Category Archives: handwriting

Make Handwriting Fun While Getting Ready For The New School Year

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:

  1. Get good materials.  Kids are just like adults.  We like new, cool stuff.  So do they.  I recommend using the best eraser (Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser ) and either the small Learning Without Tears (they changed their name!!!)  pencils for kindergarteners, or the Papermate 1.3mm lead mechanical pencils for older kids.  Take a look at my post on these useful pencils Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser

 

 

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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!  Every kid needs this eraser, but kids with handwriting challenges need them even more.

Here is a visual 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 (HWT) sheet.  I erased my “5′ and “6”.  Notice that the shading in the boxes wasn’t removed along with the pencil marks:

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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:

  • While large enough for small hands to use, it is not so big that it is difficult for children to control.  Think erasing isn’t an important motor skill?  Take a look at Teach Your Kindergartener How To Erase Like a Big Kid
  • 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 syndrome, 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 cheap, 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!

There are a few situations in which not erasing is a better choice than erasing.  Read When Should You Tell A Child NOT to Erase Their Mistake? to learn more!

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Taping The Paper To The Table For Your Child? Stop!

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.

So….no more tape on that paper, OK?

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

 

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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

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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!

 

For more information, take a look at For Kids With Sensory Issues and Low Tone, Add Resistance Instead of Hand-Over-Hand Assistance and Better Posture and More Legible Writing With A “Helper Hand”.

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

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As a pediatric OTR, 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 write or draw.  Teachers and parents don’t know what is causing issues either.  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.  This grasp pattern is illustrated at the beginning of this post.

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.  This is especially beneficial for the child with sensory discrimination issues or joint hypermobility.  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.

Does handwriting instruction matter?  I think so.  The best writing program teaches children quickly, so that they don’t have to write 100 “A”s to learn how to write.   The only program I use is Handwriting Without Tears.  The high-quality materials and the developmental progression make learning easier and faster.  Read KickStart Kindergarten: Get Your Child Ready for Kindergarten Writing The Easy Way! to see some sample pages and understand how this particular book can work for ages 4-8.

Wondering if there are issues beyond writing that your OT can address?  Check out   Hypermobility and Music Lessons: Is Your Child Paying Too High a Price for Culture?Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children and Three Ways To Reduce W-Sitting (And Why It Matters) for more information.

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!

Looking for more information on raising (or treating) a hypermobile child? 

I wrote 2 e-books to help you!

The JointSmart Child:  Living and Thriving With Hypermobility Volume One:  The Early Years

is filled with practical strategies to help parents of children 0-5 build safety, skills, and independence.  Written in easy-to-understand language and designed with chapter summaries that help busy parents find the answers they need, this book is unique in the world of special needs resources!  Therapists will find easy ways to boost ADL skills, safety awareness, and early fine motor skills with an awareness of the sensory processing needs of the hyper mobile client.

My e-book is available as a read-only download on Amazon and as a clickable and printable download on Your Therapy Source.  Worried that you don’t have a Kindle?  No problem:  Amazon’s downloads are totally supported on iPads and iPhones.

The JointSmart Child:  Living and Thriving With Hypermobility Volume Two:  The School Years

is my newest e-book for parents and therapists of kids 6-12.  Older children may still need to build their ADL independence and safety, but they also need to write and keyboard, and they play sports and musical instruments.  This book is larger and more comprehensive than Volume One, filled with forms and checklists to find the right chair, desk, bike, even the best way to arrange a bedroom for sleep.  Parents and therapists will have forms and handouts they can use in CPSE and CSE meetings with the school district and information on how to become an empowered consumer in doctor’s appointments.

It is available as a read-only download on Amazon  and as a printable download on Your Therapy Source ,and just like Volume One, Amazon doesn’t require you to have a Kindle to download my book.  They make it easy!

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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.

Tried all these strategies and still seeing your child struggling?  It could take more time to develop the stability and control needed, or you may have to go beyond writing tools and the surface your child is writing on, and take a look at the seating you are providing.  Your occupational therapist should be able to help you figure out what an optimal seating position should be, and how to set things up for success!

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!

