Did you know that sensory processing could affect a child’s handwriting?
Do you know why? If the answer is no, or kind of, well then - you are in the right place! But first, allow me to introduce myself.
Hi! My name is Samantha Goldman, and I’m a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in providing education to help parents, adults, and rehab professionals finally understand the sensory system, and how to help the senses feel their best.
When Kelli from Handwriting Solutions invited me to share a guest article on her website, I couldn’t wait to tell you everything you need to know about how those sneaky senses might be impacting your child’s handwriting, and of course provide you with some ideas of how to help.
Because I know sensory processing might be a bit newer to you, let’s start there.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing is the way our body takes in, interprets, and responds to sensory input - like what we see, hear, or smell. For example, our eyes & nose sees & smell cookies. They send the message to our brain that there are cookies in front of us (yay)!. Our brain interprets the cookies as exciting, and safe to eat. Then the brain sends the message to our muscles to eat those yummy cookies.
A little pop quiz for you: how many senses do you think we have?
My guess is, you automatically thought, or said, 5!
But in fact, we have three hidden senses that no one really talks about, and they’re important.
These senses are our:
● Vestibular sense (sense of head & body movement)
● Proprioceptive sense (sense of body awareness)
● Interoceptive sense (sense of what is going on inside our body)
So in fact, we have 8 senses! And all these senses work together to make up our sensory
Ok…but what does that have to do with handwriting?
We use our senses in almost every single thing we do throughout the entire day, including
handwriting. When it comes to handwriting, our senses are firing on all cylinders.
For example, they are busy...
● Looking at the lines, and where to write on the paper
● Determining how much space to leave between letters & words
● Coordinating the movements we need to form letters
● Coordinating our fingers to hold the pencil with a functional grasp
● Figuring out how hard to hold the pencil & how hard to press on the paper during writing
● Keeping us from falling out of our chair & in a good writing position
● Allowing us to touch the paper & the pencil without getting upset
● Organizing our body so we can focus & sit still while writing
● Coordinate stabilizing the paper with one hand, and writing with the other
● And more!
Unfortunately, when one or more of the senses is struggling, it can also cause difficulty in their handwriting.
Let me give you an example. Let’s call our child Johnny. Johnny is a second grader
who’s proprioceptive sense is a bit under-responsive. Meaning, his body needs MORE
proprioceptive input in order for his brain to fully be able to tell where his body is in
space. (Remember, that proprioceptive sense is our sense of body awareness).
When it comes to handwriting, Johnny is struggling. He slumps down in his chair,
because his brain isn’t getting enough input to help him sit up fully. This means that he
can’t really reach his paper effectively, and he has to hike his shoulders wayyyy up when
he writes. When he’s slumped this far down, Johnny also doesn’t have a stable base of
support. Which means he can’t use his arms and fingers as well to write.
When it comes to holding the pencil, Johnny also has a hard time coordinating his
fingers to hold it with a functional grasp, and he holds the pencil really hard, because he
needs that additional input. This makes his hand hurt, and he gets tired easily. Another
way Johnny gets that extra input, is by pushing super hard on the paper, but then the
paper always tears and he gets frustrated.
This is just one example of how one sense might be affecting a child’s handwriting.
Here’s some other ways that sensory challenges might affect a child:
● The smell of the paper or pencil may be too overwhelming
● They might be unable to plan out how to form letters (this is called a motor planning
● They may have a hard time focusing on writing, and be super jittery, or need to move
● Challenges with holding a pencil with a functional grasp
● Holding the pencil too loose
● Illegibility - not enough, or too much spacing between letters
● Challenges with placing letters on the line
● Being unable to use both hands at the same time (forgetting to stabilize the paper)
● And more…
But just because the senses may be struggling, doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!
Here’s some ways I love to work on handwriting from a sensory perspective:
1. Getting a handwriting evaluation: Of course, the best approach is one that is specialized to your child. But I also believe in educating yourself. Because education is key to supporting your child at home, especially when doing homework. And of course, Handwriting Solutions can help you with that handwriting evaluation.
2. Wake up the muscles before handwriting: One way we can help a child with sitting up in the chair and grasping skills is by waking up the muscles before we use this. This
increases that proprioceptive input (body awareness) prior to writing. I love to do big
movement tasks that wake up the whole body, like jumping on a trampoline, obstacle
courses, or bike riding. This also helps a child get the movement their body might need,
before sitting down to a focused task. But I also like focusing on the hand too and doing
smaller activities - like play-doh.
3. Strengthen the hand muscles: A child’s hand muscles may also be weaker if they
struggle with sensory awareness. Fine motor activities are a great way to strengthen the
hand muscles and get them ready for writing. Some of my favorite fine motor activities
are art activities and games with tongs/tweezers.
4. Sensorimotor approaches to writing: Writing doesn’t always need to be practiced on
paper (although sometimes it does). If a child is struggling with forming letters, I love to
practice them in as many different ways as possible. For example, writing our letters in
sprinkles, making them out of play-doh, or using chalk outside. Not only are these fun
and motivating, but they also help a child form the motor pattern in their head, which can
carry over to the paper!
So, now you know how sensory processing affects handwriting, and a couple ways you can get started!
My #1 tip - make it fun.
Handwriting can be discouraging for both you and your child. And if you make it fun, both of you will be a lot more willing to keep practicing and working on it together.
If you’ve noticed that your child may struggle with sensory issues, I’d love it if you come over
and join me on Instagram (@DrSamGoldman) or my website www.drsamgoldman.com!
Sensory processing doesn’t need to be the great unknown, and knowledge is power. I’d love to help you get to know the ins-and-outs of the sensory system, so you can begin to make life a bit less chaotic and a lot more fun.
About Sam: Dr. Samantha Goldman is a pediatric occupational & feeding therapist who’s
mission is to provide online education to help parents, adults, & therapists finally understand the sensory system; how to help the senses feel their best, so you can make life a bit less chaotic and a lot more fun. You can get started learning immediately with Samantha over on her free podcast, or check out her website www.drsamgoldman.com.
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