What are Handwriting Issues in Childhood?
Handwriting issues in childhood may include difficulty writing neatly, writing slowly, and writing legibly.
Handwriting issues are generally caused by challenges in fine motor skills, motor planning, or visual motor integration. Every child’s motor skills develop a bit differently, and handwriting may not be a huge problem for your child. Handwriting is something you can easily work on to make school more fun.
Fine motor skills relate to writing, drawing, picking up small toys or objects, connecting zippers, buttoning buttons, and building with tiny legos. These motor tasks require small motor movements in the fingers and hands to complete. Muscle memory helps us learn and remember these fine motor movements to increase our skills with practice.
Symptoms of Handwriting Problems in Children
- Illegible words: writing is impossible to read
- Odd sizing: their letters may be all different sizes
- Random capitals: capital letters may be strewn about with lowercase letters
- Slanted letters: words may be slanted on the page, failing to touch the lines
- Letter formation problems: e.g., the ‘g’ may not dip below the line or the ‘H’ may fail to touch the top of the line
- Pressure issues: the pressure on the page may be too light or too hard
- Spacing issues: too much or little space may be present between letters and words
- Fine motor problems: challenges with drawing, beading, or building with tiny legos
- Constant frustration: gets frustrated and leaves crinkled papers all over the desk
- Refusals: gives up on writing tasks quickly and refuses to write at school
Causes of Handwriting Problems in Children
Fine Motor delays: Fine motor is the coordination skills required to complete smaller, complex movements with the hands and fingers. With younger children in preschool and kindergarten, fine motor skills may be behind due to lack of exposure and practice. This delay is not cause for concern. You can help your child improve fine motor skills with drawing, writing, coloring, beading, cutting, and gluing tasks. Creative art projects can be fun and allow your child to work on handwriting and fine motor skills.
Preference for gross motor activities: Some children who are more drawn to gross motor activities, such as running and riding a bike, rather than coloring and drawing, may simply not have enough practice with grasping a pencil or crayon. These concerns can be remedied with proper time and attention. However, suppose your child is becoming so frustrated and slow with their writing that these challenges are truly getting in the way. In that case, it may be worthwhile to consult with an occupational therapist.
Developmental delay: Some children develop more quickly in certain areas than others. You may have a child with high verbal ability but a developmental delay in fine and gross motor skills. Some children have delays in their overall development, and all their skills may be coming along slower than you expect. Seeking early intervention via speech therapy for language or occupational therapy for fine motor skills can never hurt. If you are concerned for your child, seek help, there is no need to wait.
Sensorimotor differences: Some children have noticeable sensorimotor differences in early childhood. You may notice a cluster of challenges with sensory processing. Maybe your child is over or under-sensitive to certain sounds, smells, visuals, or tactile input. They may also have been delayed to walk and run and delayed with fine motor skills like handwriting.
What to Do About Handwriting Problems in Children
These suggestions are provided by Occupational Therapist guest author, Joni Hjalmquist
Try different types of pencils and paper. Giving your child a variety of options can help make handwriting less laborious.
Writing on a vertical surface helps work on many skills contributing to handwriting, including:
- Wrist extension
- Pencil grasp
- Shoulder and elbow stability
Try writing on a whiteboard or drawing letters in the sand. Use graph paper to provide more structure or a slant board to change the writing surface. Handwriting without tears  is an excellent program for working on letter formation and general writing skills. Generally, with practice and repetition, a child’s handwriting will improve.
When to Seek Help for Handwriting Problems in Children
In the younger grades, at least from kindergarten through third grade, it is important to put interventions in place to make sure your child knows how to write. Poor or illegible handwriting impacts grades and school experiences for some children.
Some schools value handwriting very much in younger grades. Other schools have the philosophy that a child can demonstrate learning in various ways with less emphasis on writing.
With handwriting, keep in mind that there are great technology tools available so that handwriting does not hold your child back. You can certainly pursue tutoring and occupational therapy if you would like your child to improve penmanship or learn cursive, but this is not a make-or-break skill for most of us these days.