 

Hypermobility in Young Children: When Flexibility Isn’t Functional

Your grandma would have called it being ” double jointed”.   Your mom might mention that she was the most flexible person in every yoga class she attended.  But when extra joint motion reduces your child’s performance or creates pain, parents get concerned.  Sometimes pediatricians and orthopedists do not.

Why would that happen?  A measure of flexibility is considered medically within the norm for children and teens.  Doctors often have no experience with rehab professionals, so they can’t share other resources with parents.  This can mask some significant issues with mild to moderate hypermobility in children.  Parents leave the doctor’s office without a diagnosis or advice, even in the face of their child’s discomfort or their struggles with handwriting or recurrent sports injuries.  Who takes hypermobility seriously?  Your child’s OT and PT.

Therapists are the specialists who analyze functional performance and create effective strategies to improve stability and independence.  I will give a shout-out to orthotists, physiatrists and osteopaths for solutions such as splints and prolotherapy.  Their role is essential but limited, especially with younger children. Nobody is going to issue a hand splint or inject the ligaments of a child under 5 unless a child’s condition is becoming very poor very quickly.  Adaptations, movement education and physical treatments are better tolerated and result in more functional gains for most middle and moderately involved hypermobile children.  Take a look at Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children to understand more about what an OT can do to help your child.

Low tech doesn’t mean low quality or low results.  I have done short consults with children that involve only adaptations to sitting and pencil choice for handwriting, with a little ergonomic advice and education of healthy pacing of tasks thrown in.  All together, we manage to extend the amount of time a child can write without pain.  Going full-tilt paperless is possible when pain is extreme, but it involves getting the teachers and the district involved.  Not only is that time-consuming and difficult to coordinate, it is overkill for those mildly involved kids who don’t want to stand out.  Almost nothing is worse in middle school than appearing “different”.  A good OT and a good PT can help a child prevent future problems, make current ones evaporate, or minimize a child’s dependence and pain.

Hypermobile kids are often bright and resourceful, and once they learn basic principles of ergonomics and joint protection, the older children can solve some of their own problems.  For every child that is determined to force their body to comply with their will to compete without adaptation, I meet many kids that understand that well-planned movements are smarter and give them less pain with more capability.  But they have to have the knowledge in order to use it.  Therapists give them that power.

Parents:  please feel free to comment and share all your great solutions for your child with hypermobility, so that we all can learn from YOU!

Is your hypermobile child also struggling with toilet training or incontinence?  Check out Low Tone and Toilet Training: Learning to Hold It In Long Enough to Make It to The Potty  to gain an understanding of how motor and sensory issues contribute to this problem, and how you can help your child today!

Young Children With Dysgraphia Need Better Handwriting Instruction, Not Just Technology.

The diagnosis of dysgraphia is so vague that I almost hesitate to write about it.  The reason I am dipping a toe into these messy waters?  Almost every psychologist that gives a child this diagnosis recommends abandoning handwriting in favor of tablets and speech recognition programs.  I feel strongly that this does young children a huge disservice.  They will still need to write to survive at school and in life.  There are ways to help them accomplish this without sending the message that writing is hopeless.

When I meet dysgraphic children that clearly have difficulties with the control and placement aspects of handwriting, I know two things:  they are likely to need instruction in posture/paper positioning, and they probably did not have handwriting instruction in a developmental order.  Control (lines that don’t connect, overshoot, get re-written, etc.) can be fixed with some of Handwriting Without Tears’ best materials, including the magic of gray block paper.

Older kids, those in second or third grade, sometimes balk at being asked to write capital letters in those little boxes.  They don’t realize that the box borders and the uniformity they provide will automatically help them grade their control and build uniform sizing.  Really.

Adding some work on learning the  correct start/stop sequence with frequently used letters such as “e”, “a”, and “t” can make a big difference right away.  The number of children that have no idea that an “a” isn’t made with a circle and a short line is almost unreal.  Give them directions that don’t confuse them, use double-lined paper, and see progress occur.  Not a cure, but it can make a paragraph legible for the first time in years.

