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HONING FINE MOTOR SKILLS

Q. Our 7-year-old, second-grade son has difficulty completing written assignments, including math. He is left-handed and has some difficulty with fine motor skills. His handwriting is barely legible. He reads very well, is generally eager to learn, and cooperative.

We have experienced no "behavior problems." The teacher and counselor have recommended observation and testing for something they call dysgraphia. Can you shed any light on this problem? Do you think we even have one, and if so, what should we do about it?

A. I tend to be very conservative in my approach to matters of this sort. It's my opinion that all too many of today's mental health and education professionals see a "disorder" behind every problem. This well-intentioned perspective often leads them to mystify problems that can be simply explained. And the more complicated the explanation, the more expensive the "cure."

If you'd feel more comfortable obtaining an evaluation, then by all means do so. On the other hand, here's my simple theory: Your son's handwriting problems are mostly a reflection of the fact he's a lefty in a right-handed world.

Unlike his right-handed counterpart, your son can't see what he's written or how he's written it unless he stops writing and lifts his left hand off the page. If he does that, however, he repeatedly interrupts his thoughts. If he wants to think "smoothly," he has to sacrifice penmanship. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he chooses the latter. Good for him.

The other facet of this "problem" is few public schools teach handwriting by way of the Palmer Method, which fell out of favor because it involved drill. And drill, according to nouveau education theory, is tedious and boring. As such, the pundits claim it causes children to dislike learning. Never mind that drill results in better skills and, therefore, improved chances of success and a better self-concept.

Teachers no longer demand that children form letters precisely, any more than they demand proper spelling. They tolerate sloppy handwriting, then get all excited when it suddenly gets too sloppy.

The Palmer Method, in combination with high expectations, worked for everyone (save those children who were destined to become physicians). Not that all children of my generation (the last generation to be taught by drill) wrote equally well. But we wrote legibly. We had to, and as has been the case since Adam and Eve, children will only do what they have to do.

Now, my equally simple "cure": Find a left-handed tutor to teach your son the Palmer Method. If you can't afford a tutor, and feel competent to do the teaching yourself (it's not rocket science), buy a Palmer Method workbook, some ruled primary penmanship pads, and a set of the Palmer Method cards.

Put the cards up in your son's room, familiarize yourself with the workbook, and then, with patience, help your son improve his penmanship. Conduct daily 30-minute penmanship drills. Be encouraging, not demanding, but insist that he apply himself to these exercises such that good penmanship starts becoming a habit.

I'll just bet you're going to discover that this "disorder" is nothing more than a hurdle.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at http://www.rosemond.com/parenting on the World Wide Web.

If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.

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