Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Learning to Write

I wrote this piece over ten years ago for a website that never happened, and thought this would be a good place for it.

Have you ever watched a very young child at play, and marveled at the ease, freedom, and flexibility with which she moves, how she squats effortlessly when playing, and how upright and straight she sits and stands? Have you had the experience of watching your school age children lose their good posture, and begin to slump and develop poor ways of using their bodies?

F M Alexander, who developed the Alexander Technique in response to problems that he experienced with the coordination of his breathing and vocal mechanism, felt that coordination, so perfect in very young children, was corrupted at about the time that children began formal schooling. He thought that sitting for hours in chairs, learning how to read and write, and the educational process in general, was a disruptive influence on the integrity of childrens’ use of their bodies.

As a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, a method for learning to improve one’s coordination and overall well being by replacing unconscious, harmful movement and postural habits with beneficial, conscious choices, and a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in school related issues and handwriting, I wholeheartedly agree with Alexander’s theories regarding education. Invariably, when I meet a child for the first time, and ask her to write, I am struck by the physical strain, contortion, and tension she feels she must impose on herself, in order to form even a few letters.

Reading and writing are often taught nowadays before children are ready. Schools used to begin teaching children to read and write when they were six years old, the age when gross motor skills are largely in place, and fine motor skills, visual perception, and cognition are developed enough to handle pencil and paper activities. The current trend is to begin to teach reading and writing before the age of five. In my clinical opinion, many children simply do not possess the trunk and shoulder strength, fine motor coordination in the eyes and fingers, or adequate attention span to perform all the sub skills required to do such high level tasks. Little attention is paid in school to the means by which the children are supposed to achieve the goals imposed upon them. Consequently, the integrity of the child’s coordination suffers. Frequently, it also means that the child’s handwriting suffers as well.

Here are some suggestions for preserving coordination and good use while your child is learning to write.

•If at all possible, do not start the child writing formally until the age of six, when the necessary sub skills are in place.

•Don’t start children on paper and pencil activities too soon. Giving them markers and fat crayons before they are developmentally ready to hold them correctly is just an invitation to develop an awkward, dysfunctional grasp. Provide one inch pieces of chalk and crayon instead. The use of such small pieces promotes pinch strength, and will not cause problems that will have to be corrected later.

•Make sure that the furniture the child is using is a good fit! The correct way to sit while writing is to have the feet flat on the floor, hips and knees bent at ninety degrees, arms and hands resting comfortably on the table. Never allow legs to dangle.

•Buy the child a blackboard or easel, and have him practice writing, and have fun painting, coloring, and drawing, in standing. There is less opportunity for slumping. Working in upright also strengthens and stabilizes the arm, wrist, and shoulder muscles.

•Another excellent way to strengthen neck and shoulder muscles is to have the child play and draw lying belly down on the floor, supported by the elbows.

•Provide gum, hard candy, a lollypop, a piece of licorice, a boxed juice drink with a straw, or a chewy toy while the child is writing. Working the jaw promotes concentration, and encourages upright posture. Sucking is also helpful for tasks requiring close vision.

•Allow frequent breaks, and encourage the child to do something vigorous, like running or jumping in place, as a way of improving concentration. A good time to call a break is when you observe the child slumping!

• Provide whistles, blow toys, and bubbles for your child to play with. Vigorous exhalation strengthens the postural muscles, and improves breathing.

•Craft projects promote fine motor coordination, attention, concentration, motivation, problem solving skills, and tolerance for frustration. All of these skills are critical to successful handwriting. Try fuse bead projects, painting, {crack the handle of the brush so that it's very short} putting together wooden models, weaving potholders, building things with modeling clay, cutting straws into small lengths and stringing them to make necklaces or tree decorations, gluing macaroni shapes and beans onto boxes or thick paper and painting them, stringing beads, leather lacing, etc.

• If your child consistently hunches or slumps over the paper, or holds his head far to one side, a visual problem may be present, and should be evaluated.

•Writing on a slanted surface can be helpful. An easy slant topped surface can be made by duct taping together two rigid ring binders.

•Copying or reading from a vertical surface is easier visually, and
encourages upright posture. Vertical document holders are available at office and computer supply stores.

•If your child has a hard time sitting still, sitting on a therapy ball, or a special cushion designed to allow children to wiggle, may be helpful.

•Experiment with different music to energize a droopy child. The theme music from “Star Wars” or “Rocky”, for example, can be invigorating and refreshing.

According to Jan Olsen, the author of Handwriting Without Tears, writing is a physical skill, akin to learning how to play a musical instrument. Attention must be paid to posture and use, and practice must be mindful, in order to develop the necessary automatic skills. It is better to write a few letters beautifully, than many times, badly. I tell the children who study handwriting with me that they don't have to work for more than five minutes at a time, but that it should be a concentrated five minutes.


Anonymous said...

thanks for posting, you have alot of helpful tips!!

Catherine V. said...

The other day my kindergartener came homw and talked positively about being in group.. wondered what kind it was.. later found out it was a handwriting group. I am thankful we live in a small community that can provide such assistance,it is so very helpful. Any extra tips for left handed genuises:)?? Thanks for the post, most helpful!

Elizabeth said...

Okay, I have a question: My kids go to Montessori. After weeks of irritatedly getting them to "sit properly" at the table, I realized the problem: at school, they lounge. They write on the floor, they hang on furniture, whatever they like.

So a) is that BAD? b) should I be encouraging something different at home or going with what the school does?