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Writing issues

Why Is My Child’s Handwriting So Bad?

By Jim Rein

My daughter is in first grade and has really messy handwriting. She’s been trying so hard to write neatly, but she just can’t seem to do it. She can’t even write her own name clearly. Why is her handwriting so bad? Will it get better as she gets older?

Jim Rein

Former Dean, Vocational Independence Program, New York Institute of Technology

I think I have a pretty good idea of the frustration your daughter might be feeling right about now. I have always had significant problems with handwriting. I still hate to have to write something by hand. Thank goodness for computers—although they didn’t exist when I was kid.

I still hold my pen with an unorthodox grip and have to take breaks when writing by hand. I should point out that my dysgraphia hasn’t stopped me from writing hit songs, a movie and numerous articles. The important point to stress with your daughter is that difficulty with handwriting is not a reflection of her intelligence or creativity.

There are several factors that may cause or contribute to poor handwriting. One of them is fine motor skills. Another is short-term memory, which can make it difficult to quickly recall words as well as the shapes of letters. It’s also possible that your daughter may process thoughts faster than she can put them down on paper.

Another contributing factor could be her learning strengths or style. She may be a visual-spatial learner rather than an auditory-sequential learner. This means she may see the forest but have trouble noticing details about the trees.

The good news is there are many ways to help your child with writing issues. I suggest you start by meeting with her teacher. Find out how much time is being spent on handwriting and what methods and materials are being used. Ask what the teacher recommends you do at home to support your child’s handwriting development.

Your daughter may need more time to work on her handwriting than the school provides. You could look online or in education supply stores for resources you can use at home. If gripping the pencil is an issue, try pencils that are different sizes and weights. You may also want to try out differently shaped plastic pencil grips. See if these help make writing more comfortable for her.

There are other strategies you can try at home. These include:

  • Making sure she writes while sitting at a table rather than while lying on her bed
  • Encouraging her to dictate ideas to you and then copy down what you’ve written
  • Using finger paint, shaving cream, sand and other materials to help her see and feel the shapes of letters and numbers
  • Giving her plenty of time to write and letting her take breaks along the way

You may also want to consider requesting to have her evaluated by the school or by an occupational therapist. Depending on your child’s issues, there are therapies that may help. If your daughter has issues with fine motor skills and muscular strength, the earlier she starts these therapies the better. Don’t sit back and hope that getting older will take care of these difficulties. Be proactive.

Most importantly, be sensitive to your child’s self-esteem. Avoid words like lazy or messy. As someone with learning and attention issues, I found one of the most difficult situations I faced as a kid was being told by adults that I could do something if I really tried—and my telling the adults that I was trying. When more of the same doesn’t help, it may be time to look for a new strategy.

About the Author

Portrait of Jim Rein

Jim Rein

Jim Rein, M.A., has lectured around the country on postsecondary options and summer programs for children and young adults with learning and attention issues.

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