For the month of September, the Handwriting is Fun! Blog will be sharing insights about the role of Occupational Therapy in the classroom. In recent years, the role of OT, in general, has been changing with the waves of healthcare and education reforms. Despite a certain amount of turmoil and confusion where those changes may have thrown us a curve ball, most often they have provided us with an opportunity to make a difference in an area in which we’ve longed to see an improvement. For me, that has been handwriting mastery. For others, it has been the role of OT in the educational system as a whole. This first article in our “OT in the Classroom” series addresses the first of these interests – the role of OT in handwriting mastery – and brings up points that I hope will generate discussion and help us all to learn and grow within our profession.
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
I have been asked often to reveal my “favorite choice” for a handwriting program. The question inevitably arises, “Which handwriting program do you use for instruction in your specialized OT practice?” And the answer is always the same, “I have none.” I’ve actually never considered the selection of one program over another, nor have I recommended one as my “preferred,” feeling that in my practice it is not my role to do that. My business goals are to assess and remediate children’s handwriting development skills. My first priority is to identify and target the underlying problems that are revealed in the student’s handwriting struggles. My next step is to evaluate the capability of the classroom’s handwriting program to facilitate the student’s success with remediation. If I feel it cannot, then I will speak with the teacher and parents about addressing the student’s needs with a different program. For the older students, this is commonly not an issue, as they are not receiving handwriting instruction in class. In both of these cases, I will address the student’s individual needs with a handwriting program that blends with his learning styles and remediation goals. Handwriting “instruction,” per se, is not the mission of my particular business.
Of course, Occupational Therapy has certainly made a presence in the handwriting program environment. And rightly so, as we understand the underlying developmental skills that build handwriting mastery and our interventions in both instruction and remediation have been effective in advancing students in their handwriting mastery. (1) Occupational Therapists have designed effective handwriting programs based upon developmental principles, worked with a handwriting program publisher,* and most certainly have used handwriting programs in their therapy sessions. But, what IS our role with handwriting programs? Where does the value of our expertise and the validity of our responsibility fit into the provision of handwriting instruction? These questions are legitimate and warrant a discussion in search for answers.
1. What are handwriting programs designed to do?
First, let’s make the distinction between the two types of handwriting programs, the curriculum program and the published handwriting program, and the facets that define each as beneficial.
A curriculum handwriting program is one that is designed to provide
- structured, consistent, and guided instruction in the development of letter formations, letter alignment, and spacing, both during copying and independent writing tasks;
- instruction that provides handwriters with the tools to edit and correct their own work;
- handwriting tasks across the subject areas that will promote the functional use of that skill.
A published handwriting program is designed to provide:
- teachers with a structured program that will assist them in providing their students with consistent and guided instruction in the development of letter formations, letter alignment, and spacing, both during copying and independent writing tasks;
- tools that assist the teachers in their instruction, as well as the students in their learning; and
- a network of professionals who can guide teachers in their use of the handwriting program.
Published handwriting programs are a facet of a curriculum’s handwriting program. It is ultimately the role of the school to assess different published programs and select the one that fits their students’ and teachers’ needs.
What makes a good handwriting program?
There are a few basic characteristics that are included in the development of an effective curriculum and published handwriting program. Each must be:
- Structured: The instruction is delivered in a format or plan that allows a developmental progression of skill development.
- Consistent: The instruction is provided in a format that allows students to practice the skills sufficiently to enhance learning.
- Guided: The instruction provides tools to assist teachers in their instruction and offers students one-to-one assistance and additional learning strategies during classroom instruction.
These tenets are integral to the development and mastery of handwriting skills. The development of a published handwriting program is a task as complex as the mastery of the skill itself and, therefore, research and experience play a vital role in the development of a good handwriting program. Occupational therapists, educators, and literacy experts have spent a great deal of time, energy, and finances toward building effective and valuable handwriting programs that address the diverse needs of our young learners. Some published programs offer online teacher assistance, free downloads for creating worksheets, in-class technology to enhance visual and kinesthetic learning, or inexpensive teaching materials to help with school budgets. Some schools have included handwriting instruction as an integral part of their elementary school curriculum, while others are streamlining their instruction to meet overall educational requirements. But, when it’s all said and done, an effective handwriting program – both a curriculum or a published program – is one that is “structured, consistent, and guided.”
