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Brain Gym: Help yourself, help others.

Last summer, a physical therapist who took my Brain Gym 101 course was quite taken with the difference in her pencil grip after a very short and simple balance for writing.  While it was a longstanding source of frustration for her, she’d not been focused on how she held her pen, but in the midst of doing the exercises, something changed.  Therapists, look at the before and after pictures:  Brain Gym ROCKS!   (The rest of us don’t see as big of a change, but the PT assured me it was a huge step in something that had bothered her awhile.)

You don’t have to be a therapist nor dissatisfied with your handwriting to benefit from a Brain Gym 101 class.

Posted in Handwriting

Early academics?

Even when children seem ready and able to learn early academics, sometimes it’s better to hold off.  After all, an infant could drink Koolaid from a bottle, but we don’t recommend that, either!

Early childhood experts are now calling more strongly for childhood during the earliest years, rather than academics.  Experienced elementary and high school teachers are flummoxed at the quickly-increasing number of children who come through their classes now struggle with issues they’d encountered only very rarely.  Anxiety is joining attention and focus issues, sensory processing, autism spectrum, and more.

It starts during early childhood.

They’re missing the most basic parts of how to be a person, and without that, living life as an adult is difficult.

We teach chefs not by starting them out with cheese soufflès, but the the basics:  inventory and organization of the kitchen.  Deft and automatic egg-cracking, without shells in the bowl.  When to pre-heat an oven, and why.

Teaching children academics before they know where the cinnamon is kept — and the difference between cinnamon and cardamon — may be done.  They can learn the academics, but implementing them as happy and well-adjusted adults is going to be tough.

Learning to be aware of their emotions and how to react to new experiences, sensations and the like is generally not done while sitting at a computer.  Children need a parent or caregiver to help them identify and react appropriately.  That’ll reduce things like anxiety, and begin the process of being able to pay attention to a task and focus.  (Note: this requires the adult to be comfortable away from their own electronics, image3able to focus on the real world with the child!)

Some tips you’ve heard of (because they work!)

Limit screen time – TV as well as other electronics.  Managing Screen Time Rules for Kids has wonderful guidelines and tips on how to implement this with minimal fuss from the kids.

image1Increase time spent outside, exploring nature.  This is generally calming to a child (we all like to de-stress by going for a walk!) as well as teaching resiliency with new experiences.  Dealing with the unexpected teaches an ability to deal with the new and unexpected, and problem-solving.  image2Trying to do that indoors, especially in a group activity, isn’t nearly as effective.  Avoid NDD (Nature Deficit Disorder!)

 The simpler the toy, generally the better (we all know kids who prefer the box to the brightly colored plastic).  Toys that light up and make noises are easy entertainment but they practice the “I’ll only pay attention if it’s constantly reinforced” part of their brain.

Posted in Academics

There’s a lot of components to good handwriting!

STNR handwritingAwhile ago, I wrote about the effects about typing vs printing or cursive on the brain. Last time, we learned about the Handwriting Without Tears program’s neurodevelopmental approach.

Today, we’re going to look at the more visible reflexes needed to have legible handwriting happen in the first place– and the benefits of having good handwriting!

Almost everything with ideal neurodevelopment contributes to

  • a torso stable enough to write (think of writing while you’re on a small ship in the ocean!)
  • shoulders, arms and hands with Goldilocks-good muscle tone (not too high and not too low — just right!) to grasp a writing instrument
  • vision and balance which are each developed enough to ensure that both eyes can focus on the paper on the desk, as well as to follow where the pencil is going.

The very beginning of learning handwriting well begins well before birth! When you’re about 13 weeks in utero, your brain starts learning about the right and left side of the body via the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) and THAT helps to develop hand-eye coordination. People who don’t have this learned have difficulty writing with the paper in front of them, and writing with the paper in the center of your body.

