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  • Hannah OT

No Child 'Just' Has Messy Hand Writing!

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

As I said in my post discussing the importance of developing gross motor skills before focusing on fine motor skills, we need to go big before we can think small, and many children I see struggling at ages 6 + are struggling because they have missed the development window...once children have passed EYFS and key stage 1, it is expected that daily writing practise sat at a desk is enough, and many children who have messy handwriting are often labelled lazy, unmotivated or as not seeing the importance in having neat and legible handwriting. Very few times have I seen any investigation as to why these children still struggle to form letters correctly, write at speed and endure a full writing session.

This topic links very closely with a blog post I wrote many moons ago around my experience of working with an osteopath in a mainstream school - here I questioned a whole class of year 4 students around whether they experienced pain when writing and after how much writing they began to experience such pain, the results...the majority of these 8-9 year olds experienced a level of pain whilst writing! This brings me to my first point - very often children who seemingly write with a slap dash approach, complain about having to write, end up hugging the table by the end of a paragraph, or who engage in distracting behaviours are very often experiencing pain or significant discomfort.


Signs of difficulty and what you can do about it


1) Messy hand-writing - letters are not formed correctly, words are not spaced correctly, size of writing is not consistent, and or writing is not correctly positioned on the page - all of these characteristics of messy hand-writing often signify difficulty with visual perception; motor planning and muscle memory.


What you can do:

  • Improve a child's visual perception through eye exercises such as those on www.eyecanlearn.com; and engaging your child in spotting tasks like 'Where is Wally?' or spot the difference activities.

  • Focus on a child's motor planning through dot-to-dot or maze exercises, in addition to gross motor obstacle courses or map building tasks e.g. We're going to make a plan of our garden and we need to draw things to scale - one step can be 1cm.

  • A child is never too old for practising letter formation (it may be a struggle to engage your 7+ child, but if you make it fun and a challenge trust me they will go for it!) - you could even do this as a challenge such as an alphabet relay between siblings - can they beat the clock and between them complete a whole alphabet correctly (this being the key here - they will need to start again if they do not complete a letter correctly). You can spice this up by adding in a physical element - complete an obstacle course in between completing a letter shape or wheelbarrow walking and writing the letter whilst maintaining their wheelbarrow position.

  • When practising letters always think big first as this encourages muscle memories to form - challenge your child to create an alphabet montage in chalk or paint on large pieces of paper or on paving stones.

  • As well as thinking size, think about medium - often children who struggle to form muscle memories struggle to process proprioceptive information and so therefore learn better on surfaces that give them feedback i.e. I encourage teachers not to use whiteboards when teaching/ practising letter formation as it doesn't give enough feedback - this is why writing with chalk/ writing in sand/ engraving words in wood (you can get some great engraving wood pens for pretty cheap!) or using thick paint is far better to practise handwriting than your standard pencil and paper.

2) Difficulty writing at speed, seem to tire easily, aren't very productive, seem to continuously complain of being bored and almost always are the ones who try and persuade you that they have written enough...probably points to pain!


What you can do:

  • Firstly - ask them are they in pain? Guaranteed they will never have been asked this before. If they say yes, establish where it hurts and when it hurts - this will give you an indication as to whether it is an issue with their posture (they complain of back or neck pain) or an issue with their tool use (they complain of pain in their wrists and fingers).

  • Check their posture - I do a three point check: 1) Are my feet flat on the floor? 2) Can I feel both my bottom cheeks on the chair? 3) Am I sat up straight? AND the 90-90-90 rule as I've outlined previously - this link also gives you some hints and tips about correct table and chair height: http://www.developmental-delay.com/page.cfm/218 Most pain in the back or neck area will come from awkward sitting.

  • Work on your child's core strength and stability to increase their endurance to hold a correct sitting posture - often children who flop over, lean to one side or slump in their seats are experiencing difficulty caused by a lack of core strength - yoga, tummy time drawing, Swiss ball work, climbing, crab crawling, bridging and planking can all support development of core strength - in addition watch out for my future post around writing in different positions.

  • Wrist or finger pain is often a sign that your child is working harder rather than more efficiently - often children who have adopted an incorrect pen hold, who hold their pen too tightly or who exert too much pressure on the page will suffer from wrist and finger pain. It is important to note whether your child is adopting any of these behaviours and that you: - Address incorrect pencil grip through use of thicker, shorter pencils and or a suitable pencil grip (you might need to experiment with these to find one that suits your child and facilitates the pinch and rest tripod grasp). - If your child is exerting too much pressure on the page try and get them to use a pen or pencil that produces marks easily and get them to practise gauging their pencil control - set them challenges to write on a piece of tissue paper supported over a hollow frame where they need to make sure they don't rip the paper; write on carbon paper; colouring activities which practise using different amounts of pressure to cause different levels of shading; place blue tac/ clay around their pencil and tell your child if they change the shape of the piece then they are using too much pressure; use a mechanical pencil where the nib will fall off if they use too much pressure; or write on top of a magazine and if they are making an indentation on the magazine then they are using too much pressure. - You could even turn this last one into a game, whereby one person is the thief and is looking for clues of where the treasure is hidden, and the players are those making a note of where the hiding place is - the person who writes with the least amount of pressure on their notebook (meaning no imprint is left for the thief to 'make out') wins because they will have protected the treasure's location. - Encourage your child to follow a short warm-up before writing for long periods to reduce fatigue.

3) Difficulty in controlling pencil (may hold the pencil in a floppy manner), difficulty maintaining posture and or is a fidgeter... more often than not these difficulties point to a difficulty in processing proprioceptive input and so your child may not register or be actively seeking proprioceptive input.


What you can do:

  • Complete a sensory circuit before a writing task - this will ensure your child is at a 'just right' level of alertness to engage, will reduce the need for sensory seeking behaviour and will facilitate them in maintaining good writing posture.

  • Ask your child to squeeze on a stress ball or give them a hand massage to stimulate their proprioceptive system to facilitate pencil grasp and control.

  • Another way could be to increase the proprioceptive input is by using a harder surface (e.g. using a chalk board) or using a pencil with a more tactile surround - both will increase the feedback your child receives which will allow them to respond to their environment and produce an adaptive response.


Tune in on Monday when I discuss pre-writing shapes and give you some ideas of how you can support letter formation without writing a single letter:-)


Happy weekend!


Hannah OT:-)




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