From the Archive
This article, outlining some of the handwriting problems that can affect children with high learning potential, has a particular focus on identifying neuro-developmental writing difficulties. It originally appeared in the Autumn 2013 print edition of Focus on Potential.
Many high learning potential children face learning challenges, as well as advanced learning capabilities. One common characteristic that many of these children share is difficulty putting their thoughts into writing. The thoughts in their heads or the ideas they express verbally tend to be much more complex than the writing they produce on paper.
Some high learning potential children have a formal diagnosis of dysgraphia which, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), is a ‘disorder of written expression’ in which writing skills ‘are substantially below those expected given the person’s…age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education.’ The disorder can affect some or all of the following abilities:
- Forming letters and words
- Using correct spelling, grammar and punctuation
- Organising thoughts and ideas into written form.
Not all children with writing difficulties are formally diagnosed with dysgraphia. Some may be identified as having other learning disorders that can interfere with their ability to express thoughts in writing. Examples of these disorders include:
- Specific language impairment
- Attention deficit disorder
- High functioning autism.
Yet other children lack a diagnosis but nonetheless are hampered in expressing themselves in writing. Issues such as perfectionism and anxiety, that are common in high learning potential children, can be responsible for holding back their ability and willingness to produce written output.
Multifaceted Development of Handwriting
Expressing ideas in writing is a highly complicated process that involves sensory, muscle and cognitive development. Problems in any of these areas can result in writing difficulties. The writing process places a heavy burden on the frontal lobes of the brain, where executive functions and working memory also sit. The ability to plan, organise and carry out tasks are all examples of executive functions. Working memory is what allows us to hold information in mind and manipulate it in the short term. One example of executive functioning being used is the recalling of facts and the organisation of them into a logical sequence. Another is the application of the rules of spelling to words or the rules of grammar to sentences being written. A weakness in executive functioning and working memory is an issue that many children with high learning potential face.
Looking at writing difficulties in a neuro-developmental way, Dr Mel Levine outlines the causes of writing difficulties in his book Developmental Variations and Learning Disorders and on the PBS website Misunderstood Minds.
Causes of Writing Problems
Neuro-Developmental Problems Affecting Writing
Commonly Appear As:
May Result In:
Trouble coordinating the small muscles of the fingers and hand to manipulate writing instrument.
- Minimal written output
- Writing very slowly and with great effort
- An awkward and tiring pencil grip
- Lack of fluidity in cursive writing
- Difficulty forming letters
Inability to match writing speed with the flow of ideas
Challenges in organising letters, words or sentences on a page.
- Poor use of lines on the paper
- Organisation issues
- Uneven spacing between lines
Misspelled words frequently
Difficulty in determining the correct logical order of letters, ideas, etc.
- Poor letter formation
- Transposed letters and spelling omissions
- Poor narrative sequencing
Lack of transitions
Finding it hard to plan, initiate or complete writing tasks, and mental fatigue from writing.
- Difficulty getting started on written tasks
- Easily distracted from writing
- Inconsistent legibility
- Uneven writing tempo
- Many careless errors
Poorly planned assignments
Difficulty constructing sentences and describing or explaining ideas due to:
- Difficulty with word sounds and spelling
- Limited comprehension of words and their meanings
- Limited vocabulary
Poor grasp of word order and grammar.
- Awkward phrasing and unconventional grammar
- Trouble reading back what is written
Inappropriate use of colloquial language
Difficulty remembering what should come automatically in the writing process such as:
- Recalling spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules
- Organising ideas
Accessing prior knowledge while writing.
- Many misspellings
- Frequent capitalisation, punctuation and grammar errors
- Limited vocabulary
Ideas and facts presented out of order
Difficulty bringing original thought, creativity or critical thinking skills to the writing task.
- Trouble generating ideas or elaborating on them
- Difficulty organising ideas
- Lack of opinion or sense of audience
Difficulty with writing tasks that require creativity and/or critical thinking
The demanding nature of writing means that high learning potential children, in particular dual and multiple exceptional (DME) children, often produce inconsistent output. Being able to form letters neatly may be possible but it may take more time and energy than others without developmental differences. Children may be able to produce a well constructed paragraph one day and struggle to get a simple sentence down the next.
Teachers and other observers could be forgiven for jumping to the wrong conclusion about a child with written output that is this inconsistent. According to clinical psychologists working in the field John and Pamela McCaskill, a more likely explanation is that written expression requires more conscious, deliberate effort and physical energy than for their peers. They may have difficulty switching mindsets smoothly and using the skills they possess consistently and reliably, therefore becoming tired and frustrated more quickly than peers. The differences in an individual’s performance gives rise to the suspicion that they are fully capable of completing the work but don’t want to put in the effort to do so. It is more likely that during moments of high level performance they are demonstrating the motivation to comply and succeed as well as strongly focused effort to achieve this. Given that the performance takes such energy to produce, such levels of effort cannot be sustained consistently whilst also contending with the demands of every day life.
Emotional stress is often experienced by children with writing challenges. Frustration is felt for the following reasons:
- their inability to do what the rest of the class seem to be able to do
- being unfairly criticised for being inattentive or not putting in effort
- comments about work being untidy or sloppy
- falling behind with school work leading to poor grades
- being kept behind to complete work and missing playtimes.
In addition, parents are anxious and frustrated about their child’s inability to write well when their verbal skills are so good. They may also become angry at their child for putting off doing homework that involves writing. Attempts to motivate the child don’t seem to make any impact and measures to help the child form letters do not help either. Trying to complete written homework can have a negative effect on family life.
Writing Challenges and High Learning Potential
Perfectionism is experienced by many high learning potential children, especially those who are not used to being challenged in their thinking and learning. These children have extremely high standards for their output and any discrepancy between their written output and their thinking ability causes them to be unwilling to complete written work.
Children who experience writing challenges and have high learning potential are often acutely aware of their difficulties in relation to their verbal ability and the progress of their peer group. The complexity of their thought and the depth of their knowledge put a burden on their working memory and executive functioning already, without the added stress of trying to sequence ideas and organise thoughts. The process often causes considerable anxiety, which in turn adds to the issues surrounding writing for the individual.
This article finishes in the print edition with the intention of further articles to help support the high learning potential child with their writing challenges.
For a full explanation of how to help young people develop coping strategies visit the website Misunderstood Minds which suggests strategies that can be incorporated into daily routines to enable children to adapt and adjust to handwriting difficulties: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/misunderstoodminds/writingstrats.html and for practical strategies to develop handwriting through practice visit our 2019 article: Supporting High Learning Potential Children with Handwriting Difficulties by Potential Plus UK Senior Education Consultant, Rebecca Howell.