It’s quite common that primary school learners show uneven development when it comes to fine motor skills. The small muscle coordination needed for printing and writing seems to develop more slowly than other abilities. This is more often seen in boys than girls. The boys, however, seem to be better able to manipulate small objects like Lego, computer mouses, and screwdrivers than pencils, so their skill with these objects doesn’t reflect their struggles to control a pencil.
Many of them may, as a result, develop some anxiety related to written work. They may be fluent speakers and communicate brilliant ideas or relate experiences with gusto, but come to a halt when asked to write it down. Children typically equate ‘fast’ with ‘smart’ so when they cannot produce good written work quickly, they stop trying, work too fast and carelessly and make excuses about written work being ‘too boring.’ This develops into them disliking writing and developing anxieties about written tasks.
Last week, I shared Dr Sylvia Rimm’s tips for reducing reading anxiety. This week, I’m summarising the suggestions she gives for helping children overcome ‘pencil anxiety’. The source is her book ‘Why bright kids get poor grades: and what you can do about it.’
- Encourage the child’s use of a computer or other keyboard for all drafts when asked to write a story or complete other written tasks.The schools are more open to this these days and may even allow the child to hand in the printed work rather than struggle to write it out.
- Allow your child to use fine line markers instead of pencils as their fibre tips run more easily over the paper. Ask the school to give permission for their use in the classroom as well.
- Make comments that will help to change expectations. Tell the child that intelligence and speed are not the same. Some examples are:
- Although some smart children finish work quickly, others, just as smart, are slow workers
- Quality is more important than quantity
- Authors always write may drafts before they feel satisfied
- Try this ‘speeding’ exercise. It’s a personal self-competition model. They can copy written material or write out maths facts. You’ll need a stopwatch and multiple sheets of the same maths facts or written material to copy. Have them first copy the material and set a baseline time to record on a calendar.The next day they can write the same material and mark the time. The goal is to beat their own time. Writing the same material every day may get boring, but they’ll soon fine they can write much faster. They’ll become much more relaxed about times tests if timing becomes a daily habit and they can see their improvement.
Of course, some children need help to strengthen the small muscles responsible for pencil control. Usually help can be given by an Occupational Therapist and schools are quick to refer to these professionals.
If you don’t have access to an OT, here are two strengthening exercises that you can do at home:
- The child squeezes and releases a stress ball in one hand several times, then changes hands. Encourage the habit of using the stress ball during times of relaxation, such as watching TV or driving in the car. The hand does get tired as the muscles feel the work-out so don’t overdo it.Doing the exercise regularly is more important than the length of time spent on it.
- Take a length of toilet paper (start with about 1 metre).The child holds one end in his hand and crumples the length into a ball in the palm of his hand. When he’s finished, straighten the paper and let the other hand have a turn. Even though we want to strengthen the muscles of the writing (dominant) hand, we want to work on both hands. This activity can also be done while watching TV or driving in a car. As the hands get stronger, lengthen the strip of paper.
In last week’s post I wrote about the potential dangers to children’s developing brains of air pollution and listed the towns in South Africa with the highest levels of measured pollution.
Most of us lack the freedom to live and work according to our choice. More often we find ourselves in towns and cities because of the nature of our work and the availability of jobs. If we are forced to stay in an area said to be heavily air polluted, are there ways of reducing the risk that pollution carries to our family’s health – especially our vulnerable children?
Here are some suggestions:
First and foremost, you need to become an activist in supporting efforts to improve our air quality because you won’t be able to change the situation by yourself.
Improving air quality means replacing fossil fuel combustion (i.e. burning fuel, such as coal, wood and so on) with cleaner sources of energy, including solar and wind. Support organisations fighting for this. On a note closer to home, be careful of fires (heating or braai) that are used in areas not well ventilated. Our increasing use of indoor braai rooms may add to the poor quality of air in our homes.
Green areas, such as parks and trees within towns and cities can improve air quality, so encourage your local municipality to develop green belts and recreation spots. Wherever possible, plant trees and shrubs in your own garden. Our easy-growing plant, the ‘Spekboom’ is a natural supplier of oxygen – every garden should have a few!
