Ask An OT: “What pencil grip should I use for my child?”

Question from Dena Rich in  Albany, NYdena(1)


“Hi Miss Jaime!  Love, love your articles!!!! My daughter Emilia still struggles with her pencil grip (using whole hand instead of proper 2 fingers). I’m having trouble finding a pencil gripper. Do I have to go to a parent teacher store? Love the tweezer separating sprinkles idea. Do u think this will be too hard for her?  She turns five in March. “

Hi Dena!  Thanks for the compliment!  You don’t need to go to a teacher store; you can buy anything online!

Children who are four are often still developing a comfortable pencil grip.  It can be hard for children to develop separation of the two sides of the hand, but a pencil grip can help.  I usually try not to use a grip until I’m sure that the child is physically having difficulty.

That means that I have taught them many times where their fingers should go and where the pencil should sit in their hands.  When I ask them to hold the pencil correctly, they try to and they know what I mean.  The problem is that due to weak strength and endurance, they can’t maintain a proper grasp.  So then, I use a pencil grip.  My favorite “go-to” grip for preschoolers is called “the pencil grip”.  I like it because it’s “fatter” towards the back which helps kids to open up their web space.  This is the area between the thumb and the index finger.    There are specific spots for each finger, but even if they hold it wrong, it’s still ok.   Here is what it looks like.

Another good one that I like for kids Emilia’s age is the “writing claw”.  This one can be a little tricky to learn how to use, but once a child gets the hang of it, it’s great.  There are spots for the thumb, index and middle fingers.


Pencil grips can be uncomfortable for children at first.  That’s ok, it’s uncomfortable because the child is now using the correct muscles, and they aren’t used to doing this work.  Keep encouraging them and use it consistently.  It will pay off!   Also, you can help your child to “tuck in” the ring and pinky finger by having them hold a pom pom or a cotton ball in those fingers.  It helps to keep the pinky side of the hand separate from the thumb part.

Another way to make it easier for your child is to play games and work with toys that require separation of the two sides of their hands.  Classic games like  Bed Bugs, Lite Brite, Operation, etc. are examples of toys that encourage this.

Good Luck, Dena!  Keep us posted!


  ~Miss Jaime

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The “Real” Reasons Your Kid Can’t Tie Yet!


There is so much going on in the news in regards to education these days.  The Common Core Craze has changed the way teachers teach and Kindergarten is the new second grade.  That said, there are many things that teachers are teaching that are not remotely on our politicians radar.  Manners, character, and self care skills are just a few.  However, the list is endless.

Anyway, learning how to tie your own shoes is a rite of passage that turns your child into a “big girl” or a “big boy”.  Think back to when you were little and you learned how to tie.  I would bet that your parents or older sibling taught you how to tie.  It takes practice and a certain amount of motivation.  Both the adult and the child need to be motivated in order for the child to learn the skill.  The adult is usually motivated to get the child to tie for themselves so A) they aren’t tripping on their laces and B) so there is one less thing for the grown up to do.  The child is usually motivated to tie because they are excited to be a “big kid”.

When are children ready to tie?

Some children are ready to tie before they even start kindergarten.  Many are ready to learn in their kindergarten year.  Keep in mind this means children who are four and a half and five years old.  It always concerns me when I see a third grader in the halls with untied shoes and when I ask them to tie their shoes for safety, they end up telling me that no one ever showed them how.  It’s easy to buy slip on shoes and Velcro, but kids still need to learn how to tie.  I think sometimes it simply slips parents minds that they need to teach this skill, just like zipping, wiping and washing hands in the bathroom and using a fork and spoon.  Life is hectic and busy, but before you know it you have a ten year old who can’t tie.  Uh-oh!

Of course, some children have motor or learning difficulties that interfere with their ability to easily acquire this skill.  When this is the case, an Occupational Therapist may be the one who ends up teaching them, which is totally appropriate.  If you have a child that receives OT and you are concerned about their ability to perform self care skills, definitely let the OT know.  You may think that the OT should automatically know this or look at this, but the truth is that school based OTs are really supposed to work on skills that directly impact a child’s education.  Not just handwriting (MYTH!) but copying from the board, visual processing, motor coordination, using two hands to manipulate school tools and many other things that affect a child’s ability to learn the curriculum.

I’ve had parents ask me to work on riding a bike, because their child can’t ride with the family or the kids in the neighborhood.  That stinks! An OT will absolutely know how to teach a child to ride a bike, because it’s all about balance, coordination and motor planning.  However, riding a bike has nothing to do with school.  I always feel bad when I explain this to a parent.  I can work on motor planning, coordination and balance, but bicycles are on the other side of the line.

Untied shoes can be a safety issue for a child with special needs.  Shoe-tying is a self care skill and that is school appropriate. So children who have motor or learning difficulties may end up learning how to tie at school.   Everyone else will (hopefully) learn at home.  I think I’ve taught at least a hundred kids to tie over the years.  And I’ve found that there are a few simple reasons why it’s so hard for some kids to tie.

