Why is my child’s handwriting so messy?

When a child’s handwriting is messy, the typical assumption would be that the child is lazy or careless. In truth, messy handwriting is often caused by challenges with motor skills. Let’s look at why handwriting can be difficult for some children, and how you can help your child to improve their handwriting.

Handwriting - a complex skill

While handwriting may seem simple to adults, it is a complex skill that comprises various different movements, such as letter formation, body positioning and postural control. It also requires the combination of various other skills, such as pencil grasp, eye-hand coordination, knowing the alphabet, visual perception skills, visual motor skills, crossing the midline, bilateral coordination, in-hand manipulation, applying the right amount of pressure and more. 

Fine motor skills, in particular, are important for handwriting, as they involve the dexterity and coordination of the small muscles and movements in our hands and fingers. When children lack fine motor skills, it not only impacts their handwriting, but also their participation in class and  other school activities, self-care abilities, ability to communicate and self-esteem.

Children with handwriting problems may:

  • Find it difficult to align, size and space letters
  • Struggle with incorrect spelling and capitalisation.
  • Find it difficult to copy words.
  • Write very slowly or impulsively.
  • Use unusual hand and body positions when writing.
  • Frequently erase their work.
  • Apply too much or too little pressure when writing.
  • Struggle with writing on or within margins.
  • Write unfinished words, or words with incomplete letters.
  • Have a weak core, which causes them to slouch, slump, and lean on their elbows or one hand at their desk.

What causes handwriting problems?

One may assume that a child’s poor handwriting is the result of a lack of practice. However, writing difficulties can often be caused by an underlying problem, such as:

    • Sensory Processing Disorder 
    • Dyspraxia
    • Dysgraphia
    • Dyslexia
    • Attention Deficit Disorder/ Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADD/ADHD)
    • Autism Spectrum Disorder

If you’ve noticed that your child has difficulty with handwriting, it is best to reach out to an occupational therapist as soon as possible. They will be able to help you identify underlying problems, as well as come up with strategies and exercises that can help improve your child’s handwriting skills.

Tips on how to improve your child’s handwriting skills at home

There are many fine motor exercises that your child can do at home, which can be fun, but also helps them to strengthen their hand muscles, such as:  

  • Water plants with spray bottles
  • Transfer small items using tongs or tweezers
  • Kneading, rolling and pinching play dough and putty
  • Lacing beads or pasta on string
  • Writing in sand, shaving foam or rice
  • Play board games and puzzles
  • Getting dressed with belts, buttons, zippers and snaps
  • Using cutlery while eating

Other exercises and tools that can help support their handwriting skills include:

  • Practicing with tracing worksheets
  • Using a pencil grip
  • Using thick pencils
  • Doing upper body and core exercises
  • Playing at the playground e.g. climbing, crawling

If you’re unsure if an activity or exercise is appropriate for your child’s age or ability, do talk to an occupational therapist to get a better idea on the specific areas to work on and how best to do so.

This article was reviewed by The Energy Source’s Director, Physiotherapist and Sensory Practitioner, Joanna Hutt.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *