Welcome to the super practical and information packed new series: Functional Skills for Kids, where the first functional skill to be featured is handwriting. Handwriting is one of the most complex of all occupations (daily living skills). Children begin developing the underlying skills for successful, efficient handwriting from a very young age, well before they even pick up a pencil. Although computers, typing, electronic and touch screen devices are becoming ever more present in our lives, handwriting remains an essential skill throughout the lifespan.
There are many aspects to handwriting, including core postural strength and control, upper arm stability, bilateral coordination, visual perception (and visual motor integration), pencil grasp and manipulation, letter/number formation, placement and spacing. Sensory processing plays a big role too in the development of handwriting skills, as does overall literacy, and the ability to generate ideas.
Kids Play Space is thrilled to bring you the following recommendations around improving attention and behaviour in relation to handwriting, focusing on how to support the ‘reluctant writer’.
Whenever a child refuses to write (or even try to write), gives up quickly, complains that they ‘hate’ writing or that they are too slow or tired and can’t write any more, it is essential that we ask ourselves “why?”.
It could be that the task expectations are actually too difficult in the first place, requiring an adjustment in the demands. It could be that they are experiencing some difficulties remaining (sensory) regulated, at ‘just the right’ level of alertness to focus throughout writing tasks. A paediatric occupational therapist can work with children, families and teachers for specific assessments and recommendations as required here.
However, it could be that they are simply unmotivated to write in the first place! I do not believe that children ever refuse to write with the intent to misbehave or be naughty or malicious. All children want to please and generally do their best. When they want to write and enjoy writing, they happily practise the skills without it becoming a chore. Many children though, (my own child included), would rather be running, jumping, playing sport, singing, dancing, getting messy, or going wild in their own imaginative play scenarios, than sitting at a table… writing. I like to affectionately call our son ‘a reluctant writer’.*
*Actually, I’m predicting he’ll be a ‘reluctant writer’, as he is not yet five years old. Nevertheless, we are lucky to catch him seated for longer than one minute with drawing implements and paper, and whilst some of his peers will happily create detailed, intricate pictures of their families and favourite things, (even adding names and labels), our kid will consider his job done and work complete with only two teeny tiny marks on a large sheet of paper.
You might not believe this approach to improving attention and behaviour in regards to handwriting, but read on. It’s exciting and effective. These are my top 10 tips for engaging the ‘reluctant writer’…
1. Keep calm and don’t worry! Children develop different skills in their own way, and in their own time. Embrace their journey and celebrate their achievements with them. The less pressure and stress imposed by adults around writing, the less anxiety will be felt by children. The less anxious children are about writing, the more relaxed, ready and willing to write they’ll be!
2. Avoid calling it handwriting practise. Children don’t need to be aware of the many skills they are working on whilst they play. That’s only interesting to us adults! In fact, there’s no need to even pick up a pencil in order to develop underlying (pre-writing) skills to make handwriting easier and more efficient. Play dough (with or without ‘tools’), Lego/construction blocks, cooking, using tongs/tweezers/pegs, beading, threading, lacing, weaving, ‘vertical surface’ play, as well as climbing, hanging/swinging by hands, crawling and core strengthening activities are all excellent in preparing children for handwriting.
3. Games which require an element of writing can be a more ‘palatable’ way of practising writing. For example, Hopscotch, ‘Hangman’, O’s and Xs, ‘Celebrity Heads’.
4. Follow the child’s lead! This might sound obvious. It is obvious to children, and that is why it works! Go with whatever their interests are at the moment, and the ways they most love to play. If they love sport, how about keeping score too? Pirate treasure maps, cake (cooking) recipes, scavenger hunt lists, Minecraft stories, painting/drawing and labelling or captioning, comic strips, music play lists etc… Intersperse the writing with plenty of their favourite activity – that’s where they’ll be most energetic and positive. Keep the writing minimal. Quality over quantity!
5. Prioritise the skill to be focussed on – don’t try working on everything at once! Perhaps name writing might be an early goal, or getting an idea down, letter formation or holding a pencil well. Provide examples, tracing opportunities or other support, in order to ease the effort of working on everything at once.
6. Ensure sensory breaks before and during writing tasks asrequired. Each child will have their own ways of ‘recharging their batteries’ – some quiet chilling out, a trampoline bounce, a bike ride, or a dance to a favourite song. (I personally like to snack on something crunchy like carrot sticks or crackers!)
7. Give plenty of fun choices!
Paper type, colour, size, shape and texture…
Writing implements – chalk, paint, shaving cream, water squirters, glue and glitter, magic erase boards, ‘fancy’ pens, crayons of different shapes/sizes…
8. Encourage self correction. This gives ownership over one’s work which is an instant motivator.
9. ‘Incidental’ writing – checklists, shopping lists (common words), Santa letters, lunch bag labelling, birthday/special occasion gift cards, …
10. Develop writing skills whilst playing with a friend. Collaborative posters, murals, stories, letters (pen pals),… Social, interactive writing (drawing) provides wonderful learning and practise opportunities – playing with friends is THAT powerful!
Alex, 8 years old, end of Grade 2 (3rd year of primary school)
Alex had been attending OT sessions to improve his writing skills for some months. However, he was onto his parents. He knew they wanted him to work on his pencil grasp and how he wrote his letters. He also knew his writing was usually ‘messy’ and sometimes his teacher (and parents) found it difficult to read. So, as far as he was concerned, walking into the OT room it was ‘shop closed’; there was no way he was going to partake in any writing activity. In fact, if he so much as saw paper and pencils on the table, he’d need a good deal of encouragement to even enter the room at all. He was anxious and self conscious about writing, and besides, would much rather be moving around being active and creating some wild imaginative story to play out.
Long story short – after many, many sessions without even picking up a pencil, playing actively, remaining sensory regulated, consolidating some prewriting skills (especially in hand manipulation), and incidental writing – in the course of whatever play idea he came up with (such as drawing a plan on the whiteboard for a fort he wanted to build and making a list of obstacle challenges to tick off once completed)… he surprised us all, himself included, in his last session for the year – writing a full TWO page letter to Santa! There were something like 11 items he was keen to include! (And trust me, some of those video games have long names and details!) This was serious, meaningful, business to him. He wasn’t going to leave anything out! I had to coax him out of the room when time was ‘up’!
He was calm and regulated, attending to his writing well having swung a bit on the trapeze swing and jumped and crashed off the trampoline onto landing mat at the start of the session (and during many previous sessions). His posture was upright and functional, having engaged in so many balance and strengthening games. He had great upper arm control and a functional (extended) wrist position, perhaps from the many games we’d played on vertical surfaces. He was grasping the pencil well, (with the help of a little ‘blu tac’ pencil grip), and was beginning to move his fingers more than his hand (as in a more dynamic tripod grasp). And most importantly, he wanted to be there. He was therefore more accepting of my corrections/suggestions to remember a ‘finger space’ between the words, and to write the ‘tails of letters’ below the line, so that Santa would be able to read his list easily.
This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids 12 Months Series by Occupational and Physical Therapists. You can read all of the functional skills HERE. Read all of my monthly posts in this series HERE.
Looking for more information about handwriting in childhood? Stop by to see what the other OTs and PTs in the Functional Skills for Kids series have written…