Write on! | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - February 2007

Write on!

Between five and ten per cent of the UK school-age population suffers from developmental coordination disorder (sometimes called dyspraxia). That means there’s probably one child in every classroom in the UK who, despite having normal intelligence, needs extra help with tasks such as handwriting.

Though parents often suspect a problem early on, getting an accurate diagnosis can take time, and ensuring adequate support at school can be very difficult. Primary school can be tough enough — but it’s at secondary school that the difficulties can become acute.

Children with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) often find it hard to learn how to write legibly and even when they do, their handwriting is untidy and often very slow.

At secondary school, they can’t take notes or get their homework down fast enough — and when they get home they may not be able to read what they have written. In exams, they often get lower marks than they should because their writing is so difficult to read and overall, those who struggle with slow or untidy writing do less well at school and often can’t pursue the career they would like. This underachievement can lead to depression and other psychiatric problems in later life.

But some of the problems can be avoided if special arrangements are made — such as extra time or the use of a computer in exams. To make this happen though, an accurate assessment of each child’s skills is needed, something that has been lacking up until now.

But help is at hand. An Action Medical Research grant of £51,301 has funded the development of new tests to assess the problem, which should help to accurately diagnose the handwriting difficulties experienced by young people with DCD — and so get them the help they need to fulfil their academic potential.

Developing a test

Professor Sheila Henderson from the Institute of Education, University of London, and Dr Anna Barnett of Oxford Brookes University, have developed two tests, which together provide a much more comprehensive assessment of teenagers with coordination difficulties. The first is an update of a well-established test of general movement competence called the Movement Assessment Battery for Children (M-ABC). The second — the Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting (DASH) — is new.

The development of any new test involves finding a way of estimating what the average child in the UK can do at a particular age. For the M-ABC and the DASH, this was a mammoth undertaking, involving over 1,000 children from across the UK. This included pupils age nine through to 16, from Stornoway to Plymouth and Cardiff to Norwich, undertaking both tests.

Professor Henderson says, “It was quite a task, but we needed to establish a baseline of what should be expected at secondary school level, so that teachers can judge accurately who really needs help.”

The two standardised tests should make an immediate difference to children suffering the stress of DCD at school. Current guidelines on which pupils should receive extra help with class work and exams are unclear and the new tests will describe each young person’s condition much more accurately, helping to direct resources to those children who really need them.

Frustration

Professor Henderson says, “Children at secondary school need to be able to take fast and legible notes, and of course in examination conditions, need to be able to write answers quickly.

“This is impossible for some young people, who simply cannot write fast or neatly enough. We have seen youngsters with an IQ of 150 but an inability to write quickly enough to cope well in many situations.

“The frustration of having the answers in your head but not being able to get them down on paper must be enormous, but for most children all that is needed is an understanding of the problem and extra time in exams, perhaps the assistance of a reader or the use of a computer.Without those, they are at a huge disadvantage.”

^The new tests will be suitable for all children who have mild to moderate movement difficulties^, including those with dyslexia, Asperger syndrome and attention deficit disorder. The research has already been presented at several conferences.

It’s not the first time that money from Action Medical Research has gone to a project looking at DCD — and the grant made all the difference. Professor Henderson says, “Without it, we would not have been able to embark on such a major study.We simply would not have been able to make the progress we have.” TL


A UK-wide exercise

Collecting more than 1,000 examples of handwriting ‘speed’ relied on the help of teachers and therapists around the country. The main sample had to be from children without DCD, and representative across age, gender, ethnic and social groups.

Professor Henderson, Dr Anna Barnett and Beverly Scheib worked with Professor John Rust from Cambridge Assessment, with therapists, teachers and psychologists to ensure that data was collected in the best possible way. Every child completed five handwriting tasks in the DASH, each designed to assess a different aspect of handwriting. They also performed other coordination tasks to assess manipulative abilities, hand-eye coordination and balance.

Dr Barnett explains, “There was not a lot of information of this kind before our research, but what is clear from the samples we collected is that there is a range of ability when it comes to writing speed and legibility. However, the writing performance of children known to have movement difficulties does stand out very clearly.

“Problems with handwriting range from difficulty with spelling to an inability to hold a pen correctly, and of course having the ideas to write down in the first place. The DASH gives us a multi-faceted view, not just focusing on one task as most tests have done. Our job now is to write the manual that will be used by teachers and health professionals to accompany the tests so that it can be rolled out nationally.”

Professor Henderson continues, “^Every child is unique and those with difficulties may require a range of strategies to help them achieve the right results.^ Having said that, we have realised that handwriting is poorly taught in many places, with not enough time for it in the literacy hour of the national curriculum. A strong handwriting policy in schools and the ability to accurately assess children who have DCD are extremely important. Once taught, good handwriting lasts a lifetime.”

Professor Henderson is a founder member of the National Handwriting Association (NHA), which promotes the improvement of handwriting skills in UK schools and helps youngsters with difficulties.

Angela Webb, chair of the NHA and a teacher for children with DCD says, “If children with handwriting difficulties can be identified early, they respond well to intervention, but when they are in their teens it can be hard to help them catch up. We are not looking for beautiful handwriting — rather the ability to produce a quantity of legible work. This is a neurological disorder, not a child being careless or deliberately slow.”

For more information on handwriting, and resources for teachers and parents, visit www.nha-handwriting.org.uk


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