When Executive Function Skills Impair Handwriting | The OT Toolbox

When Executive Function Skills Impair Handwriting

Handwriting is a complex task.  To write a sentence, a child needs to process information, recall important information, plan what he wants to write, initiate the writing task, perform the motor tasks to move the pencil to form letters, organize motor output on the page, manage paper/posture/pencil mechanics, realize errors, and be flexible enough to accept and correct mistakes.

All of these "parts" of handwriting might sound familiar to the parent, teacher, or therapist of a child with executive function defects.  Executive function is our ability to "get things done".  It is a set of skills that allow us to organize information, plan, learn, multi-task, remember things, prioritize, pay attention, and act on information.

Handwriting for a child with executive functioning problems can be quite challenging. Handwriting requires visual perception, sensory processing, cognitive components, motoric output, awareness of mistakes, and the ability to correct them just to complete written work.

Now, image asking a child with executive function difficulties to write a 5 sentence writing prompt.  After an 8 hour day of school.  In the environment that the child feels most comfortable to exhibit behaviors (home with his loved ones)...it can be a messy scenario leading to a homework breakdown.

Handwriting and executive functions

What is Executive Functioning?

One issue that may be causing a child to write well at school and produce completely illegible or totally sloppy written work at home is a deficit in executive functioning skills.

Kids who have trouble managing their executive functioning skills might have trouble with:

  • attention
  • focus
  • problem solving
  • impulse control
  • emotional control
  • organization
  • task initiation
  • prioritizing and planning
  • self-awareness
  • working memory
  • flexibility in thinking
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Executive functioning skills and handwriting with tips for helping kids at home and in the classroom

Handwriting and Executive Function Skills

When asked to complete written work, a lack of executive functions or a inability to utilize executive functioning skills may occur.  The child may show resistance to the writing topic, trouble initiating, and difficulties with written work output.  Here are signs of executive function problems in handwriting:

  • Difficulty generating ideas
  • Trouble articulating ideas
  • Problems putting their ideas onto paper
  • Difficulty forming the letters to produce written text
  • Simple or minimized written output despite verbally responding to writing prompts
  • Inappropriate pencil grasp
  • Trouble initiating writing prompt
  • Difficulty organizing work space
  • Crumbled paper
  • Tearing paper when writing or erasing
  • Poor letter formation
  • Difficulty with line and spatial awareness on the paper
  • Slow writing speed
  • Complaints of mechanics of writing (pencil needs sharpened, need better eraser, uncomfortable seat)
  • Slow writing speed
  • Written work does not answer the question or answers only part of the question despite verbally stating a full response.
  • Repeats self in written work (in an open ended writing prompt type of task)
Tips and tricks for helping kids with executive functioning problems with handwriting

How to help kids improve executive functioning skills to improve handwriting and homework

  • Break down writing tasks. Separate an assignment into smaller parts. 
  • Make a plan. Visual cues are key. Use a highlighter and numbers to create a "to-do" list.
  • Make short one step tasks and determine how long each should last.
  • Consistency. Complete written work and homework in a specific place.
  • Organized work space. Try these tips for organized homework.
  • Materials in place. Limit the options for pencils/erasers.
  • Use a timer to work on small steps at a time.
  • Provide guidelines for written work.
  • Mark off each task as it is completed.
  • Behavioral chart for homework completion.
  • Reward system with actionable rewards: Instead of a toy or sticker, a child can choose to earn earn time to stay up 15 minutes later on Friday, choose the family's dessert for one day, or pick what to watch for family movie night.
  • Dictation: Child dictates what he wants to write and parent/teacher/aide/another student completes the writing portion.
  • Try typing vs. written work.
  • Visual checklist for mechanics: Capitalization, punctuation, complete sentences, grammar, spelling, line awareness, spacing, letter formation.

This post is part of our Easy Quick Fixes to Better Handwriting series. Be sure to check out all of the easy handwriting tips in this month's series and stop back often to see them all.  

You'll also want to join the Sweet Ideas for Handwriting Practice Facebook group for more handwriting tips and tools.