Messy handwriting in second grade girls, when no other symptoms are present, is a reason to look for ADHD, inattentive type. It can predict problems with written English in third grade and with organization and social skills, says Martha Denckla, M.D., developmental neurologist at Kennedy Kreeger Institute (Baltimore).
In the brain the motor control area is next to the cognitive control area. The motor area “runs ahead of the cognitive control area,” she explains. “Look [to assess] how easily they acquire motor patterns, Denckla said, “It is an important indicator of cognitive control maturity (executive function skills).”
Executive function skills relate to when and how well we do things, she said, and involve the frontal lobe of the brain [behind the forehead]. These skills include actively initiating, sustaining, inhibiting, shifting, planning, and organizing tasks.
Addressing parents and teachers at a school for dyslexic students in Montgomery County, MD, Denckla stated that by third grade, handwriting should be fluent and effortless, but instead is often “horrible” and effortful. By third grade, if it takes trying, it is a problem, she said. It should be automatic by then– “part of the infrastructure [of learning].”
Denckla lamented the practice of introducing handwriting in pre-school and kindergarten, which she said led to the adoption of the ‘fist’ grip and other maladaptive pencil grips, which cannot be changed after a year of use. “Look at how naturally they hold the pencil. If they are not moving it with the tips of the fingers, [teachers] should use the large muscles and very large movements to have them practice letters on a vertical surface with magic markers, finger paints, chalk.”
She commented that cursive writing is more neurologically appropriate for beginning handwriting instruction. “The simplicity of the letter formation, going in the same direction, conforms more to the neurological [developmental] sequence.”
Finally, Dr. Denckla noted that medication* for ADHD works only to improve inhibition and does not improve memory, although she added, greater inhibition means that the student is less distractible.
Claire Nissenbaum, founder and former Exec. Dir. Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center, Rockville, Maryland
*[Recent research studies report that the medication has no effect after the second year. CN]
Claire Nissenbaum, M.A., F.A.O.G.P.E., founded the Rockville( MD)-based Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center (ASDEC) in 2000, and served as its Executive Director for ten years. She was formerly President and CEO of the National Institute of Dyslexia, Chevy Chase, MD, a multi-program center with three schools, including a professional education and training school, a community-based diagnostic and treatment center, and a research and information center. NID attracted national and international attention. Its staff members and consultants included William Cruickshank, Ph.D., Martha Bridge Denckla, M.D., Sharon Lockwood, Ph.D., Larry Silver, M.D., Susan Vogel, Ph.D., Diane Paul, Ph.D., and others. Its school for dyslexic students earned Blue Ribbon status from the U.S. Dept. of Education, the first in the Washington/ Baltimore area to do so. A graduate of Hunter College, NYC, Mrs. Nissenbaum began her career as a classroom teacher and was later education and youth reporter. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.