Tag Archives: self feeding

Teach Utensil Grasp and Control…Without the Food!

Therapro has just published my latest guest post! There are some situations that almost require occupational therapists to separate mealtime from utensil manipulation, at least at the earliest stages.  Check out my post Teaching Utensil Use Outside of the Mealtime Experience to find out if your child or client would benefit from this approach!

If you haven’t already read this very popular post I wrote earlier, make learning to use utensils an opportunity to bond emotionally,  take the pressure of self-feeding off the table and help an avoidant child engage in food play with Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.

Therapro has been one of my go-to sources for quality therapy equipment for years.  Take the time to review their catalog online and explore their unique bowls, plates and utensils that can help children with developmental delays achieve independence in self-feeding.

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How Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write

My post on selecting great utensils has generated buzz with my clients.  When I mentioned in therapy sessions that every time a preschooler uses a fork or spoon with a mature grasp, they are building the strength and control needed for good handwriting, parent’s jaws hit the floor.  It never occurred to them that there is a connection. Time to explain.

A bit of history:  there was a time when preschoolers used utensils early during meals.  Perhaps as recently as 35 years ago, it was a land free of meats in nugget form and al dente vegetables with dipping sauces.  Forks and spoons were used for every meal, and fingers were rarely used for many breakfast and dinner foods.  “Table manners” were taught, and they included how to use utensils.

Life is now more casual and lived at a faster pace.  We eat in our cars, while talking on the phone, and our kids sometimes don’t even want to sit to eat.  They circle back to the table to have us pop a morsel into their mouth before going back to play.  Lifestyles have changed, but the need for finger dexterity and strength has not changed one bit.  If you have a 4 year-old who avoids coloring, has no interest in writing, and doesn’t want to use utensils, you have a child that can lag behind his peers in handwriting due to lack of fine motor skills.  He has missed out on years of useful fine motor practice that his teachers expect to capitalize on at 4.5  and up for handwriting instruction.  Teachers do not expect to do remediation for fine motor delays, they want to teach.  Since kids lose opportunities for fine motor development while they use tablets and push-button toys, utensil skills are a practical way to support good early fine motor skills.

The wrist control, finger isolation and grading of movement and force that goes into holding a utensil in a mature pattern (thumb on top, fingers in a gentle curved arc under the handle shaft, end of the handle visible resting on the large knuckle of the index finger) is a great way to develop those pre-writing skills.  Stabilizing the plate or bowl while eating develops into “helper hand” stabilization of paper while writing.  Scooping, piercing food with a fork, and even beginning cutting with a bread knife improve bilateral control and the ability to coordinate eye-hand control with accuracy, speed and endurance.  A lot of skill goes into feeding yourself a bowl of cereal or a plate of pasta.  Is your child still feeding herself only with her fingers?  That is a 12-month skill, my friends. Time to raise her game.

My previous post Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp?showed you a great handle style that has kid-friendly characters and is well-designed for easier grip and independent placement.  If you have to keep helping your child put their fingers in the right spot, it isn’t independence.  Take a look at that post for fun ways to build skills without your child even catching on that they are practicing!

UPDATE:  One of my almost-4’s has been using these utensils for 2 weeks.  He has not been able to put a crayon in his hand correctly all year, no matter how much we practice, demonstrate or reward.  Yesterday we played a game with my spoon, and he handled it perfectly.  Then it was time to use the iPad stylus for a pre-writing game.  I placed the stylus on the floor and turned my back to set up the app.  I turned around and he asked “Did I get it right?”  His fingers were in a perfect tripod position, ready to go!!!!

Why Low Muscle Tone Affects Pencil Grasp

 

Low muscle tone can cause a child to struggle with holding crayons and pencils.  Those little fingers wrap around them, fold over them and sometimes ball up into a fist to hold a pencil.  How a child holds a pencil does not automatically mean that his handwriting will be illegible, but it almost always makes learning to write more challenging.  A grasping pattern that cannot easily control the movement and force of a stroke will make beginning writers work harder.  Here are some reasons why this happens, and a few ideas to help kids develop a stable grasp:

Low tone reduces the sensory feedback from grasping and writing.  Without enough information from the muscle and joint receptors in the arm and hand, a child may use the wrong amount of force (either too little ,or more likely, too much) when writing.  Unless a child is looking at his pencil, he may not be able to write.  As adults, we do not realize the amount of time we look away or cannot see what we have written until our fingers move out of the way at the end of a letter or a word.  That can be too late.  Children with low tone are making writing errors and don’t know about it until they can see them.  If they don’t look, then they start the next word without correcting an error.

Low muscle tone will result in quicker fatigue and the poor legibility that comes with forcing other muscles to compensate.  Children who substitute extra muscles to get control of a pencil and achieve the typical pattern of movement, or have squeezed too hard on their crayon, will honestly tell you that their hands are tired.  This will cause them to adapt their grip into an even more awkward pattern.  If they have generalized low tone and aren’t sitting with support, then their shoulders and back are probably tired too.  They  might just refuse to continue to do their writing at all.

What can be done?

  • Good positioning reduces some fatigue and improves control.  When body parts are well-supported and aligned, fatigue will be delayed.  Make sure that a child has a chair that gives him a writing surface that is supportive.  The best idea that got lost in handwriting?  The slanted desk.  Why was it so helpful?  In days gone by, writing was a valued art, and the Palmer Method style was the standard.  This was a demanding style, and the angled desk supported a writer’s shoulder, wrist and hand so that control was achieved without as much fatigue.  Now we have to improvise with writing easels.  My favorite hack?  Turning a large 3-ring binder on it’s side and affixing the paper in a horizontal or “landscape” orientation.
  • Don’t forget the benefits of having feet on the floor.  As I write this post, I have one foot on the base of my office chair, bar room style.  I am sitting comfortably so that I can keyboard for a while.  A child with his feet wrapped around the legs of a chair is a big billboard announcing “I need more support for sitting, please!”
  • Consider using the pencil grip that actually strengthens finger muscles (see my post in August 2015), gradually increasing the amount of time a child can write with this grip.  Why gradually?  Using weak muscles in a new way will create rapid fatigue at first.
  • Work on holding utensils for meals.  My post Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child is great for the younger toddler, but if you have a child that is over 3 and is able to use their fingertips to neatly pick up cereal and can scribble with more than a fist, then you need Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? to find a good spoon to teach a mature grasp (the kind where his thumb is on top of the handle and fingers are curled under).  Why should you care about self-feeding when this is a post about pencil grip?  Because children eat longer and more regularly than they scribble, and every scoop is giving them direct feedback about their progress.
  • Make sure that the pencil or crayon suits a child’s grasp.  I like triangle crayons for their extra sensory feedback from flat sides for finger placement.  Some kids need short crayons but thicker diameters, so snap thick crayons in half.  I have found automatic pencils with thick lead for older kids who snap the tips off of the #2 pencils.

Not sure that the problem is loose joints?  Read The Hypermobile Hand to learn how to spot a child with hypermobility and get a better sense of the anatomy and physiology of hypermobility.