Category Archives: kindergarten

The Hypermobile Hand: More Than A Strength Problem

 

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I just received another referral for a kid with “weak’ hands.  Can’t hold a pencil correctly, can’t make a dark enough mark on paper when he writes or colors.  But his mom says he has quite a grip on an object when he doesn’t want to hand something over.  He plays soccer without problems and otherwise functions well in a regular classroom.  Could it be that hypermobility is his underlying problem?

Some children display problems with fine motor skills due to low muscle tone.  Many times, their low tone is significant enough to create poor joint alignment and stability, resulting in joint hypermobility as well as low muscle tone.  But kids can also have joint laxity with typical muscle tone.  Assessing the difference between tone, strength, alignment/stability and endurance is why you get an evaluation from a skilled therapist.  And even then, it can be tricky to determine etiology with the youngest children because they cannot follow your directions or answer questions.  Time to take out your detective hat and drill down into patient history and do a very complete assessment.

With older kids, both low tone and joint laxity can lead them over time to develop joint deformity and soft tissue damage.  Like a tire that you never rotated on your car, inappropriate wear and tear can create joint, ligament, tendon, and muscular imbalance problems that result in even worse alignment, less stability and endurance, and even pain.  And yes, weakness is often observed or reported, but it often is dependent on posture and task demands, rather than being consistent or specific to a nerve distribution or muscle/muscle group.

What does the classic hypermobile hand look like?  Here are some common presentations:

  • The small joints of the fingers and thumb look “swaybacked”, as the joint capsule is unstable and the tendons of the hand exert their pull without correct ligament support.  When they slide laterally and the joint is unable to move smoothly, people say that their fingers “lock” or they are diagnosed with “trigger finger”.
  • The arches of the hand aren’t supported, so the palm looks flat at rest.  By late preschool, the arches of the hand should be evident in both active and passive states.
  • The fleshy bases of the thumb and pinky ( the thenar and hypothenar eminences, for all you therapists out there) aren’t pronounced, due to the lack of support reducing normal muscle development during daily use.
  • Grasp and pinch patterns are immature and/or atypical.  A preschooler uses a fisted grasp to scribble, a grade-school child uses two hands to hold an object that should be held by one hand and uses a “hook” grasp on a pencil.
  • Grasp and pinch may start out looking great, and deteriorate with the need for force.  Or prehension begins looking poor and improves for a while, until fatigue sets in.  This bell-curve pattern of grasp control is often seen with kids that have poor proprioceptive discrimination.  As they use their hands they receive more input, but as fatigue sets in, they cannot maintain a mature grasp and good control.
  • The typical arches of the hand that create the “cupping” of the palm when pretending to scoop water from a stream, for example, will be somewhat flattened. Unless there is nerve damage, you won’t see the “claw hand” pattern or another atypical posture.
  • Fine grasp will often be accomplished with the thumb and third finger to achieve greater stability through the MCP (knuckle) joints and to avoid full opposition of the thumb.  Another common compensatory pattern is using digits II and III together to gain greater stability.  Some kids can even wrap one digit partially around another to do this.  Now that’s hypermobility!

Don’t forget that hypermobility creates poor sensory processing feedback loops.  Reduced proprioception and kinesthesia will result in issues when children try to grade force and control movement without compensations such as visual attention and decreased speed. This can result in kids being labeled clumsy or careless.

Looking for ideas to address the difficulties children face when they have hypermobility in their hands? Take a look at For Kids With Sensory Issues and Low Tone, Add Resistance Instead of Hand-Over-Hand Assistance and Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility?.  Depending on the age and skill level of the child, adaptations and education can be just as important as therapeutic exercise.  Your pediatric occupational therapist can help with more than pencil grasp; we are able to help with so many real-life issues!

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When Should You Begin To Teach Handwriting? (You May be Surprised!)

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The ability to bring two hands to midline and use fingertips to hold a block is a pre-writing skill!

Many formal handwriting programs begin at 4 years of age.  Handwriting Without Tears, Fundations, and others begin with children tracing letters and quickly progress to writing.  But the foundational skills for handwriting actually begin early.  Before your child’s first birthday.  Yes, that early.  And, believe it or not, that is when you could be teaching important skills that will eventually morph into handwriting.

No, I am not suggesting that we start teaching infants to write!  I have met a handful of very gifted children, some of whom could read before 4, but not one was writing letters before their first birthday.  The foundational skills for handwriting are grasp, reach, bilateral control, posture, ocular (eye) control and visual perception.  And every single one of these skills is developing before a child turns 1.

