Rewriting the Writing Rule Book: Handwriting and High Learning Potential

As benign as pen and paper may appear to be, we have long since learned not to be fooled by the apparent innocence of the tree derivative and the writing implement: the pen, after all, is mightier than the sword. Certainly, lurking within the pulp, the ink or the graphite are some of the deadliest foes of the child with high learning potential (HLP); no battle is raged with more vehemence than that between the HLP child and the requirement to write.

It may well be simple for a parent to identify the fact that their child hates writing,  after all, it will probably have been made abundantly, and painfully, clear with every homework assignment ever sent home. What is more complicated, however, is working out what to do about it. Whether a child exhibits signs of writing anxiety or writing incandescence, it is well worth exploring alternatives to handwriting and looking into other ways for them to express their knowledge and ideas. It may be that there will be a noticeably positive impact on their wellbeing as a result.

Doing What is “Write” for Your Child

Firstly, try to gain a clearer picture about what it is, specifically, that is behind their reluctance to write. Are they perfectly capable when they finally do get down to writing but just absolutely hate the whole process, or is it something that they find physically tricky? Is it developmental, ideological, or both? Do they simply need encouragement to practise, or does it require a watertight, lawyer-checked, source-referenced argument to convince them that they should bother with writing rather than simply using the dictation app on their device? Having a good understanding of what, specifically, is behind a child’s reluctance to write is an essential first step in supporting them in this area.

Flexibility, too, is important. A slight alteration here and there could make all the difference; if the way of working is adjusted, even just a little, to suit the specific needs of your child, then hopefully the worst of those crushing quotidian calligraphic conflicts can be avoided. This may require agreement with school, but it is certainly well worth asking the question. Could tasks that are specifically assessing handwriting remain, but project work and other assignments be done on the computer? Might a video synopsis of the book they have just read be completed, rather than ruining the whole process by ending it with a dogfight about writing in their reading record? Perhaps the necessity to practise writing could sometimes be satisfied in more novel ways to bypass the anxiety and the brain-barrier that blocks many a high learning potential child’s path to a happier handwriting situation? Possibly there could be a surge in creativity and enthusiasm if different ways of doing things are allowed. It may require a lot of work to convince school of the benefits of such changes, but benefits, most definitely, there are to such an approach.

Reasons for Reluctance

What is really behind the reluctance to write? It is important to clarify this question, as in some cases there may be a diagnosable reason; an issue that requires specialist support, such as dyspraxia, dysgraphia or dyslexia. If it is suspected that this might be the case, then parents need to seek guidance from appropriate experts, such as the SENDCo, GP, or an occupational therapist.  Whilst there are many children with high learning potential and a diagnosed special educational need who may have HLP-related reasons for despising writing (see our fact sheet on Dual or Multiple Exceptionality for more information), there are, however, a dizzying array of HLP-related reasons for classing handwriting as a nemesis, and it is to these that we turn below.

Asynchronous Development

A very common reason for an HLP child’s reluctance to write is their asynchronous development. Asynchronous development is a characteristic common to children with high learning potential, where their cognitive abilities develop at a quicker pace than other areas of development. When this involves fine motor skills, it can make handwriting a source of immense frustration. With complex ideas in their heads and an understanding of the world far beyond that of their age-peers, they can find themselves unable to satisfactorily express themselves on paper. This juxtaposition of abilities; the fact that the sheer power of their cognitive ability cannot help them to produce the kind of handwriting that their perfectionistic self demands of them, can be an exasperating and disheartening situation for a child with high leaning potential, and one that may lead to great anxiety or a refusal to write altogether.

Their perfectionism can be compounded, too, by a lack of cognitive peers in their school setting. If they are unable to find others working at their academic level within the classroom, then the natural tendency for comparison, work-wise, with their classmates will, quite understandably, begin to wane, even in areas such as handwriting, where it is actually still appropriate and very useful. Without the perspective of peer-to-peer comparison, it is common for a child to leap into comparing themselves with the grown-ups around them instead, and for them to conclude, therefore, that their writing is horribly substandard, even when it is actually perfectly good for their age.