Handwriting learning continues with birth!  The Rooting reflex (stimulating near the edge of the mouth has the baby turning his face toward the stimulation, looking for food), as well as learning the , to fold its tiny hand around an awed parent’s finger all help to mature handwriting capabilities. Other reflexes from our earliest days  that have significant impact on our ability to write not only legibly, but with reasonable speed:

Palmar Reflex – fingers close when palm is stimulated.  While there are about five different ways this helps handwriting, suffice it to say that it helps thumb and fingers move independently.

Babkin Palmomental – helps baby explore both the sides and the middle, with hands and mouth.  If not learned, the palm remains hypersensitive, and muscle tone doesn’t mature as it ought.

Fear Paralysis and Moro – Two of the most primitive reflexes that, if not learned, will interfere with others not being learned.

Tonic Labrynthine Reflex – important in helping head (and thus vision) stability, also muscle tone and ability to sequence

Landau – first in freeing our hands to be able to grasp and manipulate, as well as visual

Symmetrical Tonic Labrynthine Reflex (STNR) – coordinating the position of the head, with whether your legs and arms are straight or bent, along with strengthening upper arms and learning to change from near to far vision.  The handwriting above is an example of what I call “STNR handwriting.”  To the degree it’s not learned, handwriting is laboriously slow, with the person frequently slouched over the desk.  His posture, clothing, behavior and even his mind are all very disorganized.  Is it any surprise that these kids have tremendous difficulty with focus and attention?  They can’t organize well enough to pay attention!

If you can’t write fairly rapidly
— how well are you going to take notes, do your homework, take a test or even make out a shopping list?  Remember, while keyboarding is a coping mechanism many opt for, it puts them at a further disadvantage as they don’t learn as thoroughly and the nerve nets in their brain (useful for other things as well) don’t develop as well.

If you can’t write legibly — well, imagine if you had to always write with your non-dominant hand!  What’s your self-image like?  How competent do you feel, and how efficient are you?  Does that attitude then translate into other things?

Posted in Academics, Handwriting

Where’s the Very Beginning (with Handwriting)?

Can you imagine Julie Andrews’ bell-clear tones here?

“Let’s start at the very beginning….
A very good place to start!
When you read, you begin with
A, B, C…..

Apparently, when we write, we ought to begin with neurodevelopment, not learning the alphabet in order.

Occupational therapist and handwriting expert Cathy Van Haute illuminated my world when I spoke with her recently.  She’s taught Handwriting Without Tears to professionals for 15 years, during which time the program has grown from 8 instructors to 78, and is now the 2nd largest handwriting curriculum in the world; first among homeschoolers.  The reason, she says, is tied to today’s world.

It used to be, she notes, that the number one reason for a school referral for OT services was handwriting.  Now that’s surpassed by concerns about sensory skills.  The Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) program addresses both, because it’s based on sensory development.

Rather than starting at the very beginning of the alphabet, HWT uses a multisensory approach — music, storytelling, manipulatives, and more — to begin at a child’s beginning sensory development.  I didn’t know the diagonal lines in a capital “A” are considerably harder than a simple vertical lines.  So in Handwriting Without Tears, a child begins handwriting at the most basic neurodevelopmental step — vertical lines.  Next, horizontal lines are added, then curves and circles.  By that time, a child can combine those elements into letters with verticals and horizontals — I, F, E — to P, D, B, etc….and it ends at the diagonal lines that form an “A”.

So THAT’S why the very beginning isn’t necessarily the best place to start!

As she left, the effervescent and joyful Cathy zinged me again:  “Do you know why so many kids have difficulty learning to space between words?   It’s because ….

I” (long pause)
“don’t” (another long pause)
“talk”(yet another long pause)
“like”  — still another long pause, by which time of course, I got it.  We don’t talk with spaces between our words!  Especially when we’re around effervescent, joyful OTs.

If you’re interested in more research about handwriting, check out the Handwriting Without Tears website.

Posted in Academics, Handwriting

Cursive, printing, or typing?

Does it matter how our children communicate?  And, what about us?

Jessica Brashear is a Momaha blogger and former high-school counselor who recently wrote about an unsettling discovery she’d made:  high-schoolers’ unfamiliarity with cursive writing.

