Handwriting is a subject which can elicit complaints by young students:
- “Writing makes my hand hurt.”
- “It’s too much writing.”
- “That assignment is too long.”
- “It’s too hard.”
These complaints can be indicative of muscle weakness—one of the major causes of difficulty with handwriting.
Muscle Groups Necessary for Optimal Handwriting
Most people are not aware of how many muscle groups are required for a child to write at their best. But, as the song goes, the shoulder bone is connected to the arm bone, and the arm bone is connected to the hand bone.
While this is an overly simplified description of human anatomy, it does represent how the entire body works together. Handwriting requires the use of all these muscles:
- Spine and stomach muscles to maintain posture correctly. Correct position reduces the angles of the body, allowing for greater work with less effort.
- Shoulder muscles to move the hand and arm to the correct position above the paper.
- Upper arm muscles to raise the elbow and control direction of the writing.
- Forearm muscles to twist the wriest as the letters are formed.
- Hand muscles to move and control the hand, hold the pencil, and maintain grip.
- Finger muscles to form the individual letters and create the correct angles to form letters and words.
No wonder some children get tired from writing!
How Muscle Strength Impacts Handwriting
Children tend to build the larger muscles first and the smaller muscles later.
That’s why a toddler will be able to pull themselves up to walk along a sofa, and yet struggles with picking up tiny objects using a pincer grip.
However, when muscles tire out, they tend to tire in the opposite order. Smaller muscles fatigue quickly while larger muscles are more hardy.
While a child might be able to play catch and dangle from the monkey bars for an extended period of time, the fine muscles in their hands might wear out after only a few minutes. Most play does not require the same muscle skill as handwriting does, so children will often tire even more easily until their hand strength has been built up.
When muscles in the hand are exhausted, writing cramps, hand pain, and even arm pain can occur. Because young children are far less experienced writers, they tend to reach cramping and pain sooner than others, because their muscles have not had a chance to build up. So it is possible that a child who complains their hand is hurting after only a minute or two of writing is speaking the truth.
Ways to Reduce the Amount of Muscle Work Necessary
Slouching often brings the child closer to the paper, but it also greatly increases the angle of the arm while writing. For some children, this allows them to lay their arm on the table, which is often better for the large muscles of the upper arm. However, it places greater work on the finger and hand muscles and decreases movement, making some letter formations more difficult to reproduce.
While slanting your child’s paper may seem insignificant, the angle of the paper brings the elbow closer or further away from the body, making it harder or easier to write. When the elbow is too close to the body, it greatly limits arm motion, putting more work on the fingers and hand muscles.
Paper position is especially important in left-handed children, who by nature of trying to avoid smearing or covering their writing with their hand, are forced into a slightly more unnatural hand position.
How a child holds their pencil plays a large role in how easily their hand tires. Often children who have inefficient grip can write nicely for a while but feel pain as they continue to write. While incorrect grip may initially seem easier for a child, on longer writing assignments, it can actually create more work. Learning proper pencil grip smooths the transition to longer writing assignments.
Pushing the pencil too hard against the paper is very common in young children, but it also requires far greater muscle strength.
Pencil Grip Strength
Often young children squeeze their fingers together to hold on to the pencil more tightly to overcompensate for weaker muscles allowing the pencil to slip or slide more easily out of their hand or to help control the direction the pencil is moving in. This action fatigues the muscles much more quickly, making long writing assignments painful.
The Importance of Motor Memory
In order to write well, people need to write with enough repetition that writing becomes ingrained in their motor memory bank. This is the same bank that leads to being able to ride a bike after many years.
The person with handwriting motor memory no longer needs to stop to think about how to form an A, what steps are needed to make a K, how to connect letters in cursive, or the correct direction for ds and bs.
When a person has well-developed motor memory skills in handwriting, the act of writing words is automatic, they can stop thinking about how to write, and focus instead on what they want to write. With motor memory, the words just pour out onto the paper.
A good example of motor memory is a signature. Adults who sign their name often tend to use a more stylized, personalized letter formation. Whether it be little more than a specific set of squiggles, or a fancy signature complete with flourishes, most adults no longer need to think at all about how they are going to sign their name. Some can even sign without looking at what they are writing, because their motor memory banks can sign their name as easily as they can remember how to ride a bike.
In order for the motor memory banks to memorize handwriting technique, handwriting needs to be learned and practiced so often, it becomes automatic.
What to Do if Your Child Might Have Muscle Weakness
In most children, muscles just need to be strengthened to work better. Often, the problems will decrease on their own over time as the muscles get used to writing.
1. How to Work the Large (Gross) Muscles
Since muscles tend to grow from large to small, exercising the arm muscles is a great way to improve writing skill in young children.
Playing on the monkey bars, playing catch, or any activity that gets the arms moving and working is great, especially activities that require the hands to grip or support weight..
2. How to Work the Small (Fine) Muscles
Certain types of play work the same muscles needed for handwriting in the hand itself. Here are just a few ideas:
- Working with dough or play dough
- Using tongs of various sizes to pick up and transfer items
- Tearing paper
- Rubbing crayons or charcoals on their side
- Using chopsticks
- Using tweezers
- Squirting water (water spray bottles, water gun, etc.)
- Playing with stickers
- Using stamps
- Playing with tiny toys such as Legos
- Playing with beads
- Lacing activities
3. How to Work Muscles Through Writing
Even though writing might be the issue, there are certain ways writing can also help solve the issue — namely through practice.
If we practice bad handwriting, our motor memory will learn to write poorly. That's why it's key to stop writing when their muscles get tired.
Writing too much only delays the process of building both muscle and motor memory. So if a child is struggling, have them write fewer letters or numbers in their best handwriting. Then take a break.
Use a good handwriting program that works on correct letter formation and encourages their best work for those few minutes.
If a child seems to have tired hand or arm muscles during the day, reduce the amount of writing done in the day or increase the break periods between writing. This may mean you need to do some writing for them, or teach them to type or use number stamps for math, or even just tell you answers instead of writing them down.
4. How to Work Muscles Through Body Positioning
When working on handwriting, parents of students who tire easily should try to be more aware of their child’s body position, especially of the hand.
- You might need to invest in a child-sized table, so your child can sit upright with the paper and pencil at the correct distance, with their feet on the floor if they need help with holding their body position correctly.
- Watch the slant of the paper so the elbow is not touching the torso. Instead, keep the elbow at least a couple inches away.
- Work on holding a pencil with better grip if needed. You might need to break crayons in half, or sharpen pencils to the size of golf pencils. If the pencil is short enough that it can’t rest on the space between the index finger and thumb, it is harder to control using a grip that tires the muscles more easily.
Children who have weakness due to their physical condition or weakness that doesn’t seem to be improving even after using these strategies may benefit from the help of an occupational therapist.
Although our culture is quickly going digital with a strong leaning toward paperless systems, writing is still necessary. In addition, learning good handwriting, both manuscript and cursive, helps children make new brain connections and promotes neural growth. While children might struggle with handwriting in the early years, the benefits of teaching writing are long-lasting and varied, including building the muscles necessary for many other skills.