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As we continue with our January theme of handwriting, I wanted to share a list of environmental factors that could be inhibiting or even preventing your students for effectively writing in class.
Before I get to the list and some supporting comments, I want to point out just why looking at the contextual environment is so important when it comes to handwriting.
Can you imagine writing a 5-paragraph essay on a desk the size of a small picture frame? Now imagine writing it while relaxing in a bean bag, or even laying on the floor. These would be uncomfortable positions, right?
Well, now imagine you are still trying to learn how to write your name and the alphabet and you are forced to write in these same awkward positions. It may seem counterintuitive when you think about it, but sometimes we expect our students to do this very thing without even knowing it.
So without further ado, let's look at several environmental factors that often go unnoticed in class that make it just a bit more difficult for our students to write in class.
1) Student's feet do not sit flat on the ground when seated in their chair
We'll start with the most frequent culprit. Too frequently I walk into a primary grade classroom and see half of the class' feet not touching the ground.
If your seated right now, lift your feet off even a few inches off the ground and you will quickly see how much work it takes to stay upright. You will likely feel it in your core and some of you may even find yourself using your hands to stabilize yourself.
So you can then likely imagine how the students feel when they can't touch the floor. When a chair is too big for a student you will frequently see them stand up at their desk, sit on their knees, try to touch the tips of their toes to the ground, or even put their feet on the chair in front of them to help them stabilize.
I will never forget the time I saw a student move his chair over so that he could place his feet on the leg of the table. he proceeded to get reprimanded for not sitting straight at his desk. I was not assessing that student, but I had to let the teacher know why he was moving his chair. I felt so bad for the kid.
A phone book or even a pool noodle with some theraband or pair of nylons going through it as pictured below may be placed under the student's feet to help provide support.
2) Unstable Seating
Similar to not being able to touch the floor, seating arrangements without stable backs (such as a yoga balls) are great for when you want to build core strength. However, they are not so great for most students just learning to write. Do your best to provide a nice stable surface with a back and/or armrests for your students to stabilize themselves.
Just like the students who can't touch the floor, these students will frequently stand or lean on the desk while working if they feel unstabilized.
3) Lefties not being able to see what they are copying
(sometimes a problem for righties too)
I point this out primarily for younger students who are just learning to copy letters and words. Educators often use worksheets that have a student copy a letter or word from the left side of the page onto the right side of the same page. For right handers, this is great, but for lefties their arm is often covering whatever it is that they are supposed to be copying.
This can lead them to attempt to use an awkward "hook" grasp in which they flex their wrist so that they can see what is on the page.
Provide another paper for the student to copy onto. That way, they can place the paper anywhere that best suits their needs.
4) Copying from something that that looks very different than what they are asked to write on
Copying from paper with 3 lines (top, bottom, and middle dashed line) to paper with 2 lines (top and bottom) is hander for our students than one might imagine. Try to maintain consistency in the paper you use to have students copy.
I also want to point out here that it can be difficult for students to copy letters that change in the way they look. Take letters "a" (vs. a) and "g" (vs. g ) for example. When is the last time you wrote either of those letters like the first version. So be mindful of the font you use if you make your own worksheets. I often find myself changing the font just for those 2 letters. The font used above to "fix" them is "Comic Sans MS" in case you need it for your next worksheet.
5) Visual & Auditory distractions
In most general education classes, teachers are pretty good at keeping their room pretty quiet. On the opposite spectrum though, they also tend to have a brightly colored and visually stimulating room. For some of our students (with or without special needs), this can be overwhelming and distracting for a student who already struggles with writing.
Sometimes a quiet library corner that is "closed off" to the rest of the room can add some much needed respite for students who get overwhelmed.
A tri-fold piece of cardboard (or recycled amazon box) or laminated manila forder "study coral" or "privacy boards" can be put up to help a student focus.
7) A desk that is too tall
Have you ever seen a student whose head is barely sticking out from behind a desk. Odds are his desk is too tall and his chair may or may not be too short.
Ideally, a student's desk should be at the level his/her elbows rest when seated in a correctly sized chair.
While we are looking at the desk, Let's make sure their desk isn't so small or messy that there is no room to write. Organization is often a skill that needs to be taught directly in schools in order to keep those desk clear from unnecessary papers.
8) Poorly sized paper - lines to spaced out or close together
For teachers, I completely understand using the same paper everyday for every student. It just takes way too much time to assess each students' specific needs for paper in the general education setting.
With that being said, I would encourage the teachers out there to ask your OT for help on recommending an appropriate paper for students who struggle to size their letters, write on the line, or space out their letters and words. Feel free to also try our Gray-Space Adapted Paper! We have it in all sizes for free.
Likewise, be sure that the students understands the placement of the paper. Because of the way that our arms are designed, most students benefit from tilting the paper at a slight angle with the top of the paper tilting away from the side that the student writes with (I hope that makes sense).
9) Poor lighting
Simple and straight to the point, but oh so important. Until students have mastered their visual motor skills to write without looking at their hand, taking notes during a movie or in a dark classroom can be difficult for them. As the lights dim, the lines on the paper become more difficult to distinguish and you are likely to see more illegible work from your students. Try keeping half of the lights on next time you watch a movie, or provide a small reading light for the students who still need it as they get older.
Some teachers are even buying these blue shades (Affiliate link to amazon) to cover their fluorescent lights in attempt to provide a relaxing atmosphere without diminishing the quality of light.
We covered visual distractions and lighting, but temperature can be just as important. I know many teachers have no control over this, and if you did you'd likely keep it at the just right temperature, but try your best to keep the room from getting uncomfortable. Open the door if some fresh air is needed or provide some classroom blankets if your class get excessively cold.
11) Not coming to School
The most detrimental environmental factor to any students' writing by far is not coming to school. Whether it be the parents' decision or due to suspensions & expusions, we absolutely cannot have students being absent.
Instruction and practice are two very different things and students need to be at school to get the instruction they need. Click here for more on handwriting instruction.