Handwriting Skills for Preschoolers with (or without) Down Syndrome

This past fall, Junior and I really began working on early handwriting skills in a consistent and systematic manner. It’s been fun to watch his progress. Not only are his hands getting stronger, he is also developing better dexterity. Little by little. So today I’m sharing with you some of our favorite resources and methods for building handwriting skills.

Posture! Posture! Posture!

Believe it or not, my most favorite resource for handwriting is a chair! Because children with T21 tend to have low tone, it’s really important that they maintain a proper posture and are well supported when they are sitting. Without proper posture and support, they develop poor habits and tend to slump towards the table and/or have their faces too close to their books/papers, which in turn affects the way their eyes have to focus. Furthermore, without good support, children who are really hypotonic will need to spend energy maintaining their balance, which will take away from their ability to focus on the task at hand.

So, for quite a while I fussed around with chair pads and placing stools under Junior’s feet and even getting my husband to saw the legs off an old children’s desk. But working at toddler-height table with Junior was hard on my back (I’m not as young as I used to be!)… and that took away from my ability to focus on the task at hand!

So we finally splurged and bought this chair, that has an adjustable foot rest and seat, and foam cushions, to boot! It’s actually a highchair that comes with a removable tray and straps.

With this chair, I still have to remind Junior to sit up and not slouch. But I have to say, since Junior started doing his homeschooling on this chair, he has been less fidgety and has been able to stay on task longer.

Writing on a slanted surface also helps our kids maintain proper posture, so I recommend using a desk slant. Ideally, you want the slant to be at 20 degrees. You can buy one or make one. The one we use is made of two binders taped together and a clip board tucked into the plastic sleeve of a binder.

If you have a child who struggles with a tripod grip, you’ll probably want to experiment with different pencil grips. For a year, Junior used the original Pencil Grip on markers and pencils. Then we used the bumpy pencil grip and foam pencil grips. I also broke up his crayons and chalk in half. Using little bits of crayon helped him adopt a tripod grip. In the picture above, you can’t see the crayon he is using because it is so small 🙂

More recently, his occupational therapist thought he should stop using the pencil grip since his tripod grasp was pretty good, and the fat pencil grips were actually making his fingers go farther apart than they needed to be. Without a pencil grip, Junior’s fingers still tend to slide down the pencil or marker. So, I wrap a bit of baseball grip tape around his writing utensils. Baseball grip tape wrapped around a short triangular pencil seems to work for him.

And now let’s get scribbling, coloring, drawing, and writing!

Kumon Coloring Books

What I really like about Kumon books is that the progress is so incremental, which is extremely helpful for our little ones. We talk about the picture, he finds the crayons he needs (matching colors), and then colors in the white shapes. Junior seems to enjoy these in spurts. Some days he wants to color multiple pages; other days he doesn’t even want to do one. But I try to get him to color at least one each day. At this point, the goal is not to “stay in the lines”, but to learn to fill in a blank space with color and to build hand strength, which I have noticed as Junior now colors with firmer strokes.

After he is done with a page, I turn it over and encourage him to copy my horizontal and vertical lines, and circles. Or I just let him scribble. Even just scribbling is great for developing hand strength and endurance.

Large sheets of paper and/or Easel

When you think your child is ready, try teaching him to draw zig-zags, bumps, spirals, steps, or anything that has a continuous repetitive motion. It may be useful to use very gentle hand over hand guidance until you think your child has got the hang of the motion, and then let go and let him/her continue independently. I have found that this helps Junior develop a bit of muscle memory. Large sheets of paper are best for this so your child doesn’t run out of space. You want him/her to be free to keep on going with those zig-zags and bumps as long as possible to build in the muscle memory. Large paper also allows your child to make large strokes crossing the midline, and any activity where your child crosses their midline is so beneficial.

Here Junior practices writings Cs and Os

Easels are also great for this purpose since they provide lots of writing space. Junior also enjoys doing “easel art”. I’ll draw a sun, he’ll draws the rays. I’ll draw clouds, he’ll add in the rain drops. Next we get lightning… zigzag, zigzag. I’ll draw a circle, he’ll add the eyes, nose, and ears to make a face. I’ll draw a fish, he puts in the scales (a great way to prepare for writing the letter c.) Let’s put the fish in some water… bump bump bump go the waves. And so on…

Montessori tracing boards

Junior really enjoys using these. His buddies who come over to do a little school with him also enjoy these. Instead of using the wooden stylus, Junior writes in them with fine-tipped Crayola ultra-clean washable markers. This way, he can see the results of his tracing. When he’s done, I just rinse the boards with water and let them dry. The advantage of the large board with all the letters on it is that it stays in place and is easy to write on. The individual letter boards require more concentration since Junior has to hold the small board with one hand and write with the other. The advantage of the individual letters is that you can present the letters in order of easy to difficult. For example, the uppercase letters L, F, E, T, H, and I are easier than G, B, Q, and R. In addition, with the individual letter boards, you can give your child only a few letters to work on at a time.

