How Technology is Impacting Handwriting | Technology and Writing

Kid Playing on IPad

Technology and writing. In today’s society, using technology is common for us all…including our children. Just go have dinner at a restaurant and you will see kids using “screen time” as a form of entertainment. Many children are introduced to entertainment and games on their parents’ phone or tablet at a young age. These apps are designed to get the attention of young children and promote cognitive development at a young age. There are a number of educational apps and developmental games created for toddlers, so it must be a good thing, right? Well, many parents don’t consider the physical impact these apps will have on their children as they grow. How is playing a game or completing an activity on a screen going to impact physical development? Let’s take a deeper look into the impact of technology on handwriting.

Start by thinking forward to when a child is entering school for the first time. Things like coloring and writing letters are a big part of the kindergarten curriculum. What parent doesn’t get excited when their child comes home for the first time with their name written on a piece of paper? Or that first picture that a child draws of their family? Maybe everyone doesn’t have all of their body parts or the baby is as big as the dad, but it is special regardless because it is your child’s artwork!

The first step in learning to draw and write letters is using the proper grip on the crayon or pencil. Think about how you pick up a pencil or pen to write your name. Most likely, you hold your pen between your thumb and the first two fingers of your hand. This is known as a tripod grasp and is used by a majority of people when writing. Some people will use their thumb and first three fingers which are known as a quadruped grasp. Both of these grasps are considered to be functional grasps for handwriting.

Now think back to your screen-free childhood. I bet you spent time playing with blocks, building with Legos, and playing with play-dough. All of those activities helped you to learn to use the appropriate grasp on your pen. How do those childhood play activities relate to the way you hold your pen? Doing those activities helped to strengthen the muscles of your hand to prepare you for handwriting. These days, play activities like this can be limited due to screen time resulting in little hands that aren’t ready to hold a pencil for handwriting.

My niece, at 2 years old knows how to swipe pages on a book on her mom’s phone but struggles to turn a single page at a time in a real book. Swiping and touching to maneuver on a screen does not require the use of the muscles needed during the play activities we participated in as a child. Place your finger on the fleshy part of your palm next to the base of your thumb. Now bring your thumb to touch your index finger as if you were picking up a Lego. Do you feel that muscle working? Now, keep your finger on that same place on your palm and pretend to swipe up or across on a screen. That muscle isn’t used as much as it is when you are picking something up. Playing with building activities and picking things up gives this muscle a workout and prepares it for the future work of handwriting. Expecting a child to write without having the hand strength needed to maintain a proper grip on the pencil can be just as hard for a child as trying to run a 5K without training beforehand.

Child Learning the Hand Write

If you see your child frequently switch hands during handwriting tasks, this is usually not an indication that they are ambidextrous. It is usually a sign of muscle fatigue. As a child is writing, if their hands get tired, they will switch hands and attempt to write with their other hand. You can generally see a difference in the quality of writing when they are switching because most people cannot write as well with their nondominant hand. Another common sign of muscle fatigue during handwriting is taking frequent breaks and rubbing hands together or stretching hands. If you see these signs, it is time to get your child involved in some hand strengthening exercises. This doesn’t have to look like a trip to the gym with a specific number of reps for different exercises, it simply needs to look like play with toys that require manipulation.

Let’s do a little experiment. Get out a piece of paper and something to write with. Now, close your eyes and write the alphabet without looking. I bet you did better than you thought you would. As we practice handwriting, we gain what is known as muscle memory. Eventually, you are able to form the letters without thinking because the movements have become so natural for your muscles. So, let’s take a look at those apps that teach letter formation. Learning how to properly form letters is an important skill which leads to fluency and legibility of writing. But let’s take a closer look at how those apps teach letter formation. Typically, you trace the letter with your finger to write the letter. Tracing letters in this fashion requires you to move your entire arm or hand instead of using your fingers the way you would when you are writing with a pencil. If these patterns are practiced over and over again, your brain will learn the muscle memory for that letter using those movements. As a result, some children struggle to transition writing with a pencil because they have created muscle memory writing with the tip of your finger rather than while using a pencil. Think of this in another way. Have you ever had to use your finger to sign your name on a touchscreen? Did your signature look anything like it does when you use a pen to sign your name? Probably not, because you don’t have muscle memory for writing with your fingertip.

