When a child is delayed in development of fine motor skills, learning to print, let alone write in script, can be a tiresome and frustrating task. Working through the frustration to help a child learn to print, and then write their name to the best of their ability has many positive outcomes:
- It teaches the child how to persevere, develop patience, and pay attention to directions.
- The child experiences the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult task.
- The child feels empowered by creating and seeing their own name in print.
- The hand skills developed lay the foundation for other ways of communicating such as typing on a keyboard or other device.
Common Challenges in Learning to Write
If a child has a health condition that affects their nerves and muscles, or if there is a learning disorder, it’s easy to understand why it is difficult with learning to write. Handwriting requires communication between the brain and the coordinated effort of the eyes and the muscles of the hand, fingers, wrist, and forearm. The child must be able to develop the strength and dexterity necessary for holding a pen or pencil while keeping the hand steady even as it moves across the page and makes micro-movements to form letters. Add to all of that while sitting still at a desk or table.
For special needs children, including those who have dyslexia, autism, or ADHD, learning to write requires an enormous amount of energy, focus, and practice. It’s good to keep in mind that even children who do not have physical or learning disorders have a difficult time with handwriting—it takes time, patience, and practice for them as well. In fact, many schools use the Handwriting without Tears® curriculum for all children.
Other common challenges in learning handwriting include:
- Attention span
- Tolerance for fatigue
- Grip strength
- Visual-Spatial skills (the abilty to distinguish between figure-ground, discriminate fine details and shapes, such as between the letter b and the letter p)
- Over-practicing, leading to frustration and stress.
How to Positively Reinforce Handwriting Skills
If your child is enrolled in a skills class or occupational therapy program that teaches handwriting, you will want to follow the therapist’s instructions for handwriting practice at home. If you are working with your child independently, keep the following things in mind:
- Start early. From the moment your child shows interest in pens and other writing tools, encourage their scribbles and make connections between the patterns they make on paper with letters of the alphabet.
- Use a handwriting teaching system. Ideally, you want one that includes workbooks and online tools to include exercises that enhance dexterity and letter formation for both print and cursive. A system gives you a framework from which to teach at home and provides consistency in instruction. In addition to Handwriting without Tears, there are other approaches your child’s therapist can customize to her or his needs. These include a task-oriented approach, a sensorimotor approach, and a multisensory approach, among others.
- Have your child say letters (and words) as they write. This auditory feedback helps a child stay focused.
- Reinforce consistency and legibility, not perfection. Letter formation does not have to be perfect or even precise. You should be able to look at the letters and easily determine what they are. Use visual imagery and examples to help your child understand letter formation. For example, letters should not “float like a balloon above the line” or “sink below the surface line.”
- Use raised line paper. One of the benefits of raised line paper is that it helps a child write within the lines. It’s also commonly used when a child is transitioning from print to script writing. Ask your child’s therapist about using it for different levels of writing readiness.
- Use comfort grip writing instruments. Pen or pencil or crayon, a comfortable grip helps lesson fatigue and places the child’s fingers where they should be. A variety of comfort grip tools are available; check with your health practitioner for the best option for your child.
- Fine tune those fine motor skills and build hand strength. There are many interactive tools and fun toys that can help build strength and dexterity. You might have some of these items at home already, including peg boards, child safe-scissors, and play dough/modeling clay or therapy putty. Cutting paper and thicker materials; pulling pieces off and pushing them into place; playing a round of thumb wrestling; molding and sculpting are al creative ways to enhance fine motor skills and strengthen the hands.
When a child writes their own name for the very first time, to them it feels like their name is up in lights! Celebrate and reward your child in meaningful ways. Recognize that exercise and practice can help improve these skills but struggle is par for the course. Your child may never write perfectly, but that’s not the goal. Rather, the goal is to be able to communicate as clearly as possible in their own unique handwriting, and establish motor patterns that will be useful in other forms of communication.
The ABCs of Handwriting for Children with Special Needs. FriendshipCircle.org
Improving Handwriting in Children with Autism especialneeds.com
When it Comes to Handwriting, Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect. Additudemag.com
Sound City Handwriting Readiness Curriculum
Handwriting Programs: Summary and Bibliography.
Handwriting and Letter Formation (Tips for a multisensory approach for all children, some tips may apply to children with special needs.)
Hand Strength and Dexterity Tools & Toys eSpecialNeeds store