When your child is first learning to use these boards, it is helpful to demonstrate the order of strokes with the wooden stylus and then let your child write the letter with a washable marker.

When Junior is tracing the uppercase letters, I have found it helpful to place a little dot on the starting place so he knows where to start each letter. (Uppercase letters should always start at the top.)

With repeated practice, your child should begin to memorize the order of the strokes and learn to stay in the groves.

Kumon tracing books

This is the first tracing book Junior began with. I cut out all the pages and laminated them, because I knew he would benefit from multiple uses. Again, he wrote on the laminated pages with washable markers, which, with a bit of water, are easier to clean than dry erase markers. For several months Junior could only trace the pages that had straight lines. But eventually, he became adept at tracing the curves and then the pictures.

When I realized he needed “new” pictures to trace, I purchased My First Book of Tracing, which starts off extremely easy but progresses much faster, although still incrementally. He uses this book with crayon… because when he saw it, he wanted it so badly I just gave it to him instead of laminating the sheets. It won’t be long before I purchase even more Kumon tracing books because he’s enjoying these so much.

There is an advantage to using crayon on paper instead of marker on laminated sheets. The friction caused by the crayon on paper actually slows down Junior’s strokes, just a tad. Writing on laminated sheets is fun, but the marker glides so easily it’s actually a little (just a little) harder to control the marker. Think of roller blading vs. skating. When a child is learning to write, we’re not looking for speed but for slow, careful strokes.

By the way, the key to making these tracing books fun and motivating is to make little stories about each page. For example, for the page above, baby crab has to find his mommy crab. Let’s help him walk across the sand. I also make silly sound effects as he’s tracing. First, I demonstrate slowly with my finger or a stylus (be sure to stop at corners!) while making silly sounds. Then Junior traces, and he often imitates the sounds as well.

Let’s Learn Letters worksheets

I made these for Junior, and you can read about the first set here. I designed Uppercase Set 1 to allow for a large margin of error, so that he would almost always be successful at staying in the lines. I printed these on cardstock and laminated them so he could practice them again and again.

When these became easy for Junior, I made Let’s Learn Letters Uppercase Set 2. These will be available in my next post 🙂 Both sets have dots which show where Junior should start and end each stroke. Set 2 is in black and white — designed for use with crayon to encourage slower strokes. I print out multiple copies of each page so Junior can get as much practice as he need.

Handwriting Without Tears Chalkboard and Preschool book

I have used the Learning Without Tears program with all my children, and I find it very effective. We use the chalkboard to practice writing capital letters. I demo on my chalkboard and then he copies on his. However, it takes a while for the chalkboard to dry, and Junior does not like writing on a wet slate. So once Junior practices two letters (one on either side of the board), we have to wait a bit before we can practice more letters.

One spin-off from the chalkboard is to use a small picture frame mat on paper instead:

My First School Book is Learning Without Tear’s preschool workbook. The letters are taught in order from easiest to hardest, with letters that use similar stroke patterns grouped together. I really like this workbook. The only downside is that it does not allow for review of previously learned letters unless you photocopy the pages or laminate them.

So that’s what we’re doing for handwriting! Our handwriting practice last about 15-20 minutes each day. Each day we color, scribble, and do a bit of letter practice. Then I let him choose if he wants to use the Kumon tracing book or draw together on the easel or on paper.

Tracing and learning to write letters is hard work, so try to make your child’s writing activities meaningful and motivating.

For example, Junior is a lot more interested in writing the letters of his name and his siblings’ names than he is in writing random letters. So some days we practice writing letters in sequential order by stroke and other days he traces the names of his siblings.

Another way to motivate Junior is to encourage him to color/draw a picture or write some letters for a member of the family. After he does a bit of work for a family member, I’ll write “To ___________, From Junior” on the back. He loves giving his work to family members and seeing their pleasure at his little gift.

In addition, try to make everything a game or story. Use sound effects to accompany your child’s strokes. Be playful, and offer lots of encouragement and praise. Enjoyment is key!

In summary, to help your child with handwriting:

  1. Ensure correct posture
  2. Use pencil grips if needed
  3. Use a desk slant
  4. Favorite resources: Kumon coloring books, large paper, easels, Montessori tracing boards, Kumon tracing books, Let’s Learn Writing worksheets, and Learning Without Tears Preschool book and chalkboard or frame mat.
  5. Make writing activities meaningful and motivating
  6. Have fun!

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