Handwriting, child development and neuroscience

The ultimate reason why I have ended up working to help struggling children (and adults) is because my own child was finding school such a challenge.

My youngest child doesn’t have quite the same challenges: he was teaching himself to read aged 2, could count into the thousands by the time he started pre-school and understood exactly what times tables are and how to apply them from before reception ages.

However, his handwriting…

Last year, before lockdown, at Parents’ Evening the teacher told me very subtly that he was almost, but not quite, cause for concern.

So when “lockdown” started, I decided that we should focus closely on handwriting – but from a developmental perspective rather than repetition.

Before you can expect a child to form letters correctly, they need to have solid neurodevelopmental foundations in place.

This was his starting point, back in April. I know, it’s not bad, but it isn’t automatic or effortless by any stretch of the imagination.

What did I do?

There was also a degree of reluctance to write: he’d seen the beautiful handwriting of the swotty girlies in his class, and had already started developing rather poor self esteem as a result. That is sadly a bit of an unavoidable by-product of being in a class of 30 and being a quiet child who just gets on with it rather than demanding attention.

The first thing we did, as soon as we had stopped going to school, was listen to the Safe and Sound Protocol. We played games and used clay to make little pots while listening. Because the situation was a little unusual, in terms of not being at school, we slowed down to half an hour per day, and just did days 3-5 as this was a repeat.

How does the Safe and Sound Protocol help handwriting? Well, in my child’s case, I know that he has quite deep-rooted anxiety and always benefits from an SSP booster. However, the incredible thing that I, and my osteopath colleagues, have noticed is how SSP can help strengthen the midline. We have noticed this on numerous occasions, so given that writing is so multidimensional and involves a lot of cross-hemisphere activity, it seemed like a good starting place.

The next thing I concentrated on was a few pivotal primitive reflexes that help develop a better relationship between intellect and body awareness. I say “pivotal” because these HAVE to be in place for a person to be able to master writing as an automatic skill, rather than something they have to labour over.

We concentrated on Babkin, TLR, STNR and ATNR. Yes, my child has all these. So many children and adults do.

Sometimes, people concentrate purely on hand reflexes for handwriting, but given that I know my child’s history intimately, I chose to start elsewhere. Handwriting is not ALWAYS about hand reflexes.

The next thing we did was some midline crossing movements, in time to music. He loves dancing, so it was pretty easy to build these movements into a dance. The dance moves became noticeably more precise and coordinated throughout the course of a few days.

Next, we progressed onto lazy 8s. This is a very important exercise for motor memory. We started lazy 8s on a large blackboard that we have nailed to the side of the playhouse, and progressed to a small old-school slate, before progressing to paper and pencil.

Here is a video showing the lazy 8 concept.

It was at this point that my child, six and a half, got his first ever wobbly tooth! I was probably more excited than he was.

Why am I mentioning wobbly teeth? If you look into Steiner education, which is 100% based on child development, children are not expected to start writing until they start to loose their teeth. This milestone is linked to brain development and myelination of the Corpus Callosum. If those connections between left and right hemisphere are not strong enough, it is pointless trying to get a child to sit and write letters because they are not developmentally ready to do so.

Next, we were ready to go onto lined paper. Lines are very important, because they show a child where the writing needs to go. This may seem obvious, but some schools hand out blank paper and expect 5 and 6 year-olds to figure this out for themselves.

The books have red guidelines to separate the very top and very bottom of letters. The next line up is for the body of the letters to go on, the next line is to set the size of the body of the letters and the top red line is to set the height of the tall letters. The bottom line is to set the length of the letters with “tails”.

A handwriting practice book

I bought these books from Amazon.

At this stage, we are finally ready to start looking at letter formation. As you have now seen, skipping the earlier steps only frustrates children and can cause low self esteem.

In the UK, the majority of schools seem to learn print first and then progress to cursive. However, if your child has dyspraxia or is likely to have dyslexia, this is a very short-sighted approach, as corroborated by my Level 5 BDA Dyslexia training. Learning cursive from the start is so much easier for children. This way, they can apply the motor memory formed using the lazy 8 letters and you will see letters consistently the right way around rather than muddled bs and ds.

I split the letters into similar motor pattern groups and learn those together, followed by how to join between letter groups.

And this was the result…

Handwriting sample taken on 15th May 2020

If you would like to help your child with their handwriting, please do contact me for further information.

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