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 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.
As an occupational therapist, I use the Learning Without Tears program (formerly known as Handwriting Without Tears). The materials are high-quality, the learning progression is developmental and builds one skill on top of the previous skill, and the early levels are more sensory-based than most writing programs. See Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers? and Why Do You Start (Uppercase) Letters at the Top? Speed and Accuracy for some HWT strategies that really work. Gifted kids usually want to be creative and expansive when learning, so take a look at Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills to make teaching a gifted child easier.
If you are the parent of a gifted child, or if you teach gifted preschoolers, please share your best strategies to support handwriting here!!! If you are wondering if you should tell your child that their advanced skills have a name, “gifted”, check out Should You Tell Your Gifted Child About Their Giftedness? for some good reasons why they need to know and how to approach this issue with them.