What is a "slow starter"?
There seems to be a huge emphasis on kids being able to do everything expected of them, quickly. This has led to the phrase “slow starter” being used to describe those children who are not quite at the level that we expect.
It is important to remember that we all learn differently and develop at different times. When it comes to writing, there is never a quick fix, in fact, it can take a number of years to develop all the required hand skills that children need.
The development of the hand
If you take a look at the development of your hand, it all starts when children learn to crawl. Crawling helps with a number of different aspects of development. It helps the muscles around the shoulder and wrist. Not only this but it also aids the core strength that children will need in order to be able to sit up at a desk (1).
Whilst development in your hand may start from this early age, you will find that it is the hand is not fully developed until the age of 6.
This is why it is common to see a variety of pencil grips, also why some children may be cognitively ready to write letters sometime before their hand is developed enough to write.
Time to play and learn
In many European countries, children are not expected to start writing until the age of 6, this includes Denmark, France, Belgium, and Germany. Even more surprising is that in Finland, Sweden, and Poland, children do not start until 7.
Instead, these children are encouraged to play with small toys and objects, developing their hand control ready for when the time comes to write. These children are never deemed as being “slow starters” and they never need to play catch-up. They already have the required control that they need to be able to write.
Grip throughout the day
You may not realise it, but grip strength in the hand can change throughout the day, and is usually stronger in the morning (2). Children are also more likely to write faster when they are tired.
It is important to remember that everyone can have good and bad days, this is even true with handwriting. If you practice handwriting with your child after school, then you may find that the quality of their writing may change. This is because they may be changing how they hold their pencil, or simply be rushing through the task as they are tired.
Every child is different
We all need to remember that children develop at different rates and different times. This means that the amount of muscle activity in the hand can vary greatly. Children should be encouraged to practice their writing, without it being pushed upon them.
Not only this, but children will know what type of pencil they prefer to use (3). This could be hexagonal or triangular in shape. You should try to allow them to write with their preferred style of pencil, as being comfortable is a huge help with learning required skills. Once your child is comfortable then they can be given pencil tracking activities which will encourage them to hold in the right grip and build up the level of control that they have over the pencil.
Once your child is comfortable then they can be given pencil tracking activities which will encourage them to hold in the right grip and build up the level of control that they have over the pencil.
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Read Harry’s story…
Harry was a 5-year-old boy who was in Reception class of a mainstream school. Due to being a summer birthday he was playing ‘catch up’ with some of his friends in terms of being able to hold a pencil and draw a picture. Initially, his parents were not concerned but by the summer term, they sort advice as he continued to swap hands when holding a pencil and did not appear to be showing any progress when trying to write his name. When trying to write he also used a light pencil touch.
A handwriting assessment was completed by myself and I identified that Harry was ambidextrous, meaning he held a pencil in either hand.
The main priority was to help Harry decide which hand he preferred to use. Until this was established he would be unable to develop his handwriting skills.
A programme of fine motor activities and advice was given to school on how to help Harry decide his hand dominance. Harry became right handed. After helping him to fine tune his play skills using this hand he began to confidently pick up a pencil and to track a pencil along handwriting patterns. (Handwriting patterns are the precursor to being able to write the alphabet) Harry entered Year 1 by being able to write his name and to draw pictures with age expected details.
Schwellnus, H., Carnahan, H., Kushki, A., Polatajko, H., Missiuna, C., & Chau, T. (2012). Effect of pencil grasp on the speed and legibility of handwriting in children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 66, 718–726.
Naider-Steinhart S., Katz-Leurer. (2007). Analysis of proximal and distal muscle activity during handwriting tasks. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 392-398.
Alston J (1986) Effects on pencil shape in 8 yr olds, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 42-44.