Postural stability

Children who are low tone or have weak core muscles have a very hard time holding their trunk upright and managing the steps to tie. Even children who are simply young have trouble with this.  It’s just too many things to conquer.  You may notice that your child will use one hand to kind of hold themselves up.  This obviously interferes with the ability to tie because they need to manage both laces.

The easiest way to fix this problem is to have the child sit with their back against a wall or something flat.  Try to get them to put their bottom all the way to the back of the wall. Kids often round their backs and scoot their bottoms forward, which provides less support.


Notice how she is propped against the cabinet and her left leg is tucked out of the way


So now the child is seated with their back against a wall.  What next?  Have you ever tried to do that thing where you tap your head and rub your belly at the same time?  This takes a lot of motor planning and the ability to do different things with different body parts at the same time.  Tough Stuff.  So the next tricky thing is getting the child’s body in a position that makes it easy to manage reaching their feet.   We already took care of their trunk by propping it against the wall.  Now we need to get their legs in a good position.  Decide what shoe you want to tie.  Then tuck the other leg underneath and out of the way.  Bend the knee of the tying foot up towards the chin.  The hard part here will be getting the knee to stay there.  I sometimes tell my kids that they should rest their chin on that knee.  It helps keep it in place.  For kids who are a little chunky, the knee usually falls to the side.  This also happens to kids who are low tone.  The only problem with this is that now, the bow will be on the Inside of the foot, instead of the Middle of the foot on top of the tongue.  Although this isn’t the biggest problem in the world, it’s harder to tie because the laces aren’t the same length anymore. Also, the laces will probably dangle on the inside of the foot, making it more likely that the child will trip on them or step on them. So get that knee under the chin.


Having the child place the chin on the knee keeps the leg and the bow nice and straight.

Bilateral Coordination

Some children still don’t have great bilateral coordination at the age of 5. Bilateral coordination is the ability to use two sides of your body at once. Sometimes it is hard for a child to keep their first hand holding the loop while the second hand does the next step.  I always tell the child “you have to hold onto the bunny, or he will hop away!”  As I said before, sometimes a child will take that hand away and lean on it, using it as a support.  That goes back to the postural control and positioning.  It can be hard to tell why they are taking that first hand away (difficulty with using two hands at once?  or the need to hold themselves up?) but if you get them against a wall in the right position, you may eliminate that urge to take the hand off the loop and put it behind them.

 The Laces

Length -Children’s laces should be the right length, of course.  But  very often they aren’t.  At least they aren’t the right length for a kid who is learning how to tie.  The  laces should be long enough to give the child some leeway as they are learning.  But they can’t be too long or it becomes a big mess AND they will trip on them even after they are tied.  So what is the perfect lace length?  It depends on the size of the shoe, but I recommend that the  laces should be between 11-13 inches long from the tongue (after the shoes are laced).  The Dollar Tree sells packs of laces for a dollar in all different sizes.  If your laces are too short or too long, you really should get a new pair of laces.  It makes a world of difference.  For some reason, kids want to hold the first loop or “bunny ear” with their whole fist, instead of pinching it with their two fingers.  If the laces are too short, they disappear in that little hand.  You need laces that are long enough to work with.

Texture – Now this may seem ridiculous, but it’s really true.  Some of the new funky sneakers come with cool laces that are just too silky!  They are usually round, too.   I prefer the plain old flat cotton laces. They tie easily and they stay tied.  The silky ones tie, but because of their round shape and silky texture, they come united right away.  Little kids usually don’t have great hand strength to tie the final bow super tight.  Those silky laces are like Houdini.  Out of that knot in a few minutes.

Visual Attention 

For some children, half the battle is getting their eyes to look at what they are doing.  For children with very poor visual attention, I recommend teaching one step at a time.  I find that children who are motivated and feeling successful do much better with keeping their eyes on what they are doing. By teaching only step one over and over a few times, the child learns it and then feels successful.  Feeling like something is achievable or within their reach makes it more enticing and may help with the visual focus a bit.

Visual Perception

Some OT catalogs sell toys, books, and other gadgets with laces that are two colors.  This is great for kids whop rely heavily on visual feedback.  I really prefer to teach kids to tie on their foot though.  Otherwise you end up teaching them twice.


Just one of the many tools out there with different colored laces….

If your child has difficulty with left/right or spatial concepts such as over/under, it may help to use different colored laces.  Buy two colors that are the same length.  Then cut them both in half and tie them back together with the opposite color.  Lace the shoe so the knot is at the bottom in between the first two holes.  Now when you are helping your child you can say, “the pink lace” rather than left, right, this one, that one, etc.  It just takes away one more obstacle.