Many kids with dysgraphia also have issues with postural control, body awareness, and dyspraxia.  They do not sit in a position that gives them optimal pencil and paper control.  And they have never been taught that it matters.  Their teachers may not know the importance of posture/placement, or they assume that these children should have learned about it in preschool or kindergarten.  Not.  Being direct about the how and the why, and firm about not writing until they are physically ready to write can make a huge difference with dysgraphic kids.

A word about mastery.  A diagnosis of dysgraphia tells me that a child has been struggling with writing for a while.  When a dysgraphic child makes progress, they need to experience it fully and take joy in it.  Their peers felt this in preschool and kindergarten.  Give them the same chance.

Being successful hasn’t been emphasized enough in OT.  Mastery is a wonderful feeling, and sometimes we move kids to the next level before they have fully received the blessings of mastery.  Even if activities move forward, always keep a mastery task on board.  Start the session with it, use it on an “off day”, when a child really needs the chance to feel good, or end a session on a high note.  I never let the opportunity for a mastery moment slip by.  Ever!

 

Should Your Child Use A Pencil Grip?

I will be asked about pencil grips every time I teach a workshop or lecture on handwriting.  My popular post, The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write. , partially explains when and why I would recommend the use of this excellent pencil grip with older kids.  I have a message for preschool teachers that see awkward or clumsy pencil grasp in their 4 -year-olds:  don’t use a grip until you have worked on grasp!  The reason?  The other grips will not develop better grasp, and pencil grips are too frequently lost or used improperly with young children.

Pencil grips can be a huge help for older children or children with specific muscular or neurological issues.  Kids with low muscle tone or too much joint mobility in their fingers can really benefit from their use.  Children with mild cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy can also benefit from the use of a good grip and the correctly-sized writing tool.

For typical kids who aren’t using a tripod or quadruped grasp but are writing letters, the better choice is to get creative with crayon and marker dimensions.  Short crayon pieces, Flip crayons from Handwriting Without Tears (HWT), and writing with a tablet stylus from iCreate can strengthen muscles and increase tactile and proprioceptive awareness.  Finally, teach grasp actively.  HWT does a fabulous job in their teacher guides.  These books, especially  the pre-K book, are underutilized.  They are fantastic resources for any preschool teacher and pediatric occupational therapist.

Pencil grips can help some children, but don’t jump into a grip until you have addressed the reasons you were thinking of using a grip in the first place!

Finger Awareness and Math Skills: Recent Research, and “Where is Thumbkin?”

 

The Atlantic magazine ran a terrific article, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class, and I am still blown away with the connections they make between brain activity during finger movements and during math calculation and comprehension.  Let me get out my hands and count the ways I could use this information!

They focused on research at Stanford University, and you can look at all the info Stanford has put up at youcubed.org .  Based on brain research, children who count on their fingers should not be criticized, they should be encouraged.  They should even be trained to do so!   It means that all those silly finger plays in preschool are teaching children something more valuable than words to a song, more valuable than following the teacher’s directions.

The bottom line:  When kids have better digital proprioception (awareness of their fingers when not looking at them, for everyone that isn’t an OT), they may have better math skills.  Sounds fishy?  Not if you understand how the brain maps information.  According to the researchers at Stanford, a very respectable academic institution, the same sections of the brain light up on PET scans during finger awareness games and calculation.  Children who play targeted finger awareness games score higher on math tests after finger training.  All that talk about how practicing my piano homework would help me in school might have been accurate.  Sorry I gave you a hard time, Mom!

It all starts in preschool with looking at your fingers, naming them to get greater awareness of them, then using them purposefully.  The Atlantic’s article has a link to some cool activities for older kids, such as tracing colored lines with fingertips that have corresponding nail colors.  But for the little ones, “Where is Thumbkin?” makes more sense.  Developmentally, building a brain that is wired for finger awareness is so much easier than rewiring an older brain.  And much more fun.  Try doing “Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb” with a 7 year-old.  He will think you are insulting him.

