Transcript – Teaching Kids to Write who “Hate Writing”

This post is a transcript for this one, which has the video.

Let me start by explaining what direction I’m coming at this question from. Because as an occupational therapist, I am not a literacy expert. I am not a dyslexia expert. I *am*, however, an expert on occupation – not in the sense of your job, but in the larger sense of the word. Someone’s occupation is anything that occupies their time. Their self-care tasks, their household chores, their sleep, their work, their school, their hobbies, their play – these things are all occupations.

And a core consideration of OT, a thing that makes it unique, is that the things that occupy people’s time are supposed to be meaningful. It’s what they’ve chosen to spend their time on. It may not always solely be “fun” or “play”–people have to take showers, put on pants, wash their dishes–but it’s still things that are important to them for some reason, something they’ve chosen, because there’s almost always some other way to do life if you didn’t choose to do it that way. (People can take baths or wipe with cleansing cloths; people can wear skirts or shorts; people can use a dishwasher or buy paper plates.)

So then a problem I run into that’s specific to working with kids is that their adult caregivers are the ones who are making all the decisions for them, about them – but the kids are the ones who have to live with it.

What I mean is that (usually, with rare exception), for the kids on my caseload, 5-10 adults sat in a room and decided that their handwriting wasn’t good enough, and maybe their literacy skills weren’t on par with other kids their age, and so therefore they need special instruction to make them read better and write better, and then those 5-10 adults set goals like, “By next year, this student will be able to handwrite two to three sentences in response to a prompt, with a tripod grasp on the pencil, within ⅛” of the baseline, with appropriate sizing and spacing and correct letter formation, in an age-appropriate amount of time.”

But if you asked the kid, it turns out that they do not actually give one crap.

They do not give one crap about writing 2-3 sentences, they certainly don’t care about whether or not the writing they manage to produce is some specific set of millimeters away from the line, they may or may not care about how they’re holding the pencil, they don’t give a crap about whether they’re forming the letters from the top or the bottom or whatever arbitrary “right” way you think they should, and if they’ve summoned up the mental energy to answer the prompt you’ve given them and do it by hand when all the other odds are stacked against them, they sure don’t want you timing them to make sure they aren’t writing too slow.

So then I am supposed to do *occupational* therapy, a unique therapy that can focus on what meaningfully occupies this child’s time…for something that’s utterly meaningless to them, at baseline. And realistically they may actually hate it entirely.

So I’m left asking myself a few questions when I realize this, and maybe some of these are questions that you’ve asked before too.

Let’s start here. What is the reason behind writing things? I don’t mean what’s the reason behind being able to read. I mean what’s the reason behind needing to write? Hand writing is a little bit easier to break down into its components, so let’s start there and then we’ll expand it to just writing at all. I can think of 3 overarching reasons to be able to hand write things. Can anybody think of any?

(Being able to write for necessity – like to fill out forms.
Being able to write because it strengthens your learning process to learn other things.
Being able to write for joy, fun, love, passion.)

Identifying those things helps me take a step out of the equation. Now, instead of trying to look down the path and getting stuck because the child and I are at odds, we can both look down the path together at what the actual end goals are.

Does this child need help to get to a literal, functional, level of being physically capable of writing? Are they genuinely incapable of forming letters and writing them in a way that will genuinely hinder them from participating in normal life things someday (things like filling out forms at the doctor’s office or signing their name on paperwork or what have you)?

And, as always, there are actually accommodations for those types of things – apps you can use to take a picture of the form and then fill it out digitally – but leaving that aside for now.

Or does this child need help to be able to write so they could take notes in classes, learn from those notes, practice their spelling and sentence-writing, things like that? That’s a different level of intervention that you’re talking about, with different levels of targeting those skills as well as different levels of workarounds. An auditory learner might be totally unbothered by not taking notes by hand, but might record lectures to listen to them again later.

Or–think about how common it is for people’s note-taking handwriting to actually be quite poor and illegible. If somebody was grading me on my note-taking handwriting, they might not think that I pass the metrics that would be written in a child’s IEP! But if we’re talking about me writing things down for the sake of my body physically encoding them in a way that causes long-term learning, then I’m still doing that, I’m still meeting that metric.

Does this child need help because they just don’t love writing and we wish they did? No amount of crunching them through the gears of the system demanding that they write x by y age is going to cause love or artistry or joy.

