Tag Archives: back to school

Is Automaticity The Key To Handwriting Success?

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I know that this is a bold statement.  Handwriting is a complex skill, with visual-motor coordination, perceptual, cognitive and postural components.  But when I evaluate a child’s writing, and I watch them having to think about where to start and sequence movements to form a letter and place it on a line, and then decide how far apart the letters and words should be, it makes me think that the lack of automaticity is often a child’s biggest hurdle.  Even if their motor control isn’t terrific, they can still have legible and functional writing if they make fewer errors and write fast enough to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time.  Slow and labored writing isn’t functional, even if it is beautiful.

Think about how important it is for any visual-motor skill to become automatic in order to be efficient.   You cannot hit that ball if you have to think about it.  You just can’t.  It has to be a smooth and automatic response that comes from practice and refined feedback loops developed by experience.  While practicing, professional athletes drill down on minute aspects of the swing, but during the game, they choke if they “overthink”.  Ask anyone who has done a ton of free-throws in basketball (you get an unimpeded chance to drop that orange ball into the hoop) for practice but cannot make it when the game is on the line.

In this current culture, teachers have so many skills to impart.  Handwriting is still a skill children need.  Paper workbooks and worksheets are still used extensively until 3rd or 4th grade.  You cannot wait it out until kids get old enough to keyboard.  And a struggling writer in second grade is already feeling bad about their abilities. Sometimes so bad that they don’t want to do the language arts work that develops spelling, vocabulary and creative expression.   So waiting until they can type isn’t the answer.  You want excitement and enthusiasm for reading and writing early on.  Nothing develops excitement like success.  Nothing kills enthusiasm like boredom and failure.

If automaticity is the key to handwriting success, how do you develop it in children?  I think the folks at Handwriting Without Tears have figured it out.  I no longer use any other handwriting materials.  Their workbooks and pre-K multi-sensory learning tools are just too good.

  1. If you look at the pre-K and early primary workbooks carefully, you will see that the left-to-right, top-to-bottom orientation is embedded in everything.  Even the cute animals for little kids to color are all facing left-to-right!
  2. The two lines (baseline and midline) are simple to use.  No wondering where to place letters.   The pre-K letters are at the bottom of the page, creating an emerging automatic sense of baseline.
  3. The developmental progression (versus the alphabetical progression) builds slowly from vertical and horizontal lines to curves and diagonal lines.  Letters are grouped by the way they are formed, making automatic movements emerge early and consistently.
  4. Workbook pages aren’t overwhelming with activities, but the skills are repeated to intentionally develop writing automaticity.

For example, instead of writing 12 letter”B”s and 12 letter “b”s,  uppercase letters, with their larger and simpler hand movements are taught together and earlier.  Letters “b” and “d” aren’t taught together since they can easily be reversed.  Letters “b” and “h” are taught together since the formation is very similar.  Fewer reversals, more success without having to go back and re-teach letter formation.

Take a look at the best “pre-K into K” book I have ever seen, HWT’s KickStart Kindergarten.  It is the perfect summer bridge activity for your preschooler or your older special needs child.

Happy summer writing!

 

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Help Your Special Needs Toddler Make The Transition To School Routines

 

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Many developmentally delayed toddlers move their therapeutic and educational services to a toddler developmental group, A.K.A. special needs program, when they are between 18 and 30 months old.  Not all of them slide into the routine easily.  There can be a few tears and a lot of complaining about fitting into a schedule /leaving a fun activity because it is time for circle or therapy.

After speaking with a handful of clients and doing a few consultations, I thought it might help to provide some strategies to help parents make their child’s first school experience easier:

  1. Learn how teachers mark activity transitions, and commit to using them at home.  Some teachers sing the  “clean-up song”, some ring a bell or turn lights on and off.  Find out exactly how the staff help children, especially non-verbal children, anticipate and adjust to changes.
  2.  You don’t need to copy the exact transition strategy, but make it very similar and use it for activities at home that are the easy transitions.  Examples of easy transitions at home are getting into a bubbly tub, leaving the table once full and satisfied, putting on a coat to go outside and play, etc.  The transitions that are easiest are going to be the calmest, and children learn best when calm.  This positive spin makes the school’s routine more acceptable when a child isn’t completely on board with new situations.
  3. Find out how snack is served, and offer snacks in the same way at home.  If small cups are used for water or juice, practice cup drinking at home with the same sized cup.   If there are specific foods offered, then stock up.   Model your enjoyment of these snacks so that the food is familiar and has your seal of approval.

Good luck this year to all the toddlers that have made the leap to school!!

 

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!

Should Hypermobile Kids Use Backpacks?

 

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Yo! A photo shout-out to my old life in Brooklyn! I loved coming to work to see this iconic view!

It is back-to-school season here in the US.  One of the items on shopping lists is a new backpack.  But for kids with low muscle tone or hypermobility, backpacks can be more than a way to carry books and water bottles.  They can be a source of pain, headaches, even numbness in hands and fingers.  The important question isn’t how to lighten the load of a heavy backpack.  It is whether these kids should be using them at all.

The standard recommendations from occupational therapists and orthopedists regarding backpacks are simple:  lighten the load, use both straps (select one with wide straps), and make sure the heaviest items are placed close to the body.  All good suggestions.  But if a child already has pain or weakness around their spine and/or shoulder joints, reduced stability and endurance, and limited ability to judge posture and force, then the picture changes.  Using a backpack may be a significant physical risk, no matter how well designed or used.  And still many kids will insist that it isn’t possible to go without one.

Here are some suggestions that further minimize the risk of injury but can be acceptable to kids who may be sensitive to being perceived as different if they don’t have a backpack:

  • Request a set of the heaviest books for home use.  This can be part of an IEP or a 504 plan, or the school may be willing to do so without anything formal on paper.
  • Select the smallest size backpack possible.  Stores like Land’s End and L.L. Bean  are great sources for a variety of backpack sizes.  Bigger backpacks encourage kids to load more stuff inside.
  •  Have your child carry lighter and fewer items.  Pick the smallest water bottles and travel sizes of anything they really need.  Think “weekend in Paris on a shoestring” not “trekking the Himalayas”.  At least they have a backpack like the other kids.
  • Teach your child to carry their pack in their arms, close to their chest, instead of wearing it.  I know that sounds a little weird.  But if the pack is small to medium in size, this is the best way to carry it to reduce strain on the back and neck.  And they still have a backpack like the other kids.  It might be a long shot to get a kid to change how they carry a pack.  Some kids can respond to reminders of how awful it is to be in pain, and how not being able to sleep or play sports is much worse than carrying that pack in their arms.
  • Considering a rolling case?  Not so fast.  The twisting of the spine and the use of one arm to drag a rolling case may be worse than using a backpack.  Then there is the lifting and lugging of a case up non-ADA stairs.  Out of the frying pan……

Looking for more information about hypermobility, low tone and back-to-school planning?  Check out Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility? and Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills.  Before you wonder if all that fidgeting and leaning over the desk is a behavior problem, read Hypermobility and ADHD? Take Stability, Proprioception, Pain and Fatigue Into Account Before Labeling Behavior.  There are pencil grips that can really help kids with a weak grasp, so check out The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.

If your child is older and thinking about a career, please read Career Planning for Teens with JRA, EDS, and Other Chronic Health Issues for some important strategies to get them thinking about how to navigate higher education and make plans that make sense.