How do you develop these skills?  Play.  Play with small toys, play with big ones.  Play that requires a child to move.  Crawling through a tunnel and climbing over cushions to develop arm and hand control.  Play on their stomach and play standing at a table for posture and core stability.  Play that requires more than tapping a screen or pressing a button.  I love my tablet as much as the next person, but I was fortunate to grow up before it was invented.  I had something called “toys”.

If you sent me to teach occupational therapists in a developing country, I would bring a small bag of the best toys I know:  crayons, paper, scissors, LEGOs, balls of all sizes, and I would use some things that every home is likely to have:  small cups for scooping and emptying, scarves for peek-a-boo, and little pieces of food for self-feeding.  This is all you need.  Really.  Giving a child the chance to feed themselves, play in water and sand, build and scribble can do a lot to build foundational skills.

One thing that I forgot to mention as a foundational skill is……interest. Some kids are very interested in coloring.  Many are not.  Same with reading.  How do you get your child interested in writing?  You allow them access to tools, make the tools desirable, and show them that you enjoy coloring or writing.  When your infant reaches for your pen and you slide it away from them, they are showing you interest.  They can’t use a pen, but they can mess around with food puree on their high chair tray, drawing lines in the goo.  Prewriting at work.  When your toddler wants to eat the marker, remind them that these are for scribbling, and help them to make a masterpiece.  Every day.  Find fun materials.  I am a big fan of crayons instead of markers, but there are some sparkly crayons and some great markers and papers that don’t destroy your home while your child is learning to draw and write Color Wonder Paper Will Boost Creativity and Save Your Walls.

Not an artist?  No problem!  Fake it.  Just like you gleefully eat veggies even though you’d rather have cake, scribble and make something silly on paper.  Show how much fun it is.  You might find out that you are more creative than you thought, or that once you kill that critic in your head, you actually like to draw.

Child development experts bemoan the limited language skills of kids from families without books.  Philanthropists like Dolly Parton donate tons of books to poor families in the hopes that children will be read to and develop a love of reading.  Guess what?  Children need to have early experiences with writing and drawing as well.  The family that has no crayons, no markers, no paper and no interest in drawing or writing will not inspire their children.

Give the gift of “pre” prewriting to your child, and give them a head start today!

Looking for more information on handwriting and development?  Read Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills and Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility.

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Help Your Child Develop Self-Regulation With Happiest Toddler On The Block

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Children start learning self-regulation early.  Most kids eventually become reasonably skilled at it, given some help from loving adults.  The problem is they don’t learn it quickly.  Self-regulation takes a long time to become established in the slowly-developing brain of a young child.  While you are scooping up the puddle of Jell-O that used to be your toddler before she dropped her ice cream cone, think about how you can use this moment to build her ability to come back to a calm state:

  1.   Reflect her emotions without denying them or taking them on.  After all, you know that it isn’t the end of the world.  But at that moment, she can’t see it.  She is sad and maybe even angry.  Use the Fast Food Rule Use The Fast Food Rule For Better Attunement With Your Child to state what happened and how you think she feels.  Remember to use lots of gestures and alter your vocal tone to convey empathy.  Don’t be placid; after all, she needs to know that you get how unhappy this has made her.  Kids tune into your expressions much more than your words at this age.  You may think you should be soothingly quiet, but she is thinking ” You don’t see my pain!!”
  2. Make sure she knows that you care about what happened, and use this moment to identify what she is feeling.  Even if you intend to get her another cone, allowed her to be upset for a very brief period, and let her know that we call that feeling “sad”.  Kids depend on us to explain what happened to the dinosaurs, how to eat with a fork, and also how to identify and manage emotions.  Take that moment to explain that there is a name for what she is feeling, and that it is normal and understandable, even if you intend to fix it with another ice cream.
  3. Ask her if she wants another ice cream cone, but not too soon.  Sometimes children aren’t ready for our solutions, even if they do want them, and presenting one too early gives a message that we never intended:  I can’t handle your pain, you can’t either, and I need to fix it right away.  Look for that shift in body language, eye contact or verbal connection that tells you she is starting to pull herself together before you jump in with a solution.

 

If you find yourself more upset than your child, their pain ripping through you, take a moment to look inside and see what experiences in your past are contributing to this feeling.  You may have been taught the same lesson early in your own childhood.  If you received the message that pain is unbearable and should be avoided at all costs, you are not alone.  Well, I am going to tell you that an important part of your life, and a part of your child’s life is all about learning to feel feelings without fear and come back to a good place after a difficult experience.

