Handwriting matters, and school is starting….

Handwriting: Why is something so “simple” so hard?

The controversy over handwriting is clear evidence that computers have not “killed” it.

Handwriting is more than pen to paper.  The lack of the ability to write has a diagnosis: dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is “…a learning disability resulting from the difficulty in expressing thoughts in writing and graphing. It generally refers to extremely poor handwriting.” (Medical Dictionary definition)

Keith E. Berry, Ph.D., author of the Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration, known as the VMI, is a “gold-standard” standardized test often used by psychologists, occupational therapists and other professionals to evaluate educational abilities. He addresses the issue of handwriting, citing that is a “natural vehicle for teaching” and that it is “frequently an indicator of children’s mental and social foundations.” This visible, graphic, tangible illustration of performance is a powerful reinforcement that can be either positive or negative. 

Dr. Berry writes, “Because it is so visible (in contrast to spoken language), poor handwriting often operates as a self-fulling prophesy. If a child is allowed to continuously portray his mental and social inadequacies graphically, he may come to increasingly believe that he is an inferior person and to behave accordingly.” 

Concurring with Dr. Berry, Jeanette Farmer, and pediatric handwriting expert in Denver, Colorado states that “handwriting is as important in the development of other intellectual faculties.”

In other words, what your child produces is how he or she sees themselves and that translates into a major influence on how he or she behaves. It is also important not to underestimate the influence of peer appraisals. The kid sitting next to your child probably has more influence over their self-esteem than you

(i.e. parent, teacher therapist) do. Pride in one’s work and feeling peer competitive is at the foundation of solid social and emotional well-being.

There are other concerns as well. Sensory-motor development is intrinsically linked to ones’ fine motor ability to being able to successfully manipulate environmental elements. Handwriting is the constant thread that links these various fine motor demands. A child can have difficulty dressing, but that happens at home, in private, no one really knows. A child has difficulty writing, that happens in school and everyone can see it. Poor handwriting cannot be hidden, ignored, or avoided. It is “in the face’ of the child for the entire school day. No wonder homework becomes a fight. They cannot fight the teacher; but Mom and Dad are easy targets for their frustrations and fears.

Learning issues are often reflected in motor performance, and the most visible school-based motor performance is handwriting. Handwriting is the task of putting something on paper. Handwriting difficulties graphically confront the child with his/her inadequate abilities. This graphic confrontation is often emotionally bruising.

Children with LD “look” like they understand, they are smart, and yet they seemingly, willfully, just don’t do their homework and if they do, it is often messy.

There are real neuro-motor reasons for handwriting difficulties that cannot be out-grown and that will not self-resolve. Understanding this neuro-motor system is key to teaching handwriting to children who find handwriting difficult and painful.

Sloppy papers are not on purpose. Addressing these issues frustrates teachers and parents; but most of all it impact the child in many negative ways. Punishment does not help.  Often the (younger) student misses recess and the older student gets detention. And still, the homework remains messy, late and incomplete. 

The student is subsequently labeled lazy, uncaring, willful, and the list goes on.

The child seems to be lost in a sea of unattainable expectations.

While no assisted device should be discounted, it is important to note that computers, Alphasmarts®, and the like cannot eliminate handwriting.  Therefore the appropriate teaching of handwriting must be addressed for all children, and especially for the LD child experiencing developmental sensory-motor issues.

With Occupational Therapists and teachers, working closely together, can embed regular classroom tasks with simple everyday activities and techniques that can help children write more securely, getting their thoughts, ideas and feelings down on paper readily.  Related handwriting skills also teach how to visually scan and copy, thus helping the student express his/her full potential and to be more peer competitive.

Resolving the homework issues is often resolved when handwriting is remediated. Knowing how to write must be paired within knowing what to write.  And knowing what to write must be taught with an understanding of the obstacles to the actual task of writing.

Understanding and identifying those obstacles are essential for helping children overcome their resistance to both handwriting and homework. It often takes the trained occupational therapist to guide the child through the maze of developmental issues impacting the realm of fine motor issues.

Often children with handwriting difficulties have a real discomfort with pencil in their hand.  We can see these children at a glance in the classroom, they have a “death grip”, a flimsy wobbly pencil, a wrapped hand that hides the pencil, their sitting postures are reflective of their hands, stiff, floppy, squirmy, etc.

Their issues aren’t just happening in their hands, it is happening in their physical bodies, and their emotional beings as well.

Addressing their physio-emotional issues while giving them a structure to assist with their organizational abilities helps them to become more confident in their abilities, thus able to demonstrate their actual competencies.

Those competencies: physical, emotional, neurological and intellectual interact concurrently and constantly in all of us.  For children with LD, facilitating the expressions of these competencies is the essential first step to resolving the handwriting, homework and self-esteem issues.

And changing a child’s handwriting from this:……

Sample of messy handwriting

to this……

Can be life-altering.

Can something that is so important really be useless? The argument that doctors have poor handwriting is invalid. They write in a fast coded shorthand for pharmacies, this is not if you ask them, representative of their personal handwritten communications.

Besides, my elementary teacher, Mrs. Buckingham of treasured memory, who insisted on precise formation and penmanship used to stress “we are what we write”. And we are so much better than sloppy papers and defensive excuses.