Today host Lori Boll speaks with Cheri Dotterer all about Dysgraphia. Cheri is an international speaker, author, and consultant who trains adults to shift their mindsets about struggling writers to strengthen the social-emotional well-being of people with dysgraphia so they can fully engage in life activities and unleash their potential to change their future and other generations through the written word. She is an occupational therapist, adjunct instructor, and author of Handwriting Brain Body DisConnect. Lori and Cheri discuss signs and symptoms of dysgraphia in our students, the different types of dysgraphia, and how we can support them in our classrooms.

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Cheri is an international speaker, author, and consultant who trains adults to shift their mindsets about struggling writers to strengthen the social-emotional well-being of people with dysgraphia so they can fully engage in life activities and unleash their potential to change their future and other generations through the written word. She is an occupational therapist, adjunct instructor, and author of Handwriting Brain Body DisConnect. She lives with her husband of 31 years. They have two adult children. 

Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hours worth of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Hello listeners. Today, I speak with Cheri Dotterer, who is an international speaker, author, and consultant who trains adults to shift their mindsets about struggling writers and to strengthen the social emotional wellbeing of people with dysgraphia so they can fully engage in life activities and unleash their potential to change their future and other generations through the written world – word, excuse me. She’s an occupational therapist, adjunct instructor, and author of Handwriting Brain Body Disconnect. So Cheri and I today, we talk about our students and what we see as signs or symptoms of dysgraphia. We talk about the types of dysgraphia and how we can best support them. So sit back, relax, and enjoy. And now, onto the show. 

Hi Cheri and welcome to the podcast. 

Cheri: Hey, it’s great to be here! It’s wonderful to meet you face to face, even though it’s virtual. 

Lori: *laughs* yes. Our lives these days… So, I am really excited to speak to you today. As a long-time learning support teacher, I had many students throughout the years who had dysgraphia and I understand this is your passion and area of expertise. 

Cheri: Yes. It all started when I had, my daughter come to me and go “Mom, I can’t spell this word” which started this bandwagon, she was in upper elementary, grades where you struggled with spelling which happens to this day. Even though she’s in a honors programme in grad school. And then, as, working as an occupational therapist, I get kids who can’t read but also have the problem of writing and I’m like “where is this dichotomy of a child who can read and have trouble with writing, and a child who can’t read at all”… and obviously, that one is a little bit clearer to understand, but the one I was trying to really figure out was that child that can read and not be able to write. What is going on with that? And what I discovered over time is, it’s all about neurology. 

Lori: Well yeah! Great. So let’s get to the basics. What is dysgraphia? What’s it mean? 

Cheri: So, I’m gonna go to the core of the matter. And that is in the DSM5. THe DSM5 says that dysgraphia is grammar, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, paragraph organization, clarity, spelling, and then they have it separated into four different categories. And in the supplemental categories, it says there is an activity demand to exceeding the students’ capacity and that it interferes with the activities of daily living or as we, in the world of OT calls them, ADLs. 

Lori: Right. Actually, so that was something I learned from reading your information on your website, is that there are different types of dysgraphia. Which isn’t something I’d really thought about before but obviously it makes complete sense. So, can you tell us more about those types? 

Cheri: Sure, I will. But before I do that, I also want to clarify what dysgraphia is not, because this is where we really run into an aha moment, when we’re really thinking about what dysgraphia is. And what the DSM5 says that dysgraphia is not is intellectual disability, visual auditory disability, mental health disorders, neurological disorders, psychological adversity. And then they add some qualifiers for education – lack of proficiency in language skills and inadequate instruction. So that brings us to what… when you think about it, you know, a lot of these kids that really can read have ADHD. Many students with autism that are those high-functioning autism kids, they are gifted and they can exceedingly read, excuse me, way above grade level. And I was like. Huh. Another part that was really frustrating me is those kids that were on the borderline and just could not get support. You know, those, that bell curve says you’re at an 86 or 87? Well then you don’t qualify… and I’m like but they’re struggling! What can I do?! 

Lori: Right. 

Cheri: So I really was delving into those pieces of how can I help these kids that are on the borderline that are brilliant but are struggling. And I found the International Dyslexia Association and they basically have 3 definitions. One is visual spatial, one is motor, and the other one is dyslexic dysgraphia. And dyslexic dysgraphia has nothing to do with dyslexia, and I was like “I don’t understand this. This isn’t making sense”. So I kept delving and kept delving and delving, and I had this odd aha moment when I went back to my roots as neurological occupational therapist, I’ve studied sensory processing disorders my entire career. And I went, it’s all about the sensory motor process! So let’s go back and figure out how to help and manage all these kids because I kept getting “well, they know how to form their letters” and “they don’t have to worry about it anymore” but there’s so much more to putting words and sentences and paragraphs on paper. I knew in my heart I could help more kids. So I really delved into it and I discovered that there are 3 parts to writing. 

