Saturday, March 17, 2012

Special Needs Writing Activities

Benjamin is continuing to make tremendous progress with his writing this year. His newest achievement is being able to write his numbers on his math work. He is so excited that he doesn't have to use stamps anymore. I still need to sit by him to cheer him on while writing with a pencil on non-handwriting activities, but I don't have to assist him hardly at all. Here is part of the writing regimen that has been so incredibly successful this year.

Finger Exercises/Wake-ups
  • We have a squishy ball that Ben loves to play with. The texture is kind of gooey, but there are harder, rubber balls and a light on the inside. He has to squish it over and over again as a finger wake-up. It gives him good sensory input as well.
  • Ben loves to play in a rice and beans bin. It is incredibly messy, but it helps to wake up his fingers when Ben is having a difficult time. The sensory input is great for getting him going some mornings.
  • We work on finger isolation exercises everyday. Benjamin has incredible difficulty isolating individual fingers. Over the summer, he finally was able to isolate his pointer fingers after working with his incredible tutor. So now, we are working on isolating all of his fingers.
  • We also sing a song that I remember from somewhere in my past. We put all ten fingers up and then sing, "Open, shut them, open, shut them, give a little clap clap clap." Ben thinks the song is silly and will play along with me. Little does he know, it is working his fingers, getting him to think about using those muscles in his hands, and then the clapping is providing input and making him bring his hands to the center of his body. 
  • Ben LOVES music and playing the piano. It takes quite a bit of finger strength to push down the keys to make sound. He prefers to only play with his thumbs (and I am amazed at what he can play with just his thumbs), but we have been working diligently on him trying to use other fingers. He now will regularly use three or more fingers on each hand to play chords. I am sure that the other exercises that we have done have helped with this, but I know that just the practice on the piano has helped him to gain strength in his fingers.
Writing Warm-ups
  • Every day, Benjamin is required to do "writing warmups." These are all dry-erase activities. I have laminated a sheet from Handwriting without Tears that has the same boxes that he uses in his book. On one side are some common lines that he will use for writing and also his name written on the bottom. On the other side are all of the letters and numbers. Since it is using a marker, it is easy for Benjamin to make the marks. It requires him to do the movements over and over again, giving him lots of practice. He can do it completely independently, which is great for his self-esteem and is incredibly motivating. His writing warmup sheet has quickly become the first thing that he wants to do when we start school in the morning. Check it out!

  • Other writing warmups that I use are easy connect-the-dots and easy mazes that I have collected in various inexpensive (Target dollar section or dollar store) books over the years. I simply put the sheets in clear plastic sleeves to make them dry erase and then have Ben complete them. The goal is for him to do some sort of handwriting activity everyday where he feels completely successful. I don't want him to feel discouraged with these warmups. I do correct his grip if I notice that it is incorrect, but these activities are meant to make him feel successful no matter how he does it.
Handwriting Without Tears--Letter Formation
  • Our main handwriting program is Handwriting Without Tears. The most popular part of this program in my house is by far the stamp and see screen. Benjamin and Kate both love to create the letters on the Magna-doodle type screen and then trace over them. Benjamin refuses to move on to writing his letters on paper until he can make one on this screen that looks the way it is supposed to look.
  • I have found out that Benjamin is a perfectionist and is easily frustrated by mistakes that he can't correct. That's why I think the dry erase has been so successful for him. If he isn't happy with how it looks, he simply wipes it off and does it again. Following this same thought, he doesn't like to write in his Handwriting Without Tears book until he knows that he won't make a mistake. So, I make a copy or two of the page with the letter we are working on. He practices for two days or so until he is happy with the way he has made the letters. Then, he will write them in his book. It takes the pressure off of him when I tell him that these sheets are just practice and that we can make more of them if he makes too many mistakes. 
  • On some letters, Ben is overwhelmed by the steps that it takes to make them. I have found that saying the steps aloud is incredibly helpful for him. For instance, a "B" is "big line down, frog jump up, little curve (don't move), little curve." We had to add the "don't move" in for a "B" because he was making it like a "P" and then putting another curve within the first curve. He was incredibly frustrated when he was repeating the steps to me and making a letter that didn't turn out like a "B." Really, when it comes down to it, you have to do what you have to do for that individual child. He is now making Bs all on his own and is proud that he can write his name in all caps. 
  • Kate loves to play with the Roll a Dough letters. It is basically playdoh and letter shape cards. You roll the playdoh and then place them on the cards to make them look like the letters. Ben will occasionally play with these, but does not use them regularly.
Other Tips/Helpful Tricks
  • For Benjamin's grip, we use a pencil grip called the Stetro Pencil Grip that helps to remind him how he is supposed to hold the pencil. We call it his "writing helper." His grip has changed tremendously since trying these grips. I don't even think that these are magical in reminding him where his fingers should be. I really think in his case that it provides the tactile input that he needs to know where he should be holding the pencil and is irritating to him if he tries to palm the pencil. The one downside to using this little contraption is that he can't hold a pencil correctly for long without it and he also can't use enough pressure on the pencil to make a mark without it. If we forget it, handwriting goes out the window and so does his confidence. 
  • On days where he is really having a difficult time with his grip (which are fewer and farther between), we start our handwriting with what I call a finger trap. I guess the correct name is a pencil grip writing claw, but after seeing the picture, you will understand why I call it a trap. Ben does not like this little contraption because he feels like he can't move his fingers. However, that is exactly why I like it. Usually after just a few minutes with this little thing on and he is ready to go back to his other pencil grip and has much better form.
  • I encourage Benjamin to do any writing, coloring, or painting anytime that he wants. We play with playdoh often and it is his own play time with it without the pressure of me dictating what he should be doing. We take Lego breaks for him to build with Legos. The more that I can get him to play with fine motor activities and hand strengthening activities, the better his writing will get. 
  • When Ben is starting to write and picks up a writing utensil, I fix his grip and then have him squeeze the pencil 5 times with the correct fingers. I once again think that this is just a tactile reminder for him. I am trying to get him thinking about which fingers he should be using. 
In summary, we have made TREMENDOUS progress with Benjamin's writing this year. This progress alone is enough to make me see that we made the correct decision to homeschool him. He needs intense training in certain areas in order for him to reach his full potential and writing was a big one for him. I am overwhelmed with emotion every time that Benjamin finishes a page of writing on his own and comes up to me with his handwriting book yelling, "Mommy! I did it! I made an 'M!'"

Here is a picture of Ben working on his handwriting warmups. I seriously want to print and frame this picture. What is amazing is that I snuck up on him for this picture. He was working by himself without prodding, pleading, asking, frustration on either of our part, tears or yes, bribery. His grip (although not perfect) is decent even without his writing helper. The lines are not perfect, but he is making them himself. Nobody is doing hand over hand with him and nobody is sitting down next to him to make sure he stays on task. This, right here, is progress. 

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