When Should School-Based OTs Stop Working on Handwriting?

As a school-based OT, you probably often address handwriting, a fundamental skill that plays a crucial role in a child’s academic and personal development. Determining when to shift focus from handwriting practice to other essential skills is a critical decision. Unfortunately, figuring out exactly when school-based OTs should stop working on handwriting isn’t cut and dry and can differ for each student. This blog aims to explore the evidence and research surrounding the appropriate timing to phase out handwriting interventions and alternatives you can offer.

The Importance of Handwriting:

With the advent of technology, it’s easy to ask if we should even care about penmanship. But handwriting is more than just a means of communication; it fosters fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and cognitive development. It also contributes to language processing, memory retention, and overall academic success. Handwriting instruction and practice are typically emphasized during early education years to establish a strong foundation. However, as children progress through their schooling, other important areas of development require attention, raising the question: When do we stop working on handwriting?

When Should Students Have Legible Handwriting?

While all children develop at different rates, most students should have proficient handwriting by their mid-elementary school years. A study by Feder and Majnemer (2007) highlights that most children achieve basic handwriting proficiency by the end of second grade. However, this proficiency level may vary depending on individual factors such as motor skills, learning disabilities, and cultural norms. As children approach third grade, they are typically expected to have developed legible and efficient handwriting skills. At this point, students have the freedom to focus more heavily on those important academic aspects of writing. Research by Graham, Harris, and Fink (2000) suggests that after attaining basic handwriting proficiency, the focus should shift to other crucial writing skills such as spelling, composition, grammar, and creativity. Emphasizing these skills ensures that students become proficient writers and effectively convey their ideas, which is the whole point of working on writing in the school setting. 

OTs Stop Working on Handwriting

When Should School-Based OTs Stop Addressing Handwriting?

So, if you’re a school-based OT and you know that students typically have proficient handwriting by mid-elementary school, when should you stop addressing it? There are a couple of easy answers here:

  • When it’s legible. In the schools, our goal isn’t perfect penmanship. If the student’s writing is readable to their teachers, that’s what we’re aiming for. Students can practice penmanship in other settings if it’s important to them or their family.
  • When it’s similar to their peers. Especially if you’re working with students younger than 3rd grade, it’s okay for handwriting to be a little messy. In fact, it’s developmentally appropriate! Take time to periodically review work samples in the classroom from peers to compare to your student’s handwriting.

And a couple of not-so-easy answers:

  • When it is no longer a part of the student’s regular curriculum, instruction, or practice. Working on handwriting legibility in an OT session alone is not enough. If teachers and other staff are no longer prioritizing handwriting in the classroom, it’s a good sign that it’s not a priority in general right now for your student, and OT isn’t indicated.
  • When the student plateaus and/or lacks intrinsic motivation. If your student doesn’t value handwriting, it’s likely they’re not going to make more improvements from this point. If you’ve tried multiple different strategies and have been working on this for years, it’s okay to shift focus to other important occupations at this point. 

So, what do you actually do when you have an older student whose handwriting doesn’t seem to be improving? Common OT tribal knowledge indicates that most of us are attempting to discontinue focus on handwriting around late elementary school/early middle. But in a 2015 study by Berninger, et al, it was found that students in 4th – 9th grade were able to improve their handwriting after remediation. So where is the disconnect?

In the schools, it often comes back to that motivation and prioritization piece. If a student isn’t internally motivated to improve, and if it’s not a big focus in their school day, they’re unlikely to make progress. And truthfully, we know handwriting isn’t the be-all, end-all – conveying information through written expression is. So it’s normal that as students progress through the grades, we along with the rest of their school team need to shift focus to other, potentially more important occupations. It’s also important to remember that we are working with students with disabilities who have to remember so many things. When you’re trying to remember the rules of spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. it’s easy for the rules of handwriting to go by the wayside.

So, there’s no one clear-cut age or answer I can give you for when to stop focusing on handwriting and shift to alternatives. It truly does depend on the student. For me personally, I do find that if a student has received OT and handwriting instruction for their whole school career, around 3rd or 4th grade is when I start shifting. But I’ve had exceptions to that rule on both sides – older students who really did want to improve their handwriting and were able to make progress, and younger students who needed alternatives much sooner. It’s our job to use our clinical reasoning to find that answer for each student.

What Alternatives Can School-Based OTs Offer to Handwriting?

So, when you’ve decided it is time to shift focus from handwriting, you have a few options. Incorporating technology into the learning environment has become commonplace in modern education. The integration of devices and digital tools can be an effective alternative to handwriting in some instances, especially for students with specific learning needs. Luckily, there are a lot of options in this realm these days, and they’re only improving. Here are some specific tech supports you can trial with students and consider writing into their IEP as an accommodation if they’re successful:

  • Typing on a computer
  • Typing on a tablet
  • Predictive text
  • Speech-to-text (and potentially text-to-speech if they have trouble reading as well)
  • Symbol-supported communication
  • AAC device input converted into text documents 
  • Handwriting conversion to text
  • PDF fillers/typing directly onto a worksheet or form
OTs Stop Working on Handwriting

I’ve found that with the vast majority of my students, one of these or a combination of several has allowed them to participate in written expression. Just remember that it takes practice to learn how to effectively use these programs, just as it took practice to learn basic handwriting skills in the first place.

For some students, scribing or being allowed to demonstrate knowledge verbally may also be accommodations you consider adding to their IEP. But I try to focus on tech accommodations as they allow students to complete assignments independently instead of relying on an adult. 

Looking at Other School-Based Occupations

One last important thing to note is that just because you stop working on handwriting with a student doesn’t mean that OT is no longer indicated. It might! But take some time to review your student’s other occupations, discuss them with the family and teaching staff, and figure out if there’s another area OT should be supporting instead. You don’t need to create a space for yourself where there doesn’t need to be one, but I’ve found that many other things open up once the IEP team gets on the same page about what OT actually has to offer besides handwriting support. Some of my favorite work I’ve done as an OT has been with older students working on ADLs and IADLs in a way that their classroom teachers weren’t yet.

So, to wrap it up, you know that handwriting is a fundamental skill that provides a strong foundation for academic success. However, as students progress through their schooling, it is essential for school-based OTs to stop working on handwriting and shift to other critical skills. Beyond this point, occupational therapists should tailor interventions to address individual needs, incorporating technology and emphasizing other writing skills to support students’ overall development as proficient writers. By staying informed about the latest research and conducting thorough assessments, school-based OTs can make well-informed decisions on when to redirect efforts from handwriting to other essential areas, ultimately empowering students to thrive academically and personally.
If you’re looking for more evidence-based strategies to utilize in your school-based practice, come join us in The Dynamic School OT Course. You’ll learn research-based interventions to utilize, as well as strategies for finding and applying evidence to your practice.

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