Your Questions Answered!
POTS hosted an exciting and dynamic handwriting workshop focusing on readying children’s hands for writing, for pre-k through first grade. Below are answers to some great questions asked at the workshop.
Q. By what age should my child have a mature dynamic tripod grasp?
A. By 4½ years of age children should be writing with their elbows down and their fingers consistently holding a crayon with the thumb and index finger, and resting on the third finger. The “helper hand” should actively hold the paper down.
Q. Are thinner or fatter writing utensils better?
A. Thinner or fatter utensils benefit different types of hands. The trick is to provide the utensil that facilitates the best grasp without needing to give the child verbal directions. If a child is holding a crayon or pencil with a fist, isolate the three fingers on the thumb side of the hand with short fat sidewalk chalk, egg chalk, or a short round marker or crayon such as Crayola TaDoodles or Rose Art animal markers. A child who holds the pencil high up on the shaft should be given a tiny piece of chalk, a Chubbi Stump, or a fingertip crayon, allowing a maximum of three fingers near the tip. Children with low muscle tone in their hands will have more control over a shorter, thinner stencil, such as a golf pencil.
Q. How important is coloring in the lines?
A. Coloring in the lines teaches children about working within spatial boundaries, which will be important when learning to size and space letters, and write them on the line. It facilitates a sustained grasp on the crayon and helps children learn to regulate pressure. If a child exerts such light pressure on the crayon that his markings are barely visible, allow him to use a magic marker at times. Markers require less pressure and will provide the child with the motivating visual feedback that he needs to encourage him to draw and write.
Q. What do I do if my child does not like writing or coloring?
A. There are many different writing utensils that your child may enjoy using more than the usual crayon or pencil, such as a Ferby pencil or chalk. You can create a “writing surface” out of pudding, peanut butter, or cake icing. You can also use sand, or Funny Foam (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000VJW5MG). You and your child can take turns drawing a person or making a holiday toy wish list. When using different types of tools, switch off in order to keep your child engaged to enable him to refresh his grasp and guard against fatigue. In school and at home, keep handwriting practice brief, no more than 10 minutes at a stretch, and warm up the hands and body first.
Q. Are erasers good or bad?
A. Erasers are not beneficial for a child when learning to write, because he or she may get caught up in the error and waste energy erasing with excess pressure. Early on it is preferable to cross out and move on.
Q. Are fine motor skills and writing skills the same?
A. Having good fine motor skills is a prerequisite for learning to write neatly and efficiently, but there are many other underlying skills that are needed to ensure good writing skills such as a strong core, good sitting posture, muscle tone, eye-hand coordination and sustained attention.
Q. Is there a certain order in which children should learn to write their letters?
A. Capital letters should be taught first, as they are all the same size, start in the same place, and have the same position relative to the “writing line”. Lower case letters are to complex for beginning writers. They come in 3 different sizes; they start at 4 different spots and have 3 different positions relative to the writing line. Letters should be learned in groups based on how they are formed, such as turning an F into an E. At POTS we find that many children benefit from the Handwriting without Tears method for print and cursive, and Loops and Other Groups (Benbow) to for cursive.
Q. Does writing go hand in hand with reading?
A. A child may begin to form letters before mastering the intricacies of reading, but children learn different skills at different rates. Children need to recognize letters prior to reading, and learning to write individual letters will help the process along. While best practice in the educational literature dictates that reading and writing go hand in hand, the integrated programs that are currently available do not take into account a developmentally appropriate sequence for learning to write. Writing can be a great opportunity to work on beginning letter recognition and sound-symbol association. You can bring these skills into your child’s everyday life by sounding out the letters as you write them, writing the first letter in a name or familiar word, and playing word games.
Q. Is it okay to use both hands for writing if a child does not have a preference?
A. Absolutely not! If a child begins writing with one hand and switches to the other, reinforce the use of the stronger hand. Figuring out which hand is stronger or more dexterous may require the help of an occupational therapist, because this is an important far-reaching decision, and should be made based on an examination of hand use and underlying skills. Some children pride themselves on being able to use both hands. While this is an asset for switch-hitting in baseball, it is deleterious for writing. Develop one dominant hand for writing, eating, and brushing teeth and use the other as a “helper hand”. Switching hands may reflect difficulty crossing midline of the body which has implications for inefficient handwriting, fine motor and gross motor skills.
Q. When should I contact an Occupational Therapist regarding my child’s handwriting?
A. While all kids develop at their own pace, there are certain milestones to be mindful of. At 2 years old a child will have both hands up in the air and randomly scribble while fisting the crayon. At 3 years old she will start drawing a circle and a cross, and the “helping hand” starts to come down. The grasp may be fisted, but it is shifting to the thumb side of the hand. At 4 years old, the child will hold down the paper with her “helper hand” and the elbow will come down. The pencil is firmly in the thumb side of the hand. By 4 ½ – 5 years old, as mentioned above, the child should hold the pencil with 3 fingers only, while holding the paper down deliberately with the “helper hand”. Children who slouch over their desks, hold the crayon or pencil incorrectly, and labor over an activity that should be fun, should be evaluated by an occupational therapist in order to assess the potential impact on their schooling. For better or for worse, children will be judged on their handwriting; therefore it is important to ensure that your child has the underlying strength and dexterity to produce neat, efficient, and legible handwriting.
Blog written by Dena Abrams, OT/S, Aviva Goldwasser, MS, OTR, and Chaye Lamm Warburg, MA, OTR, Director