EL was a bright ten-year-old boy who had been excluded from mainstream primary school for poor behaviour. He was said to have difficulty with anger management and there had been several incidents, both in school and outside, where he had behaved in an excessively aggressive manner.
When EL was referred for handwriting help he was currently receiving individual tuition at AMASS (the Adolescent Multi-Agency Support Service). Several different agencies had been called upon to work with him over the recent years and although the main reason for his referral to the service was Severe Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD), his educational achievements were below those expected for his age and general ability. The particular difficulties noted were problems with written literacy and a general reluctance to write, despite his reading being age-appropriate. His Outreach Support Teacher from AMASS contacted the NHA for guidance in encouraging EL to write.
EL was assessed by a handwriting specialist from the NHA on his own at the centre. He was tested for handwriting speed and legibility, and on visual perceptual tasks and grapho-motor exercises.
Observations of EL while writing and drawing showed poor general pencil control, immature drawing and handwriting that was large and ill-formed. Although some of his letters were written correctly, several were not, with letters such as r, n and m starting from the bottom of the letter and curved letters starting in the wrong direction, indicating a slight motor or perceptual immaturity. Also, although EL seemed able to produce some joining strokes on the page, he was not transferring these into his writing. He used entry and exit strokes when writing individual letters as he had been taught, but was not able to use them as joins between the letters meaning that fluency was never achieved. As well as lack of flow in his handwriting, EL demonstrated some hesitancy before the writing of each letter, suggesting either difficulty in visualising the letter shape or problems translating the visual image into a motor pattern. Whatever the underlying weakness, EL’s handwriting was far from automatic, something which would normally be expected at the top of the primary school.
- Visual Perceptual Tasks
Observed performance on the visual perceptual tasks suggested that EL was experiencing slight difficulty in a number of areas. These were mainly having no strong sense of laterality resulting in directional confusions, showing weakness in form and whole/part perception, problems with spatial organisation on the page and a lack of organisation and planning during problem-solving.
- Pen and Paper Motor Fluency Exercises
PM was asked to perform ‘Lazy 8” and ‘Curly Circle’ exercises on paper to see how comfortable he was with the coordinated movements which cursive handwriting demand. Although he managed the ‘Lazy 8’s, the easier of the two exercises, he had considerable difficulty coordinating the circling pattern
EL presented as a highly intelligent and verbally fluent boy who enjoyed the challenge of being assessed. He appeared to like the perceptual materials and engaged well with the tasks. However, his responses indicated that he was immature in several areas of visual perceptual processing, lacked the ability to organise and plan his thinking when approaching problem-solving tasks, and he showed a slowness and dysfluency with grapho-motor skills. As these all impact negatively on the acquisition of accurate and fluent handwriting, it was decided to give a short intervention of 4 sessions of intensive specific exercises, to be followed up by his Outreach Support Teacher after each session.
EL’s sessions began with exercises using design blocks, tessellated shapes and jigsaw puzzles to strengthen visual perceptual skills. He also was asked to practise the ‘Lazy 8’ and circling exercises on paper until he could perform them effortlessly. Specific work on letter-forms followed, with letters being taught in movement groups, as recommended in the National Literacy Strategy (DfE, 2004). Building on the movements of the ‘Lazy 8’ exercise, the curved letter group were practised first, then the ‘long ladder’ letters and next the ‘robot’ letters. This work was followed by regular cursive handwriting practice, directed by his support teacher, which focused on frequent bi- and trigrams and, finally, common words. Although EL had been initially reluctant to write by hand, he became a willing participant. After a couple of months he was able to begin using his new handwriting to complete regular written assignments.
At the end of the school year, EL’s progress was discussed with him and with the teachers at AMASS. His Outreach Support Teacher wrote the following statement:
“In total EL has had over 15 different agencies working with him over the last 18 months (see below) which have included intensive psychotherapy (three times a week at the Anna Freud Centre – for over 2.5 years), two different Educational Psychologists’ assessments, a statement for SEBD, twice weekly visits from children’s social care for six months. He was also taught on a one-to-one basis in school for two terms prior to his permanent exclusion and was, in fact, on a part-time timetable for over a year as his school found his behaviour too challenging to have him in class.
Interestingly enough, at the end of all this intervention, he was asked what bit he had liked the most. His reply was “the handwriting bit”. I think being able to finally put pen to paper in a legible way and creating a folder of work was a major turning point for him as, for the first time in his school life, he actually had something tangible to show that he was an able student and could learn. Alongside boosting his self-esteem, the handwriting work also made him more receptive to rules. As his handwriting changed, changes in his behaviour were noted as he began to accept both ‘no’ and actually apologise without being prompted for his actions. Overall, the remedial work proved really useful in bringing out so many other strengths in EL, so much so that teaching and learning about teaching handwriting has now been made part of my appraisal.”
Outreach Support Teacher (AMASS)