Gifted children are identified by their asynchronous development. The three year-old that can read, the two year-old that can play a song on the piano after hearing it once at music class, the four year-old that can complete his sister’s math homework…from second grade! These children have one or more advanced areas of skill that classify them as gifted. One of the skills that rarely emerges early and advanced in the gifted population is handwriting. More often, gifted children have problems with handwriting. Some are just sloppy, some produce illegible products even after trying their best.
A few theories exist to explain this phenomenon: gifted children are more concerned with expression and ignore handwriting lessons, their typical motor development doesn’t keep up with their advanced cognitive skill progression and they give up, or perhaps a gifted student with poor handwriting has an undiagnosed motor and learning disabilities.
I am going to suggest an additional explanation: gifted children are not given effective early pre-writing instruction and are often taught to write using strategies that create confusion, boredom or frustration, turning a fast learner into an underachiever. Gifted kids like novelty, complexity and intensity. Tracing a dotted-line “A” over and over isn’t any of those things. Gifted children often remain so focused on their passions that it is easier to let them go and shine in their chosen areas than to make handwriting fun and appealing.
Yes, it is true that children with advanced cognitive skills could have average or below-average motor skills that don’t allow them to independently write a complex original story. Writing details down may take too long for their quick minds, or they need to use letters they don’t yet have the skills to execute. A child with an amazing imagination and vocabulary may find standard writing drills dull in comparison to the creative process. Gifted children may even be averse to the unavoidable failure inherent in practice that leads to mastery.
What can be done?
Good pre-writing instruction is essential to build the foundational motor control and spatial skills. This includes teaching grasp rather than waiting for it to develop, purposely building two-handed coordination and drawing into play, and using other pre-writing tasks such as mazes, puzzles and tracing/dot-to-dot (not for letters, for drawing). See Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility to understand why dots aren’t a great strategy for any child. Learning to draw balloons, birthday cakes and Christmas trees is fun. It is also a great way to practice writing the curves and intersecting angles that letters require.
Use multi-sensory, multi-media methods to develop pre-writing and handwriting skills. Many gifted children love sensory-based experiences. Their natural drive for intensity and complexity can be satisfied when letters are made from pretzel sticks or Play-Dough.
Create a fun, open environment for learning, in which challenge is expected and success is both celebrated and beside the point. If children are taught that they are expected to know all the answers since they are gifted, exploration can be suppressed. If they learn that failure is anticipated and shame-free, it allows them to try again and invent solutions to the problems they face.
Harness the skills a gifted child possesses to advance their handwriting development. Children that have great spatial awareness notice letter formation similarities and proportion rules. They transform an “F” into an “E” and chop two vertical lines in half to make an “H”. Children in love with language can use fun mnemonic devices or little “stories” that help them form letters correctly. When the letter “S” starts as a mini “C” and then “turns around and goes back home” they remember the formation of this tricky letter more easily than copying or tracing alone.
Write to Santa, but KEEP the note since the elf brings it to the North Pole…and then back to your home!
‘Tis the season, and Elf On The Shelf is back for more fun! Some parents adore the concept and cannot wait to move that little elf around the house every night, and others mock him and his expanding merchandising. Now that he is getting kids to write and draw, and parents will be able to save the heartfelt message as an ornament, I’m in with the Elf! Not familiar with the Elf story? Read Elf on the Shelf Controversy: Let’s Try Positive Gossiping to Santa. Used as an encouragement and not a punishment or a threat, I am OK with this holiday tradition.
You use the paper and materials in the kit to write and bake-off a letter into an ornament that the elf “shows” to Santa on his nightly trip, and then he “returns” it to your tree. The kit includes a storybook, materials to write, bake and hang your ornament.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I wanted to share a few ideas that could make this more fun and a bit less stressful for children that struggle with handwriting, learning and attention issues:
The set includes 8 special sheets of paper that will get baked off in the oven to create an ornament, but I would encourage everyone to have their child refine their message and practice writing/drawing the note on regular paper before putting it on the special sheets. Use these sheets as a template so that your child is aware that they can’t write more than a few lines at most. There is no way to erase on the special sheets, and although some errors are charming, a child can be heartbroken if they think that they are sending a messy message.
I would encourage parents to consider copying the message so that kids have a sample to copy, rather than free writing. Copying is an easier task in the developmental progression of handwriting, and reduces the stress for success on kids. Nobody needs stress when making a special request to Old Saint Nick.
Younger kids, or kids with strong fears of failure or anxiety in general can draw or decorate a parent’s writing. As long as they are involved, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. Many of my most avoidant clients get excited when I tell them that they just have to draw a sun (circle with rays) or some grass (short vertical lines that start at the top and descend to a baseline) to a picutre that I am drawing, and I will take care of all the hard stuff. Sometimes they even decide that they want to draw much more than they were planning to contribute.
Encourage your child to make the letters and designs a bit large, since they will shrink with the baking process. Most young children cannot comprehend this step and will assume that the finished product will come out of the oven the same size that it was when it went in. Tiny details may not be visible, tiny letters may be illegible. Make a sample if possible for children that need proof of everything before they believe you.