As a pediatric OT, I teach children to pay attention to their “tippies”, which is my cute term for their fingertips.  Every child knows what I mean when I tell them to put their tippies on their crayons to scribble, and when I mention that their tippies have slipped out of their scissors.  I am going to build in more finger songs into my sessions starting now.  Preschool Finger Play Songs for Hand Strengthening and Sensory Awareness  I want every child to excel at math, and it could start with finger awareness!

Teach Your Kindergartener How To Erase Like a Big Kid

Does it matter how a child erases their mistake?  You are probably thinking that I ran out of topics for my blog this week.  Not exactly.

I was thinking about what makes my handwriting posts different than other bloggers that publish posts on early writing skills.  I like to look at all the details when I work with struggling writers.  I search for every way I can build a child’s skills and confidence.   Knowing how to control an eraser is a simple but important skill for children in kindergarten to master, and can save a homework assignment from the trash bin.

Controlled erasing prevents removal of well-written characters.  This means more work and more time to complete an assignment.  It prevents paper destruction.  If your child struggles to write, imagine how he would feel if he accidentally tore the paper and had to start over.

Why would children struggle to control an eraser?  Kids with limited hand strength and stability often press too softly or use too much force.  Children with sensory discrimination difficulties do the same.  Kids who have difficulty focusing, are impulsive or are defiant can make the same erasing mistakes.  Finally, kids with motor or orthopedic issues can have the same difficulty controlling the eraser that they experience with their pencil.

What can you do to help?

  • Select the right eraser.  Although pencils usually come with erasers, some children do much better with a larger eraser or one that is shaped for easier grasp.  A larger eraser can also have more textured edges and even more weight, giving children more sensory input with use.  My favorite eraser is the Pentel Hi-Polymer latex-free eraser.  Super at cleanly erasing, and easy to grasp.  Beats every pencil eraser I have ever used.  Here it is:Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser.
  • Demonstrate how to hold the eraser for control.  If a child uses a fisted grasp, they are erasing with elbow or shoulder movements.  These large movements are likely to be harder and less controlled.  Demonstrate that using a mature tripod pencil grasp will result in more control and faster erasing.
  • Make eraser practice fun.  Write awful letters, your worst products, in between good examples on a page.  Have your child erase your mistakes.  Draw mean faces and have them get rid of the “bad guys”.  Draw “coins” and see who has the most money left.  Bonus round:  have them write in the amount on the coins.  Larger number, more money!!

 

Which Crayons Promote Mature Writing Grasp?

It is back-to-school time here in the U.S.  Stores are pushing clothes, backpacks, shoes and school supplies.  Time for teachers to set up their classrooms and get excited about a new school year.  When I see the amazing variety of crayons on display at Target or Walmart, it reminds me to speak to the families I serve about selecting great writing and pre-writing tools.

First of all, let’s get the “giant crayons for smaller hands” thing out of the way.  My crayon gauge starts with the standard Crayola crayon, and goes up or down from there.  Mostly up, since I have rarely seen crayons that are narrower.  Pencils?  Yes, but not crayons.  Most children that cannot hold a crayon with a tripod or quadruped grasp (three or four fingers, respectively) will use a hook or fisted grasp to hold a standard Crayola crayon.  Why?  Often because they don’t yet have the strength and control to do so, sometimes because they haven’t been taught to hold crayons this way.  This is going to create problems for controlling that crayon and those pencils.  Let’s not even mention the bad habits that could continue for years.

Crayon and pencil grasp is not something that shows up naturally, like walking.  We are wired for walking, but prehension is a skill that developed later in humans.  Children that do not teach themselves by copying siblings and adults need to be taught.  If you present it as a grown-up skill and reward rather than criticize, many children need no more instruction.  Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) does an amazingly simple job of teaching mature pencil grip. Handwriting Without Tears

Kids older than 3 who cannot hold a standard crayon in the mature pattern can benefit from a large crayon that has been snapped in half.  Why break a perfectly good crayon?  To reduce the shaft length and prompt the child to use their fingertips, not their fist to hold a crayon.  Will those super-sized crayons or the triangle/ball-shaped crayons help?  Sorry, but no.  They appear to have been designed to give infants who use a cylindrical grasp (totally normal) the ability to scrape a crayon across a page.  It looks so cute to have your 9 month- old actually coloring!  If your older child has serious motor issues such as significant cerebral palsy, they might work.  If your child simply struggles to use a mature grasp, you could be setting them back by allowing them to use a less mature grasp to scribble.