An especially astute Facebook commenter asked, perhaps somewhat plaintively, “Does reading or writing in cursive make a kid smarter?….how is cursive going to affect his life in real world?”

I love questions to which I have answers!

The short answer: cursive is extremely helpful to the development of the nervous system and thus to our overall level of function with ease. Printing is also helpful, though less so; keyboarding comes in a distant third for productivity, thinking, and development. However, we live in an increasingly digital world, so the discussion continues.

How can we tell?

Let’s begin with studies on pencil (or pen)-and-paper writing vs typing. There are numerous studies out there, but I like these..

++++The Association for Psychological Science has a study showing that taking notes by hand results in better comprehension than those who keyboarded. The researchers feel that those who took notes by hand may have been processing more. Here’s a nice story about it.

+++A study of 2nd, 4th and 6th graders by Dr. Virginia Berninger in 2012 showed that those who wrote by hand wrote more words and expressed more ideas than those who keyboarded – in less time.

++++ Dr. Karin James from Indiana University studied the brains of two groups of second-graders: a keyboarding group, vs pen-and-paper group (she didn’t separate out printers from those who wrote in cursive.) She found that the brains of those who keyboarded had fewer connections than those who had to even subconsciously or unconsciously form each letter rather than push the proper buttons.

The more connections there are within the brain, and the stronger they are, correlate with both rapid and accurate thinking, creativity, and functioning within our daily life. What makes connections? In short, movement, especially intentional movement.

Cursive vs printing

Because cursive writing can sometimes be easier than printing; some schools advocate for teaching it first. Educator and psychologist Dr. David Sortino found that “cursive writing was an excellent kinesthetic exercise which grounded my students’ energies.”


People who write in cursive get better grades on the SAT.


Cursive helps the brain learn how to be more efficient, weaving together sensory input, movement control, and thinking.

Programs that advocate teaching cursive before printing, Montessori among them, maintain that it reduces dyslexia and helps long-term penmanship in general. Despite being more complex, some maintain that cursive is actually easier to learn. The areas of the brain activated during reading also activates during handwriting, but not keyboarding. This effect is boosted with cursive’s increased complexity and tying in gestalt-brain function.

Right-brain/left-brain – the controversy, and why it matters here
Because writing in cursive requires that we use both parts – individual letters – and connects them, it uses both left-brain and right-brain functions.  The part of our brain (usually the left) that tends to dominate when it comes to details — the pieces and parts — is used with printing. But when each letter in a word connects with another, it brings in the right brain, the part that tends to lead with the whole picture.  We all value both our left-brain function as well as right-brain function, but of tremendously more value is whole-brain function.

This can link to a left-brain/right-brain discussion (which I will address later), one steeped in new research. Lack of thorough understanding can make this controversial. In short, there is a duplication of function – the gestalt (big picture) part of the brain has counterparts on the logic side, and vice versa. Also, some people use their right brain for logic functions, and vice versa.

Fundamentally, it is imperative for learning, emotional, physical, and mental health function that the right and left halves of our brain have strong connections to one another. Cursive writing assists in that.

In a way, we can see cursive writing a little like that. We use it because it builds and strengthens pathways between right and left halves of our brain, which we in turn use for just about everything in life.

Cursive exercises and strengthens our entire brain
Using our whole brain means we see not only the details, but make sense of them as well. “Fast” can mean going quickly, or affixed firmly in place — or even not eating!  What a writer means needs to be deciphered by the right brain. It’s part of why robots do so poorly as substitute-humans. They can calculate (left brain) but are clueless as to how to sell a pen or tie a shoe (whole brained functioning).

Athletes don’t just practice a narrow skill over and over. They lift weights, cross train, even go to ballet class to optimize small muscle strength and control. These ancillary exercises contribute to their ability to perform at their best ability.

Whole-brained functioning leads to all sorts of good things — decision-making, physical grace, optimum learning, social skills, emotional maturity. Physical dexterity is part of this.

So if you’re sold on the worth of handwriting, check next month for more information on some of what goes into handwriting that is both legible and written fairly quickly.

Posted in Academics, Handwriting

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