Handwriting Help for Floating Hands
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog
Just recently, I received an email from an occupational therapist that I’ve been working with for quite some time. She had a question concerning an issue that is very familiar to me. She wrote:
I have a couple of students whose hands “float” off the tabletop (ulnar side of hand is not in contact with tabletop). They tend to write with shoulder/elbow movements. If I make them keep their hand on table, they then use wrist rather that finger excursion movements.
What do you recommend to help correct this?? More wrist work?? Finger mobility excursion work??
I though I’d share our conversation and the ideas that I have found to work in this situation.
Planning is Important!
Our time with students is precious and there’s always so much to do. I’ve found that a schedule of activities helps me to keep on task and accomplish the goals that we’ve set for that session. Also, a written or visual schedule helps the student follow and understand what his or her work will be for that day. In the case of “floating hands,” I typically follow a strict schedule of tasks that will help both me and the student recognize progress and to uncover continued needs.
- Begin the session with gross motor work. Although the students are using their shoulders to manipulate the pencil and negotiate the task, that doesn’t mean that they have strong upper body and/or core strength. In fact, it could mean the opposite. It takes strong muscles in those areas to maintain the arm and wrist positioning needed for a fluid and legible handwriting style. Writers who use their shoulders and elbows in this way often benefit from lots of upper body and core strengthening activities. I’d suggest starting each session with 10-15 minutes of upper body workouts: wheelbarrow races; wall pushups; yoga exercises such as the the plank and the warrior; and floor pushups if they are strong enough. I even work on arm wrestling at the table. Of course, be careful – lots of these students can take you down on that one!
- In the same session, I’d move on to vertical activities. These can be completed on papers taped to the wall or white board (but not completed with marker on the whiteboard, please*), a window pane, or an easel. The activities I provide include drawing, doodling, word search, crossword puzzles, coloring, tracing, or any type of activity that places the wrist in the slightly extended position that is preferable for handwriting at the desk. I usually take my students through another 10-15 minutes of this, making sure that I explain why the wrist needs to be placed just so and why it is important not to lean on the forearm to steady oneself or to rest against the wall. The arm and hand need to move fluidly as they do while producing handwritten work at the desk. During this segment of the session, I will provide the students with a break periodically to give the upper extremity a rest. For example, after each 5-minute span, I offer a break that might include playing an ongoing game such as Operation, blowing a cotton ball across the table or floor at a target, putty exercises, or any board game that interests the student. The type of break offered would reflect the student’s needs at that time, taking into consideration whether a fine-motor, vision, or simple “fun” activity would best suit his or her needs.
An important note: During the vertical activities, the students should have their wrists and forearms in light contact with the wall and paper, allowing them to glide across the paper with a fluid movement as they perform the task. (Be sure to attend to the non-dominant hand, as well, ensuring that it is placed appropriately on the wall and paper.) To help with the correct positioning, I may add a very light weighted wrist band on each wrist, draw a highlighted line where their wrist should maintain contact, and/or place light pressure on their wrists with my index finger to guide and remind them. It takes time – lots sometimes – so be patient.
*And it is also important to avoid using markers or pens for these initial stages. Pencils provide important tactile feedback that gives the student an increased awareness of his or her hand placement using the appropriate writing tool, of a sense of pressure on the pencil, and a feel for the movement of the hand.
- Next, I’d move on to a fine-motor activity. Exercises that include wrist work and finger mobility are excellent choices. But, before I asked the student to do too much fine-motor work, I would take into consideration the level of finger and hand fatigue the student is experiencing after the vertical surface work that has been done. If they are very fatigued, I’d alternate the sequence of the vertical work
and the fine-motor in different sessions. For example, on Monday I’d do the fine-motor first, then go on to the vertical. Then on Wednesday, I’d begin with vertical and then move on to fine-motor, increasing the amount gradually relative to the fatigue levels. The reason I do this is because it makes it easier for me to assess the fine motor before and after using those muscles in the vertical position. Then, when the fine-motor is improving, then I might keep that portion for after the vertical. It sounds like that is contrary to the way we typically conduct a session, and it is. But in the case of floaters, we are mostly working on keeping the wrist and forearm in the appropriate positions. So, I alternate the order for the tasks to keep me informed about those particular needs. Sometimes, the student doesn’t really need much fine-motor strengthening. If he or she is not gripping the pencil too tightly or loosely, then the floating may simply be a case of upper body and core strength.
- At the end of the session, I would transfer the vertical task requirements to desk work, explaining that the same wrist positioning and movement applies to handwritten work performed at the desk. At first, it is best not to work on handwriting in this portion of the session. Bring down the drawings, doodling, or coloring activities that the student was working on and have him or her practice on those. This eliminates the need for the student to monitor his or her handwriting quality. As the student progresses with the vertical activities, then handwriting can be introduced here in the final stages of the session.
Now, I would most definitely check sensory skills. Sometimes students simply don’t like the feeling of having the side of their hand moving across the paper. In that case (which I’ve only come across rarely in children without other sensory needs), I begin their work on the vertical surface by adding a piece of felt or soft cloth layered on the bottom portion of the paper. This provides a “gentler” surface that allows them to move their hands over that portion of the paper. I gradually remove the amount of time this strategy is included in the task. If they don’t like smooth surfaces, then I would put a fabric such as a softer burlap there that will provide some texture and scratchiness to the surface.
These are my tried and true suggestions. But, I’m sure that you have your own strategies that have worked for you and your students. Please share them with us so that we can all learn from your experiences.
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Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
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