In today’s digital world it is too tempting to sideline writing and adopt or opt for easier ways of having your ideas presented to others. Typing on screen and/or keyboards or talking into your gadget is more frequent now than written communication.
Scribbling your own signature has become such a rarity. Modern technology has vastly changed how we communicate through writing. In an age where our children swipe and tap on smartphones and tablets since early childhood, the “hand” in handwriting almost seems dwindling.
We often have questions popping up in our minds that should we pay any attention to handwriting and is it an important skill to emphasise on any more?
Right from making a grocery list, writing a personalised thank you card/message, noting down a message, to filling information in a document; handwriting is important in each of these.
The skill of handwriting continues to play a vital role not just in education but also in everyday life and employment. On the other hand, we, as a community, have been experiencing an exponential rise in academic pressure and even greater struggle with understanding writing concerns our children face.
Handwriting is a complex skill and many children have a hard time mastering it. Poor handwriting skills can make kids stressed and anxious towards their school work.
During assessments, consultations as well as in therapy sessions, professionals are often questioned by parents, teachers and caregivers about the varied challenges seen in children, when getting written work done.
There are a number of factors that could be contributing to your child’s struggles. To enlist a few – difficulties with sizing and spacing concepts, immature or incorrect pencil grip, or number reversals, difficulty with formation of letters impacting legibility, appropriate pressure gradation, postural control and alignment, visual perceptual skills, fine motor precision, etc.
These and many other factors either individually or in combination could be resulting in making it difficult to form a good foundational base for handwriting to become a natural skill for many of our kids.
This article is throwing light on difficulties with proprioceptive gradation, that forms one of the stepping stones towards developing and improving handwriting skills.
Proprioceptive gradation is commonly known as pressure/force gradation. Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense itself. This sensory system receives input from muscles and joints about body position, weight, pressure, movement and changes in position in space.
Our bodies are able to grade & coordinate movements based on the way our muscles move. This enables us to judge the force required for a task by exerting the “just right” force. This force exertion varies depending on the task one engages in.
Lifting a heavy basket of vegetables will require a larger force exertion for a sustained time duration as opposed to lifting a pencil kept on a table that will require a much lesser force application. Judging the appropriate amount of force required for any activity or object happens almost automatically so much that we don’t even realise the small intricate adjustments going on in the background. Routine work such as carrying the laptop, picking up pasta with a fork, brushing your teeth, picking the novel kept on the table, throwing a ball while playing with your child, and many such daily tasks require appropriate force gradation and we make them happen very smoothly without necessarily paying attention to the numerous adjustments happening in our body and brain.
Keeping this concept in mind, now let’s relate it to handwriting. For a task as simple as writing your name you need to grade the amount of force required to hold the pencil, not press either too hard or too light on the pencil and sustain your grip from the first letter to the last.
How would your child know how to apply this “just right” force on the pencil?
Pencil pressure plays a big part in handwriting legibility, speed and control. There are a number of underlying factors that contribute to developing or act as a barrier towards “just right” force gradation.
- Sensory processing: The proprioceptive system allows us to move the small muscles of the hand to manipulate the pencil in fluid movements and with the correct pressure. A child having proprioceptive processing challenges may have difficulties with erasing, turning the pages of a book, keeping the paper in one piece, and stabilizing the paper with the non-writing hand while the dominant hand continues to write on the page.
- Fine motor challenges: When we write, the pencil is held with the index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and supported by the ring and little finger as the hand moves across a page. An immature pencil grasp could lead to difficulties with pencil control making the writing task more tiring and frustrating due to the amount of effort put in just to hold the pencil or writing utensil accurately.
- Postural alignment and Motor control: While sitting to write a child needs his/her core and proximal group of muscles to engage actively so that he/she can sustain appropriate upright posture for longer duration without getting tired. This means that the child should be able to keep his trunk upright without slouching and be able to keep his shoulder, arm, elbow and forearm stable enough so that he can use the distal parts like hand and fingers to hold the writing utensil in an effective manner for smooth and effortless writing. Poor postural alignment will greatly impact a child’s ability to write with appropriate force as he will face difficulties with precise finger movements needed to grade the pressure of writing.
- Environmental Factors: The writing environment plays an equally important role in the writing process. The surface used for writing, the distance/angle at which the desk or book is kept, the girth and length of the writing utensil as well as the amount of sensory feedback the writing utensil is providing could affect the force gradation.
Working on proprioceptive input and hand strengthening can help with pencil pressure. Proprioceptive activities allow the muscles to “wake up” with heavy pressure. Moving against resistance by pushing or pulling gives the muscles and joints an opportunity to grade pressure.
Try some or a mixture of the following ideas & strategies to help your children become more aware of the amount of pressure they are using when writing.
- Active resistive games like floor or wall push-ups, tasks involving weight-bearing on hand like wheelbarrow walking, crab-walking, bear-walking and other animal walks; garden activities like rock wall climbing, jungle gyms, monkey bars, etc. are proprioceptive rich activities that will help with postural control and in providing proprioceptive input.
- To improve fine motor control and precision various activities like punching holes, small beading, theraputty, fidget ball, finger or brush painting, putting magnets on a refrigerator, use of finger clips in activity, collecting coins in a box, tweezers and pom pom balls can be incorporated.
- Encourage writing on a vertical surface with the wrist in extension will not only aid in improving pencil grip but will also help in providing appropriate postural alignment needed for hand-eye coordination.
- Using textured paper like bubble wrap paper, tin foil, foam paper, sand papers, etc. can be used to help kids become more aware of the amount of pressure they are exerting through the pencil when writing.
- Practice handwriting by placing a sheet of paper over a piece of sandpaper. The resistance of the sandpaper is great heavy work for small muscles of the hand.
- Wrap a bit of play dough or putty around the pencil as a grip. Encourage the child to hold the pencil with a grasp that does not press deeply into the dough. Encourage using “just right” pressure. Using a pencil gripper while writing can help with appropriate placement of fingers to hold the pencil and improve force exerted while writing.
- Pencil weights or Weighted pencils can be helpful in providing sensory feedback through the hands.
- Write with a mechanical pencil. If too much pressure is applied the lead of the pencil will break. This is a good way to provide feedback on modulation of pressure. If using this method, make sure the child has enough ability not to get frustrated quickly.
- Cognitive strategies like providing your child with the sample of handwritten work with correct pressure. Provide terms for the way he/she writes. Encourage “just right” writing and not “too hard” or “too soft”. Write the sample word thrice on the same sheet of paper: very light, one with just right pressure and the third, and with too much pressure. This could be a scale or gradient that your child can use as a visual reminder of what is expected and where he stands with regards to pressure application.
- Begin with activities that provide more inputs to the sensory systems and work on skill building for the fine motor use of fingers, before moving onto the feedback based and cognitive strategies.
These strategies can help in building awareness and enable your child to take small steps towards developing as well as maintaining “just write” pencil pressure throughout the writing process.
For more information and to customise these strategies specifically for your child’s needs connect with your occupational therapist.
Hi, I’m Virali. I am an Occupational Therapist working at Reach Therapy Center for Children. I love spending time with children and educating families about their child’s needs and development. Writing articles for this blog is one such attempt of mine in that direction.
EDITED BY: Onissia Rebello