Sequencing and Motor Planning

Sometimes the real problem is remembering the steps.  I like to use a story or a poem to help the child because it helps them to remember what happens next.  I prefer to use the one loop method but you can teach it however you like.  There are so many different versions of how to teach it but if you get their body in a good supported position with the other leg out of the way, you are halfway there.

I use the bunny and the snake story. First you make the letter X.  I teach the child to make the X on the shoe, not in the air, because it is more work to hold the two laces up and manipulate them than to leave them down.  Then I help the child find the lace on top.  (This is where the two colors come in handy).  The lace that is on top goes underneath and into the middle. If you tied it correctly, it should look like a piece of twisty macaroni.


Now the child has to make a loop.  This is the bunny, who sits on “macaroni hill”.   I always talk to kids about how bunnies hop on the ground, so it’s important that he doesn’t look like a flying balloon. “Bunnies don’t fly!” Don’t forget to give the bunny a nice long tail.  The other lace is the snake.  Depending on the child, you can make the snake mean and hungry (you can guess the end) or nice.  I like to have a snake in the story because I can tell the child that the end of the lace (the plastic part) is the snake’s face.  This helps them remember that they need to work with the snake’s belly, not his face, in the middle of the story.  “He might bite you!  Don’t touch his face.  Be Careful!”

The snake decides to sneak up behind the bunny.  This part of the story helps a child to remember where the lace needs to go.  “You would never walk in front of the bunny if you were trying to be sneaky…”  Then the snake loops around and hides his face in the forest.  This is the hard part for a lot of kids.  They keep wanting to pick up the end of the lace. “Watch out!  He’ll bite you.  Not his face, grab his belly!”

The snake pushes his belly through the hole that he made when he walked around.  I tell the child  to “pinch the snakes belly”.  The other hand hops to the top of the bunny ear and then both hands pull.  You can have the snake hug the bunny and invite him to lunch (awww) or eat the bunny for lunch (ewww).  You will know what your child will like and remember.

20150123_163925 (1)

It doesn’t matter what story or method you use.  But having a story with steps that help a child to sequence and motor plan their movements  really helps.

I really hope these insights will help you to help your child to tie!  Please comment and tell us if you have any other good tips! Good Luck!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for stopping by!

~Miss Jaime, OT


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Why you should teach your child clapping games…

Clapping games are an awesome way to work on motor skills…

Remember all the clapping games you used to play when you were little?  Nowadays, kids have a hard time playing with nothing.  Meaning, if they don’t have a toy or an Iphone to keep them occupied, they don’t really know what to do with themselves.  As a little kid, my friends and I spent hours playing clapping games during recess.  We thought they were so fun and loved all the silly lyrics that went along with the clap sequences.  What we didn’t know is that we were also developing foundational motor skills that would benefit us for years to come.

As a school-based OT, I use clapping games often with individual children, small groups, and whole classes.  The things that I can learn about a child from watching them learn a clapping game are amazing.  I thought I would break it down for the rest of the world so I can spread the love of clapping games!

Motor Planning

Motor planning is a prerequisite to learning any new skill.  A difficulty with motor planning, also known as dyspraxia, can interfere with a child’s ability to learn everyday tasks such as getting dressed, writing, and playing games with other children.  In order to motor plan, a child has to come up with an idea, figure out how to do it, and then actually physically complete the task.

For example, a child unfamiliar with a playground slide decides he wants to try it.  Now he has to get himself to the ladder, hold onto the railings, get himself up the steps, and then coordinate his body from standing at the top step to sitting at the top of the slide.  Then he has to shift his weight to actually slide downward.    Who knew there was so much involved?  Clapping games involve a lot of motor planning, too.  The child has to practice the movements over and over before they become automatic.

hopscotch, motor planning, playing, playground

Crossing Midline

The midline is an imaginary line down the center of your body (picture through your nose to your belly button).   As an infant, a child starts to bring his hands to midline (usually to put something in their mouth).  Then they start to develop the ability to cross over the midline.  Once a child begins to develop a hand dominance, they should be able to cross over the midline to get a preferred toy, a crayon, etc.   If they don’t cross the midline, they will use their left hand to pick up something on their left side, and their right hand to pick up something on their right side.  This can interfere with a child’s ability to develop a “strong” side because they are using both sides equally.  I have had a few parents say to me “I think he’s ambidextrous!”.   Ambidexterity is rare.  Usually, it’s a midline deficit.

I swear that the original clapping game “Patty-cake” was invented by an OT. Okay…, maybe not, they didn’t have OT back then.

BUT – the very simple clap hands together, hit both your hands to your babies hands was designed to work on getting a baby to bring their hands together in the midline, then take them apart.   It’s very “OT-esque”.