If you know that your child may be impulsive or has such significant struggles with design, handwriting, or decision-making that you will need more than 8 sheets to create one final project, buy two kits. The holidays are challenging enough without a fun activity ending without even one finished ornament. If things go well and you don’t need the extra box, you have something that can be a wonderful gift for another family this season!
If you use this kit with your child this Christmas season, please write a comment and let my readers know how it worked out for you!
Here in the US, kids are getting ready to go back to school. And most of them haven’t been writing much in the last 6-8 weeks. At the kindergarten level, some children will have forgotten any lowercase letters they knew in the spring. At the 1-2 grade levels, it is not uncommon for kids to forget how to form letters, where to place them on the baseline, and how to use simple punctuation. Teachers sometimes need to use the first 1-2 weeks for review alone.
What if they didn’t need to review? What if your child was ready to hit the ground running (and writing)? There is nothing like seeing a confident kid sit down to crush her homework instead of struggling through it. For all those writers who worked hard last year and are a little nervous to pick up a pencil again, here are some ideas that help getting back to writing fun and easy:
Use fun workbooks like Madlibs and games like Hangman. Make up games that you think your kids will find funny. Try the Junior version of Madlibs for grades 2-3, and the regular one for the higher grades. There are themes for every kid, trust me. Something will be funny. Do them together with your child, have a contest for silliest madlib, send them to relatives that can appreciate this humor, etc.
Target any errors made in writing their first and family name first. Those errors will be repeated over and over in the first few days of school if you do not focus on them. Time to make this a priority.
Figure out where the gaps are, and hit the low-hanging fruit next. Why? Because that builds confidence. Look for simple errors with easy-to-write or frequently written letters. Think “a”, “e”, and “t”. Doesn’t even have to be letters; could be numbers. Kids need to feel like they can hit singles, and then they will try harder for doubles and triples. Forgive the baseball reference; I saw a ton of stickers and vanity plates today. Apparently all of my neighbors are big baseball fans!
There are only a few weeks of summer left, but if you make a small effort, it can mean a lot to a child’s first weeks of school!
A good eraser can make a frustrated child more willing to fix writing errors. A bad eraser confirms their failure as a writer.
Occupational therapists in some schools hand out HWT pencils and a variety of pencil grips like candy, but many forget about how important it is for kids to erase mistakes successfully in order for their work to be truly legible. The Pentel Hi-Polymer eraser is the one that gets the job done.
I will confess that I did not discover this eraser on my own. A smart parent turned me onto this amazing school tool, and I am over the moon about how much it helps children complete their writing assignments. It would be almost criminal to let kids go back to school this fall with those nasty pink erasers that leave more of a mess than they remove!
Here is an example of how well this eraser works. I used my fave mechanical pencil for younger children, the one I blogged about in Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills , and wrote a few numbers in the darkly shaded boxes of a Handwriting Without Tears sheet. Notice that the shading wasn’t removed along with the pencil marks:
Numbers 5 and 6 have been erased so well that tracing-over the original mistake is impossible!
Here are a few reasons to add this eraser to your back-to-school list:
It is latex-free, a necessity for children with latex sensitivity.
There are fewer eraser “crumbs” created during use, so less mess (for parents) to clean up, and less visual and tactile distractions for kids with ADHD, SPD and ASD.
This eraser doesn’t require substantial pressure to remove marks. Great for kids with Ehlers-Danlos, JRA, and all the other conditions where strength and endurance are concerns for handwriting.
Because of it’s softness and effectiveness, it rarely tears paper, even the thin paper commonly used for school worksheets and workbooks.
Pentel Hi-Polymer erasers are very affordable, and commonly come in packs of three. This is helpful when you know in your heart that the first two will be lost before the week is over, never to be seen again. When your child realizes that this eraser helps them finish their homework a bit faster (you might want to mention this if they don’t notice it right away), they will work harder to hold onto that last one!
Many young children between 2 and 5, especially children with low muscle tone or postural instability, will struggle with bilateral control. In preschool, one way to notice this is to see the paper sliding around the table while a child colors. The common response of teachers (and parents) is to tape the paper down. Oops! This eliminates any demand for both hands to work together. Bilateral control only develops if it is needed and practiced.
The better approach, the one that makes the brain work and builds a child’s skills, is to make it even more slippery while making the activity more fun.
Why? This child,’s brain, as described, needs more information about what is going wrong with the activity. You can use heavier paper, stickers in a book that need accurate placement, or fun glittery markers. Really, anything that makes a child care more about placing marks accurately. I select the smoothest table surface available. Glass coffee tables are a fave at home. The alternate choice is a bumpy surface, something that will be slightly uneven and make the paper move more with each stroke.
I have some older kids that really struggle but can use a visual cue. I make a mark on their paper and tell them to put their “helper hand” – the one not coloring- on this mark. This is sometimes helpful, but it is limiting the extent that this hand is providing optimal postural support.
Yup, support. The hand that holds the paper is also performing another function. It is stabilizing the child’s body so that the dominant hand can execute a skilled movement.
“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!
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.