When Messy Handwriting Becomes Dysgraphia: A Writing Disorder

Children start their written language journey as soon as they’re able to control their hands. Learning how to write and properly form letters is a skill that children work on for several years, with some kids beginning as early as age 2! Practice is essential for improving handwriting, but sometimes writing problems still exist – making it difficult to understand what a child is trying to convey. When messy handwriting, jumbled letters, and misspelled words persist or get worse, it could indicate a writing disorder. It is important for parents to pay attention to their child’s writing progress to determine whether struggles are age-appropriate or a potential symptom of dysgraphia in children.

Different Causes of Writing Difficulties in Children

Not every case of messy handwriting is necessarily a sign of something more serious. Sometimes children are rushing to finish and not taking their time or paying enough attention. There are many factors that can contribute to disordered writing:

Core Strength/Stability

It’s likely that many children don’t think about the position of their body when they write, but core strength and stability play an important role in penmanship. How your child is holding their body – body posture, the position of their arms, the movement of their wrist, and even how they hold a pencil – impacts the development of their handwriting.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD can also affect children’s ability to write clearly. When their mind is jumping from one topic to the next, or they are easily distracted, focusing on how and what they are writing is not usually top of mind. Recognizing the difference between dysgraphia and ADHD can be difficult when looking at handwriting challenges.


Dyslexia, a disorder involving the ability to quickly and accurately decode words, can make it hard for children to determine what letters are in a word and what order they go in, which can lead to sloppy and disorganized writing and spelling. Between 5% and 10% of the population is estimated to have dyslexia.

Difficulty Using Materials

Being able to properly grasp a pencil or maneuver a marker on a vertical white board can contribute to writing problems as well. It is important for children to have materials that fit their physical needs and abilities. Short, thinner pencils can be easier for children to balance and maneuver while writing. Activities to strengthen their pincer grip, such as stringing beads or dropping coins in a small slot, can help as well.

Dysgraphia: A Writing Disorder

Dysgraphia is a writing disorder that presents itself through impaired written expression – trouble spelling words and organizing thoughts on paper. While the exact causes are unknown, dysgraphia research is being conducted all the time to learn more. It is estimated that approximately 7% to 15% of children are affected by a written-language disorder, and males are two to three times more likely to be affected.

Symptoms of Dysgraphia

The condition is more than just messy handwriting. Other symptoms of dysgraphia to be aware of include:

  • Problems forming letters and spacing them out evenly when writing.
  • Difficulty staying within the lines and margins on a paper.
  • Trouble holding a pencil correctly or keeping the body in a proper position for writing.
  • Frequently misspelling words when writing but spelling them correctly orally.
  • Mixing capital and lowercase letters within words or sentences.
  • Writing confusing sentences with jumbled ideas or no clear sequence.

One study found that there are notable differences in white and gray matter in the brains of children with dysgraphia and/or dyslexia. Children with those conditions have less white matter, which impacts connections in the brain that send information. But within the gray matter, there are more functional connections that support thinking and language processing. Essentially, their brains must work harder during written-language activities than those of neurotypical peers.

Strategies and Treatment from Therapeutic Movements

Studies have also shown that 48% of parents believe that children can grow out of learning disabilities. That is an encouraging statistic but learning disabilities can often impact individuals for the duration of their lives. There are many strategies that can help children with writing disorders to manage their symptoms and improve their writing skills. Whether your child has dysgraphia and ADHD or another learning disability, professional experts can help them to work through these challenges and feel more confident in their writing. In addition, dysgraphia can be considered a “specific learning disability” in the disability categories under IDEA, meaning your child may be eligible for additional support in school.

Adaptive Tools

Setting your child up with dysgraphia writing tools such as pencil grips, slanted writing surfaces, raised or highlighted paper, or other organizers can help to clean up messy handwriting and get writing on track. An early introduction to cursive writing is used as an intervention for some children. The flow of cursive and starting every letter on the bottom line can be very helpful to some children.

HWOT Program

Handwriting Without Tears (HWOT) is a structured program we offer that gives step-by-step instruction on how to correctly form letters and reinforces muscle memory. Children practice writing in a fun yet educational way that makes sense. Letters with similar shapes and strokes are grouped together to simplify learning.

Occupational and Physical Therapy

Getting your child into physical and occupational therapy programs can significantly help with symptoms of dysgraphia. They will work on core strength, fine and gross motor skills, visual motor skills, and much more. Handwriting classes at Therapeutic Movements can also be beneficial where children can build a strong foundation and learn specific strategies to manage their challenges.

Early Diagnosis

Whether your child has dysgraphia or simply struggles with making their writing neat and organized, there is help available. Continued practice and positive reinforcement can go a long way. Find ways to make practicing writing fun and provide your children with the tools and resources they need to be more successful. Therapeutic Movements works with children on a wide range of disabilities including writing disorders and handwriting skills. Check out our frequently asked questions to learn more and get your child the support they need to thrive.


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