Does your child’s handwriting look like chicken scratch? Or do they struggle with issues like letter reversal and sizing when they write? While you might think your child is just being sloppy, there could be something else going that’s causing their handwriting difficulties. But the good news is that you can help improve your child’s handwriting.
If your child has already started school, they may be referred to an occupational therapist for their handwriting. And while you might think this is purely an issue of fine motor control, handwriting issues are often linked to problems with visual-motor skills.
Why does my child have messy handwriting?
If your child is struggling with developing their writing skills or has messy handwriting, it could be due to a number of factors. Handwriting requires the coordination of several skills including:
- Visual coordination
- Fine motor skills
- Hand strength
If you have a preschooler, it’s normal for these skills not to be developed yet. As the small muscles in their hands build strength and dexterity, they should begin to form clear letter shapes. However, children’s handwriting skills can develop at different rates.
Once your child begins school, it’s important for them to begin improving their writing skills. School age children who struggle with their handwriting may need additional help improving visual-motor skills, fine motor skills, and hand strength.
Signs that your school age child may need help improving their handwriting include:
- Poor legibility
- Letter reversal
- Poor line awareness and margin use
- Difficulty keeping their place when writing
- Trouble with letter spacing and sizing
If your child is struggling to keep up in school because of their handwriting, it can impact their cognitive development, grades, and test scores. It can also make it challenging for them to express themselves creatively.
How do visual-motor skills affect handwriting?
Research shows that visual-motor skills can affect handwriting. Visual-motor integration is our ability to plan and execute movements with our bodies based on what our eyes see. This skill allows us to complete many of our daily activities, including writing.
Visual-motor skills can affect:
- Handwriting legibility
- Left-right awareness
- Letter reversal
- Eye-hand coordination
- Letter size
- Line awareness
- Letter spacing
This is why occupational therapists who work with children on handwriting skills will often focus on improving visual-motor skills.
Could vision problems be causing my child’s handwriting difficulties?
There’s always the possibility that vision problems could be affecting your child’s handwriting. An occupational therapist may want to rule this out with a vision screening before beginning occupational therapy for handwriting.
Your child may have vision screenings at school or during well visits with their pediatrician. If your child fails one of these screenings, their occupational therapist may recommend visiting an optometrist before proceeding with occupational therapy for handwriting.
Can occupational therapy help with handwriting?
Occupational therapy has been shown to improve handwriting skills in school age children. If your child begins occupational therapy for handwriting, they will likely work on visual-motor skills (or perceptual skills) to help improve handwriting. They’ll also likely work on fine and gross motor skills, including improving strength and dexterity.
All of these factors will work together to help improve your child’s handwriting.
A pediatric occupational therapist will begin by assessing your child’s skills and abilities in several areas, including:
- Fine and gross motor skills
- Motor planning
- Perceptual skills and visual-motor integration (visual memory, spacial awareness, visual discrimination, visual closure)
This will help your child’s occupational therapist to determine the root of their handwriting difficulties. Once this is clear, they’ll be able to determine the right treatment approach.
Activities for improving handwriting
Of course, not all children will require occupational therapy for their handwriting. Sometimes, a little extra help from parents and caregivers can be enough to help improve your child’s handwriting. And if you have a preschooler, working with them at home on their writing skills is a great way to prepare them for kindergarten.
Joint writing activities with parents and caregivers at home have been shown to improve writing skills and even promote early literacy skills. It’s a great idea to work on teaching your preschooler letter sounds during writing activities to encourage early reading skills.
When you practice handwriting at home with your child, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Make it fun. Children always learn better when they’re having fun. Your child may not want to practice copying each letter of the alphabet 10 times, but they might enjoy tracing lines and spelling their name.
- Use appropriate writing utensils. Regular pencils and crayons may be difficult for your preschooler or kindergartener to grasp. Try using chunky crayons or a jumbo pencil instead. Pencil grippers like these Nogginsland foam stickers can make it much easier (and more fun) to work on handwriting.
- Get creative. There are a lot of fun activities you can try with your child to improve their handwriting skills. Try writing letters in sand, dirt, or shaving cream. Finger paints are another great option to practice letter formation.
- Model correct writing. While it can be tempting to let your child figure things out on their own, modeling writing can be helpful. Show your child the correct way to write each letter (left to right, top to bottom), as well as spacing, sizing, and line use.
Now that you’re ready, try some of these activities at home to help your child improve their handwriting:
- Activity sheets like mazes and tracing activities (Psst! Check out our free printable worksheets!)
- Practice letter shapes with finger paints, shaving creams, or play sand
- Visual-motor activities (blocks, puzzles, sorting, stacking)
- Fine motor activities to strengthen pincer grasp like drawing, coloring, or painting
Not only are these activities great for school age children, but they can also be used to start practicing building writing skills with your preschooler before handwriting problems begin.
If you’ve tried helping your child improve their handwriting at home with no luck, it might be time to work with a pediatric occupational therapist. Your child doesn’t have to live with sloppy handwriting through adulthood.
“Hi! My name is Lydia and I’m a freelance writer who specializes in parenting and education. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and worked as a teacher and tutor before deciding to stay home full-time with my two young children. As a mom, I’m passionate about early childhood education and am always looking for fun and practical ways to teach my kids at home.”