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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Get it in writing
Help for kids who struggle with penmanship
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When I reminisce about learning handwriting, my memories are of hours spent hunched over a desk tracing worksheet after worksheet of letters, words and sentences. I was desperately trying to position my fingers in such an exact way it gave me a headache.

So it threw me for a loop when I went to visit Meriter Hospital's "Handwriting Basics" course for kids ages 7 to 12 and found the class engaging in tug-of-war in a therapy gym.

For handwriting, children need to have both strong visual skills and upper body strength. Kids whose handwriting is illegible often struggle with visual-motor problems as well as upper extremity weaknesses. So the activities involved in Meriter's course curriculum work to improve both areas, often simultaneously.

Meriter began offering handwriting classes in the summer of 2007, in hopes that it could pull in kids who weren't able to get enough help in their own schools. If a child is found to have difficulty with handwriting, most insurance companies compensate only for an initial evaluation and two or three follow-up sessions with a therapist; most kids dealing with handwriting difficulties need more time than that to get to the level they need to be.

"You guys are here because you love handwriting, right?" jokes Meriter class instructor Piper Bacskai, whose question is promptly answered with a few grumbles.

The students are there because teachers and parents can't read the kids' handwriting. "We evaluate it and find they have deficits in hand-eye coordination and upper-body strength," says Bacskai. The goal of class is that the kids will leave with neater, more legible handwriting.

Bacskai is a pediatric occupational therapist for Meriter. Her emphasis is in upper extremity strengthening and function. She is certified in sensory integration and has experience with the "Handwriting Without Tears" method, which addresses handwriting using a sensory-motor approach through shapes, tactile stimulation and various visual cues.

She also has experience in vision and vestibular issues, which work hand-in-hand in learning handwriting as well as various motor skills, walking being the most significant.

Tug-of-war is played in class for upper extremity training. Nathan and Mitchell, both 7, nearly succeed at pulling Matt, who is 12, down. Once Bacskai joins their team, they have a sure thing. "We're working on all the underlying things you need for handwriting," she reminds the class.

Enrollment was low this session, with only three kids attending. Last summer's classes, by contrast, were larger and were split by age, with 7- to 9-year-olds in one group and 10- to 12-year-olds in another. Three kids with one occupational therapist per class is ideal, says Bacskai.

The next activity is wall push-ups. The kids all find a spot on the wall and proceed to try and push against it. Once they've done a few repetitions, Bacskai has them do actual floor push-ups. These push-ups are good exercises to open up the shoulders, she explains.

The class moves to a smaller, more intimate classroom about the size of a doctor's office, with desks and chairs and plenty of therapy tools to keep everyone busy. Bacskai gives each of the boys a cotton ball while she explains the next game.

"We're going to play soccer, but the only way you can move the 'ball' is with your mouth, by blowing."

Each player puts his arms out as goal posts and tries to blow his opponent's ball back before he scores. A few rounds of cotton ball soccer is followed by cotton ball races. "It's not about winning," Bacskai reminds the class, "it's about watching the cotton ball with your eyes." The exercises train the eyes, improving hand-eye coordination and visual dexterity. Throughout each of the activities, Bacskai encourages the boys to think of ways to carry over what they are learning in class into their own homes.

The class also works with Thera-Putty, which exercises hands and strengthens them for handwriting. Thera-Putty is denser and more challenging to mold and shape than Play-Doh (though Play-Doh is also sometimes recommended for at-home practice). This workout is meant to establish the dominant hand.

Class moves along with more activities that can be done at home, as they all involve a deck of cards. Bacskai has the boys flip the cards over, sort them into different configurations and shuffle them. All of the card activities improve coordination and help with motor planning and the ability to manipulate the fingers..

For those of you wondering, "What about sitting at a desk tracing good, old-fashioned worksheets?," rest assured. There is time in class dedicated to this, which is more closely related to what most people associate with handwriting instruction. The worksheets, which help with hand-eye coordination, are "really tricky," says Bacskai. "You really have to pay attention and take your time."

Once they've done their penance with the worksheets and pencils, Bacskai informs the boys that there is still time for one more activity. She lets them choose between writing practice and tic-tac-toe.

There is a unanimous vote for tic-tac-toe, which involves a large tic-tac-toe grid and bean bags. The object is to knock an "x" or "o" out with the toss of a bean bag. They practice on steady ground several times, then Bacskai brings out the trampoline and has them toss while jumping. At first the trampoline poses a challenge to the game, but the boys get the hang of it after some practice. Again, the activity works to strengthen the hand-eye coordination so necessary for handwriting.

Bacskai says she tends to see more boys than girls who need the additional help with handwriting. One reason may be that girls are more likely to enjoy sitting down and writing, whereas boys are more active. Boys also have more sensory-processing issues.

When class is over, Bacskai leads the boys out to the hallway to rejoin parents and grandparents. She makes sure to check in with all the adults to let them know how class went.

Kathy Luetke, Matt's mom, says she has definitely seen improvements in Matt's knowledge of "what he's supposed to be doing" with his handwriting.

"He loves the exercises. I'm hoping in the long run it will help him have more legible handwriting," says Luetke.

Luetke also believes Matt got a lot more out of the class than he did at public school. "There's more one-on-one, and Matt had more time to focus on the class rather than thinking about all the other things he has to think about at school."

Fit to print

While informal handwriting lessons can begin as early as the preschool years, handwriting instruction is introduced formally in kindergarten and culminates in third grade, when cursive instruction begins. Some students spend as little as a half-hour a week on handwriting - "There's not a lot of time in the day for it," says Peggy Williams, a first-grade teacher at Glenn Stephens Elementary in Madison.

Most area school districts use the D'Nealian method to teach handwriting instruction. Students are expected to emulate models through copying off the board and tracing letters on worksheets.

In her classroom, Williams writes demonstrations on the whiteboard for the children to practice copying on lined paper or mini-whiteboards. Williams walks around the room to give feedback. It's important to give immediate feedback, she says, so that students don't become used to doing things the wrong way.

Williams says there haven't been too many changes over the years to the handwriting program in the Madison Metropolitan School District. They still spend about the same amount of time on handwriting instruction, and the worksheets are what they've used for some time. One difference Williams does note is using the whiteboard instead of the chalkboard.

"I do think it's a good idea to encourage kids to play with Play-Doh and LEGOs and to do a lot of drawing and free writing," says Williams. "Anything that exercises the hand is good."

As for kids who struggle with handwriting, Williams says teachers can adapt the D'Nealian program in certain ways. However, students who don't have the fine motor skills and who need extra help, yet don't have enough difficulty to qualify for an individualized education program, present real difficulties for the teacher.

Write stuff

Meriter offers sessions of its handwriting classes throughout the year. The next session begins Jan. 15 and runs for eight weeks. Each class is 50 minutes long, once a week. Registration is open until classes fill up.

Registration is available online at: https://secure.meriter.com/classreg/desc_intro.cfm?CatID=12&RegID=-1 or by calling 608-417-5900.

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