5 Ways to Support Children Learning to Write
Handwriting instruction benefits from exercises that help young children build muscle memory, strength, and dexterity.
One of the most common referrals I get as a school-based occupational therapist and evaluator is in regard to students’ difficulty with handwriting skills. These referrals have at least tripled during the pandemic because kids are on the computer more and have less exposure to handwriting practice, pencil-to-paper tasks, and other related activities that build on complex underlying skills that lead to functional handwriting output.
Writing is a developmental and whole-body process. It incorporates all the systems of the body, including the visual-motor, cognitive-perceptual, ocular motor (control of voluntary eye movement), proprioceptive (sense of self-movement and body positioning), and vestibular (balance), and even social and emotional skills and self-regulation. These all need to work together in order in the seemingly simple task of writing, so it’s no wonder that many children find learning to write a challenge.
If you’re an educator, therapist, or caregiver, it’s important to understand why a child might struggle with handwriting, including the underlying skills that can impact functional handwriting legibility. Gross motor skills, fine motor skills, attention, sensory processing, and visual motor skills all play a role.
Over time, strategies that are concrete and routine can build on the underlying component skills connected to the physiological and cognitive mechanics of handwriting.
Introducing Handwriting Strategies
Be sure to introduce therapeutic handwriting strategies when the child is calm and regulated, and make sure they have as much control over the process as possible. For example, ask them what parts of the handwriting process feel difficult, and have them choose the specific supplies or tools they will use to improve their handwriting. Be sure to explain each strategy to them as you are giving them instructions.
Also, be aware of the fact that when a child is struggling with handwriting, it’s often because of a combination of underlying skill component difficulties affecting handwriting (e.g., sensory processing and fine motor, among the others listed below), so they may need a combination of strategies to make progress.
Visual Motor: ‘I-Spy Bean Bag’
An I-spy bean bag can be created out of various materials, including a pencil case filled with small objects such as magnetic refrigerator letters, beads, and even small toys.
Tell the child that when they search for the letters for a sight word (e.g., t-h-e) in an I-spy bean bag, they’re strengthening their eyes and their brain. Then, when they follow up by writing the word, they’re strengthening their eyes and working on their handwriting simultaneously.
Fine Motor: ‘Motor Tool Box’
A motor tool box is a bin of different fun items (e.g., Lego pieces, putty, Play-Doh, and coloring books) that, when handled, can help children build up strength in the small muscles of their hands.
When a child starts to engage with items in the motor tool box, explain to them that doing so helps strengthen the “intrinsic” (inside) muscles of their hands—the muscles that are important for writing.
Attention: ‘Toe Touch Cross’
This is a simple whole-body exercise to do before a child starts writing, especially if they have issues with staying focused. It’s centered around what occupational therapists call crossed midline input, which means that it allows the two sides of the brain to connect. Touch Toe Cross also provides vestibular input, meaning that it engages the balance system and helps keep the body and head steady in space because the head goes below the level of the heart—a calming body posture.
Try telling the child that being focused and calm, while feeling their body, is essential to being able to get their ideas on paper. Tell them to do the following:
1. Stand up with their legs shoulder-width apart.
2. Spread their arms out.
3. Cross their right arm, reaching it across their midsection to touch their left foot.
4. Repeat on the other side.
Sensory Processing: ‘Sensory Bin Writing’
A sensory bin is a tub, bowl, or tray full of rice, moon sand, noodles, or dried beans that a child can “write” in with their fingers, helping them to remember what they write. A sensory bin adds an important tactile aspect that reinforces letter and number shapes in muscle memory.
Have the child choose which material they would like to use, or try different things on different days. They can practice writing letters, numbers, or words with their fingers in the bin. This activity also gives children a sensory break; tell them it’s like a change of scene for when their hands get bored by writing all the time.
Often they like to hear that sensory bin practice is a great strategy to use if their body is feeling wiggly or their mind is becoming overwhelmed.
Gross Motor: ‘Trace the 8’
A simple figure 8 or infinity sign can help guide a child’s hands and build gross motor skills.
Tell the child to picture an “8” lying on its side and pretend that they’ve drawn it. Ask them to picture how it looks and imagine that it’s right in front of them. Tell them to take their right hand and trace the imagined 8 carefully, using the whole arm and the shoulder as well, and then repeat with their left hand. Then they can take both hands together, with one fist on top of the other, and trace over the 8 with both hands.