It’s easy to see when your child is struggling with printing. What isn’t as easy to see is that the strategy to improve printing is not writing “I will print neatly.” 100 times on the board.

I am not saying that practice doesn’t help at all. However, the problem is related to what is (or isn’t) happening in the development of the hand and finger muscles of your child. That means that strategies designed to improve the function of the hand are way more effective in improving printing.

How brushing the teeth and other simple tasks can improve printing.

Brushing the teeth is an amazing hand-eye coordination activity. For that reason, I recommend that children come home after school, perhaps have a light snack, and brush their teeth before they start homework.

Brushing the teeth involves using the finger muscles independently of those of the hand and wrist (this is called individuation). In other words, your finger muscles must work separately from the muscles of the hand and wrist.

Asking the fingers to do one thing and the wrist to do another can be very complex for young children. Brushing teeth allows an opportunity for this skill to develop. The more skill in this area, the easier it becomes to draw, print, and type.

Other activities that promote hand development and lead toward improved ability in writing include any activity where the fingers hold one posture and the wrist holds a different posture. Sometimes the wrist stays still and the fingers wiggle and other times the fingers stay still and the wrist wiggles.

This separate and independent motion of one part of the hand from another part is a developmental skill that must be in place before printing can be mastered.

When a child utilizes a watering can to water flowers in a garden, their fingers and thumb tightly grip in a steady and stiff fashion around the handle of the watering can. The wrist does an entirely different action, leaving the muscles loose enough to tip the wrist so that the water moves out of the watering can. Individuation of the finger muscles actions from that of the wrist is required for this simple, everyday task.

The use of a pen or pencil requires the fingers to be nimble and moving while the wrist maintains a still and midline (or neutral) position. Too often, students will do the opposite. They will too tightly secure the pencil in their fingers and thumb and power the pencil with the wrist joint.

The wrist is too large a joint to perform the subtle distinctions needed to make the lines and loops characteristic of the printed language. When the wrist inappropriately powers the pencil, letter reversals and the inability to stay within the lines are common errors. As an alternative to focusing on reversals and running out of the lines, first, observe how well your child can properly power their pencil.

The fingertips are able to experience touch, movement, pressure, texture, and temperature. The brain receives a tremendous amount of information from the fingertips. The brain can identify small changes in the position and pressure on the fingertips for accuracy in holding tools and precise instruments.

The wrist sends much less information to the brain and, therefore, the wrist is too cumbersome and clumsy for the fine motor skill of powering a pencil for printing and writing.

A teaching strategy I use in the schools, as well as my physical and occupational therapy clinic, is a simple strategy that corrects a common error. Try placing a 3-inch piece of tape (or bandage) lengthwise from the knuckles across the back of the child’s hand to their “straight as an arrow” wrist. The pull of the bandage becomes a gentle reminder to the student to maintain the wrist in a midline and neutral posture. This forces the child to move the pencil appropriately with the nimble fingertips and keep the wrist still. The tape prevents the child from curling forward at the wrist, a common pencil grasp error.

Using Simple Tools to Improve Printing

Another simple activity that can help? The correct use of a fork and knife. Even the correct use of a spoon requires that the fingers be held still while the wrist rotates in order that the spoon balances properly to bring the soup successfully to the mouth. If you don’t want to start with something easily spilled, try having the child scoop up a cotton ball with the spoon and dump it in a bowl.

Young children will want to squeeze utensils, such as a toothbrush, fork, or pencil with a full grasp and all the fingers curled around the utensil. This hand posture makes printing very tiring and nearly impossible to do unless you stand.

Older students can become overwhelmed by the labor-intensive printing strategy they have employed all of their lives. So much effort is required to maneuver the pencil or pen that understanding the lesson gets lost in frustration. Many conclude that they aren’t as smart as the quick printing student in the chair next to them. Not true! All this student needs is a little coaching. Not just coaching on pencil use, but fun stuff, too. For example, a better grip on a paintbrush, a better way of pinching green beans when helping in the kitchen, and, of course, a better way to secure a toothbrush.

So, “brush your teeth three times a day” takes on a whole new meaning in light of the fine motor skill development that is facilitated by everyday hand activities, such as teeth brushing.

Want to learn more about improving printing? Check out this video HERE.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
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