The Journey to Handwriting

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When most teachers and parents think of OT, they immediately think “handwriting”.

If they see a child who is having difficulty writing legibly, or keeping up in class, or sometimes not even able to write at all. They come to the OT and expect there to be one specific quick fix to solve the problem. However, there could be some underlying foundational skills that need to be worked on, and therefore handwriting becomes a sort of journey. I recently found two great visual resources that explain all the skills needed before you even begin working on handwriting. They can be found here and here. When combined, you can see that it isn’t as simple as “just practicing writing”.

Handwriting is a very complex skill. It involves so many different moving parts, and they all have to work harmoniously to be effective.

First and foremost, you need to have good control and understanding of your arousal level. That directly affects your attention, behavior, and motivation: all essential to learning any new skill. This goes hand in hand with your sensory systems. If you’re having a hard time processing sensory information (especially visual and proprioceptive), it will be difficult to gauge how to form letters, staying on the lines, or using the “just right” amount of pressure on paper. Visual processing skills are essential: This includes visual motor (using both eyes and body to perform a skill), visual perceptual (the brain’s ability to make sense of visual input), and visual attention (being able to focus on one thing while filtering out irrelevant input).

Once all the sensory and arousal factors are mastered, then you can move onto gross motor skills. But wait. Isn’t handwriting a fine motor skill? Yes, but here’s the thing: if your larger muscles (core, back, shoulders, arms) are weak, you will most definitely have a hard time controlling your smaller muscle groups (wrists, fingers). It would be like trying to stir thick cake batter with a spoon made of jello. Think of the amount of effort that would take. Think of how fatigued you’d feel. So get that core and upper body strong enough before moving onto fine motor. Then, and only then will you be truly ready to get down to the nitty gritty of actual handwriting, which is a journey all its own, encompassing grasp, pressure, control, in-hand manipulation, speed, endurance, letter formation, size, and spacing.

So yes, it definitely can be a long and arduous journey.

Patience is important. And keep in mind, that handwriting is not necessarily an essential skill for everyone. Some people may never write efficiently enough to utilize the skill in their life. There is nothing wrong with that. The main purpose of handwriting is to communicate, and if someone can communicate and/or perform other functional fine motor skills a different way (with or without accommodations or modifications), handwriting may not be the route to take. Again I want to emphasize, that is okay.

Everyone is unique, and our skillsets are all so variable. If you are concerned about your child’s handwriting, be sure to consult with their occupational therapist to help guide you on this journey.

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