And that is biomechanical, language, and cognitive. That biomechanical level is where the sensory motor cycle begins. And that’s visual spatial, motor, and I also include memory there because if you don’t have the memory support, you are not gonna do anything with the visual spatial and motor. You need that memory piece. Then if we add that second layer, that language layer, that’s where we form words and sentences. And that top layer is cognitive and that is where we create paragraphs, whether they’re technical, they’re fiction or nonfiction, they’re expository, they’re narrative, that’s the ultimate goal is that we can get to that level and be creative and create curiosity with what we’re putting on paper. But we need to start at that foundation and that foundation is where I spend a lot of, still, a lot of my time in my education process. But I still have interventions that can help the language at levels of dysgraphia. 

Lori: Oh wow. So I had never thought of it being sensory motor related before. So thank you for explaining that. I live in that world quite a bit myself just working with so many students on the spectrum, on the autism spectrum, so can you share maybe one support that you might have for this sensory motor process? 

Cheri: Sure. As a matter of fact, I’m doing a training, a professional development training on this tonight, and that is the use of extension. Extension is a category of our body movements that we don’t even think about when think about writing. When we go to write, we sit down on a chair at a desk, put our pencil in the hand that we write with, in my case it’s my left hand, I put my right hand on the paper, I turn the paper the way I want it to be placed and then I start writing. And then you can see what my spelling and my legibility goes out the window because I also suffer from some level of language and cognitive dysgraphia. As do, does my speech sometimes, I got a little bit of praxia going on. But when I look at how to help these kids, what happens when these kids are struggling with writing? They slump on their desks, right? They’re falling off of their chairs, and all those motor components and I went, well, how are we going to compensate for that? We need to extend them. 

So one of the activities that I was looking at was what creates full body extension. SO think about it. What is going to create your entire body to be in an extensive position. 

Lori: Are you asking me? 

Cheri: I am! 

Lori: *laughs* 

Cheri: I am. What do you think, before we answer the question? 

Lori: Well, I mean… let’s see…

Cheri: I’m putting you on the spot, sorry! 

Lori: Standing? 

Cheri: Standing. Okay, that’s part of it but standing with your arms extended, so when you think about that, think a handstand, right? Okay, so, how was I going to create a handstand and not create an avalanche of students along the wall. Because can you imagine 30 students doing a handstand along the wall that have coordination issues? That could be a real comical adventure. So I was like, so what can we do? We still need to put their arms over their heads, and we need to have our hands in extension as well so we need to bring our wrist back as far as we can because then another piece of this extension puzzle is kids have trouble extending their wrist and you need to extend your wrist so that you can write ettef… effectively. Kids that don’t bring their wrist back enough have their thumbs wrapped around and touching their index finger with it. And it’s not supposed to be there. It’s supposed to be staying on the pencil. So how do we create this stature of a handstand but with your feet on the floor. So I went, okay… well. Hmmm. So thinking it through, I went, how about a book. A real heavy book on your hands. And then I was like, now we gotta do something with it while the kids are in this position. We can’t just make them static. 

Lori: Right. 

Cheri: Walk on their toes. Walk on their heels. Walk on their toes. Walk on their heels. And I’ve had several people get back to me who have tried this. One third grade teacher got back to me and said “I felt like I was watching PacMan while I saw the whole class do it. But the two kids I was thinking of when you suggested this activity to me were the two kids who wrote the best they’d ever written, that day.” 

Lori: Wow, that’s so interesting. 

Cheri: And she has used this idea ever since in the classroom periodically. So that got me thinking, what activities can I do  to help facilitate extension and I guess the best example I have to support is yoga poses. So I’m gonna actually be doing a training tonight on yoga poses. Now, I know everyone is going to be missing it who’s listening to this podcast because it comes out after the fact, but if you join my community, I will eventually have a replay on there that you can get continuing credits. So don’t think that just because I’m talking about something that’s happening tonight, there is always going to be replays available. 

Lori: Cool. I think that’s an amazing idea and I think many of us teachers who work with individuals with dysgraphia do a lot of these things without really knowing why we’re doing it. We know it’s good for them, it’s just inherent in our teaching practices that we add in some of these things but it’s so nice to know the background of why, why it can be helpful. So, thank you. That’s interesting. You mentioned slumping, what are some other signs that we as teachers or parents should be looking for? 