Beyond the obvious frustrations of finding that handwriting is not something that can be mastered merely by virtue of the (not insignificant) power of their cognitive ability, and that they cannot be at adult-calligraphy-expert-level immediately, it can also lead to difficulties, misunderstandings and frustration at school. If a school’s recognition of a pupil’s understanding of a topic is based solely on what they write and how neatly they write it, then a mismatch will quickly arise between the child’s ability and the  provision for them. The frustrating lack of recognition of their abilities can lead quickly into a deterioration of the teacher-pupil relationship or even an all-out loss of faith in the school system and school refusal, anxiety and self-esteem issues.

 Overexcitabilities

Another reason for the reluctance of children with high learning potential to write may lie in the common occurrence of overexcitabilities in such children. Not every high learning potential child necessarily has all of the five overexcitabilities, but very many do show characteristics of at least one or two of them.

Each of the five overexcitabilities may have a role to play in a high learning potential child’s reluctance to write. For more detailed information on overexcitabilities, see our advice sheet PA610 – Hypersensitivity (Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilties).

Psychomotor Overexcitability

Children with psychomotor overexcitability tend to have an excess of energy, and can often experience restlessness and the need to fidget. It is, therefore, not unsurprising that a child who displays psychomotor overexcitability may have issues with the sitting still required for writing.

Issues can be minimised by planning in advance for handwriting tasks, choosing times for writing when the child has had ample opportunity to let their energy out beforehand, and through addressing any stress or anxiety issues that may translate into even more energy than usual. Similarly, avoid asking them to write when excitement or other positive emotions means more energy. It is also important to avoid putting pressure on them to sit statue-still for the task; this may be unrealistic and merely setting them up for frustration and failure.

Such adjustments may seem minor, but not only can they help greatly at the immediate, practical level, but they also go a long way in helping your child to feel that they are being understood and supported. This, in turn, may add a not-unwelcome amount to the jar of goodwill that may be sorely needed for the next writing task!

Intellectual Overexcitability

Independent-mindedness, a love of complexity and a voracious appetite for learning that are characteristics of children with intellectual overexcitability are not particularly conducive to a love of writing.

The strong-willed, independent thinker may well question the point of a writing task when another medium could just as easily get the information across. There is rarely a passive acceptance of a rule; they need it justified – and justified well. Their love of learning new things; their curiosity and love of complexity can also render writing a painfully boring exercise. The last thing they want to be doing is bothering with such side issues when there is an entire world to explore. Balance is key: when writing really is necessary, then present the reasons for that requirement and support them through what is likely be a bumpy ride, but if, at other times, it seems reasonable to let them type or dictate or whatever they find easier, then perhaps look into allowing them to do that.

Emotional Overexcitability

A child with emotional overexcitability, tending towards extremes of emotions, may feel very sensitive to the fact that their ability in handwriting may not match their cognitive ability. This can lead to frustration, anxiety and self-esteem issues, all of which can lead to writing reluctance or refusal. They may struggle with a stultifying perfectionism and find the process of “practise ‘til perfect” simply unacceptable: they want it to be perfect now or they do not want to do it at all.

They may also be as alert to the pointlessness of some writing tasks as a child with intellectual overexcitability: tending towards a very strong sense of justice, they may feel utterly incandescent at school if the demands of handwriting hold up progress to more interesting activities. Combine these with the possibility that their knowledge is in any way judged on their writing alone and you may find that you have a child up in arms about the entire school system as a result!

Find that balance between when to persevere with writing with support and when to allow alternatives to be explored.

Imaginational Overexcitability

For a child with imaginational overexcitability, with a tendency to daydream, to inhabit magical fantasy world, and to enjoy drama, poetry and music, writing is very often intolerably boring. They may have many ideas that they would like to commit to paper, but the process of handwriting is not necessarily the best way for them to do that. It may be deemed a slow, boring, repetitive hold up or a painfully tedious interruption to the joys of their imagination. Compromise may well be central to supporting a child with these particular issues with writing.

