Category Archives: handwriting

Prevent the Summer Slide in Handwriting By Making It Fun To Write

“The Summer Slide” is the phenomenon of losing academic skills during summer vacation. With the exception of the children who insist on you buying them workbooks and those that read a book a day by choice, all summer long, summer slide will happen to most children.

Here are some strategies to limit it’s effect on your child’s handwriting skills by using fun activities, not rigid homework:

* If you must use a book, use Handwriting Without Tears workbooks and limit practice to one page a day. Five minutes of work is better than 30 minutes of stalling and avoiding a page filled with poorly designed assignments. HTW’s pages are so targeted and organized that they get the job done fast.

* Think beyond workbooks. Write a book with your child on a topic they love. Use drawings and photos to illustrate it. Pretend play may need restaurant menus or store signs. Pretend garages or hair salons need price lists or bills-of-sale filled out. Be imaginative and have fun.

* Find or make notecards to send mail to relatives. It is often more fun to get mail back from them, so make sure grandparents have something fun to send back, even if it is a blank coloring page. Even though we are a digital society, everybody loves receiving personal mail, and children really love seeing their name on an envelope.

* Arts and crafts projects aren’t cop-out activities; they have real value. While creative craft play teaches many pre-writing skills for the younger kids, they can also preserve or develop skills in older kids. Look for fun kits, such as building a rubber band racing car or rhinestone mosaic picture kits, if your child isn’t the kind that grabs your empty egg carton and a glue stick and emerges with a masterpiece. Buy colorful writing tools, decorative craft scissors, and definitely make something crafty yourself. Seeing parents writing and creating is probably the best motivator for children to engage in these activities that prevent the summer skills slide!

Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers?

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I gave a mom a few of Handwriting Without Tear’s flip crayons this week. She was amazed at what her son did with them. He picked them up, examined them and proceeded to figure out how best to hold them without a word from me. He automatically achieved the mature grasp that we had been talking about all spring. Bingo!

Will that happen with every child? Probably not, but flip crayons are a popular tool in my OT arsenal for a reason. They work more often than they fail. There is less effort from an adult, less redirection, which is often perceived as criticism by young children. Remember, children often hear “wait a second…” as “you did it wrong”. These small two-sided crayons are very visually appealing to young children, and become even more so when I introduce them as “kindergarten crayons” that I think a child might try. Every child wants to be seen as older and more skilled, even the anxious ones. I “sell” the use of these crayons as an advanced writing tool that we can use in therapy and at home.

Then I offer to show them how the older kids use them, and flip them from one color to the other while holding the crayon’s center between my thumb and index finger. This is actually an exercise and an evaluative tool for me. A child that doesn’t have the control and coordination to flip the crayon may not be able to achieve the stable tripod grasp needed to use a flip crayon.

The next step is demonstrating HWT’s wiggle stroke on paper. I use their preschool pages, but I created my own as well. Most of my clients need more practice than the 3-4 pages in the book.

Now it is time to trace the gray shapes and color in the shape pages in the workbook. Again, I created my own pages to expand and enrich. I could only do this because I took the HWT course (twice) and understand the principles behind the pages. If your teacher is riffing off of the workbook but her pages don’t have the same immediate success as the HWT workbook, that could be the reason. Knock-offs that aren’t true to the concept won’t work as well, or maybe even at all.

Order some flip crayons from HWT today at Handwriting Without Tears, and watch the magic happen!

Want A Stronger Pencil Grasp? Use a Tablet Stylus

The trick? They need to use a short stylus and play apps that require primarily drag-and-drop play. Stop them from only tapping that screen today, because tapping alone will not make much of a difference in strength and grading of force.

Why will drag-and-drop play work? The resistance of the stylus tip on the screen builds strength and control at the same time. They gain control as they get the immediate feedback from game play. Too much force? They get stuck and can’t move the styluses the target. Too little force? Again, the target doesn’t move. Could they revert to a fisted grasp and accomplish this? Sure, but that is exhausting, and you are within view of them anyway….right?