Does the child ever see caregivers or adults in their life writing things by hand? Do they see a purpose for it? Does the child have the literacy skills in place to support being able to get their thoughts out in text – with a scribe, with speech to text, with typing, with predictive text, with hand writing? Does the child have any context for how writing can be part of a game, part of something silly, part of a shared joke, part of something a little “sneaky” or “bad” (in a fun way)? Or is writing only something utterly meaningless that adults demand they do for hours a day?

Next big question I’m left asking myself when I think about kids who hate writing. How does writing develop, ideally speaking? If nothing at all goes wrong from start to finish over the course of the years, what does a great path to learning writing look like? How much adult intervention and explicit teaching does it need, vs how much (if any) of it is natural development?

This leads to another interesting foray into the world of occupational therapy. Because it turns out that before the small muscles in the hands are able to develop to a coordinated point where they can control a pencil for writing (or even control fingers for typing – though that takes a little less finesse), the larger muscles in the hand need to develop, and for that to happen, the muscles in the arm and the stabilizing ligaments in the wrist need to have developed and strengthened, and for that to happen, the elbow, and before that, the shoulder, and before that, the muscles of the trunk and core! All of it is connected, and all of it actually starts inward and progresses outward. Babies learn to wave their whole entire arm around before they learn how to coordinate the movements of their fingers to pick something up, and they learn how to pick something up with their whole hand moving as one big clumsy unit before they learn how to pinch things to pick them up with an index finger and thumb. Human bodies start inward and develop outward, and the skills for fine motor activities like writing are no different.

And actually, before we even get into the development of motor skills at all, before that happens or in parallel with it happening in a healthy system, we also get the development of sensory processing. I said in parallel because these things are a feedback loop into one another. A baby can’t know that they’re successfully picking up the item that they’re reaching for unless they can visually process the sight of the item they want, process with their sense of touch that they’ve made contact with the item, bear the weight of it as they lift it with their inner body sense, and so on. The sensory processing and the motor skills developing are intensely intertwined.

That also means that if sensory processing is disorganized or dysfunctional, it impacts the way that motor skills develop. And if “big body” motor skills are underdeveloped, then the “small body” motor skills – the fine motor skills, the finger movements to control a pencil and so on – are trying to be built on a foundation that doesn’t exist, or has big gaps in it. And obviously building on a foundation like that tends to be unsuccessful if not catastrophic.

All of that leaves us with a few different venues to start with kids who hate writing. We can understand the reasons why they feel that way–they’ve been forced into a skill they weren’t ready for, maybe at an age before they would’ve become naturally ready for it, or maybe due to a disability that meant they would’ve always needed some extra help, or a different means of learning, than the “norm”. And often, for at least some amount of time, they didn’t have any help or accommodations or anyone in their life to tell them, “Hey, everyone does things a little differently. You’re not bad or wrong for not getting this.”

They might have received overt messaging about being lazy, bad, not trying their hardest, not paying attention, etc.
They might not have received that overt messaging, but still picked it up…if the kids around them were getting accolades and awards and praise for doing such a good job at the things that didn’t come naturally to them.

By the time kids come to me, they often feel extremely threatened by writing. That’s what they mean, usually, when they say they hate it. They mean that it feels like a threat to their body, their nervous system. They mean that it feels terrifying and impossible. The words they use might be “boring” or “dumb” or “stupid” or “pointless”, or they might be “anxious” or “scary” or “too hard” or “I’m just not good at it” – and often the difference in the emotion they’re identifying is drawn along the lines of the gender they’re being socialized as. But underneath it is the very real fact that because of their history, because of any potential disability, and because they have absolutely no connection of meaningful joy or love or art to writing, it feels like a threat to them. Their body is wired to protect itself from threat. Their brain is wired to avoid, run away from, or fight a threat. And this is a threat.

But now we know! We know that the sensory processing supports the writing. We know that the gross motor play supports the writing. We know that the core strengthening and the upper arm strengthening and the joint strengthening, all of it supports the physical, literal, capacity for writing.

AND, we know that occupational meaning supports the writing! It supports the emotional, heart, connected side to wanting to write. Because if we’re talking about writing as itself, we can make accommodations and adaptations for that. And if we’re talking about writing as a vehicle, we can make accommodations and adaptations for that. But if we’re talking about simply writing because we love it, writing because we are human and we are wired to create, writing because words are a paintbrush that we can use to color the world around us, then we need to bring more joy and play into writing to begin with! And joy and delight and play are the opposites of hate and loathing and fear and boredom.

