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Tips from an Occupational Therapist to help teachers with handwriting issues in the classroom.

Tips from an OT- Guest Post

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A few years ago I met an amazing Occupational Therapist when her son was in my class. Although she didn’t serve any students in my classroom, she did spend lots of time helping out. Along the way, Dee shared some of her OT tips and tricks with me! She changed my entire approach to handwriting and helped me understand why some of my students were reluctant writers (it wasn’t that they “couldn’t” write, it was that it hurt to write!) I know that messy handwriting and reluctant writers are issues we all face, so I asked sweet Dee if she would mind sharing some of her wisdom with you! Thankfully she said yes!
Tips from an Occupational Therapist to help teachers with handwriting issues in the classroom.
Take it away, Dee!
Hello, teachers! I am a school-based occupational therapist and the Applicious Teacher has invited me to do a guest blog to share some general “back to school tips” for some common fine motor problems found in the classroom.
*This is not to replace therapy, special education, or related services in the educational setting, nor is it medical advice. The reader should use his/her own knowledge of the student to decide what may be beneficial or harmful to each individual.*
Now that I have that disclaimer out of the way and have given you the heebie-jeebies, on to the tips!!!
I know most of you have begun to settle into a routine, so now may be a good time to look around at your students and observe posture, grasp, and handwriting issues.


A student should be sitting at a desk and chair that is the appropriate height for optimal stability. By this, I mean feet should be flat on the floor and the student should be sitting up straight. I usually say 90-degree angles at the feet, knees, and hips.
handwriting tips for teachers
The writing surface should be around 2 inches above elbow resting position. You can use slant boards (2-inch binders work great!) for those students that may need a writing surface with stability. If you cannot raise or lower the desk or chair, try placing a large phone book under their feet for stability.


Grasp should always start with strength and stability at the shoulder and arm muscles, we call it proximal to distal or large to small.
Some fun activities to build shoulder and arm strength:
  • bear walks
  • crab walks,
  • pushing and pulling activities (wall or chair pushups).
{bear walk}
Most of us have a functional grasp that typically is established by 3rd grade. You may have seen a wide variety of grasps and some even produce some very nice handwriting. As a school-based OT, I attempt to encourage functional grasps. A functional grasp is one that promotes strength and stability for those longer handwritten assignments with decreased hand fatigue.
 a child's grasp is usually established by the 3rd grade
The typical development of grasp begins with a fisted grasp which is what you may see a baby using on a cylindrical object (age 1-1/2 years), followed by a digital grasp with all fingers pointing toward the paper and the crayon tucked into the palm, (age 2-3 years), then all fingers grasp a pencil (I call this the five finger grasp, age 3 1/2 to 4 years), finally a tripod grasp may be established around 4 1/2 – 7 years old.
As I said before we all have different functional grasps, however, you can help a child improve their grasp in pre-k, kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade by strengthening their fine motor skills and tips on how to hold a pencil.

developmentally appropriate pencil grasp by age

Some strengthening tips:

  • using tongs
  • hiding beads/pennies in thera-putty (always mindful of safety and those that put objects in the mouth)
  • scissor skills (cutting straws, card stock, paint strips) for finger separation and muscle strength.
You may gasp at this suggestion, but break your crayons into pieces! This encourages the use of the fingertip and the thumb to separate from the rest of the fingers.
I also use the words “crab claw” to hold the pencil. To encourage this, you can put a small eraser in the palm of the hand to increase finger separation as the ring and pinky fingers have to hold the object in the palm of the hand as the child is writing.  Another tip for to help students with proper pencil holding is to loop a rubber band around the pencil and their wrist (not too tight!)

This will encourage the pencil to lay flat in their hand.


Games to encourage knowledge of positions – left/right, up/down, over/under, top/bottom (i.e. Simon Says, Hokey Pokey). Lack of positional knowledge impact letter formation and recognition. Build in finger warm ups before your handwritten assignments This should increase attention and finger strength. Some tips include: tug of war with a popsicle stick (veering off for a moment, a popsicle stick can be made into a spacing stick during writing), finger walks up/down the pencil using each hand, stress balls or fidgets, finger push ups (tip to tip fingers push away from each other).
Other tips for students who need visual or tactile boundaries for decreasing letter size include using a highlighter,
You can also use a box to write in, or trace the lines of paper with glue. Once it’s dry, this gives a tactile “stopping point” for those students that like large letters.
These are just a *few* tips! Be sure to check out the site below for AOTA’s National Backpack Awareness Day which is on the third Wednesday of September.
Tips from the OT for classroom teachers. Great post outlining how to help students with terrible handwriting or poor pencil grips.

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Hi, I'm Leigh.

The Applicious Teacher is all about creating hands-on and engaging lessons that align with the standards while still having time for your life. This is your place for ideas, tips, and resources for the REAL teacher!


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