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Handwriting: Back to Basics

St. Jude staff members help children learn, or re-learn, the art of handwriting.

By Mike O'Kelly; Photo by Seth Dixon

allison Smith with patient Lily

Occupational therapist Allison Smith works with 3-year-old Lily Parnell.

In the age of technology, handwriting is nearly a lost art. Expansive cursive loops and sharp pen strokes are often replaced by fingers flying across keyboards.

For many children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, handwriting may also be difficult due to the effects of cancer and its treatment.

One child may have problems clearly seeing a page or gripping a pen. Another may have shaky hands or may need to learn how to write with a non-dominant hand. Staff members in the St. Jude School Program and Rehabilitation Services incorporate handwriting skills into their lessons and sessions.

Occupational therapist Allison Smith works with patients who need a more focused approach.

“Handwriting is still an important activity in our everyday lives, and we want to get these patients back to doing activities that are normal and familiar to them,” she says.

Individual attention

St. Jude patients’ handwriting sessions recreate the optimal writing experience—a steady chair at a desk with feet flat on the floor.

The approach varies with each patient. A 4-year-old who hasn’t had a chance to grasp handwriting fundamentals learns the basics. An older patient begins to write with his left hand after a brain tumor affects his dominant right hand.

Children with limited vision learn to write by using visual cues on special highlighter paper. If children can see shadows and distinguish colors, occupational therapists teach them how to sign their names, even if the patients are not reading and writing in full sentences.

Writing is fun-damental

Instead of 60-minute sessions of handwriting only, patients begin their visits with gross- and fine-motor activities such as picking up small objects with tweezers and clothespins.

“We try to make handwriting fun by starting with coordination activities that get them engaged,” Smith says.

The handwriting program also includes booklets, lessons and even keyboarding sessions. The most valuable moments, Smith says, are seeing a child’s confidence grow.

“Each patient is different, and there are many different components that can affect a child’s ability to write well,” Smith says. “Finding the right approach for each patient and seeing improvement is our ultimate goal.”

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