When a child sequences, they put events, ideas, and/or objects in a order.  Many children’s songs involve a particular sequence.  The Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald,  The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Head-Shoulder-Knees, and Toes, etc.    Most clapping games tell a story in a particular sequence, which helps a child to remember the lyrics.  Miss Mary Mack has to ask her mother for 15 cents before she can see the elephants jump over the fence.  

The more challenging clapping games involve different motor movements at a particular part of the song.  This would be for older children; who are capable of remembering the words, singing them in the correct order, using their body to clap in a rhythm, and motor planning to do the right moves at the right time.   Whew! Who knew there was so much involved?  But there is…  

clapping games, motor planning, bilateral coordination

 Bilateral Coordination

The ability to use the two sides of your body together in a coordinated manner to complete a task is a foundational skill that we use every day.  We need to use our two hands together for everyday tasks like opening a bottle, putting on an earring, or tying our shoes.  It is even harder when the two hands have two separate jobs.  Clapping games help children to develop solid bilateral coordination skills because they consistently require the two sides of the body to perform the same task over and over.  Plus, the two hands have to meet in the middle (working in midline) and cross over the middle (crossing midline).   This practice is great for kids who have trouble with everyday bilateral activities in their lives such as using scissors,  opening snack, holding the paper while they write, sharpening a pencil, pulling their pants down in the bathroom, etc.   Using your hands to do the same thing at the same time is easier than using both hands to do something different.  But first thing is first!  Learn the easy way and then make it more challenging.

bilateral coordination, holding the paper

Visual tracking

Many children with learning disabilities have a hard time with visual tracking activities.  Attention problems, sensory issues, developmental delays and weak eye musculature can all interfere with a child’s ability to track appropriately from left to right.  This of course affects their ability to read, write, and copy from the board down the road.  Children who have difficulty crossing midline with their arms and hands usually have difficulty tracking across midline.  An example would be if you held your finger ten inches to the left of their face and asked them to keep their eyes on your finger and then you slowly moved your finger straight across to the right side.  Their eyes may not be able to  follow your finger after the midline.   Sometimes it’s just a quick glance away at midline and sometimes it’s a “shoot-ahead” movement all the way to the right. But either way you can see when they lose their visual attention on your finger.  Children should be able to easily move their eyes without moving their head by the third grade without losing place and without faltering at midline.  However, by kindergarten, children should beginning to move their eyes without complete head movement.   During a clapping game, the child’s eyes continually move from their left hand  to the right hand, to left, to right. It’s great practice for tracking in school.  Plus, because there is a rhythm, they are learning to track smoothly and rhythmically, like they need to when they are reading.

Rhythm and Beat

The ability to keep a beat and understand a rhythm is a skill that will impact a child’s life for years to come.  A beat is a repetitive hit or pulse (think of a heart beat).  A rhythm is a pattern of music and movement through time.  My favorite music teacher at school (Shout out – Mrs. Wade!) often helps me to problem solve how to plan activities for my kids who to her have no “rhythm” and to me have no “coordination”.   I find it helps to add music because 1) it’s more fun and 2) somehow they seem to “get it” when there is music involved.  She taught me that the beat is like marching “left, right, left, right” and the rhythm  is the call and response song that the soldiers sing while marching to the beat.  The ability to hear a beat is important in social activities like singing, dancing, and clapping, in unison.  Keeping the rhythm of motor movements are important in learning new repetitive movements to learn a dance or other gross motor skills like hopscotch (feet in, out, in, out).   This is why music can be such an amazing teaching tool.  Clapping games require the rhythm and beat skills because the child is singing (rhythm) as well as keeping performing their motor movement “clap, cross, clap, cross” (beat).  So clapping games can help your child by building the foundational skills that they will need later to learn a dance, play an instrument, etc.   A child needs to keep the beat when singing the lyrics to the song (Miss MARY, Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in BLACK, black, black, etc.).  They also need to keep the rhythm with the words of the song (clap, cross right, clap, cross left, clap). This seems so simple until we try to teach it a child.  Rhythm and Beat can be very hard work!  Kids start to develop the ability to hear beat very early- My good friend who is both a Kindergarten teacher and a Dance instructor (shout out- Miss Smith!)   told me that even her Kindergarten dance kids learn to count the beat pretty quickly.

children dancing



Most clapping games involve just two children, but many can be done with a whole class.  Part of my job as a school based OT is to work with the self contained classes.  I love to use clapping games with them because they have no idea that they are working on so many important skills!  No matter how old they are, they all laugh and have fun.  They consider it a “break” from school work, but as the OT, I am satisfied that I am addressing many important skills at once.  When working with one other child, you have to develop a “rhythm” with your partner in order to keep going.  Often, one child will be more advanced than the other.  No matter!  When the one child is “off” a bit, the other always reaches a little faster, or crosses a little farther in order to keep up with the class.  We try to sing the songs all at the same time.  Usually in the beginning it’s a big mess, but after a few tries, they do much better. A few of the girls may know a song or two, and they help to teach the kids who are unfamiliar.  Plus all the staff, it all comes together!  It’s hard not to laugh and have fun as you make eye contact with your partner, sing silly words, and have a grand old time for a few minutes.  Even us teachers end up giggling and having fun.  The kids need that movement and the “break”, but they also need the socialization and “playtime”. (Even though it’s a very therapeutic task!)