For this to work, young children need supervision, but not helicopter supervision. And they need to know that how they hold any utensil matters to you. My best approach to build grasp awareness is to appeal to their desire to be older. Tell your child that you have been watching them, and you believe they are ready to hold a stylus like an older kid. Oh, and you can explain to them how to hold the stylus the easy way. They just have to watch your example and play some games for practice. Yup, you ASK them to play on a tablet!

Best drag-and-drop games for young children? I like the apps from Duck Duck Moose, especially the Trucks and Park Math. Every app has some tapping, but you can select and “sell” the games that require drag-and-drop. There are apps that little girls can play to dress up princesses, mermaids, etc. Pick the ones where they have to drag the items over to the characters. Same with wheels on trucks, shapes into a box, etc. The Tiny Hands series of educational apps have a lot of drag-and-drop play.

Finally, mazes are wonderful, and so are dot-to-dots that require drag-and-drop play.

Have a really young child, or a child who struggles to keep their fingers in a mature grasp pattern without any force? Then apps that require just a tap are fine. I set the angle of my tablet at various heights (my case allows this) to prompt more wrist extension (where the back of the hand is angled a bit toward the shoulder, not down to the floor). When a child’s wrist is slightly extended, the mechanics of the hand encourage a fingertip grasp without an adult prompting them.

Try drag-and drop play with a stylus on your tablet today, and see if your child’s grasp strength starts improving right away!

Child Writing Too Lightly on Paper? It Might Not Be Hand Strength Holding Him Back

If your child barely makes a mark when he scribbles or writes, most adults assume that grasp is an issue. Today’s post suggests that something else could be the real reason for those faint lines.

Limitations in postural and bilateral control contribute far more to lack of pressure when writing  than most parents and teachers realize.  For every child in occupational therapy that is struggling to achieve good grasp, I see three whose poor sitting posture and inability to get a stable midline orientation are the real issues.

Think about it for a minute:  if you sat with your non-dominant (not the writing hand) hand off to the side and you shifted your body weight backward in your chair, how would you be able to use sufficient force on a pencil or a crayon?  Try this right now.  Really.  You would have to focus on pressing harder while you write and hope your paper doesn’t slip around.  That would require your awareness and some assessment of your performance.  Children don’t do “awareness and assessment” very well.  That ability comes from frontal lobe functions that aren’t fully developed in young children.  But they can learn where to place their “helper hand”, and that sitting straight and shifting forward is the correct way to sit when you scribble or write.

If a child has sensory processing or neuromuscular issues such as cerebral palsy, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or Down Syndrome, achieving adequate postural stability may take some effort on the part of the therapists and the teacher.  Well worth it, in my experience.  There are easy hacks that help kids; good equipment and good seating that won’t cost a fortune or inconvenience the class.  Every child can learn that posture is important for writing.  But the adults have to learn it first.  Kids take their cues from what adults appear to value, and if they figure out that they are allowed to slump or lean, they almost always will.

I am doing a lecture on pre-writing next week, and I intend to make this point, even though the emphasis of my lecture is on the use of fun drawing activities to prepare children to write and read.  Why?  Because it may be the only time these preschool teachers hear from a pediatric occupational therapist this year, and I want to make a difference.  Understanding the importance of postural control in pre-writing and handwriting could help struggling kids, and make decent writers into stars!

Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility?

As a pediatric OT, I am often asked to assess and teach proper pencil grasp.  Once you start looking, you see a lot of interesting patterns out there.  When a child clearly has low muscle tone and/or hypermobile joints, the question of what to do about an atypical pencil grasp used to puzzle me.  I could spend weeks, or even months, teaching positioning and developing hand strength in a child, only to find that they simply couldn’t alter their grasp while writing.

Now I triage grasp issues by determining if it is a problem for the child now or in the future.  An atypical pencil grasp can be an acceptable functional compensation or it can be a contributor to later joint damage.  What’s the difference?  You have to know a bit about hand anatomy and function, how to adapt activities, and how to assess the ergonomics of writing.