Sensual Overexcitability

The tactile sensitivity common in children with sensual overexcitability can mean that writing is a particularly uncomfortable task for them. Finding a comfortable pencil grip and experimenting with other supports such as tilted tables and suitable chairs and desks, may help. Don’t be afraid to try new things: they might not all work, but you might just find the one thing that makes all the difference to their happiness to practise their handwriting.

Other Ideas to Encourage Writing

Sometimes, writing in a context different to the pencil-and-paper-scenario-of-doom can help. At home, without any pressure or expectation, try a whiteboard or even just a huge roll of plain wallpaper. Just have it there, with no pressure and no expectation (after all, you can lead a child with high learning potential to paper, but you can’t make them write…). Perhaps put a thunk up, and then just leave it and see what happens; they may just surprise you. Changing things up and providing possibilities for writing outside of the conventional may creep under the barriers put up against the traditional concept of writing and draw them in. Employing the lure of an irresistible stumper like one of the thunks or plus portal questions from our social media might get their writing juices flowing.

It can also help to break down a writing task to make the whole thing less daunting. Scaffolding the work; looking at it one bit at a time, removes much of the terror which can be the source of many of the writing refusals and rebellions. Indeed, in the planning stages, there is nothing to say that a project has to be conventionally written: look into allowing draft pieces to be however they want them to be; whether a messy muddle of writing, a mind map or a magnificent manga masterpiece. Perhaps they would be more comfortable typing the draft, or dictating it onto their laptop? Either way, both breaking down the task and paring down the actual requirement to write can greatly help. Although the finished article may need to be “written up in best” (possibly useful to think of an appropriate euphemism to avoid the phrase that has triggered many a rebellion…), there is no  need to extend the agony to the planning phases.

When their handwriting requires practising of fine motor skills, it is worth considering doing so in areas away from writing per se. This makes the process a lot more fun, sidesteps the incendiary issue itself and thus may avoid a few meltdowns, too. Drawing, painting, sewing, or even games can be great for practising pencil control, so crack out the Jenga, Operation, or a good old Buzz Wire, and have fun helping them to develop those skills.

As we have already seen, addressing any perfectionism is very often key. Help your child by showing them examples of other children’s writing, especially those at similar levels of cognitive ability, so that they understand what is realistic or unrealistic for “children’s writing”. It is also worth taking time to explain to them the point of the writing task at hand, and of writing in general. Model behaviour, write little personalised notes, show your own mistakes to further address any perfectionism issues and show them the joy and the fun of the written word, as well as the fact that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Putting on the “Hand-Break”: Alternatives to Handwriting

When a project allows it, when handwriting is not an essential element of the task, then allow the creativity of children with high learning potential to go wild when it comes to demonstrating their knowledge. Have a conversation with school about using alternatives to writing at times when it seems most appropriate to do so. Pick out those times; work through the point of each lesson and whether writing is truly an essential element or not and go from there; it may be that their teacher will appreciate the reasoning behind any such requests. This is a good way to alleviate the frustration of knowing the information but being hamstrung at the last hurdle by their handwriting. It could allow the joy of learning to re-emerge when perhaps the requirements for writing had wrecked such enthusiasm. It is also an excellent way to show understanding and support, as it acknowledges that frustration and places you in the position of their ally, not on the side of their nemesis.

As well as the laptop, dictation, mind maps and cartoon strips, there are many other options for them to explore. Videos or PowerPoint presentations can work well, and will also promote the development of very useful communication and IT skills. Revisit the whiteboard: drawing answers to thunks are still demonstrating their knowledge.

 Conclusion

It is clear that there are many reasons for reluctance to handwrite, and many different possible solutions. It may well be that quite a fluid, mix ‘n’ match approach will work best. Certainly, nothing is ever written in stone (though what a writing alternative that would be!); some things may work wonders and others may need to be jettisoned early on. Issues around handwriting can affect wellbeing but supporting their issues and allowing them to try alternatives can have a positive impact.


About the author: Caroline Hooton-Picard is an adviser for Potential Plus UK. She has a background in mental health, having worked for Suffolk Mind and also in private practice, and has a first class degree in Philosophy from the University of Essex. She also has a High Learning Potential daughter who keeps her very much on her toes!

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