Bad things happen to us all, and the most important lesson you can teach your child at this moment is that she can handle this feeling and come through it.  With your support, and with the support of other people who love her, she will get through the loss of her ice cream and other losses in life as well.

And it can start with how to handle the loss of an ice cream cone….!

 

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Use The Fast Food Rule For Better Attunement With Your Child

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What’s attunement?  The physical and emotional connection that a healthy parent makes with their upset child that brings them both back into a calm and balanced state.  Why is it important?  Because without attunement you don’t have healthy attachment, and attachment is the foundation for a healthy emotional and interpersonal life.  Attunement and attachment are some of the biggest issues in psychology today.  Everyone is talking about it, but once those early years are over, it takes a lot of therapy to repair rifts in this foundation.  So reinforce your emotional connection with your toddler, and know that the effort you make today will help them recognize healthy relationships for the rest of their life.

How does The Fast Food Rule help parents develop attunement?  By reflecting back the child’s perceived complaint with enough gesture, facial expression and vocal intensity to register in the mind of a child, your child will feel that you “get” them, just as they are, regardless of whether you agree that a broken cookie is the end of the world.  Knowing that a parent understand where you are coming from is essential.  For more details, read Stop The Whining With The Fast Food Rule.

Again, later in life, realizing that a partner isn’t “getting them” is important when deciding whether to develop or stay in a relationship.  From there, your child will be able to consciously decide to communicate more effectively, invest more time and effort in the relationship, or move on to another person who can connect more successfully with them.

Does this mean that you give in to every howl from a young child?  Of course not.  Even toddlers know that they won’t get everything they demand.  They may be unhappy to hear that they can’t have cookies for dinner, but they don’t actually think they will be having them for dinner.  What matters is that they know that you understand them, understand their feelings, and aren’t rushing to squash their anger, sadness or frustration.

Once you see those little shoulders drop, hear the scream become a wail or a whine, and get more eye contact, you will have been given the green light to offer a solution.  Wait for it.  And look for that moment when the two of you are calm and moving forward together.  That, my friends, it attunement at work.

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Which Improves Pencil Grasp Best: A Pencil Grip Or A Thicker Pencil?

 

kelli-tungay-324329A a pediatric occupational therapist, I am often asked to weigh in on this debate.  Not often enough, it seems.  There are a lot of kids out there using pencils with wonky grasp patterns because no one has made an effort to improve the way they hold a pencil, or they doubt that it matters.  Oops.  Although grasp isn’t often or evn usually the biggest issue with writing problems, a really poor grasp can reduce control and increase pain and fatigue.  Not every kid with poor pencil grasp is a hot mess.  Some of them just need good instruction and good materials.  For the others, it might be time to get an OT involved.

Kids that struggle with pencil grasp are often (in my opinion, too often) given a pencil grip and told to use it when they write. It may help, but it may not.  An yet, I will still hand out my favorite pencil grip if I think that it will build control and strength. The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.

I thought I would drill down into the ways that OTs think about the use of pencil grips, and present a few alternatives to reflexively sending kids home with a bit of plastic on the end of a pencil:

  • Change the pencil.  Triangular pencils give more sensory feedback during writing, and they offer a flat surface for finger pads.  Thick mechanical pencils still have a standard-thickness lead, but they also are easier to hold for some children.  Short pencils, including golf pencils, force more fingertip contact and can be helpful (but not if grasp is really weak or awkward).
  • Don’t jump into pencil use too early.  Until a child can manage a mature grasp, I try very hard to keep them using crayons when they are not yet in kindergarten.  I like the flip crayons from Learning Without Tears because they are so very small, but not all kids in kindergarten are ready for them.  I break a toddler crayon in two so that they get the benefits of a thick shaft but they will be unable to use a fisted grasp.
  • Like markers?  I only use them if they are the Pipsqueak markers from Crayola.  Nice thick, short shafts for little fingers.  Markers don’t give a child any resistance at all, so they don’t give enough sensory feedback or strengthening for my kids that need both.  And they make a mess most of the time.  I don’t have the time to scrub off markers.
  • Build strength and control with play.  Yes, fine motor play.  Totally outdated (just joking) but necessary.  I use the iCreate tablet stylus, bead stringing, therapy putty and lots of tiny toys like travel Connect Four games.  Even baking.     Utensil use counts too. How Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write    Children are spending less time with toys and more with tablets, so I insist that they use a tablet stylus with me in sessions.  They have no idea that the physical “drag” of the plastic point on the glass screen as they move objects around is creating resistance that helps their fingers get stronger.
  • Color with children, draw with children. A lot.  Coloring is less stressful to the risk-averse child who thinks he can’t write. Drawing simple shapes is directly applicable to writing letters and numbers.  Think “T” and a vertical cross, “A” and a volcano.  Watching an adult and listening to their narration, such as ” I am coloring around and around to fill in the balloon, since it is a circle shape”  is very helpful to young children who resist direct instruction.  The child that doesn’t naturally gravitate to coloring may need downloads of their fave character or stickers to add to the picture to make it exciting.  But the key is the adult interaction.