Children aren’t aware of most of the problems that low tone and/or hypermobility create when they hold a pencil.  They just want to create. The effects of their unique physiology often results in grasp patterns that cause parents pain just to observe; fingers twisted around the shaft of the pencil, thumb joints bent backward, etc.  The kids aren’t usually complaining; their lack of sensory receptor firing at the joints and muscles gives them no clues to the strain they are inducing.  None.  Occasionally children will complain of muscular fatigue or pain after writing a few paragraphs or completing an art project.  For the most part, they are unconcerned and unaware of what is really going on.  For a more detailed explanation, please check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children,

Do these funny grasp patterns reduce legibility?  Only sometimes.  There are atypical grasp patterns that are good choices for children with hypermobility.  One is to place the shaft of the pencil directly between the index and third finger, and allow the thumb to support the side of the pencil.  The knuckle joints of those fingers provide more stability than the standard tripod grasp.  I allow preschoolers who need to keep more than 3 fingers on the shaft of the pencil to do so, and wait to see what happens as they develop more overall hand control.  Forcing a tripod grip isn’t always in their best interest now or for the future.

What can be done?  My favorite method to help children with low tone or hypermobility is to look at the problem with both a wide-angle lens and with targeted analysis.  I think about changing overall posture, altering any and all equipment, and examine the mechanics of movement.

These kids often need better proximal support, meaning that changing their chairs and writing/drawing surfaces could result in less strain in their hands and wrists.  To understand one way your whole body is involved in writing, take a look at Better Posture and More Legible Writing With A “Helper Hand” Using writing tools that reduce joint force by enlarging the shaft diameter or changing out lead for gel pens or markers is another strategy.  Take a look at Strengthening A Child’s Pencil Grasp: Three Easy Methods That Work for more good ideas that actually make a difference.  I will teach kids how to pace themselves to reduce force and fatigue throughout their bodies.  A little awareness can be a big help.  Finally, I may suggest a pencil grip, but I assess this carefully in order to avoid forcing a typical grasp on a child that can’t manage it due to instability or profound weakness.  I might start with the Grotto Grip The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write., in the hope that we can strengthen and train a stable grip, but I will move on quickly if it doesn’t work within a month or causes more difficulty in writing.

Atypical pencil grasp can be a problem, but it can also be a solution to a child who is struggling to write and draw in school.  If you have concerns, ask your OT to evaluate and explore the issue this week!

Strengthening A Child’s Pencil Grasp: Three Easy Methods That Work

 

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Dreaming of summer fun!

When a child makes fast progress from a fisted grasp to a mature pencil grasp in therapy, parents notice.  This isn’t easy to accomplish, but it is possible.  I spent the first decade of my pediatric OT career thinking that finger exercises were the answer.  Nope.   Here are my three favorite strategies to see quick improvements in children ages 3-5:

  1. Crayons.  Yes, I suggest you go old-school and use crayons, not markers, for scribbling and drawing.  The tackiness of wax on paper  creates slight resistance that builds strength.  Feel free to provide paper with a bit of texture, such as watercolor paper; it is worth the investment!  Just like when you go to the gym, all muscles will respond to resistance by recruiting more fibers and building more strength.  Yeah!
  2. Easels.  Every pediatric OT recommends an easel, and there is a good reason why.  Easels work.  I take if further, and make sure that the paper doesn’t slip at all, and that the target for a child’s scribbling is in the middle 1/3 of the easel surface.  Why?  Unless a child is very tall or very tiny, this will result in a more effective shoulder and wrist angle that allows a mature pencil grasp.  How do I ensure that a child uses the target area?  I color in the top  and bottom 1/3’s, creating either good demos of shapes/designs, or just scribbling away, having fun.  What I draw depends on the child’s needs at the moment.
  3. Tablet Stylus.  I am well aware that some therapists are recoiling in horror at the thought of using a tablet.  They might have to reconsider their stance after reading what I have to say.  Children are using them daily in their homes, many have their own, and sport a newer model than I drag around for work!  Tablets aren’t going away, so use them to your advantage.  Using a stylus (my fave is the iCreate stylus)  produces the tacky resistance that we like about crayons, but on a touchscreen.  When children have to drag-and-drop objects, they are using more muscle strength and better control to maintain a stable yet mobile grasp.  A few years ago, I worked with a very weak child who was dealing with a life-threatening illness.   No one was going to force him to do anything, and all he wanted to do was play on a tablet.  He was told to use the stylus while playing, and 6 weeks later he was eagerly coloring with crayons on paper.  His improved pencil grip was amazing!  As always, my apps are educational as well as fun, and tablet use in therapy is neither a reward nor the focus of my sessions.  I make it clear that lots of fun can be had without it.

