Low muscle tone can cause a child to struggle with holding crayons and pencils. Those little fingers wrap around them, fold over them and sometimes ball up into a fist to hold a pencil. How a child holds a pencil does not automatically mean that his handwriting will be illegible, but it almost always makes learning to write more challenging. A grasping pattern that cannot easily control the movement and force of a stroke will make beginning writers work harder. Here are some reasons why this happens, and a few ideas to help kids develop a stable grasp:
Low tone reduces the sensory feedback from grasping and writing. Without enough information from the muscle and joint receptors in the arm and hand, a child may use the wrong amount of force (either too little ,or more likely, too much) when writing. Unless a child is looking at his pencil, he may not be able to write. As adults, we do not realize the amount of time we look away or cannot see what we have written until our fingers move out of the way at the end of a letter or a word. That can be too late. Children with low tone are making writing errors and don’t know about it until they can see them. If they don’t look, then they start the next word without correcting an error.
Low muscle tone will result in quicker fatigue and the poor legibility that comes with forcing other muscles to compensate. Children who substitute extra muscles to get control of a pencil and achieve the typical pattern of movement, or have squeezed too hard on their crayon, will honestly tell you that their hands are tired. This will cause them to adapt their grip into an even more awkward pattern. If they have generalized low tone and aren’t sitting with support, then their shoulders and back are probably tired too. They might just refuse to continue to do their writing at all.
What can be done?
- Good positioning reduces some fatigue and improves control. When body parts are well-supported and aligned, fatigue will be delayed. Make sure that a child has a chair that gives him a writing surface that is supportive. The best idea that got lost in handwriting? The slanted desk. Why was it so helpful? In days gone by, writing was a valued art, and the Palmer Method style was the standard. This was a demanding style, and the angled desk supported a writer’s shoulder, wrist and hand so that control was achieved without as much fatigue. Now we have to improvise with writing easels. My favorite hack? Turning a large 3-ring binder on it’s side and affixing the paper in a horizontal or “landscape” orientation.
- Don’t forget the benefits of having feet on the floor. As I write this post, I have one foot on the base of my office chair, bar room style. I am sitting comfortably so that I can keyboard for a while. A child with his feet wrapped around the legs of a chair is a big billboard announcing “I need more support for sitting, please!”
- Consider using the pencil grip that actually strengthens finger muscles (see my post in August 2015), gradually increasing the amount of time a child can write with this grip. Why gradually? Using weak muscles in a new way will create rapid fatigue at first.
- Work on holding utensils for meals. My post Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child is great for the younger toddler, but if you have a child that is over 3 and is able to use their fingertips to neatly pick up cereal and can scribble with more than a fist, then you need Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? to find a good spoon to teach a mature grasp (the kind where his thumb is on top of the handle and fingers are curled under). Why should you care about self-feeding when this is a post about pencil grip? Because children eat longer and more regularly than they scribble, and every scoop is giving them direct feedback about their progress.
- Make sure that the pencil or crayon suits a child’s grasp. I like triangle crayons for their extra sensory feedback from flat sides for finger placement. Some kids need short crayons but thicker diameters, so snap thick crayons in half. I have found automatic pencils with thick lead for older kids who snap the tips off of the #2 pencils.