Handwriting and ADHD

Messy handwriting that results in illegible homework assignments and sloppy work is a frustrating problem for many kids with ADHD. Handwriting difficulties often leave parents and teachers wondering why kids who are bright and knowledgeable can seem to be so “careless” when they complete assignments. Kids and teens get frustrated because they lose points on homework and tests not because they didn’t know the material but because their answers weren’t legible. As kids get older and more of their written communication occurs electronically, having neat handwriting becomes less problematic on a day-to-day basis. But during the school years handwriting weaknesses contribute to poor academic performance, anxiety, stress and lower self-esteem.

In more mild cases, handwriting difficulties may be due factors directly associated with ADHD, like weaknesses in executive functioning or fine motor control.  In more severe cases, a written expression learning disorder (dysgraphia) or a motor control disorder (developmental coordination disorder) may be an underlying issue. So, if your child or teen with ADHD struggles with handwriting, they are probably not being careless or failing to take pride in their work. In fact, they may care very much and want to have neat handwriting but face challenges that make it difficult for them to achieve this goal.  Fortunately, as a parent you can help your child improve their handwriting and compensate for their challenges.

  1. Empathize with your child. If your child or teen has had persistent problems with handwriting – so much so that they can only write neatly if they work at a painfully slow pace or they seem unable to write neatly or efficiently at all, then writing is probably much harder for them than it is for most other kids their age. Chances are that over the years they’ve received a great deal of negative feedback and criticism from adults and classmates about their handwriting. On the flip side, they’ve probably also received very little praise when they do put effort into writing well. Let your child know that you recognize that writing is difficult for them, and acknowledge their effort even when their written work doesn’t look at neat as you’d hoped it would. This validation will go a long way in helping your child follow through when you try to help them improve their handwriting, and will help lower their anxiety and stress overall.
  2. Get an evaluation. Persistent handwriting difficulties require an evaluation to determine the underlying cause of the problem. The evaluation should include an assessment of learning disorders and coordination problems, and should provide recommendations for programs and services to address the handwriting issues, as well as school accommodations (e.g., being allowed to use a keyboard, modified homework assignments, etc.). A psychologist or educational therapist will be qualified to complete this evaluation.
  3. Get your child involved in a handwriting program. For children with ADHD who do not also have a learning disorder, a targeted handwriting program may be all they need to see improvement. An experienced occupational therapist at your child’s school should be able to help your child get started with a program. Most programs are specific to kids in elementary school and take either a multisensory approach or a cognitive approach to teaching handwriting. Multisensory approaches engage touch, sound, sight, and other senses and use multi-media, while cognitive approaches focus more on imitation, practice, and self-evaluation. Some kids will respond better to one approach over the other, but it can be difficult to predict which will work best for your child. Research does tell us however, that regardless of the approach it is essential that the handwriting program include regular practice sessions – at least 20 hours of practice over the course of a few weeks or months. The program should also include regular evaluations to determine whether or not handwriting is improving. If you don’t see improvement with regular practice over the course of a few months then it’s time to try a different approach. If you’d like to try a program at home, Handwriting Without Tears is an evidence-based multisensory program that includes many opportunities for practice through workbooks and an iPad app.
  4. Teach keyboarding early. Keyboarding isn’t a replacement for handwriting, but it is an essential tool for kids and teens with handwriting challenges. Help your child learn to type as early as possible, and request that your child be allowed to type their homework assignments. If you have a teen, encourage them to take an online keyboarding course that will help them become faster and more efficient at typing.
  5. Provide an incentive. Kids with ADHD struggle with motivation, especially for tasks that are hard or painful for them – like handwriting. So, even if your child or teen wants to improve their handwriting in the long term, chances are that they will go out of their way to avoid any handwriting task or practice exercise in the short-term. Help them overcome this resistance by providing an incentive for working hard on their handwriting. Allow them to earn points, privileges, or tangible rewards each time they practice without whining or complaining.

Dealing with handwriting problems can be challenging for kids with ADHD as well as their parents and teachers. But improvement is possible with a proper assessment, solid instruction, practice, and some very motivating rewards for all of your child’s hard work.

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