Sometimes I will get the whole class in a big circle and we play “quack-didly-oso”.  The kids have to put one hand on top of their friends (on the left) hand and the other under the other friend hand (on the right).  This concept alone takes a few minutes as we have to go over left, right, under, over (spatial language and awareness!).  Once we get started playing, I can see who has difficulty with focus, with motor planning, directionality, etc. And meanwhile the kids love it!

 How to Modify a Clapping Game

No game is fun if it’s way above your level.  But all clapping games can be simplified by slowing down the movements and the words.  The motor movements can also be simplified.

Here are a few examples from easiest to hardest

1) Simple patty cake motions – clap your own hands together, then use both hands to clap both your partners hands.  Then back to your own clap.  A simple 1,2,1,2  pattern.

2) More complex patty cake motions –  clap your own hands together, then clap your right hand to your partners right hand, then clap your hands together, then clap your left hand to your partner’s left hand.  1,2,1,3,1,2,1,3

3) Getting harder – adding more motor movements make it even more challenging. Clap your own hands together, then clap your right hand to your partners right hand, then clap your hands together, then clap your left hand to your partner’s left hand. Next, form an “X” over your chest by crossing your two arms to touch your shoulders.  Then, clap your hands together and start again.

4)  Really hard – Clap your own hands together, then clap your right hand to your partners right hand, then clap your hands together, then clap your left hand to your partner’s left hand. Next, form an “X” over your chest by crossing your two arms to touch your shoulders.  Then, clap both hands to both your lap. Then start again.

* If you have a child who just can’t seem to “get it”, or they keep confusing their left and right sides, you can try putting a colored sticker on each child’s right hand.  This way you are providing a visual cue as to which hands need to hit.

Here are some links to some of the most common clapping games if you need a refresher.

Miss Mary Mack
Miss Mary Mack- Just music and lyrics – you can use whatever motor pattern you want
Quack Didli-Oso – Great for a group or partners
“Slide” – Very Complex!
“Down Down Baby”
“Sally Was  Baby”
Patty Cake

logo                                                                           Get Clapping!

~  Miss Jaime, OT

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Middle School and Handwriting

Middle School and Handwriting… how to help your child improve their legibility after elementary school

Middle School ANd Handwriting – Part 1

So many parents lose hope for improving their child’s handwriting after elementary school.   It definitely can seem hopeless at times.  How do you change a habit that has been developed over so many years?   There’s always the old “kids don’t need to write anymore, they can just type”.

But seriously, that’s not realistic.  Everyone needs to be able to write legibly.  Even if it’s a quick note, a shopping list, an address.  How many times do you just need to jot something down?

A lot.   Working in a middle school, I learned many different tips and tricks for improving legibility.  So I’ve decide to share them with you. –

Please believe me – there IS hope for improving legibility after elementary school.  I swear. 

Pencil Grip – Forget about it?

It is very, very hard to change a poor pencil grip after the first grade.  On top of that,  it gets harder each year after first grade. By middle school, it is practically impossible.  The only way to change a child’s grip after the first/second grade is if the child is willing and motivated.  If not, you really have to consider if it’s worth the fight. I am a huge advocate for correcting grip and pencil habits in little ones because I have seen the repercussions of neglect.

It’s bad.

Children who don’t hold their pencil correctly are sometimes using the wrong muscles to write.  When you are writing, the thumb should be doing most of the work.  If you notice that the thumb isn’t even moving or bending at all, it isn’t doing any of the work.

Some kids are able to compensate by having the other fingers move the pencil.  Others (worst case scenario) are still relying on their wrist and shoulder because they haven’t developed shoulder stability. This habit should be gone by the end of kindergarten.

So…..back to middle school and handwriting.  The problem with a middle schooler who is using larger muscles (whole arm and wrist) to write is that it is extremely tiring.  Think about how hard it is to hold your arms up in the air (in a T) for a whole minute.  This is how your middle schooler feels.  Now add common core and all the writing.  Yikes. The result?  One word answers, the shortest sentences possible, and no data in your Document Based Questions (DBQ’S).   Middle schoolers are expected to back up their answers with “text-based evidence”.  This means detail, information, and in other words – effort.   Can you put forth effort and motivation when you are exhausted?

Me neither.

middle school and handwriting

Middle School and Handwriting: What to do…

As I said before, if your child isn’t motivated or willing (or bribable) to change their grip, it probably won’t happen.  They will find ways to compensate down the road, which is good news.  As an Assistive Technology professional – I think it’s great that children have access to computers, Ipads, smartphones, etc.

