Many parents are concerned about their child’s handwriting skills. Why is my child’s handwriting so sloppy? The answer that many teachers have difficulty explaining is that handwriting is a complex skill made up of many discrete components including: correct seated positioning, trunk control, shoulder/elbow/wrist stability, wrist extension, small muscle development, development of an open index finger-thumb space, pencil grasp, skill of controlled release, eye-hand coordination, visual motor integration, cognitive understanding of locatives, utensil or tool manipulation, basic stroke formation, alphabet letter recognition, and orientation to written language.
This may seem overwhelming, but don’t panic, there is help! Occupational therapists play a key role in improving handwriting skills. The first step is evaluating the child in all aspects of fine motor skills, behavior, and environment. Once the problem areas have been established, a remediation and/or adaptation technique can be applied to work on the child’s difficulties.
Here are some strategies to look for and to use when helping a child learn to print:
Vision should always be the first thing to be assessed. It is often overlooked and can easily be corrected. Make sure to have an optometrist or an ophthalmologist assess your child’s vision before consulting with an occupational therapist. Aside from vision, visual motor integration, visual perception, and eye-hand coordination is often an important problem in many children with handwriting difficulties (Kaiser et al., 2009). You can find many activities all over the Internet to help improve those skills. One example is this handout for activity suggestions to develop visual motor integration.
The posture of a child when sitting is a large contributing factor to printing. The ideal position is both feet flat on the floor, the back resting against the chair and the arm resting on the desk ideally 2 inches above the elbows when flexed 90°. The posture is called 90/90/90 because of the angle we want the child to form at the hips, knees, and ankles. The best writing surface is a slanted one. This will help keep the head upright and the forearm and wrist in optimal writing positing. An easy modification is to place a 4-inch 3-ring binder turned sideways or a slant board on the child’s desk.
The child’s surrounding environment is very important. You need to look at lighting, visual distractions, noise level that may reduce the concentration of the child. Place the child facing the teacher and the board to avoid the need to turn and twist. If your child fidgets too much when sitting, you can have him sit on a Move and Sit Cushion or a Disc-o-Sit Air Cushion.
Now that posture has been addressed, we can look at the child’s pencil grasp. There are different milestones in the pencil grasp development, just as there are in fine and gross motor skills. Meaning the grasp will change throughout the preschool age, when the child is getting ready to write. The most efficient way to hold a pencil is the dynamic tripod grasp, but there are other grasps that are functional and do not require intervention or modification. If modification is needed, there exists many pencil adaptive grips to enable proper positioning of the fingers. Remember that small hands need small pencils. One easy suggestion is to break the crayons into smaller pieces or have the child sharpen the pencil to half its length (this will also work on bilateral coordination). Make sure that the writing tool only extends 1 inch above the top of the child’s hand. As this reminds them to pinch near the base of the pencil and decreases the amount of pencil they need to control when printing.
With a proper posture and pencil grasp, the child is ready to learn to print. The most efficient way of forming letters is top down. Meaning that the start of the letter is always from the top followed by downward strokes. One of the recommended interventions I use in clinic is Handwriting Without Tears. It teaches capital letters first and starts with letters that have vertical and horizontal lines (such as F, E and L). It also uses a multi-sensory approach (with pieces of wood, chalk, water & sponge, and playdough). At home for example, trays of rice, grain, or shaving cream can be used to write letters with the dominant index finger. It is important to alternate between the different textures mentioned and paper and pencil to keep the child engaged and to transfer the knowledge appropriately. Help the child with letter formation by designating appropriate areas for top, middle and bottom. For example coloring the areas for sky, grass, and dirt in blue, green, and brown respectively. A starting rule is that capital letters start in the sky and end in the grass never going into the dirt. The American and Canadian printing lines are different, make sure you use the same type of lines as your child is using at school.
Most importantly learning to print should be a fun and positive experience for the child. Don’t put too much pressure on your child to perfect his writing skills as this may cause an emotional/psychological consequence. Move according to your child’s pace, and respect his learning capabilities.