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Why is Handwriting so Difficult?

Handwriting, though a seemingly simple task for some, can leave many children feeling frustrated, defeated, and angry. Once mastered, handwriting is a functional, routine skill that is required to fill out legal documents, communicate across environments, and take notes as needed when devices are not accessible.

Much more goes into handwriting than simply pencil and paper. A combination of skills is required to perform the task with success including: core strength, hand strength, reflex integration, visual perceptual skills, visual motor integration/hand eye coordination, cognition, and mindset (function vs. perfectionism).

Below is an explanation of each skill and how it relates to handwriting.

Core Strength: You may be wondering how core strength relates to hand skills. In order for the hands to work properly, we need to have stability in our core to allow the joints at the ends of our arms to have the control necessary for fine movements, as required in handwriting. If our core is weak, we will not have the posture necessary to support precise movements in our hands and fingers. Both the anterior and posterior core musculature must be strong to improve postures for handwriting and other daily tasks.

Hand strength: In order to efficiently and effectively utilize the writing utensil, a child must be able to sustain a dynamic tripod grasp while using a combination of wrist flexion and extension as well as various movements of the intrinsic hand muscles to form letters. If the hands are weak, it will be increasingly difficult to perform the fine motor movements necessary for letter formation. This often also results in inefficient grasping patterns and compensations, producing tired hands and illegible handwriting.

Reflex Integration: All of us are born with reflexes to help us survive and develop appropriately. As we develop, many reflexes are integrated while others become present. Some children, depending on a multitude of factors, do not integrate some of the reflexes as they are supposed to. One example is the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR). This reflex is often referred to as the “sword fighting” reflex as babies are seen turning their head to one direction, with the face-side arm extended, and the opposite arm flexed. When this reflex is not integrated in school-aged children, it becomes very difficult to look across a page and maintain a grasp on the writing utensil while maintaining effective posture.

Visual Perceptual Skills: Visual perception can be defined as how the brain interprets what the eyes are seeing. Several visual perceptual skills such as figure ground, form constancy, and visual closure are important during handwriting. Figure ground allows a child to pick out a particular letter from a busy background, which is necessary when copying from a board or a page. Form constancy allows a child to recognize the same letter when written in different fonts, sizes, and colors. Visual closure is closely linked to visual discrimination, allowing a child to recognize the differences between different letters.

Visual Motor Integration: Visual motor integration is the communication between the visual system and the motor system such as the brain and the hand. Difficulties with this skill may be seen in children who have difficulty adhering to the writing line, writing fluid letters (instead letters can appear jerky and rigid), and copying examples of shapes and letters accurately.

Mindset (function vs. perfectionism): Handwriting is frustrating enough to learn. Add a perfectionist personality to the mix and handwriting becomes the most dreaded task a child must face. Some children erase and re-write letters until they are perceived as perfect, write over the same letter several times until illegible, or write very slow and inefficiently to ensure perfection. Encouraging a child to do their best and learning the importance of function with handwriting is an important piece to the puzzle.

Cognition:Remembering each letter, both upper and lowercase, as well as putting all the above skills together, requires higher level cognitive processes. Working on executive functioning skills as well as attention, can assist in the learning process and improve this important skill.

If you notice your child struggling in any of these areas, an occupational therapist can perform an evaluation to target skills that can be strengthened to increase success and decreased frustration.

Blog written by Amanda Murphy, OTR


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