2. What makes a good fit for an OT-Handwriting Program Relationship?
As a school-based, private practice, or clinic-based occupational therapist, we do not assess or select the handwriting programs that our clients will be mastering in their classrooms…unless, of course, we are on the curriculum selection committee, where we would indeed be an asset. However, although studies indicate that “having preschool classroom teachers implement an occupational therapy-based curriculum to teach handwriting readiness skills reflects a more inclusive service model that benefits all students,” (1) at present the selection of a handwriting program most often remains in the hands of the school system. Therefore, at the elementary school level, it isn’t our role to select another program to use in our therapy sessions that we might feel provides a better instructional format. This gets confusing and does not provide the “structured, consistent, and guided” instruction that builds mastery. Our role as OT’s is to assess and remediate handwriting development skills….which are the same skills he will need for handwriting mastery no matter which program is being taught in the classroom. Our expertise guides us in the creation of instructional adaptations that can enhance a student’s learning, as well as cognitive, sensory, and physical suggestions to promote success in the classroom and at home. This also allows us to consider the student’s individual needs to determine if he would benefit from a different program and if the discussion of a program change is warranted. In the end, our role as OT’s continues to be the assessment and remediation of handwriting development skills….no matter which program the student is working with in the classroom.
We have a much broader role when we are working with older students (fifth grade and beyond), however, one that allows room for us to introduce a new handwriting program. Their struggles may result from the lack of a structured, consistent, and guided program in elementary school; or they may have needed the assistance of an OT at that level but had not been provided with those services. At this point, there would be many choices for us to consider that would meet their needs.
So, I pose the question that, instead of looking for a “good fit for an OT-Handwriting Program Relationship,” wouldn’t the more appropriate question here be
3. What makes a good fit for an OT-Handwriting Relationship?
Building an OT-Handwriting Relationship in the classroom begins with prevention.
One of our primary services has always been to inform our clients about choices and information relative to their needs. For instance, in the adult community, we are a valuable link between those who are experiencing the results of a traumatic brain injury and the durable equipment options to increase independence in activities of daily living. In the older community, we can share vital home safety tips about inexpensive modifications that can help clients and their caregivers extend a person’s ability to age in place. We provide ergonomic and backpack safety information to office workers and students, as well as pain management techniques and tools for those suffering from osteoarthritis. Moms welcome our early intervention skills as we share information about sensory needs and developmental milestone stages. We ARE the “information station!”
This integral part of our practice also weaves its thread through our relationship with handwriting development skills. Prevention is our first step in helping students with their handwriting needs and for building a recognized and valued OT-handwriting relationship. We are the frontline source for fine- and visual-motor information for teachers and parents and the best member of the community to guide them toward building healthy habits for handwriting success. In light of our position as “information stations,” we must take time to
- share information with teachers and parents about pre-handwriting skill development and the appropriate ages for working on grasping patterns and for introducing a pencil;
- provide checklists for parents and teachers that outline the symptoms of possible visual concerns, body awareness needs, and sensory processing difficulties;
- help teachers and parents understand the positive benefits of movement and play in the development of body awareness, physical strength, and sensory skills;
- become involved in the assessment and acquisition of a developmentally sound handwriting program; and
- work with schools, clinics, and the community to educate the public about occupational therapy’s role with handwriting development skills.
And we need to do these things BEFORE children are referred to us for occupational therapy to address their handwriting development needs. Prevention first!
Building an OT-Handwriting Relationship in the classroom thrives through student success.
The benefits of any practice are validated only by their visible successes. Handwriting development skills are most often “invisible,” with the only evidence of their need for service being a poor handwriting style. Hence, a functional penmanship style becomes the visible success. In some instances, the teacher and parent won’t ever become aware of the myriad of underlying skills that we have addressed in our therapy sessions to bring about that result. Most often, however, our work with a student’s handwriting development skills will enhance his successes in other subject areas, validating even further the benefits of addressing handwriting needs. There are times, of course, when an evaluation of the student’s skills will reveal that his struggles would benefit simply from the provision of a more structured and guided method of instruction, rendering the need for direct services as unnecessary. The “ounce of prevention” tips offered above can help prevent those students from being referred for services as we assist teachers in assessing their needs and adapting their teaching style to meet them. But, when a student does arrive at our doorstep with underlying handwriting development needs, it is important for us to have the skills to assess and remediate those needs…no matter which program the student is using in the classroom. And no matter whether or not he is receiving any handwriting instruction at all. It is our responsibility to seek continuing education instruction and practice guidance that will add these skills to our tool boxes. Handwriting assessment and remediation is an OT-related service. And our students’ successes will pave the way for enhanced recognition of the role we play in handwriting mastery.
Handwriting programs are important, for sure. But as OT’s in general, our primary concern is, and always should be, the development of the underlying skills that form the foundation for handwriting success.
Please join us next week for an article by a guest blogger that will showcase the significant impact that a school-based OT can have in handwriting success!
(1)Lust, C. A., and D. K. Donica. “Effectiveness of a Handwriting Readiness Program in Head Start: A Two-Group Controlled Trial.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 65.5 (2011): 560-68. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
* I was honored when Universal Publishing valued occupational therapy and my work by including “Katherine’s OT Tips” in the Teachers’ Editions of their latest edition of their Universal Handwriting Program. It was a positive way to build a relationship between occupational therapy and a handwriting program publisher.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills and author of the book, “Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists.” She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine. Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; in the Universal Publishing Handwriting Teachers’ Guides; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the author of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.