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Sensory processing and handwriting

Despite the increased usage of technology as a mode of communication (e.g. typing, texting, voice recording etc), handwriting skills are still important in everyday life, which includes education or employment.

Handwriting is a task that involves not only pencil and paper, it also involves how our eyes coordinate with our hand movements to move the pencil across the paper, how our fingers manipulate and adjust the strength to hold onto the pencil, and how our trunk muscles support our body to be in upright position when we are sitting on the chair while we write.

Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and integrates or makes sense of the sensory information into a meaningful one, which helps us to carry out responses to interact with our surroundings appropriately.

A functional sensory processing system allows a child to register, organize all the information received, then filter out irrelevant information to focus on the important ones, which is essential for handwriting tasks in the classroom settings.

An example of a child who has sensory processing issues may appear to be lazy and slow while copying words from the long paragraph on the whiteboard. This could be that the child is distracted every time when a person walks past him, not able to focus on writing as he hears the teacher speaking to another student at the door, and the gazing sunlight reflecting off the whiteboard makes it challenging and difficult for the child to track the letters on the whiteboard. Due to the child’s poor body awareness and sensory needs, the child also constantly moves himself left and right while sitting on the chair or constantly stomping on the ground. This then greatly affects his attention during tasks.

Other indications that the child might have sensory processing issues:

A child who has proprioceptive processing issues may

  • Writes with too heavy or too light pressure

  • Struggles to hold the pencil with sufficient (or appropriate) strength and functional grasps

  • Bites hairs/nails/shirts while writing

  • Struggles to sit upright (or always slouching)

A child who has vestibular processing issues may

  • Appears to be always moving while sitting (shaking legs, moving the chair along while sitting, rubbing hands on the desk)

  • Appears very cautious or reluctant to get up or down the chair when their legs can’t touch the ground

A child with tactile processing issues may

  • Avoid touching different types of pencils

  • Low awareness of the pressure applied onto the pencil

  • Sensitive to touches

A child with visual processing issues may

  • Misses letters or spaces while copying word

  • Struggles to track from letters to letters

A child with auditory processing issues may

  • Easily distracted with noises or slight movement of other

Children with vestibular and proprioception processing issues may have challenges in visual perception, for example, having difficulty to write in between the lines provided and to coordinate hand movements to write the letters accurately after each other. Stay tuned on how visual perception affects handwriting.

Sensory strategies for handwriting issues

As the child learns best through play, incorporating physical or active movements into the learning experience can motivate the child, at the same time providing sensory input and increasing body endurance or strength to tasks. Some of the strategies include:

1. Heavy work activities

Heavy work activities provide sensory input to the body, which benefits the child with poor body awareness, or who is always seeking sensation. Starting the day with heavy works may help the child to feel more regulated, hence better awareness and attention towards the surroundings. Some example of it will be:

  • Clean the whiteboard or erase the chalkboard

  • Unstack then arrange the chairs to tables

  • Carry books from teacher’s table to the child’s one

  • Wall push-ups

  • Chair push-ups

  • Wheelbarrow walking

  • Animal walking

2. Modify

  • Provide the child with an earmuff if he/she is hypersensitive to surrounding sounds

  • Grading - make the task easier at first, then slowly adding onto the difficulties

    • Get the child to copy from his table instead of from the whiteboard

  • Modify writing tools

    • Weighted pencils to provide sensory feedback to the child who holds the pencil

    • Larger pencil grip for easier handling

    • Using colour as visual guidance on the paper

Again, each child develops at their own unique pace. What applies to other children may not be so effective on your child, hence it is important that you discuss your concerns with your occupational therapist to discover underlying issues for an effective intervention to take place.

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