As a Handwriting Specialist, it makes me worried.  In life, you need to be able to jot a note, make a list, etc.  But…technology is the wave of the future, and you better get on board or be left in the dust.  (That is my two sides fighting with each other).

WHen they aren’t Motivated…

So if they aren’t motivated, and they aren’t giving their best work because that involves too much writing, find another way.  Let them type their essays – notice I said, “let THEM type”. I know that parents are only trying to help, but kids need to do as much for themselves as possible.

First, even if they are only using one hand or one finger – they are gaining keyboard awareness. Trust me, in a few years, they will be moving much faster.

Second, typing is awesome fine motor work.  If they are using more than one hand or one finger, they are developing the ability to move one finger at a time! This would have been developed in Kindergarten if they had been holding their pencil properly.

Oh well. If your child truly isn’t capable of typing all their work, make a deal.  Set the timer for ten minutes and have them type. (It doesn’t matter if they type one sentence). Then you can help and type the rest.  Next week – eleven minutes. You get the picture.

When They ARE Motivated…

If they are motivated and willing,  have them use a slantboard to write on.  This will put their wrist in extension (bent upward), which promotes finger movement.  You can give them a pencil grip if they are willing to use it. Sometimes kids will use it because it is novel and anything new is cool.

Awesome.  If that is the case with your kid, change the color of the grip every week to keep them motivated.  It will take a few months before they can begin to break their pencil grasp habit.  Many children get frustrated because using a slantboard and/or a grip takes longer.

This is because they are using smaller muscles, making more precise movements.  Sometimes this makes messier handwriting at first because these tiny hand muscles aren’t used to writing. However, sometimes it leads to neater handwriting because your Speedy Gonzalez who hates writing and just wants to be done needs to slow down in order to get anything on the paper.  You know your child.  You need to pick your battles and focus on what is really important.  But my advice is to really try.  With a motivated kid, amazing things can happen.  If they are really trying and get tired, give them a break and go back to it. That’s ok. They are training for a marathon.  It takes time to gain endurance.

Handwriting & Middle School-Is there hope- (1)

Letter formation – is there hope in Middle School?

Not really.  This is another reason why I am such an advocate for proper handwriting instruction for preschool and kindergarten.  I once had a kindergarten teacher say to me “but it’s kindergarten”.  This was because I was letting a child’s mom know that the child was making the lowercase letter “a” incorrectly and to please remind her at home.

( This sounds so type A of me.  However, it is part of my job to try to get parents to follow through with what the teachers are teaching all day long. Many parents have absolutely no idea if their child is forming letters correctly.  That’s Ok – they have an OT in the building who will gladly keep them posted. )  In my defense,  the child had two lowercase a‘s (Anabella) in her name. She had already been doing the letter in class and in her workbook with her classmates.

Plus writing it ten times a day on the top of her worksheets.  Is it a big deal? No.  Is it correct?  No.  If a child isn’t corrected and taught the correct formation, that’s it.  They will not magically wake up in the sixth grade and write this letter differently. ( In fairness, the kindergarten teacher had been in “kindergarten land” for a long time, and has probably never seen the ramifications down the road of letting little things slide.)

Who cares?

Good question.

If I can read it when she is in the sixth grade, I don’t care.  But, if that child is now so comfortable that she is writing quickly and her letter “a”  looks like an  “o l”,  then I care!  This will impact her on a spelling test, job interview forms, writing an address on an envelope, etc.  So, I will make the effort to let a parent know if their 5-year-old child needs a little practice with something.  Some habits are really tough to break. Of course, Kindergarten used  to be all about “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”  That was before Common Core. The “writing” part has definitely slipped in the ranks!

So how do you make it easier to read?

So here is the good news. There is still hope.  I worked with Middle School Special Ed Children for about five years.  Most of them had classifications of Learning Disabled, Speech and Language Impairments,  and Other Health Impaired.  Many of them had very poor handwriting.  Most of them did want neater writing, but really disliked writing (because it was hard).  So, rather than focus on letter formation, directionality, and other habits that are very hard to break, I focused on the things that I could change.

1) Change the paper.

One of the most successful accommodations for my children in middle school with poor handwriting was to change the paper. Usually, this meant giving them Narrow Ruled or College lined loose-leaf paper.  Many parents and teachers are baffled by this –

“they can barely write as it is… now you are making it smaller?”

YES.  Less room means less mess. Smaller lines can mean smaller letters.  This is especially true for children who have visual-motor issues.  Many of them automatically adapt their letter sizing to fit in between the smaller lines.  This also limits those “extra” lines and “tails” on some of the letters.  When you give them the paper, teach them to skip lines.