As with any therapeutic exercise, I monitor fatigue and adapt my set-up and activities to maximize use of a mature grasp with minimal compensation.  The rule is:  if it looks like a bad grip, it probably is!  If your child insists on using a fisted grasp even with these strategies, you need to use some behavioral motivational tools in addition to good equipment.  Your OT can help you with that!

If your therapists have mentioned that your child has low muscle tone or ligament laxity (loose joints) take a look at Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility? for some clarity on addressing pencil grasp with these issues.

Avoiding Letter Reversals In Preschool

Are letter reversals in preschool normal?  Yes.  Can you avoid them, and thus speed up the accuracy and automaticity that are hallmarks of successful handwriting?  Sure!  This post will explain why reversals are slowing kids down unnecessarily and how to limit letter and number reversals right from the start.

Writing letters backward is very common in preschool, and is not considered abnormal if a few letters or numbers are reversed if a child is under the age of 8.  So why bother even thinking about how to teach letter formation without reversals?  Common Core, PARC, and all the other achievement tests have contributed to less classroom time made available to focus on handwriting, while demanding independent writing skills earlier and earlier.  Teachers in grades 1 and up expect that learning to write letters and numbers has been accomplished, and now it’s all about content.  That means that preschool and kindergarten teachers need to spend time on writing instruction, and they need to choose the most effective methods to do so.

That sounds so simple, but understanding how to avoid reversals without doing constant drilling is hard.  That is how your grandma’s learned to write: kids practiced daily and knew that good “penmanship” was a thing, a thing that mattered.  Today’s preschool teachers generally don’t have much (or any) instruction in how to teach handwriting, and certainly don’t review research on how to teach it the most efficiently for the fastest results.  They are asked to teach kids with learning differences, some of which make it difficulty for kids to perceive that they have reversed a letter, even when it is pointed out to them.  Their budget includes glue and posters, not training programs on something as targeted as writing instruction.  For some teachers, the best they get is a thick packet and some worksheets from their director.  That’s it.

Handwriting Without Tears does a terrific job of attacking reversals where they begin, with the start and the sequence of strokes.  To simplify it:  They start letter instruction with the letters that are easy to write and begin in the same manner without risk of reversals, use a style of writing that is less easily reversed, and they have great beginner tools which replicate the same cues throughout the program.  Their smiley-face icon for orientation while writing is a good example.  The repetition on workbooks and writing materials remind children where to start so many letters supports correct orientation right from the beginning.  They also use meaningful but simple directions.  No tree line, no worm line and no dangly tails that could go either way.  Letters such as “S”, “J”, and “Z” have specific cues to help children prevent reversals.  They are also among the last letters taught.

Kids have lots of practice with start and sequence before they hit the harder letters.  The kids with perceptual issues learn a motor plan that is so automatic that they may write a letter perfectly even if they struggle with object manipulation.  Their hands are telling them how the letter is made, not their eyes!  Should they still get practice with these skills?  Yes, but they need to be successful writers now.

In my opinion, the push for increasing demands in early grades is here to stay.  The smartest thing teachers and parents can do is to pick materials that fast-track kids toward handwriting independence and then use them consistently.  It is also the kindest thing to do.  Kids don’t need more pressure, they need more success!