The Sensory Smart Tip: Recognize that handwriting and writing are two different skills, and focus on composing separately.
Developing handwriting skills, and handwriting at length, is often difficult for kids with sensory processing disorder. There are many issues involved in handwriting, including memory, language processing, posture, muscle tone, body awareness, tactile issues, and so on. If your child is having difficulty handwriting, get it evaluated by a sensory smart OT. Once you are able to identify which issues are at play, you and the OT can work on those with your child. I will do a future newsletter on the sensory piece of handwriting. For now, let’s look at the composing aspect of writing for school.
When you separate out composing from handwriting, it can greatly help a child who has uneven skills. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing what you want to say and not being able to get it down on paper with a pencil, unless it’s not knowing what to say and having handwriting problems to boot! As a professional writer and editor, I am very much aware that too often, we mush together the many different elements of writing and editing, which can intimidate and confuse a novice writer. There’s really no reason for it. After all, in the olden days when I was a secretary, my bosses regularly composed their letters via dictation, and I used a Dictaphone or Gregg shorthand to record what they were saying. Bestselling romance novelist Barbara Cartland composed all her books by dictating them to a secretary.
Here are some tips to help your child with SPD approach the composing aspect of writing without becoming anxious and frustrated.
1. Use technology for composing. Provide, or have your child’s school provide, assistive technology such a keyboard, iPad, or dictation software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking (R). It takes time to train such software, and some kids may find it too frustrating to make connections, so you may want to try it before committing to using it.
2. Use old-fashioned dictation. Your child can dictate his book report to you or someone else while you type it. You can record it on your smart phone, a low tech tape recorder, or other technology, then play it back and type it out for her.
3. Have her write freely for a few minutes for practice. Have your child sit and write anything she wants, using handwriting or a keyboard. This will encourage self-expression. Praise her for the effort and don’t make corrections. Let her get used to the idea that she actually can compose her thoughts and “write.” If she’s stumped on a topic, provide a simple one, and reward her for writing anything on the subject. If she’s very anxious, start small, free writing for as little as one minute.
4. Encourage composing letters and messages that are short form. A child who composes emails to his cousins and scrawls funny little messages to mom and dad on the family blackboard will have an easier time approaching a larger writing task than a child who rarely practices expressing himself through writing.
5. Focus first on ideas and how they’re related to each other. Visual mapping using bubbles, or Inspiration software which allows you to do this easily on a computer, works well for some kids. Other kids need to talk them through with a parent or teacher before starting the process of writing.
6. Focus next on the organization of ideas and sentences. Kids with sensory issues often have a very hard time with organizing time, possessions, and their thoughts. They also may not realize that a report or letter should have a beginning, middle, and end, or that a sentence has certain elements that make it a complete sentence. Focus on these elements of composition before looking at the mechanics of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. It will help your child better understand the craft of writing as composing and take away the pressure of having to remember all those visual pieces that are involved in writing on paper or on the screen (such as capital versus small letters).
7. When working with a computer, let her pick the font and its size. Crazy though it may sound, some kids with visual issues may have an easier time composing on a computer screen, using a keyboard, if they can choose a font that is appealing to them visually. You can always change it later before printing it. Your child with visual issues may need the type to be very small or very large, or find that the letters are easier for her to read in a font that you personally find too “out there.” Consider adjusting the computer screen too to reduce glare and provide more or less contrast. In our focus on handwriting and its sensory issues, we can forget there are sensory issues with computer screens and devices, too!
8. Teach your child that editing can come later. Most of us edit as we write to some degree but an anxious child can get too caught up in “getting it perfect” right away. Teach your child that even the greatest writers go through multiple drafts of what they write, and focusing on the ideas and how they’re expressed is the first step of editing. Yes, if she notices she forgot to capitalize the first letter in the beginning of a sentence, or misspelled a word, she can correct that, but that’s not what she should be looking for until she’s made certain the ideas are expressed the way she wants them to be. Reading the composition out loud can be extremely helpful.
9. Work on spelling separately. You may notice your child’s spelling is better when handwriting is not involved because by not focusing on the handwriting element, he frees himself up to pay closer attention to his spelling. Experiment with having him dictate how to spell the words, or keyboard them. Have him go over spelling words by keyboarding them or spelling them aloud—perhaps while walking in a circle, spinning on an office chair or Dizzy Disc Jr.(r), or jumping on a mini trampoline. Some kids find that learning word roots is very helpful with spelling.
10. Keep the atmosophere positive as you break down the task. Whenever your child expresses anxiety about a large task, stay positive and break down the large task into smaller tasks. As they say, every great journey starts with one small step!
Two books that can help your child by providing writing prompts are 350 Fabulous Writing Prompts, for 4th through 8th graders, and 500 Writing Prompts for Kids: First Through Fifth Grade
My middle school age son has also been enjoying handwriting his thoughts in Diary of A Wimpy Kid Do It Yourself Book.
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