Handwriting Without Tears sells their Flip Crayons.  These are very short and the diameter of a standard Crayola crayon.  Therefore they are shorter and narrower than a large crayon that you broke in half.  They will require more fingertip control because there is less space for  a child to use much more than a few fingertips.  I have had parents remark on how small they are for themselves, and then realize that their pencil grasp is actually not a standard grip either!  Not to worry, unless they struggle with handwriting as much as their child does!  Children who are adept at flip crayon use will progress quickly to the use of short golf pencils, which HWT sells with erasers, or your local office supply store sells without erasers.

Flip crayons have one color on one end, another color at the other end.  Children learn to “flip” them over in their hand to change colors.  Great coordination skill, and fun too!! Four year-olds are usually ready to use these, and if not, then they need to work a bit more on fingertip strength and control.  What if your child just palms them, even after they have been taught how to hold them?  Give them a few supervised turns, with you as the model.  If they are still struggling, they are not ready yet and should try the “broken crayon” strategy.  Don’t forget to periodically try out the Flip Crayons, since you want to raise their game rather than keep them at a pre-pencil stage if they are ready to move on.

What can you do to help them?  All the great activities that develop hand control.  Scissors  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler, dough, tape  Melissa And Doug Tape Activity Book Is Reusable Fun, and especially spoon and fork use with a grown-up grasp  Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.  Check on them after a month of finger control “boot camp” at home, and see what has happened to their pencil grasp!

 

Frustrating Homework? Adapt Children’s Worksheets For Success

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Frustrating homework?  Adapt it and make homework work!

The new school year is beginning here on the east coast, and kids will be getting new workbooks and worksheets for homework.  Over the years, I have seen a staggering variety of mass-produced assignments that could only be designed by adults who spend very little time with young children, and none with kids that have learning challenges of any type.  There are a number of potential writing minefields for these kids:  tiny spaces to write their name, multiple formats for writing (triple lines, single lines or no lines), all jumbled on a single page, empty spaces that don’t leave enough room for the use of grade-level letter sizing, and more.  It’s not just the writers who struggle with controlling their pencils that lose out.  Kids who have oculo-motor issues have to work harder to scan for the correct line to write a response, and move their eyes back and forth between the question/paragraph and the answer space.  Kids who cannot write smaller than their grade level but understand the material try to shorten their responses instead of explaining their thinking.  Kids with executive function issues see a complex worksheet as a big hot mess, not knowing where to start.

It makes me a bit angry that no one seems to have thought about creating worksheets that make homework easy for every child.  Then there are teachers and parents that worry about any accommodations preventing gifted children from learning in a class with mainstreamed kids.  Creating worksheets that support all kids doesn’t make it less stimulating for gifted children.  They can learn 5 letters while some of their classmates are working on one.  They can do two worksheets or write a haiku poem about the subject matter.  Everyone can win when formats are thoughtful and well-designed.  There are children with visual limitations, learning differences, and motor control issues that have been successfully placed in mainstreamed classrooms.  We demand ramps and integrated classrooms, but we put up pointless roadblocks to true success in other ways.  Asking these kids to do their homework when they know very well they will struggle to fill in the answer seems so unfair.  Until the companies that create these workbooks and worksheets change their ways, it falls on parents and therapists to adapt them and teach kids strategies for success.

What can you do to help your child navigate a poorly-designed worksheet?