Using dictation software, teaching keyboarding on a laptop or tablet can allow a child with poor handwriting to succeed in school. Remember the adage that most doctors have poor writing. Grown-ups can be very professionally successful without having legible handwriting skills, so do not worry too much.
Three issues that make handwriting concerns matter
In this age of computers, it can be hard to decide if handwriting is all that important for kids these days. The answer to that question, like in many matters, is that it depends.
The reason to be concerned about handwriting is if one of the following three issues are happening: a learning disability in writing, a larger problem with motor skills, or an emotional upset that interferes with school performance overall.
1. Learning disabilities
If handwriting is a major concern, your child may have dysgraphia or developmental coordination disorder, which is trouble with the act of writing or the writing process. In this case, a tutor or occupational therapist is an excellent resource. Your child’s teacher can weigh in on how handwriting develops and may also be a good source of ideas for this challenge.
2. Motor skill issues
Challenges with handwriting may also go along with other sensory-motor differences. Maybe your child has difficulty with body tone and clumsiness or body space. Sensory differences may also be present. If fine motor skills like handwriting are challenging for your child, then drawing, coloring, cutting, and other fine motor tasks, may also be a struggle.
Motor planning is planning and executing motor movements, while visual motor integration involves integrating what you see with what your hand can produce in writing. The writing process can be disturbed with challenges in one or more areas.
3. Emotional upset
Your child with handwriting problems may also have trouble copying from the board or transferring information from one place to another. Your child may hate to write and seem to get much less down on paper than they want to say. They may seem inattentive, rushed, or very slow in their working style. Your child may seem to exert extraordinary effort to do writing tasks. Sometimes, they may refuse or avoid writing tasks. Other times, it may take them a very long time to write short sentences.
Further Resources on Handwriting Problems in Children
- Physical therapist: to assess and treat gross motor coordination; to help with large muscle groups and movement. Sometimes children who have trouble with writing also have broader motor challenges
- Occupational therapist (OT): to assess and treat fine motor skills and sensory integration needs. Many OTs are trained to work with children on handwriting without tears and other programs. If you are worried about writing, look into working with an OT. Make sure to prioritize your child’s needs. If they would benefit more from support for behavior or attention, make handwriting a lesser priority and spend your therapy time and dollars elsewhere.
- Writing tutor: to seek tutoring for penmanship if you would like to take writing skills further. Working on this skill at home is excellent for younger children. But, if you are not making progress or see your child’s handwriting as a considerable problem, having a tutor will help your relationship with your child.
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in context, as they may be related to visual-spatial problems, sensory differences, attention challenges (ADHD), or learning problems. A psychologist can evaluate skills and direct you to the most appropriate treatments.
Similar Conditions to Handwriting Problems
- Visual Tracking: the ability to visually follow words on a page as you read or an object as it moves through space impacts handwriting
- Focused Attention: the ability to maintain attention to a task impacts handwriting
- Motor Planning: the ability to plan and execute motor movement impacts handwriting
- Depth Perception: the ability to judge the distance in space between the child and other objects in the visual field may impact handwriting
- Spatial Reasoning: the ability to see how objects fit together may impact handwriting
- Coordination: the ability to move fluidly like running, walking, catching a ball, kicking a ball may be an issue
- Learning Problems: the ability to do well in school in reading or writing may be impacted
- Body Space Awareness: the ability to judge physical space and attend to nonverbal cues may also be impaired when handwriting is an issue
References on Handwriting Problems
Resources for Handwriting Problems
Amundson, S., & Schneck, C. (2010). Prewriting and handwriting skills. In Case-Smith, J., & O’Brien, J. (Eds.). Occupational therapy for children (681-711). St. Louis: Mosby.
Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.
Peacock, Gretchen Gimpel & Collett, Brent (2010). Collaborative home/school interventions: Evidence-based solutions for emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.