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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Can You K-Tape Kids With Ehlers-Danlos and Other Connective Tissue Disorders?

enis-yavuz-387710-unsplashThe short answer:  some of these kids, some of the time.  The long answer:  To use K-tape effectively, you need to understand the mechanics of tape on the skin and underlying tissues, how connective tissue disorders disrupt skin healing, how to minimize skin shear and inflammation, and that only using one type of tape may not be enough.

I love to use taping for kids with hypermobility, but kids with connective tissue disorders such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome aren’t always able to tolerate taping without some significant adaptations.  Children that were preemies often have the same issues that make taping more challenging.  Fragile skin, immune system reactions, etc. will require adaptations and alterations to standard taping procedures and protocols.  But it doesn’t mean an automatic “no”!

Here are my clinical suggestions to make K-taping more successful for kids with connective tissue distorders:

  1. Very few children with connective tissue disorders are able to communicate discomfort clearly. Their hypermobility creates limitations in proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness.  Children of all ages with poor proprioceptive discrimination have a sensory deficit that directly reduces their feedback for taping.   Therapists have to be very skilled at observation and clinical judgement.  A good therapist will carefully listen to a parent’s descriptions of movement, skin conditions and complaints to hear clues that should guide your taping.
  2. Assume significant skin sensitivity and fragility.  If a child sails through your test tape period, don’t assume that you can use regular taping procedures and protocols.  Always use a test tape, and consider doing multiple test tapes in different locations and with different levels of tension.  Paper-off tension is highly recommended in treatment, and so is caution with taping protocols that add significant skin shear.  Those include placing the tissue on stretch as you apply the tape, and protocols in which rotary force is exerted (such as spiral patterns around limbs).  Because skin recovery may be impaired, skin tolerance can deteriorate after repeated taping.  Use the most conservative treatment plan, even if you are getting good results.  Slow and steady is better for everyone.
  3. Expect to take taping breaks and shorten the amount of time tape stays on the skin. These kids should receive longer periods without tape.  This allows any micro-damage to be repaired.  Once the tape has lost the majority of it’s elastic properties, it is less beneficial and becomes more of a risk for skin integrity.  Instruct parents to trim the tape or remove it completely when the edges start to catch on clothing.  The effect is constant shear on the skin next to the loose edge.  This is irritating for all kids, but it can create significant inflammation for kids with CTD’s.  Try taping another location and returning to taping after a substantial break.  Children with connective tissue disorders usually have more than one area of instability that could benefit from taping.
  4. Use pediatric tape and pediatric protocols well into childhood and perhaps beyond.  I use the Milk of Magnesia barrier technique with all children under 3, and with all children with diagnosed or suspected connective tissue disorders.  I am also a big fan of PerformTex’ pediatric tape.  Their adhesive seems to be to be less intense than ROC Rx tape, and significantly less adhesive than regular tape.  The cure monkeys and flowers don’t hurt!  I am awaiting a shipment of Kineseotex’ Light Touch tape, which has an ultra-gentle adhesive.  Once I started using pediatric tape, I haven’t looked back.  No parent wants to see their child’s skin inflamed, and no therapist wants to strain their client’s trust by appearing to be unconcerned about skin integrity and pain.
  5. Expect that some children truly cannot tolerate taping, and move on.  Good therapists have many different ways to make a difference in a child’s life, and taping may be tolerated better as a child grows up.  We can never predict the clinical course of a connective tissue disorder with certainty, so don’t give up, but don’t become rigid in your treatment planning either.

Looking for more information on treating hypermobility and hypermobility syndromes? Check out How Hypermobility Affects Self-Image, Behavior and Activity Levels in Children and Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children.  I am working on an e-book series for parents and therapists of kids with hypermobility.  Check back here soon to see when and where it is available!

 

My e-book on potty training, The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone, is a great reference for therapists and a helpful resource for families.  Many of our hypermobile preschoolers are still in pull-ups because no one knows how to make it easier.  My book has readiness checklists and equipment assessment guides that can help kids move forward with training immediately!  Visit my website to purchase my book at tranquil babies, or go to Amazon , or visit Your Therapy Source, a wonderful site for therapy materials.

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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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Improving Daily Life Skills for Kids With Special Needs

 

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Therapro, the terrific source for a lot of handy therapy equipment and especially for items that help kids with sensory processing issues, has posted another piece from me on ADLs.  Take a look: What Helps Special Needs Kids Tolerate Grooming and Hygiene?

“Activities of Daily Living” don’t have the cache’ of kineseotaping or therapeutic listening, but helping families improve the little things in life is something I haven’t ignored.  The basics of life are still the basics, and when they are a struggle, life gets harder.  Every single day.

Sometimes using SI techniques like the Wilbarger Protocol Can You Use The Wilbarger Protocol With Kids That Have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome? makes self-care activities better, but sometimes you need a targeted approach.  This post describes some of my best strategies to make face-washing, tooth-brushing, dressing and bathing easier for kids to tolerate and they also help them to become independent at these important skills.  After all, one of the best techniques to reduce defensiveness/aversion is to have a child do the task independently.  They can control the pace, the amount of force and the timing.  And they are empowered.  So many kids with special needs develop the impression that they don’t have the ability to do things for themselves.

So check out my post on Therapro, and then go shopping for some of their terrific materials for your child or for your therapy practice!

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The view north from West Point.  Welcome spring!

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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For Kids With Sensory Issues and Low Tone, Add Resistance Instead of Hand-Over-Hand Assistance

 

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One of my most popular posts, Why “Hand-Over-Hand” Assistance Works Poorly With So Many Special Needs Children , explains how this common method of assisting children to hold and manipulate objects often results in rejection or even aversion.  This post tells you about my most successful strategy for kids with low muscle tone and limited sensory processing:  using graded resistance.

Why does making it harder to move work better?  Because if the child is actively trying to reach and grasp an object, you are providing more tactile, kinesthetic and proprioceptive information for their brain.  More information = better quality movement.  Your accurately graded resistance is doing what weighted/pressure vests, foot weights and SPIO suits do for the rest of their body.  Could you use a hand weight or weighted object?  Maybe, but little children have little hands with limited space to place a weight, and weights don’t distribute force evenly.  Did you take physics in school?  Then you know that gravity exerts a constant pressure in one direction.  Hands move in 3-D.  Oh, well.  So much for weighting things.

How do you know how much force to use?  Just enough to allow the child to move smoothly.  Its a dance in which you constantly monitor their effort and grade yours to allow movement to continue.

Where do you place the force?  That one is a little trickier.  It helps to have some knowledge of biomechanics, but I can tell you that it isn’t always on their hand.  Not because they won’t like it, but because it may not deliver the correct force. Often your force can be more proximal, meaning closer to the shoulder than the hand.  That would provide more information for the joints and muscles that stabilize the arm, steadying it so the hand can be guided accurately.   If a child has such a weak grasp that they cannot maintain a hold while pushing or pulling, you may be better off moving the object, not the hand,  while they hold the object, rather than holding their hand.

Still getting aversive responses from the child?  It may be because the child doesn’t want to engage in your activity, or they don’t realize that you are helping them.  They  may think that adults touch them to remove objects from their grasp or otherwise stop them from exploring.  Both can be true.  In that case, make sure that you are offering the child something that they want to do first.  Remember, we can’t force anyone to play.  The desire to engage has to come from them, or it isn’t play.  Its just adults making a kid do something that we think is good for them.

 

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One of the most amazing places I have ever seen:  Australia!