I was a hyperlexic little kid. I taught myself to read when I was two. I was a hypergraphic little kid. I wrote excessively and extensively. I would read and reread and reread books that I loved. I would write absolutely terrible, absolutely plagiarized versions of them where I stole the entire plot, changed the characters’ names, and made everything about them worse in every way – and I delighted in it, because I felt like I was writing “real books” and I was so proud of them. I would write book reviews of books just because I loved them. I wrote down the plots of my favorite movies. I wrote poems and songs and screenplays and stories and scavenger hunts for my little brothers and comics and lists of my stuffed animals’ names and captions on photos I took with our point-and-shoot digital camera. I invented a greeting card business and wrote cards for all the holidays. I wrote cheesy inspirational stories a la Chicken Soup for the Soul, or Guideposts, or forwarded emails from your grandma. I wrote notes to my parents and my teachers and my classmates. Through all of high school, I carried around notebooks so I could write down funny quotes my classmates said, terrible teenage poetry, song lyrics that felt profound to me when I was fifteen.

I wrote things by hand. I typed things in Microsoft Word. I made PowerPoint presentations with animated clipart moving around and typed captions into each slide. I wrote things in video games. I drew charts and bullet point lists and pirate treasure maps and comic books and all sorts of little kid nonsense, all of it driven by the fact that it was deeply, intensely, occupationally meaningful to me. It was the seeds of all the writing I do for love today!

Now obviously we are talking about kids who are having a *wildly* different experience of their childhood than me. The physical experience of writing might be hard and terrible and even painful for them. And all of the feedback they’ve ever gotten–from others, and from their own self, from their lived experience – is about how their handwriting is bad and illegible and their spelling is wrong and their thoughts are not becoming the delightful mountain of paper ideas and nonsense that littered my entire childhood – their thoughts are getting stuck in the attempt to translate them out of their brain and through their hands, or their thoughts are channeling into some other delight-bringing childhood pursuit, like building things in Minecraft or playing a sport or knowing everything there is to know about Pokemon.

But when I think about the reason why I would passionately write even on assigned things, even on boring school assignments – we would have to write a sentence with each spelling word, and I would go out of my way to write an entire cohesive story out of spelling words! Or we would have to learn about some boring biographical character and write a few sentences about them, and I would write an imaginative re-telling of some important event in that character’s life! – it was because I already knew that writing was, and could be, occupationally meaningful. So even when adults were foisting it on me in some medium I was uninterested in, I had the 100 other examples of times that writing was a delight, supporting the 1 time that I was having to do it on demand.

Our kids, the kids we’re talking about, the kids who hate writing. They have the exact opposite ratio. Maybe 1 time they’ve ever felt delighted in what they wrote, compared to 100 times that they’re forced to do it by teachers, therapists, everyone in their life, and those 100 times felt awful. They far drown out the 1.

I have never, in my OT practice, felt like making a kid do a worksheet – adding one more to the 100 – is going to be helpful. Even if the 100 other times, throughout the week, they don’t have me there to coach them on handwriting, and the one time, with me, they do have me there to coach them. I don’t think that the amount of coaching will outweigh how much it’s just adding drudgery to drudgery.

But if we play…

If we play together, in sensory-rich, child-led, exploratory ways that support the sensory processing, the gross motor skills, the core strengthening, the wrist elbow and shoulder strengthening, that all must come before the writing comes anyway.

And if in our play, I model freely and joyfully the idea that writing can be used as a medium for…scavenger hunts, and pirate treasure maps, and screenplays, and lists of their favorite Pokemon.

If in our play, I make sure that paper and markers are out everywhere in the room, and whiteboards and markers are close by, and anytime they start to tell me something that I could model, with rapt interest, “Ooh, I want to remember this. Let me write it down,” and I grab a paper and begin note-taking.

I see a shift happen. It is gradual, because to them, it has always been threatening. It has only ever been academic, demanded, forced, instructed. But I see them start to realize that I’m writing something…for something. For something they resonate with.

And when something resonates with children, when it means something to children, then they take it…and they explore it in their play.

I know this is all very, very theoretical and kind of an “overarching thinking” talk–a theory talk–with little talk about specific, “Do this next Tuesday” type of strategies. But I think that the spheres are so different sometimes between teaching, and tutoring, and occupationally therapizing, and speech therapizing, and parenting – or whoever else might be listening to a training like this. But I think that the mindset can be the same. The theory can be the same. It can be rooted in showing children that writing can be meaningful to their lives and enabling that joyfully wherever possible. And in building the important foundations first before we try to get to the higher-level stuff. All of that just starts with knowing. And if you don’t know how to enjoy writing or how to model this — maybe you need to get deep into some play, too!