  • Small spaces for their names or answers?  Check out the sample above.  Extend the line if you can, and explain that older kids and adults have a solution:  they start writing on the far left edge of the line in order to have more room for them to write.  This makes your strategy sound like sharing a “secret” instead of giving another order.
  • Single line for kindergarteners to write their name?  Create a midline (the line that small letters like “a”, “o”, and “c” start on) for them.  I don’t use a top line, and you may not need it if the space for the name is at the top of the page.  Create a starting dot for the uppercase first letter of their name, then start the midline for them.  The result?  Much neater writing.  Writing their name is the first automatic writing they will develop.   Let’s try to make it good by improving support for early writers.  If not, it will be one more thing to work on with an OT or a writing tutor.
  • Confusing layout?  Take a super-fine Sharpie marker and underline the sections, or even trace the titles of the sections so that they stand out when your child is scanning the page.  For younger children, this could involve highlighting the single-line baseline for them in the space where they are to enter their name or their responses.
  • Too many lines for writing?  Some worksheets bounce back and forth between a single line provided for a child’s name, and three lines (top line, midline, baseline) for writing.   These lines can help some kids, but they can also lead to using the midline as a top line.  If you bold the baseline of every section as described above, that could help some children.  Some kids benefit more from having the first letter of a response, including their name, written for them.  This tells them about the sizing expected, and where letters should fall within these lines.  Some kids just need a starting dot.  I think the designer of the sample page must have low vision, because that dot is so large as to make writing a letter with a pencil much harder….
  • Use a blank paper under each section to limit viewing the entire page.  Some kids find a complex page overwhelming and struggle to take things one step at a time.  Covering up the bottom of the page, then the top can help.
  • If they are copying from a list, such as a spelling list, writing the list on a separate page in large letters so that they are scanning to the next page instead of the full page can help.
  • Sympathize.  If you explain that this assignment page really is a bit confusing, children are less likely to hold in their frustration or let it out by crumpling up their paper.  The sample has each item numbered, and then asks the child to look at the number of shapes.  Not confusing for an adult, but it can be very confusing for the child.  They could have used alphabetizing for the list,  a., b., c., and so on, and let the numbers refer only to the answer.  What children really need to know is that you can help them make sense of it.

Your Best Pre-Writing Activities List: Target Key Skills And Have Fun!

The school year is coming up fast, and parents are wondering what skills their preschoolers are going to need.  Finding fun things to do with the rest of the summer that actually build skills, not just entertain the troops, isn’t easy, even for occupational therapists.  Here are my current favorites:

  1. Bring out the scissors and the Kumon Paper Playtime books.  Check out my post on both the best safe scissors   Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler and these amazingly fun books.   Kumon Learn to Cut Books: Paper Truly Worth Snipping Up  Your child gets the chance to build two-handed coordination, visual-perceptual skills, manipulation of tape or glue (tape is my fave; no drying time).  Pricey, but totally worth it when you follow my instructions for wresting every penny of value out of these terrific books.
  2. LEGOs and PlusPlus building toys.  LEGOs, whether the DUPLO version or the tiny ones, make great creations that inspire imaginative, language-based play if you ask kids to go there.  Create a story about what the characters are doing, build them garages, hideouts, etc.  PlusPlus  Plus Plus Toy Review: This Toy Can Make Your Child Turn Off The Tablet allows kids to make 3-D creations as well, and you can choose between the large and the small size.  They are less detailed than LEGOs, so sometimes kids need some help to focus on what they are building ( house or airplane?) but we always like kids to direct their own creative play if they can. Only help if they seem to give up because they can’t figure out how to get started.   Great for finger strengthening, grading grasping force and perceptual skills.
  3. Melissa and Doug coloring pages, sticker pages, Wonder Wow water pen play Water Wow: Summer Pre-writing Fun on the Road, and of course, the Tape Activity Book Melissa And Doug Tape Activity Book Is Reusable Fun.  Nice thick paper that doesn’t tear and can be cut easily, fun graphics that inspire stories, and the water pen and tape get all those fingers working!  Other than the  Water Wow series, the rest require some finger control and are appropriate for kids beginning at the 4 year-old level of coordination and perceptual skills.  Water Wow is great for the 3’s, and is fun all the way into the 5’s.  Share with your sibs, guys!

Have fun with these, and post a comment with your own favorites!!

Summer Fun Pre-Writing Activities

Here in the U.S., summer is fully underway.   Pools, camps, and vacations!  Handwriting isn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Except mine.  Without practice, kids with learning differences, motor control issues, and visual-perceptual concerns can lose a lot of the skills that they worked so hard on all year long in therapy.

