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Getting Ready to Write

When we learn or teach a new skill, for example a sport, how does that usually go? Imagine this scenario:

Johnny is four years old, and he is excited to learn how to play baseball. His Dad promises today he will take him to the field for the first time. Johnny has never even held a baseball bat before, but his dad reassures him that he will show him how to play. They walk out onto the field. His Dad hands him a heavy wooden baseball bat, tells him to stay right there and get ready. Johnny does as he is told, a little confused as his dad paces about 15 feet away, turns around and then flings the ball toward Johnny.

That’s absurd isn’t it?

Johnny would probably struggle just to swing the bat, or maybe just stand there. Worse yet, he could try a few more times like that and decide that he isn’t any good at baseball. He might wander off and find interest playing on the bleachers or in the stands, avoiding any attempts at practice.

Of course, we wouldn’t teach our children to play baseball like this. We know that there are foundation skills to cover before we try hitting with a baseball bat. First we would probably give them a tee, a smaller and lighter bat, a larger wiffle ball to hit. We would put our hands over theirs, guiding them through a few swings. The point is this:

When children struggle with a sport, we go back to basics – the fundamentals and practice. The great news is that we can do the same thing with handwriting! But first, what are the necessary skills for handwriting?

Reflexes: As you can see in the pyramid (B.Pheloung, 2006), reflexes are at the very bottom, the foundation. Reflexes are automatic actions below the level of our awareness that originate in utero and during infant development. Many reflexes persist throughout life and are perfectly functional. These include the blink reflex, withdrawal from pain, startle, or cough. There are also primitive and postural reflexes that assist with infant development, forming muscle tone, and learning about gravity. These primitive reflexes (infant reflexes) are meant to assist with development, and then integrate or disappear as the baby grows and moves. If they persist, they create problems with adequate muscle tone, attention, and learning. As the child gets older they attempt to compensate for these active reflexes. Every change in movement of the head or input to the feet creates a reflexive action that they attempt to guard against or block. This creates stress as the body continuously tries to override the reflexes. Once the reflexes are integrated, the child’s brain is freed up to interact and respond to his surroundings in a purposeful way. For more on reflexes, please see Resources: Important Articles.

Body Awareness: This is the automatic and constant awareness of where our body is in space. You already know, without looking, where your feet, legs, arms, hands are and what they are doing. You could put your hands behind your back and hold up three fingers easily. This skill is very difficult for some children. If a child has to use up attention on where the body is in space, then it will be very difficult to ask that child to sit at a table and imitate pencil strokes on a paper. Often, these children with under-developed body awareness try to compensate by giving their body extra information. These kids will throw themselves on the ground, tend to crash into things, push too hard on toys, and lean excessively on furniture.

Posture and Core Stability: The ability to sit or stand still is actually the most challenging task for the developing brain. If children lack the muscle tone to keep their core strong and stable, then asking them to use their arms and fingers in a refined way will be very taxing.

Vision skills: Vision is so much more than acuity or reading letters from a chart. Reading and writing requires control of the small muscles around the eye. Children that have difficulty fixating (keeping their eyes stable on a target) or tracking (smoothly following something with their eyes independent of their head) will most certainly have difficulties watching the way you form the letter “A".

Fine Motor Skills: Many times when we teach children how to hold the pencil we are assuming that they can identify and isolate each finger as we are naming them. Before we tell the child which fingers to use to hold the pencil, we have to make sure they can isolate each finger. Ask them to do “thumbs up” and wiggle. Or ask them to count to four on their fingers. Try making the “a-ok” sign and see if they can copy. If these are difficult or require extra effort, then it’s important to spend extra time supporting their fine motor development.

Johnny will be most successful at baseball by supporting the skills that are foundational to the sport. The same is true for handwriting. Handwriting is the tip of the pyramid!

If you have any questions about building a foundation for handwriting success, or need additional support, contact us.

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