Encourage recycling. Waste that is burned in the proximity of living areas releases toxic chemicals that can reach children’s lungs. Although lead in the air has been reduced since its removal from petrol, if car and cell phone batteries are burned, lead can be released into the air. Use the battery disposal units set up in some of our supermarkets.
Try to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution. Wherever possible, avoid travelling at times where roads are congested. If your home or child’s school is in an area of severe pollution, strenuous activity outdoors should be avoided. In spite of the importance of sport and play, exercise in harmful air should be minimal – especially if your child has a medical condition such as asthma or another respiratory ailment. Make sure your child’s school or daycare centre has a well-greened play area with trees and plants.
The quality of air inside school buildings and other community structures can be improved by ventilation and air filtration systems. Mention this at your school and help work towards implementation of such methods.
Other indoor air pollutants should be avoided too. The bad effects of second-hand cigarette smoke on children’s health is well-documented so homes and cars should be smoke-free zones. Other common sources of potentially harmful inhalants include certain cleaning materials. Use products that are manufactured to be harmless to our bodies and brains.
Lastly, but by no means the least important, strive to maintain optimal levels of health in your children. Healthy diets and lifestyles build resistant immune systems and bodies that can help reduce the overall impact of air pollution. The healthier a child is, the less likely that he or she will develop health complications due to the exposure to air pollution. This is partly why Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) continually encourages healthy eating patterns and other tried and tested ways of living that contribute to optimal brain development and function.
When browsing through my library recently, I opened one of the older books on the shelf. Very soon, I was reading with delight some words of wisdom that are as relevant today as they were back in the middle of the last century! I’m talking about the book published by the Gesell Institute, titled Child Behaviour and written by Frances Ilg and Louise Ames, with numerous reprints, in the 19550’s (yes, no typo – it really was written so long ago).
The section I enjoyed dealt with the still common problem experienced by many children today who find it difficult to make shifts. This means that they cannot move easily from one thing to another, or from one behaviour, activity or situation to another. Without help, they simply become stuck.
We all have unique personalities and they may present us with certain problems. Indeed, most people have aspects of personality that they find problematic. A struggle to adapt easily to change is one of these. It isn’t because the child is bad, naughty or difficult. It isn’t a ‘fault’ in the child but simply an aspect of personality. She may be perfectly normal in all respects except for her inability to handle change.
Such children may resist new foods and prefer eating the same thing for every meal. They may find it hard to go to sleep at night, then (after sleeping well) find it difficult to shift back to wakefulness. When playing, they may be able to entertain themselves well for hours but resist shifting from one form of play to another. For example, he may continue to play with lego because he will find it too hard to shift to another toy. Typically, parents of such children find it hard to encourage them to leave their play to come to supper, visit a relative, go shopping, or anything else.
In relationships with others, this personality trait may cause such children to be fine with one person at a time, but find it hard to shift from one person to another. For example, from mother to nursery school teacher. They will find it hard to leave a parent when it is time for school – and then find it hard to leave school to go home with the parent.
How do we help such children? Certainly we can’t scold or punish them when they resist change. They truly need help from their parents whenever there is a transition to be made. Sometimes it helps to provide the changes which she needs and can’t manage herself. An example would be to have the child go find her mother in the playground rather than being met in the classroom, or having a new pair of pyjamas to put on in order to break the bedtime ritual that has become such a struggle.
Of course, some children show reluctance to change in very particular situations and something else may be found to underlie their behaviour. There are many possible reasons for what can be seen as Separation Anxiety, or fear of change due to a traumatic event. What is discussed here is different – we’re describing children who are born with this aspect of personality.
If a child has a personality that resists change in general then it is likely that she will keep that personality trait throughout her life. Accept that there is nothing you have done to cause this, and nothing you can do to change it. You can help her understand herself and provide the kind of situation that makes her feel most comfortable and able to cope with change. But don’t try to change her or make her feel guilty. Individuality is inborn.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) is forever searching for ways of helping children cope better with problems associated with development, neurodevelopment and learning. Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about our approach and find practitioners near you to offer help. We also offer courses to parents, teachers and other helping professionals to better understand the reasons underlying children’s learning difficulties and puzzling behaviours. The courses are accredited with SACE, ETDP-SETA and HPCSA.
You are welcome to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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