Your child’s messy printing may be an indicator of what is happening inside their brain and body. The fine art of manipulating a writing utensil in order to print words requires a highly integrated brain-body system.  There is a lot more involved than meets the eye.

Poor finger coordination can cause problems printing. Letters can look like weird squiggles and numbers can be unrecognizable. Words crowd-up and numbers float right off of the lines. You can facilitate your child’s development in meaningful ways. Printing requires maturation of the brain and body. Poor printing is not poor behavior. This article has been written to help you understand what is happening to cause poor printing. You have to know the truth about printing before you can help your child.

To begin with, students who fall behind in math can be ‘good at numbers’, but not good at shaping numbers on a page. Simple math problems in first and second grade can be more forgiving for a student whose fingers can’t keep numbers and letters on the line. Two and three-digit math, however, is less forgiving. For students with poor finger coordination, math becomes a big problem in third and fourth grade when the arithmetic computations begin to incorporate multi-digit equations. Many students have trouble aligning and keeping straight the different columns that numerals are neatly placed in to answer equations correctly.

Hand Maturation

Initially, a very young child will tightly grasp through the fingers and wrist, such as a firm grasp an adult would use when lifting a heavy suitcase by the handle. They use this fisted grasp for everything.

At the next stage of maturation, the child will be able to grasp at the fingers, while allowing the wrists to move in a different manner. They can now pick up raisons and other small items. The small child will also learn how to grasp the handle of a jug firmly in the fingers, but allow sufficient relaxation of the wrist muscles in order to pour juice from the jug. Maturation allows this wrist and finger differentiation to occur.

The use of a toothbrush requires wrist and finger differentiation. With a toothbrush, the fingers remain still and the wrist powers the motion. Brushing the teeth, using an eating utensil, and using a writing utensil all require maturation of the fine motor muscle system to separate the job of the wrist from the job of the fingers.

Visual-Motor Problems

It’s not just poor finger coordination that makes printing messy. The truth is, children grow and mature at different rates. Some students haven’t fully matured their eye muscles by third grade when math becomes more complex. Their eyes don’t yet work independently from their head and neck. They have to turn from left to right at their neck to read a line of text versus holding the head and neck still and allowing just the eye muscles to track on their own.

Poor visual tracking can be just a maturation thing but, ready or not, the school curriculum marches onward. Students with poor visual skills will come up with a range of strategies to overcome their difficulties, even without realizing they are doing so. Often they try to memorize the answer to simple math problems without really knowing how to work out the answer on paper. The can’t ‘show their work’ on their worksheets.

The memorization strategies employed by these students for simpler addition and subtraction, become highly confusing when the neck must turn the head for the eyes to view each of the numerals. Imagine computing a complex math problem in total darkness with only a tiny pen-light flashlight. It’s beam illuminates only one or two digits, not the whole math problem. You would have to keep rescanning the pen-light beam back to a previous digit to ensure that you remembered to ‘carry over’ and perform other complex math operations. For you, this flashlight exercise would be fatiguing and would hold a high potential for error, even if you were ‘good at numbers’.  

A slow speed of printing as well as frequent errors can usually be attributed to a student who is unable to move the small eye muscles independent of the head and neck. As a result, the student must move at the head and change the upper body posture in order to copy from the front board. The upper body posture must alter, again and again, to view the paper and begin to print. Frequently, the student loses their place and must slowly retrace their steps in order to ensure accuracy or concede to inevitable errors.

Pencil Grip Problems  

Gripping the pencil correctly for printing cannot happen until the student’s hand maturation allows for separate wrist actions from the finger actions. Students employ many different strategies to try to print neatly. The fine motor control of a pencil or crayon needs the fingers to be free to move and wiggle while the wrist is firmly held in a static posture. Asking the wrist to do one thing (remain still) and asking the fingers to perform a different action (wiggle) is a tremendous challenge.

The wrist and fingers have different jobs. If the hand is stiff, the large gripping muscles take over for the small finger movements. These students are unable to accommodate the highly-targeted task of coloring between the lines or printing on a line. As an alternative strategy, the child may overly relax the wrist joint and allow the wrist to wave back and forth.

Both strategies make it very hard to stay on the line or to align numbers for math computations.

If this developmental milestone hasn’t been reached, the child will have a stiff wrist with rigid fingers or a loose wrist and loose fingers. For correct printing and writing, the wrist remains still and the small finger joints move. Their hands haven’t yet reached the stage for differentiation of the actions of the wrist with those of the fingers, yet.

Poor Posture

Writing or printing is a highly choreographed physical act. In addition to the actions the elbow, wrist and fingers must execute, printing requires correct postural alignment so that the writing arm can easily float across the paper.

If you have weak postural muscles, you will lean on your arms on the desktop for support. When your body weight is directed through the arms, your writing arm and hand became less available for printing. In this case, the primary function of the dominant printing arm becomes one of physically supporting and holding the body upright against gravity. The arm can’t hold you upright and print neatly at the same time.

Another incorrect strategy occurs when students lean against the leading edge of their desk because of weak trunk muscles. When they lean, they are unable to appropriately use the alternative hand to support the piece of paper. Students will rotate their pencil hand with palm upward to make the side of the hand secure the paper still while also trying to write. They perform their deskwork leaning on the edge and rotated at an awkward angle. Printing is illegible because the writing arm cannot easily “float” freely and allow the wrist and fingers to do their job. If the arm floats, the page moves as they print.

The Truth About Printing

Almost always it’s a maturation problem, not a laziness problem. Full body activities will help in addition to games and toys that promote fine motor coordination. If your child has trouble printing neatly, don’t just practice printing, incorporate their whole body and visual system into fun, non-competitive activities that stimulate their natural growth and development.

Using play dough and building block toys promotes hand coordination. Catching a ball facilitates visual-motor control. Folding laundry, helping in the kitchen and gardening encourages wrist and finger differentiation. Developing competency in these simple household family activities are the best way to improve fine motor control for printing.

Give your child lots of praise and boost their confidence when they do print, draw or write in a careful manner. You want to give them the skill and assurance to self-correct. Self-correction is a lifelong skill that may even be more important than perfect printing. This the truth about printing.

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