Viewing Development through an Occupational Lens: Learning to Handwrite

By Robinson, Rita; Penman, Merrolee | New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Viewing Development through an Occupational Lens: Learning to Handwrite


Robinson, Rita, Penman, Merrolee, New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy


Handwriting is a valued childhood occupation (Amundson, 1992), and considered a prerequisite for later academic achievement (Feder & Majnemer, 2007; Graham Berninger, Abott, Abott & Whitaker, 1997; Graham & Harris, 2000). A child's developing sense of self occurs through opportunities for engagement in challenging occupations (Farnworth, 2000; Passmore, 2003) which society deems meaningful and important. Success in learning to handwrite can build a child's self-esteem (Sassoon, 1990; Stewart, 1992), and foster feelings of emotional well-being and social functioning (Cornhill & Case Smith, 1996). Therefore engagement in the task of handwriting is of concern to occupational therapists as difficulties engaging in this occupation can have negative effects on a student's occupational development.

There is a growing expectation for occupational therapists to complete handwriting interventions in the context in which they occur. To do this well, occupational therapists need to understand the relationship between the teachers' task of teaching handwriting and the students' role in learning to handwrite both of which are influenced by the person, occupation and environment fit. This research article considers the human environment of the teacher in the co-occupation of learning to handwriting. Acknowledging the classroom context and the teacher's role in the task of learning to handwrite reflects the professions move to complete interventions within the naturally occurring environments. To facilitate understanding of the context and process this qualitative research study asked six new entrant teachers: How do new entrant teachers teach handwriting to year one students, while acknowledging the physical and sociocultural environments which shape their practice?

Literature search

The traditional handwriting approaches used by occupational therapists to address handwriting difficulties focus on areas such as pencil grip, seating posture, co-ordination of the muscles of the hand as well as visual perception. This way of approaching an occupational concern is often referred to as 'bottom-up' approach (Ideshi, 2003; Weinstock-Zlotnick & Hinojosa, 2004). This approach fitted well with the medical model emphasis on 'fixing the problem'; the problem being an outcome of delayed or altered developmental processes. The three main approaches guiding reasoning behind this way of thinking are the biomechanical, neuromuscular, and multisensory approaches (Admundson, 1992).

Multisensory or the sensorimotor approach is still very popular as a way of addressing handwriting difficulties (Feder, Majnemer & Synnes, 2000; Woodward & Swinth, 2002). In this approach to handwriting the therapist provides various sensory experiences such as writing in shaving cream or writing with chalk. The assumption being that if the task of handwriting is learnt through a variety of sensory mediums it will assist in the child's learning (Admundson, 1992). The biomechanical approach and the neuromuscular approach place a larger emphasis on the sitting posture of the child and the development of the hand muscles and pencil grasp.

These bottom-up perspectives provide useful information from a body structures perspective (World Health Organisation, 2001) enabling therapists to consider the component skills that influence a task. However, to adequately express our unique role in supporting children with handwriting difficulties, inquiry methods that reflect our professional paradigm of occupational based intervention are required (Humphry & Wakefield, 2006). This perspective provides occupational therapists with a way to view child development and childhood tasks through an 'occupational lens' (Davis & Polatajko, 2004). The benefits of such a view have been validated through research (Chapparo & Hooper, 2002; 2005; Wiseman, Davis, & Polatajko (2005).

An occupational lens

Inquiry using an occupational lens broadens the knowledge already gathered on hand development and handwriting to also include expectations, experiences, and meaning surrounding the task (Lawlor, 2003). …

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