Although this may seem “immature” to skip lines when writing, it really improves legibility.  If you need to, you can highlight every other line for a while, or put an “x” or a dot to help your children see which line to go to next.  Trust me, it really does make it easier to read.  My favorite “narrow-lined” paper is  Handwriting Without Tears Double Line Narrow Paper.  It already has big spaces in between the lines.

Handwriting Without Tears Narrow Lined Paper is my favorite…


Then try to help them space.

Redispace paper has “start” and “stop” margins and dashed to separate letters

Even if the letters in a word are messy, if one word is separate from another, it is automatically easier to read.   So, once your student has learned to decrease the size of their writing, you can work on spacing.  You can try using graph paper (one letter per box, two spaces per space, etc.)  There is also specific “spacing paper” that looks like looseleaf with tiny lines to help you space each letter. You can buy it at staples or office max. It’s called RediSpace Transitional Paper by Mead.   There is actually a green margin on the left and a red “stop” sign at the right.  Some children who have difficulty adhering to the margin may benefit from the color.

Middle school children may feel  “too old” to finger space, but you can give them a popsicle stick or even have them use a pencil to space in between their words.  Another great trick is to use the Post-it® Page Markers as a spacer.  It is sticky so the kids can move it just like they would with a popsicle stick or their finger.  However, it is more “mature” looking for your very “cool” teens who could never be seen using their finger.  I have found that once they start writing smaller, they seem to space better.  Like I said, most children “want” neat handwriting.  So when they see that something helps, they become motivated. I think that is why the “College lined” paper helps with spacing.


popsicle spacing

A popsicle stick is a great “quick fix” for a spacer

Post it Page markers

These “page markers” from Post It are my personal favorite

Colored margins

Colored margins are great for kids who need visual cues for spacing.



                This is what Meade Redispace paper looks like. Sometimes it works wonders.  

Work the  “grown-up” factor

I have to admit that I have spoken to my more mature and “wordly” middle school children about how this paper is what “college kids” use and how they will be in college someday.  I have shown different writing samples to kids and asked them what grade they thought the student was in.  I had one girl that was such a “teenager” – very cool.  But her handwriting was so large and bubbly that it looked like an elementary school student.  I showed her two samples – a typical eighth-grader with small, neat handwriting, and a handwriting very similar to hers – large, no spaces, &  bubbly.  I asked her what grade she thought the kids were in.  She realized that the smaller, neater handwriting was an older child.  As a very “cool” girl, she wanted to have more “mature” handwriting too.

Voila – it was the actual “awareness” and motivation that changed her handwriting.  Not her physical ability.

Middle School and Handwriting…Is there hope?   YES!

Be sure to check out part 2 of Middle School and Handwriting! You can read it here…

How to Improve Horrendous Handwriting When All Hope Is LostMiddle School and Handwriting

Did you love these tips and tricks?  Be sure to check out “The Handwriting Book”, written by a team of nine other pediatric OT’s and PT’s (including me!). It is full of wonderful strategies to use at home or in the classroom!

Handwriting and Middle School

Do you have any other great tips to share with my readers? Please let us know if you have any other great tricks that help!   ~Miss Jaime, OT            

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Shoulder stability: a necessity for good fine motor skills!

Shoulder stability provides an important foundation for fine motor skills!

It’s really the first thing I look at as an OT when a teacher asks me to “screen” a child for OT difficulties.  Shoulder stability should be established by the time a child starts kindergarten.

When it isn’t, it can lead to difficulties in the classroom, especially for writing and drawing.

What you need to know about child development…

“Shoulder Stability”

This toddler has her arm up off the table - that demonstrates lack of shoulder stability.

This toddler has her arm up off the table – that demonstrates lack of shoulder stability.

Do you remember when you first started coloring?

Toddlers use their whole arm to scribble. Then, as the child progresses developmentally, they begin to rest their forearm on the table. This helps them to start using their hand and fingers (instead of their shoulder and arm) to control the crayon.

They develop the ability to keep their shoulder stable during fine motor activities, which helps them to use the small muscles of their hand. This is called shoulder stability. Shoulder stability is an important developmental milestone for children who are learning to color and write. A child should be able to rest their arm on the table and use only their fingers to move the pencil by the time they enter kindergarten.  Check out your child – is their elbow off the table?  Are they moving their pencil with their fingers or their whole arm?

Interesting Fact:

Babies who don’t crawl for very long or can’t tolerate “tummy time” are often delayed in developing shoulder stability. This makes it harder for them to learn how to write. As they reach first or second grade, they often complain that they are too tired or that their arm hurts during writing assignments. That’s because they are using their entire arm to try to make a tiny letter, which is very hard work!

prone tummy time stability

Tummy time is really important as a baby. It helps children to develop shoulder stability and good fine motor skills down the road.

core strength, shoulder stability,

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So what can you do to help?

