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Dysgraphia and Advocacy
Q: My gifted sixth-grader has had processing problems since second grade. I had excellent help in the elementary grades -- they developed a 504 plan for him. Now that he's in middle school, the staff is not as willing to help him. His self-image has come into play, and he doesn't want to be helped. I have asked the school to test him for dysgraphia -- which I think is his processing problem -- and they've refused because he's not failing any subjects.
However, he's not working up to his potential -- everything takes too long for him. If no one is going to listen, he'll just give up when the work load becomes too heavy. He's so talented that I would hate for this to happen. What else can I do with the school system?
A: There are several points to your question. As kids get to middle-school age, the need to be the same as their peers becomes very important. I have counseled many older kids who try to refuse special-education interventions if they feel they make them "stick out" in a classroom.
You stated that your son had a helpful 504 plan in elementary school. Was it renewed by the school district when he went to middle school? Plans are typically reviewed annually. If his current school testing shows that your son has a significant discrepancy between his ability and his school performance, then he is entitled for the services to continue. The school counselor might be able to help him accept the services he is entitled to, and to see that help is not delivered in such a way as to embarrass him in the classroom.
You said that you think your son has dysgraphia. Webster's Dictionary defines this as an inability to write adequately due to brain damage. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual 4th Edition (the DSM IV -- the sourcebook for mental health diagnoses) identifies a "Disorder of Written Expression" as "writing skills (that) ...are substantially below those expected given the person's ...age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education".
A diagnosis is required for a 504 plan to be put into place, and individually administered standardized tests are needed to determine if there is a learning discrepancy. If your son has an active 504 plan, then they are usually required to test him every few years. You should ask the school if they will accept outside, private, educational testing, which you may need to obtain. Your son may be eligible for interventions such as shortened written assignments, the use of a computer for written work, etc.
Don't hesitate to be an advocate for your son and his learning needs. Older students do indeed often give up when they get too frustrated. If the goals on his educational plan are not being adhered to, I would encourage you to contact your state's Department of Education and ask to speak to an omsbudsman -- a problem solver -- who may be able to help you further. Good luck.
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Noreen Joslyn is a licensed independent social worker in the state of Ohio and is a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers. She has a master's degree in Social Work, specializing in family and children, from the University of Pittsburgh. She is a psychiatric social worker in private practice with Ken DeLuca, Ph.D. & Associates, where she counsels parents and children.