Learning Challenges

When it Comes to Handwriting, Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

Plenty of children (with or without ADHD) are plagued by messy handwriting — and traditional practice does not always help. Read on for 10 expert tips, like using multi-sensory exercises and building muscle memory.

Hands of student with ADHD writing and practicing penmanship in notebook
Hands of student with ADHD writing and practicing penmanship in notebook

Does your child’s teacher say, “Michelle has great ideas, but she can’t get them down on paper” or, “Bill’s handwriting is all over the place — I’m pretty sure he knows the material, but I can’t read his answers”? Students who struggle with handwriting are called “messy,” “slow starters,” or “lazy.” And practice is not always the solution.

“The ability to put your thoughts into sentences and paragraphs that others will be able to read and understand is problematic for many children with ADHD,” says Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., in Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults (#CommissionsEarned). “Written expression is a more demanding task than talking, reading, or doing basic math computations. To write one’s thoughts places much heavier demands on learned skills and executive functions.” Children with ADHD may also be developmentally delayed in their fine-motor skills — the small muscle movements required in writing.

When the physical act of writing is challenging, it interferes with being able to “show what you know.” It’s not surprising, then, that children with ADHD often hate to write, and resist doing so. When a child encounters such classroom defeat frequently, especially in the early years of schooling, it doesn’t take long for him to get discouraged with academic work, and to develop a sense of inferiority that undermines his attempts to learn.

In his book, Brown writes about a young student who, at six, already felt that way: “Shortly before his evaluation for ADHD, a boy in kindergarten was asked by a teacher to try tracing the shape of the letter H. He told his mother, ‘I don’t even want to try doing that. I’m just going to mess it all up like everything else I do.'”

When Handwriting Practice Makes Perfect

Teachers tell students with ADHD that if they “just practice” and focus more on what they want to say, their writing will come together. That’s akin to watching someone deftly use chopsticks, while you try to pick up a piece of food that keeps falling apart. Sometimes more practice is not what kids need, but “the right practice.” In the early grades, parents can make the difference by improving their child’s handwriting at home. Here are several ways to accomplish that:

[Think Your Child Has Dysgraphia? Take This Test]

Be a scribe for your child. Almost every child I work with resists writing stories, book reports, or factual summaries. As a result, homework takes hours to complete. To increase your child’s fluency and willingness to write, try this: Have your child talk out an answer, and you write down the first sentence. Your child writes the next sentence, and you switch back and forth. This shortens homework, takes the handwriting load off your child, and forces him to stay focused on thinking about the next sentence.

Have your child say the words as he writes them. Auditory feedback helps students stay focused and monitor their efforts.

Do letter formation drills (print and cursive). Letters don’t have to be precise and artistic. They should be fairly consistent and readable. So a letter should not float like a balloon, or sink below the line (“into the basement,” as some teachers say). Make sure your child always forms letters from the top, not the bottom.

Use Handwriting Without Tears, a program that includes a workbook and online tools. It works wonders.

[Click to Read: Lend a Hand with 8 Easy Handwriting Strategies]

Be efficient. Practice letters that are similarly formed (l/t/I; a/c/d; v/w), and work on those that are more frequently used — s, m, r — before he tries those less commonly found in words — j, q, z.

Give verbal instructions about how to form a letter. This especially helps young children improve their handwriting. For example, with the letter B, you can give the following instructions: “Start at the top, straight line down, back to the top, sideways smile, sideways smile.”

Engage in multi-sensory exercises. Ask your child to write in the air, in sand, or on an iPad white board, using his finger. This enables a tactile learner to “feel the letter” and anchors the memory of its shape. These exercises are good warm-ups before starting a longer handwriting session.

To keep your child’s letters inside the lines, have him write on raised-line paper (therapyshoppe.com). Some students can’t tell where the lines are, which slows down their writing. Using sensory-friendly paper speeds up handwriting by letting the child feel where the ruled lines begin.

Get a good grip on the pencil or pen. There are many kinds of rubber or plastic pencil grips on the market to reinforce the traditional tripod grip. Children with “dagger” or other types of grips need to be shown where their fingers should go. I find the Grotto Grip Pencil Grasp Trainer (pathwaysforlearning.com) to be the most helpful. Designed and tested by occupational therapists, Grotto Grip decreases hand fatigue and pencil pressure. The best thing about the Grotto is that the child can’t cheat: The grip positions a child’s fingers exactly where they should go and keeps them there while he writes.

Building muscle memory in fingers is a trick that many occupational therapists use in improving handwriting. Have your child walk her thumb, index, and middle finger up and down a chopstick, placed on a flat surface, as fast as possible. Only the three “grip” fingers should touch the chopstick.

[Read This Next: The Write Apps for Kids with ADHD]

Strength Training for Small Digits

Here are five tips/activities for building fine-motor skills in your kids:

  1. Squeeze a stress or squish ball
  2. Build things with small Lego pieces
  3. Practice buttoning and opening/closing snaps on clothing
  4. Pick up small objects with tweezers and tongs
  5. Do jigsaw puzzles

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