So now that we know what kind of impact technology can have on handwriting, what can we do about it? I am not a proponent of saying stop using technology completely. It is a common tool and kids are expected to know how to use it for functional activities and there are some good educational apps out there. However, I am a believer that screen time should be limited and encouraging play that will help to work out those hand muscles in preparation for handwriting. If your child is older and you notice those signs of fatigue while they are working, it’s not too late! You can still have them engage in hand strengthening play to build up those muscles for endurance during writing tasks.

We’ve all had that moment at the store where we see a child on the floor crying, kicking and screaming as the mom is frantically working to get the child to stand up as her face turns red from embarrassment or anger. Naturally, our first thought is usually something along the lines of “what a spoiled and/or misbehaved kid.” Maybe you’ve seen this scenario from the mom’s point of view as you’ve tried every trick you can think of to get your child to stop rolling around the floor as others are giving you THE stare. The Question is “is it sensory or is it behavior problem?”

All children have temper tantrums and meltdowns as part of the normal development process, but what about that kid who has them on a regular basis? Are they acting out because they have a behavior problem? Maybe they haven’t had structure and routine in their daily life and have learned that throwing a fit will get them attention. Or maybe, their parents are at their wit’s end because they have tried all the tricks they know to stop the acting out behaviors but have been unsuccessful. They have finally given in and changed their daily routines and limited taking the child out because they don’t know when a meltdown is going to occur, and it is causing too much stress on the family in public situations.

Have you considered trying to find the underlying reason for the behavior? Behaviors, especially acting out, can happen for many reasons.

We’ve all heard of the “terrible twos”. Toddlerhood is a common time for children to act out. Many times, this behavior is an attempt at communication. Children at this age have many different experiences that they don’t have the words to describe yet. A child at this age may want to play with a preferred toy that is out of their reach or may be hungry or tired, but they don’t have the vocabulary to tell you what they want. Therefore, they will use behavior in an attempt to communicate. With typical development, as children increase their vocabulary and have the ability to verbally communicate, you see a decrease in tantrums.

For some children, acting out is truly a behavior problem. Maybe they have learned that throwing fits results in attention, even if it is negative attention. Using positive behavioral supports such as a sticker chart where the child can earn a small reward for positive behavior can be helpful for these children. Research shows that children need 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative reaction to make a behavioral change. That’s a lot of time that parents need to be watching and “catch them being good.”

You may be reading this thinking “I’ve tried those positive behavioral supports, but my child still has meltdowns on a regular basis.” Stop and take a deep breath… you are not a bad parent if those strategies did not work for your child.

Some kids act out because they have a problem with self-regulation due to sensory issues. There are a number of children whose behaviors are an attempt to get the sensory input that their body is craving. For example, the child that continues to climb on the furniture and jump off even though you’ve told them over and over to stop. Others may act out in an attempt to avoid those sensory experiences that are hard for their body. This could be the child that takes forever to get dressed in the morning because the clothes that are laid out may be so uncomfortable that they hurt to wear. Other children may have meltdowns when they are overwhelmed by the amount of sensory stimulation. To learn more about how the body processes sensory experiences click here.

Sometimes determining the why behind the behaviors can be difficult to do. Some kids don’t fit neatly into one category of behaviors. How can you decide the why of your child’s behaviors and what to do to help them? Occupational therapists have been trained to assist families in determining the underlying cause of the behaviors. Once that foundational question has been answered, they can help to set up a positive behavioral support system. For the sensory-based behaviors, they can work to incorporate strategies that will help to normalize some of the overreactive responses or build in needed sensory experiences throughout the child’s daily routine.

Parents, let us help you work to make daily routines easier by helping your child and teaching you the tools you need when these behaviors do occur. We want you to be able to function as a family and make a trip to the grocery store a pleasant experience for you!

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