Encourage your child or your student to write on a vertical surface, such as a chalkboard or a dry erase board. Tape a worksheet to the board or a wall and let them write standing up. Did you know that they make the chalkboard and dry erase contact paper?  This is a great way to encourage shoulder stability.  The child will lean on the wall which forces them to use their fingers! Give your student a slant board or a six-inch binder that slants downward to the child.  This forces the wrist to extend upward, forcing the fingers to do the work. For younger children, encourage laying on the tummy to read, play games, do puzzles. Encourage crawling, wheelbarrow walking and using their arms to hold their body up.

tunnel, stability stability, crawling
stability on a vertical surface wall coloring, stability

Writing on the Wall is a Big Help!

Laying on your belly to color and play helps to develop shoulder stability

Tummy Time Works!  Here is my one of my success stories.  Look at that perfect Shoulder Stability!

One of my favorite students who spent A LOT of time on his belly with me. Mom followed through at home and NOW he is a Kindergarten Success Story!

One of my favorite students who spent A LOT of time on his belly with me. Mom followed through at home and NOW he is a Kindergarten Success Story!

I hope you try some of these techniques – remember developmental progress takes time and patience, but it happens!

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Scissors tricks- 5 tips to help your child

Scissors skills, fine motor skills 

5 Tricks to help your  child with cutting

1.   Thumbs up for good cutting!  

Teach your child that  “thumbs up” means “good job”. Then, show them that in order to cut properly, both hands should be “thumbs up” or “thumbs on top”. Most parents don’t realize that their child is”thumbs down” on the hand that holds the paper.

In order to have the best control, both thumbs should be facing up.

scissors, scissors skills, cutting tricks, fine motor

 2.  Elbows in!

Many children use their whole arm when they only need their hands. This is a sign that they are still developing shoulder stability.  You’ll notice that they may stick their elbow out,  instead of keeping it stable by their body. This is a sign that they are compensating for weak upper body strength and stability.  You can help this along by having your child spend more time on their belly when reading or doing puzzles, etc.  In the meantime when they are cutting, remind them “elbows tucked in”.  This will give them better control.

scissors skills

3.  Right side up! 

cutting, scissors, fine motor, scissors skills, cutting tricks

If your child consistently forgets to hold the scissors right side up with their thumb in the little hole, make it fun by drawing a face on their thumb or their thumbnail before they begin cutting.  Tell them that the thumb is the bus driver.  He sits in the front seat (small window)  by himself.  The rest of the fingers are the kids, they sit in the back together.  Most kids like this trick.

If they still have trouble after a few times, you can also try gluing or drawing eyes on the “little hole”.  This way, when your little one picks up the scissors, the eyes are “watching him”.  Hot glue does not last very long on plastic, but that’s ok! Hopefully, by the time the googly eyes fall off, your child will have developed the proper habit.

4. The writing hand is the cutting hand!

Children should have developed their hand dominance by the time they are four.  However, sometimes they may still switch for certain activities.  With scissors, I find that lefties often switch to “righty” to cut because the blades of typical scissors work better when cutting with the right hand. (Most lefty scissors have the blades reversed – who knew!?)  Some parents buy their child a lefty scissors to make it easier.  I highly suggest this!

But they may still switch hands.

If your child is switching hands, encourage them to use their dominant hand.  If you aren’t sure whether they are lefty or righty,  watch which hand they use to pick up their fork, crayon, or a toy.   Place objects in the middle of their body and see which hand they prefer.  Once your child has chosen a hand, encourage that hand for cutting, coloring, and using a fork.   One tip to help them remember is to use a tattoo!  Put a removable tattoo on your child’s dominant hand as a “reminder”.  Kids love tattoos and it’s an easy fix.

 5.  Get those muscles strong! 

One of the reasons that cutting is difficult for children is that they have to separate the two sides (pinky and thumb) of their hand.  This is hard work, and sometimes hard work is NOT fun.  If your little guy gets frustrated with cutting, work on their hand strength with other activities that work the same muscles.  This way, the muscles are getting stronger while your child is having fun doing something “different”.  Here are some simple everyday activities that develop separation of the two sides of the hand:

1) Fill an empty spray bottle with water and let your children spray the plants, the car, the chalk off the driveway!

2) Bring it to the beach or the pool and let your children spray you, themselves, or each other when they get hot!

3)  Same goes for old fashioned (trigger style) water guns.

4) Use your old tweezers to pick up beans, beads, or anything small.

5) Use Spaghetti  Tongs to pick up all the dirty laundry (or anything else) off the floor.

5) Use an old sock to make a sock puppet – draw a mouth and a face so your child practices “opening and shutting” the mouth as he talks.

scissors skills, fine motor

Hope these simple tricks help you to help your child with the tough task of learning how to cut!  Good Luck!

#functionalskillsforkids, toileting, potty training

~Miss Jaime, O.T.


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