"I supported Emily's wrist for her homework and her writing was best we've seen."
That was the happy message in a recent email I received from a parent of an eight year old. The family had come to see me about a range of reading and writing problems that the child had been experiencing since kindergarten. Like so many other families, they were delighted and amazed at how easy it was to achieve smooth handwriting.
As many frustrated parents know, "sloppy, messy handwriting" is one of the banes in the lives of their children. So what is the solution that can change all this?
Before answering that question, it' s useful to step back and get an overview of the current scene. Unfortunately, it is one where the teaching of handwriting receives almost no attention. To the degree that anything is done, the focus typically is on the shapes (i.e., the letters) that the child has to produce.
There is near-total neglect of another component of the process--namely, the motor skills involved. Since children seem to be effectively doing all kinds of things with their hands (including the dexterous handling of video games), there seems to be no reason to question their ability to produce the movements required for clear, accurate letters.
But handwriting demands the integration of a host of fine motor skills. And the process is usually is called upon when the children are six or under. That is an age when the development of fine motor skills is far from complete. Under these conditions, problems are inevitable. The children do the best they can--but the best is a poorly coordinated series of movements that then continue to plague them their entire lives.
Once the motor realm receives the focus it merits, we have the opportunity to expand beyond the sole concentration on shapes and seek ways to ease the motor requirements.
And so now we return to the parent's happy report. She had been carrying out one of the most effective ways to advance handwriting. Specifically, the adult supports the child's hand as the child executes the movements. Ideally, this support should be provided from the outset; that is, when the demand for handwriting first begins around kindergarten time. Depending upon the child's motor skills, the support can be minimal (i.e., placing your hand under the child's wrist and lightly supporting it as the child executes the movements) or it can be more intensive (i.e., placing your hand under the child's palm so that the hand itself is supported).
Generally, the support does not have to be provided for long. If it is available right at the beginning of the process, most children within two to three months can then work effectively on their own. If the child is older so that poor patterns are in place, it may take a while longer.
Ironically, although the solution is simple and effective, the resistance to it is enormous. Parents often respond with an almost visceral rejection, insisting that their child "can do it on his own." The children too often echo the same idea. This changes only when they allow themselves to see the dramatically different handwriting productions achieved with and without hand support. Deep emotional reactions of this sort ought to be studied--since invariably they yield insight into the unconscious forces behind what we do. But having --or not having -- that insight should not keep us from helping our children. Hand support is a simple and effective way of getting past many of the problems that haunt the lives of children as they cope with the handwriting demands of school and homework.
You can read more about handwriting issues in The Reading Remedy.