Does Hand Strength = Handwriting?
Handwriting is one of the most common areas parents ask me about in my practice. It is such a necessary occupation for classroom tasks, general fine motor development, and visual perception/motor tasks. However, there is a lot of confusion about all factors that go in to handwriting…it isn’t just pencil grasp and hand strength!
Before jumping in to the nitty gritty of letter formation, lets define handwriting. “Handwriting is a complex process of managing written language by coordinating the eyes, arms, hands, pencil grip, letter formation, and body posture. The development of a child’s handwriting can provide clues to developmental problems that could hinder a child’s learning because teachers depend on written work to measure how well a child is learning.” (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2021). All in all, there is a lot of factors that can influence handwriting, and ultimately impact the legibility of letters.
Posture and Core Strength
Imagine that you are trying to drive your car. You sit down, buckle your seat belt, and then lean as far forward onto the steering wheel as you possible can. This position will probably impact how you drive the car. The same can be said for almost all tasks, including handwriting. How often have you seen your child rest their head on the table or on their other hand when they write? The way we hold our bodies at our core, has a direct impact on how our hands and fingers move and work.
At some point or another you’ve likely been in a classroom. There is lots to look at around the room, the teacher is usually talking and giving information to the students, the desks aren’t very comfortable, you have peers on either side of you, etc. Classrooms have a lot of stimulation and for some kids this can be detrimental to their handwriting and attention to task. Sensory processing is foundational to effective motor planning and task completion. If you are hyper-responsive to touch, and your friend at the table next to you keeps accidentally moving into your space, increasing your anxiety, you’re probably not doing your best handwriting. If you seek movement or heavy work and can’t regulate your arousal level well during long periods of seated work, you’re likely not producing your best handwriting. If you are sensitive to loud noises, and the gardener is working with a leaf blower outside your classroom window, you likely aren’t spending a lot of time perfectly forming letters on your worksheet. If you didn’t eat a good breakfast, and you are starving during class, you likely aren’t working exceedingly hard on your handwriting worksheet. I could go on and on, but the main idea is that our kids are not working on their handwriting in a bubble. The environment can be just as impactful as the pencil or paper.
Fine Motor Strength
This is likely the most well-known handwriting concern. If your child is tiring after writing two or three letters, strength might be an issue, and it may result in one worksheet taking hours to complete.
Visual Motor Coordination
Handwriting is largely dependent on the eyes and hands working together to copy and form letters. In a typical classroom, the students are asked to look up, read what the teacher has written on the board, look back down at your paper, find the place that you are supposed to write the sentence, then actually write the sentence. If any part of that is difficult, it can negatively impact the end product of handwriting.
Praxis and Motor Planning:
When writing, you likely are so familiar with letter formation that you don’t need to think about the different pen strokes and sequence of lines that add up to the letter. It actually is a very complex process! For the letter P for example, a capital letter starts with a big line down, a jump back up to the top, and a small curve. Easy right? But what if you want to make a lowercase P, your line shifts down to fall below the baseline. And your curve isn’t at the top line anymore, its at the baseline. And these differences exist for all 26 letters! It can be a lot to remember, and can make writing multiple letters, words, or sentences challenging.
So what does this mean for your child and their handwriting development? When helping your child with their homework or in school, watch what kinds of environments suit them. If they are easily distracted by sounds, and can’t complete their work, it may be helpful to create a place where they have the quiet, they need. If your child gets wiggly or silly after a few minutes of writing, try incorporating movement breaks into the homework routine. If the motor planning of the letters is difficult, try verbally sequencing the letters out loud. For example, if you were writing “P”, you could say “Big line down, jump to the top, and a little curve”. Ultimately, a little detective work can decrease the amount of time and degree of frustration associated with homework time.
If self-regulation or expressive communication seem to be an issue for your child, please contact Valued Voices for a screening and additional resources.
Kaelyn Green, MA, OTR/L
Kaelyn Green is a licensed occupational therapist at Valued Voices. She is certified by the University of Southern California in Sensory Integration and is an advocate for addressing underlying sensory functioning in order to improve occupational performance. She is passionate about meeting children and families where they are at and seeks to tailor interventions to the unique needs of her clients. When she is not working, you will find Kaelyn taking care of her two goldendoodles, working in her garden, or taking trips to the Central Coast.