Here is a fun activity, not a boring worksheet, to keep or build pre-writing skills for preschoolers and kindergarteners.  Remember, into each summer some rain will fall, and there will be overcast days, or times when kids have to wait for a meal in a restaurant  while on vacation.  This activity can be a fun way to pass the time!

Ice Cream Cones

I picked this theme because ice cream is a food that most kids love, and the strokes/shapes needed have pre-writing value.  Your child will have no idea that she is building the visual-perceptual and finger control needed for handwriting instruction!

For the youngest pre-writers:  Draw an ice cream cone as below, at least 4-5 inches tall, and have your child aim for the “scoop” to wiggle their crayon, making sprinkles. I lightly colored in the scoop and drew lines on the waffle cone.  Younger children don’t always recognize a figure in a line drawing as easily as a completed one.  Their scribbles will be large, but demonstrate that our scribbles stay inside the scoop and are reversing vertical or horizontal lines, or a circular scribble.  The important thing is that they are attempting to stay inside the scoop and they are reversing the direction of their stroke.

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For children that are beginning to trace letters:

  1. Write the letter “V” in gray, about 3-4 inches tall.  Why gray?  So that your child can use a bolder color to trace over your lines.
  2. Have them trace your letter in a brighter color, then use your gray crayon to make a line across the “V” from left-to-right (for righties.  lefties will be more comfortable tracing right-to-left).
  3. Let them trace that line as well.
  4. Draw an arch, starting at the beginning of your “V”, curving upward and ending at the end of the “V”.
  5. Let them trace that line.
  6. Demonstrate how to keep your crayon tip barely moving as you “wiggle” to create a tiny sprinkle.  Ask your child to copy you.

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For kids that are writing their own letters with demonstration:

  1. Write the letter “V”on your paper, placed directly above theirs.  Ask them to copy you.
  2. Make a line across the “V” from left-to-right( for righties; lefties cross from right-to-left).  Ask them to copy you.
  3.  Make an arch to form the scoop, starting from the beginning of the “V”, curving upward and ending at the end of the “V”.  Ask them to copy you.
  4. Demonstrate how to wiggle your crayon tip slightly to create sprinkles, and even add little lines for drips of ice cream falling off the scoop.

 

BONUS ROUNDS:  Use sturdy paper and have your child cut out his ice cream scoops.  Have him ask everyone what kind of ice cream flavor and how many scoops they would like him to make for them.  Grab the toy cash register, and use the cones to play ” ice cream shop”. 

Why Writing An “M” Like a Mountain Slows Handwriting Progress

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I had this conversation with a very sharp grandma this week.  She was curious about why I did not teach her granddaughter to write an “M” this way, since it is so much easier than the standard formation.  Here is my answer:

  1. Teaching it incorrectly? No! None of the common handwriting styles (Zaner-Bloser, D’Nealian, Handwriting Without Tears or HWT) use that formation.  She will be expected to use standard formation later in kindergarten or first grade.  Teaching her a formation that isn’t correct then changing it later, especially for this little girl, (who resists even gentle redirection) is likely to frustrate everyone later.  She may never make this letter correctly.  At the very least, teaching her one way now and another next year is a waste of my time.
  2. Automaticity. Teaching the standard formation, in which she is required to write a long vertical line and then move her crayon back up to the top of that line, reinforces the automaticity of what HWT calls the “starting corner capitals”.  These are the letters such as “E”, “N”, and “P”.  There are 11 capital letters and one number that start with this long straight line, and 8 of them jump back to the top of that line.  Teaching similar letter start and sequence builds automaticity and speeds learning.  One of the hallmarks of people with legible handwriting is automaticity.  They don’t have to think about how to make letters, they can think about what they want to say in their compositions.  It is not a good idea to slow down the development of automaticity in writing.
  3. Time saved in the future for educators.   A child can certainly learn an immature style and then learn that there is a grown-up way, but Common Core and all the testing have turned classrooms into testing training rooms.  Teachers are not able to take the time to evaluate each child’s handwriting and do spot corrections.  They will say it once and then move on.  Learning correctly now will save everyone time later.