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OXO for Kids: Great Tableware For Older Kids With Sensory and Motor Issues

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Does your child knock over her milk on a daily basis?  Do utensils seem to fly out of your son’s hands?  I treat kids with hypermobility, coordination and praxis issues, sensory discrimination limitations, etc.; they can all benefit from this terrific line of cups, dinnerware and utensils.

Yes, OXO, the same people that sell you measuring cups and mixing bowls: they have a line of children’s products.  Their baby and toddler items are great, but no 9 year-old wants to eat out of a “baby plate”.

OXO’s items for older kids don’t look or feel infantile.   The simple lines hide the great features that make them so useful to children with challenges:

  1. The plates and bowls have non-slip bases.  Those little nudges that have other dinnerware flipping over aren’t going to tip these items over so easily.
  2. The cups have a colorful grippy band that helps little hands hold on, and the strong visual cue helps kids place their hands in the right spot for maximal control.
  3. The utensils have a larger handle to provide more tactile, proprioceptive and kinesthetic input while eating.  Don’t know what that is?  Don’t worry!  It means that your child gets more multi-sensory information about what is in her hand so that it stays in her hand.
  4. The dinnerware and the cups can handle being dropped, but they have a bit more weight (thus more sensory feedback) than a paper plate/cup or thin plastic novelty items.
  5. There is nothing about this line that screams “adaptive equipment”.  Older kids are often very sensitive to being labeled as different, but they may need the benefits of good universal design.  Here it is!
  6. All of them are dishwasher-safe.  If you have a child with special needs, you really don’t want to be hand-washing dinnerware if you don’t have to.

For more information about mealtime strategies, please take a look at Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? and Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.

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Parenting Experts: Check Your Privilege

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Zero-To-Three just ran this summary on their Facebook page MIT language study and I felt so sad.  For everyone.  For the umpteenth time in the past few years, I am in the awkward position of agreeing with “experts” that kids learn language skills best with face-to-face interaction that expands language, but I also appreciate why some cultures don’t interact with children like MIT researchers want them to.  My concern is that the  researchers can’t seem to see beyond their (boojie) bubble.

Because I have the good fortune to treat children in their homes, and have family and friends that span every economic group from barely-getting-by to (almost) Richie Rich, I have seen a lot of parenting styles.  A lot.  Here is what I see:

Parents teach children to behave so that they will succeed in the culture their parents exist in and the world they hope their children will access.  How parents interact with their children is also affected by how stressed they are.  No parent thinks about this consciously.  But there are huge differences, right from the start.

What I think the MIT folks haven’t realized is what goes on for those parents who come home after working two jobs, who worry about which bills to pay now and if they will have a job this time next month. These good, hardworking folks don’t have the extra bandwidth to chat with their children in the same way that a less stressed parent does.  Maybe the researchers haven’t thought to ask, maybe they assume that what they see in an interview tells the whole story.  But they haven’t seen these families in their own homes and how they live their lives.

When that proud, super-stressed, working-class parent thinks about their child’s future, they see a job with benefits, a job that can’t be outsourced, a job that has automatic raises.  Many of the jobs they dream about for their children are government or union jobs.  These jobs require obedience to rules and to supervisors.  In these positions, telling your boss that he or she is wrong could cost you your job.  Staying out of controversy and following the rules gets you to the next rung on the ladder.

When their child questions a request, they aren’t going to have a heart-to-heart with him about why they don’t want to unload the dishwasher.  A parent wants it done because they need to do three loads of laundry immediately and won’t be done with it until 2 am tonight.  Everyone in their family has to help to make tomorrow a possibility.  And they want their child to know that refusal to follow a supervisor’s order could mean that they could be out of a job and maybe out of a home.

Someday there will be someone at MIT that learns more about these families, is brave enough to say what they think, and maybe even publish a study.  That will be something that I can’t wait to post on my blog!