Cheri: So if we take like one thing out of each of the six areas, we’re looking at visual spatial. Visual spatial really is recognition, pattern recognition, letter recognition, shape recognition. There is a website called “Which One Doesn’t Belong” [wodb.ca] it has this multitude of different geometric shapes that you can use and one of the things I like to do, and that brings us over to memory, and that is I like to get the child’s perspective. Because if we’re not understanding what the child is thinking, we’re not gonna be able to access their memory so that we can reprogramme it. So I’ll ask them, what do you see and what do you notice, and it creates this discussion, so I’m bringing it up to the second and the third level and that is, I will record that conversation on my phone. Yes, I erase them afterwards but I will record that conversation on my phone and then I’m looking at what words did they use that they might not know how to spell? What sentence can we create out of the conversation we just had. So I make it purposeful by creating a conversation. 

So there’s three different kinds of of, response. As I’m asking them to write, am I asking them to copy? Am I asking them to respond to the dictation? So are they listening to the playback and are they writing the words down without having it be seen in front of them? Or are they listening to the entire transcript audio file and are they generating a new sentence from the conversation? So there’s three levels of copy, dictation, and self generation, that we take a look at and as I’m doing my documentation, I utilize which one they’ve used in the process of what do you see, what do you notice. There’s also two other questions I ask when I think about memory and that is what questions can you come up with. And how does it make you feel. Because that’s also getting their perspective because one of the things that’s happening, and I’m going to knock schools down a little bit, it’s taking curiosity out of our kids. 

Lori: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Cheri: Because we said you need to do this, you need to do this, and we have this prescription in front of them that they have to follow and they’re not allowed to ask questions, they’re not allowed to be curious, they’re not allowed to be creative. It’s almost like you hit kindergarten and you have to say bye bye to those features when we need to nurture them. Because if you don’t use it, you’re gonna lose it. Just like doing burpees, if you don’t do them, you’re gonna degress because burpees are the hard ones, right? 

Lori: They’re the worst. 

Cheri: So, looking at all those layers, I started the visual spatial, I add the memory which I gave you the extension idea, I talk about memory, and I incorporate the recording pieces and as I am working on words, sentences, and paragraphs. The other thing I do is a lot of colour coding. So we’ll do some parts of speech color coding and things like that and this is coming from a girl who has no idea what parts of speech look like on paper. I know a verb is a verb, it’s an action. I know a noun is a place, person or a thing. What it looks like on paper and then we get into participles and all that, uh uh. It ain’t happening. 

Lori: *laughs*. Cool, so you color code those and…

Cheri: I do my best. 

Lori: Yeah. 

Cheri: Talk to a lot of teachers, so I have a really good friend who’s an English teacher and I’m going ok, help me out. This is the one I need to color code. What am I doing with this one this week? 

Lori: Right. Cool. So you gave us some signs for visual spatial and you mentioned, you don’t have to name them all, but can you name a few more signs? 

Cheri: Oh yeah, I guess I kind of forgot to talk about the signs, I mentioned some interventions…

Lori: Oh no no no, it’s great, we need them! 

Cheri: So with memory, it’s…. I can’t remember. With spelling, it could be a phonetic speller that just can’t move to the next level. With somebody with sentence, it’s they don’t understand syntax. They may not have punctuation and capitalization as a part of their repertoire. They just don’t understand it. And if they can’t understand those things, they’re not going to be able to create a paragraph. 

Lori: Yeah. No, that’s really helpful. I’m thinking of the memory piece. He was in middle school and he wrote… it was about 2 sentences and it was supposed to be a 3 page story or something so I just asked him what was going on and he said “you know, I have this great idea in my head and I can’t… when I go to write them down, I can’t remember what I was going to say” so I sat with him and had him tell me his story and I kind of brain framed it out or put it in a graphic organizer of some sort. And afterwards, he wrote a 3 page paper. It was just those… little triggers, those memory triggers were there for him. So that, I’m… I’m going back to that because I hadn’t really made that connection of dysgraphia being the memory piece. So thank you. 

Cheri: You’re welcome, you’re welcome. But it’s a real big component of it. I think it’s the biggest component and we don’t realise it. But if kids aren’t able to recognize letters and retain that information, how are they going to move forward? 

So the other thing that’s happening neurologically from a memory standpoint is every moment of the day has a file, in your limbic system, which is the center part of your brain. Every memory has an emotion that goes with it. So if you’ve got this… “I can’t do this” and you get that negativity going on, that memory is going to be filed away with an emotion that is negative. The big piece of dysgraphia is breaking the negative component. Because it’s just a barrier to access. It is a developmental delay. It is something that with time and compensatory strategies and techniques and technologies that you can be a basic writer. And if you practice, you can even be an author that’s published. Which is where I ended up. Being a published author because I was determined to overcome this barrier. 

Lori: *laughs*  now, how… oh, go on. 

