doing that, he has blossomed into a very good story writer. We still have our battles, but it has taken alot of the pressure off. There are really great typing programs for kids our there that have games integrated into them. anon
It is true that handwriting is given short shrift these days. As a result, many kids struggle with sloppy handwriting. It is easy to discount poor performance, thinking maybe your kid just hasn't had enough practice, or it's just not their talent; but when coupled with the organizational difficulties you mention, it begins to sound like there's more going on. We have a 12 year old son with the same difficulties you describe. He has NLD (Non Verbal Learning Disorder). This may or may not be something affecting your son---more than one learning problem presents itself with handwriting and organizational difficulties. (Note: We avoid using ''disorder'' and ''disability'' around our son, emphasizing instead that in certain areas, he learns ''differently'' than most). Please don't delay in persuing a full assessment for your son. Even if you are in private school, you can contact your local school district and ask for this. Find out who heads the Psychology Department and put your request in writing. Try to get this done before the end of the current school year. Our public school district, the WCCUSD, is facing severe budget problems and will probably be laying off many school psychologists at the end of the year. This will impact their ability to administer assessments in a timely fashion. I don't know how other districts may fare. You could go the private assessment route; the East Bay Learning Disabilities Association (eblda[at]hotmail.com)could probably help you there. Once you have the results of the assessment, you can put together a list of accomodations for you son to try. Federal law mandates that public schools must make accomodations available to those who qualify. Private schools are outside this mandate, but that doesn't mean that your school won't work with you. It would be worthwhile to see what your son's school might do to accomodate him now. Can he have extra time to complete written assignments? Can he type his work? Could some written assignments be done orally? My son's school allowed all this even before we had the formal assessment results. There is a very good website, wrightslaw.com, that does an excellent job of guiding you through the maze of education law. They also have links to other sites offering information and support for specific learning problems. We've been on this path now for three years, and initially it felt more like a roller coaster than a path! If you would like to contact me, feel free. Best of luck to you. sande
I teach middle school. There are so many things that could be going on. Bad handwritting can be lots of things from just not having good technique to a motor coordination of physical problem.

My first inclination as both a mom and a teacher (especially if money is hard) is to buy one of those handwriting books and sit with him practicing forming letters correctly. Between now and summer you can probably get a lot done toward seeing if progress happens. You definitely will need to get some buy in on his part... Don't present it as a punishment, but do explain that this is part of a greater process aimed at improving his handwritting since he won't beable to type everything his whole life.

If going over how to make the letters correctly, and practicing that don't help them you can start him on some tests. UC Optometry has a Binocular Vision clinic that can test him to see if you are dealing with a visual/motor coordination problem. If that is the problem, then they will give him exercises he can do. I don't know if they cost more than the OT you are considering. It may be worth the call.

Regardless of the cause there are a couple of things that can help... one is as you already are doing... to see if he can type assignments. On assignments he can't type make sure that he is using wide ruled paper (not college ruled) and is taking time with his work. A lot of bad handwriting at this age seems to be from rushing to get the work done.

The second part of the problem that you describe, using the fewest number of words possible, is also very common. As a teacher I am forever telling kids to provide more details and explain their answer. A related problem that I have to repeatedly address is kids who do not give complete answers... they just move from the question to ''because...'' There is no magic answer to this one. As a teacher, I go over my expectations in class, and after they should have the idea, I dock points. What I recommend their parents do, is check their work. If you can't tell what the question was, and what the answer means by simply reading what is on the paper (not looking back at the book) then it needs to be rewritten. For some kids, that is enough incentive to put out the effort the first time. I know high school teachers who are struggling with the same problem. So it isn't something unique to your son or even being in junior high. Let's face it, lots of teens are looking for the shortest route to being done with the drudge of school work. (It is a lot like when they clean their room by pushing all the mess into the closet and under the bed. If they can get by that way, they will.)

If you think the problem is linked to the act of writting and not to comprehension, it could clear up as you work on the handwritting. Sometimes it helps to have a tutor who can go over the homework and how to answer questions so that there is less of a power struggle involved in the equation. (There are a lot of kids who don't want to hear from mom or the teacher about how to do it... but will take advice from an outside party.) Good luck! teacher mom


I can really empathize! I have a gifted, cooperative and quite charming 13 yr old boy, yet could have written this exact message -- right down to the underperforming aspects of his written school work and the critique that teachers really don't teach handwriting anymore. My 8th grade son cannot write in cursive, even his signature, and his printing is practically illegible, though since puberty, it has gotten marginally better. My son's art work, his illustrations for book reports, and his science fair posters, etc. which, unfortunately, many teachers use for part of a student's grade, are woefully subpar compared to those of most of his peers.

We decided to take our son to an educational therapist for testing (we had some of the same issues with missing assignments, disorganized school materials, etc.) to see if we could identify the problem and suggest a solution. We had confirmed what we already knew -- that he did have a deficit in this physiomotor area, but we also discovered that he could be classified as ''disabled'' if we wanted to go that route, because his deficit was that extreme. His dad and his brother seem to have a similar deficit in handwriting ability, so there's probably something genetic to it.

We learned that there really isn't any ''treatment'' since it's neurological in origin -- and being forced to say, practice handwriting, won't really help and will probably only frustrate him. Modifications to his school set up (e.g. having a laptop in a classroom--permitted if you have him documented as having a disability) and teaching him strategies for success like doing his homework on a computer (his output is of higher quality than if he handwrites) are about all we have come up with. Lately, we are trying an educational ''coach'' once a week to help with some of the school management issues; too soon to tell if that's going to pay off, and of course, it's expensive.

While my son does well on fill-in-the-bubble tests, he will certainly face difficulties with (timed) essay writing tests in high school and we may have to revisit the idea of having him assigned as ''disabled'' to make sure things are set up so he can show what he knows. As a teenager, you can imagine how much he will resist getting any special treatment like that. For us, it's also hard to adjust to since he is so smart and capable in so many areas. I'm happy to correspond with you by email if you like. We're just trying to figure it out, too. mnm


Lest your son protest that handwriting is obsolete in the age of computers, you might remind him that he will continue to write things by hand at least through the end of college (about nine more years). As a graduate student instructor (TA) at UC Berkeley, I can tell you that if I can't read a response in an exam or assignment, I can't give the student any credit for it. AP exams and even the SAT (I think) have writing portions as well.

For handwriting, as with nearly all things, practice makes perfect. It is not too late to start. Your son is lucky to have a problem that is so simple to solve. David, Berkeley


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