Cheri: Now that being said, if there is a neurological condition that is associated with it like ADHD or autism, or CP or something else. That’s gonna supercede the dysgraphia piece and that could be the barrier to help them get through. But our whole mission is to overcome the barrier. 

Lori: Yep. How many times in your experience have you had a professionals or teachers describe a student who is lazy rather than actually dysgraphic? 

Cheri: Did you read my website? 

Lori: No, but that’s my experience so… but in thinking about your “slumping on the desk” and those types of signs which teachers or professionals might look at that and say “well, they’re just lazy”. 

Cheri: So one of my big mantras is “no child is lazy”

Lori: Yeah, mine too! 

Cheri: Every child goes to school with the expectation of meeting whatever the adult wants them to do. We, as the OTs, the teachers, the speech therapists, the paraprofessionals, the music teachers, the art teachers, the PhysEd teachers… we need to look at that child as a whole being and almost be this… detective that’s looking for that nuance that’s preventing the success from happening. So I tell my clients that they’re kings and queens and that they’re raising new kings and queens and I don’t mean monarchs. I mean that they’re being the best leaders of themselves that they can be. Be a leader. 

Lori: Be a leader. 

Cheri: And share how to be a leader. 

Lori: Well, you alluded to it but you’ve written a book called Handwriting, Body, Brain Disconnect. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Cheri: So feeling defeated, many years ago, actually considering suicide. And I was like… I need my purpose. I need to be successful at something. I need to be finished because one of the things I would do is start something and never finish. I needed to… so this determination just took over. And I was like “okay, I need to figure out what this dysgraphia is. I need to figure out how to help these kids”. So it started out as “yeah, I want to write a book” and “yeah I want to figure out what this dysgraphia is” and I kind of started meshing all of my research together and lo and behold, it did become a book. What it has done is it’s launched several more opportunities. I have now contributed to a textbook, with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. So being said that this is an Asian based conference – I’m not sure when it’s coming out, it’s still in the editing process and everything has to be done and edited and finished by December, I believe it is. 

Number two is, I’ve collaborated with a math teacher and we’ve been looking at the visual motor and memory pieces that are seen with math tasks and how that is also just a barrier to success. Then it is taken me on another path where another part of my passion is historical biblical stories and I have found that there is a book in the bible and one of the people in the book it’s not mentioned in the bible, so it’s not Jonathan, has a disability. A genetic disability that they have found because they did DNA testing on his remains. And the story was near and dear to my heart. And I’m writing a historical fiction, I was going to say non-fiction but that doesn’t make sense… A historical fiction book on this character in the story from the bible and it’s just changing my image of what it means. And that is also part of the reason why I say kings and queens because it is a story about the book of Esther. One of the characters in that book had a learning disability. 

Lori: Cool. Very impressive. So this is just the beginning of our learning from you, Cheri. You will be presenting at our virtual conference coming up here in December. Can you give us a sneak peek into what you’ll be sharing with us? 

Cheri: The title of my presentation is “Taking the Mask Off Dysgraphia”. We’re going to look at what does it look like from the child’s perspective, what does it look like from a teacher’s perspective, and we’re going to try to take them apart and really look at the true identity of the child. 

Lori: Wow. Can’t wait. So, the thing we haven’t announced yet but we will be soon, for SENIA members, for our official members that are a part of our Mighty Networks group and those who have signed up for our virtual conference, so they had to have done both, you all, you will be invited to attend the recording of Cheri’s session. So our members can come and watch your recording. This event will be live on October 26th at 7:30am, that’s Pacific Standard Time. Just to clarify, you should be a member of SENIA and signed up for the virtual conference in order to attend. I’m going to add the link to the shownotes so you can sign up and be part of Cheri’s presentation. So I’m really excited about this, we haven’t done this before. We’ve always done pre-recorded videos only. So Cheri, you’re one of our first live speakers. It’s gonna be good!

Cheri: So that blows my mind. Yeah. It blows my mind that this person who is from a very small rural town outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Allentown Pennsylvania, has people coming to me from all over the globe and listening to things that I have to say. So that blows my mind, for one thing. The other thing that blows my mind is that the people that are reaching out, like you, Lori, to help facilitate and spread this word that is really near and dear to my heart, and that is how to help kids who are struggling and getting the support that they need. And one of the other conferences that I’m going to be doing around the same time in October is the Morton Gill conference in Canada. So if you want to see that as well, look for that information. I have no idea even how to share that information. 

Lori: Haha, I could put it in the shownotes. That’s fine. Well, thank you Cheri, I really appreciate the time you took to share with us today. I learnt so much! 

Cheri: Lori, it was wonderful to meet you. Thank you. It blows my mind every day that people are out there and it just proves to me that we are not alone. So, be kings and queens. And remember, we are put here for a reason.

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.