When Children Can’t Write Properly…

Filed Under (UnLearning Difficulties With NLP) on 11-12-2010

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Here’s another valuable experience a parent in Toronto approached me with and that will be beneficial to many a frustrated and helpless parent.

My five year-old son has been trying to trace dotted lines, curves, circles, letters, and numbers for more than a year now. He knows all his letters, numbers, shapes, and colors, but when it comes to writing, it’s a struggle.  He even has a hard time tracing a straight line.  When asked to write on the line, he can’t do it.  His fine motor skills seem pretty weak.  He is also very easily distractible and I have received numerous accounts of continuous nonlistening behavior at school.  He is otherwise a very active, intelligent, and happy child. Is there anything I can do to help him?

Here’s how I advised her step by step:

It’s very common for people to develop the belief that there’s something wrong with their motor skills if they can’t write after several attempts.  But this is nothing more than a belief which people construct in their minds based on no evidence.  And since our beliefs drive our behaviors, there’s no wonder you feel stuck and can’t proceed.

The real issue consists in the fact that your child is highly visual and uses his visual skills inappropriately for writing and drawing.  The reason which often causes this is that until a child first goes to school everything in his environment is three-dimensional [3D].  The house the child lives in, the furniture, people, food, toys, clothing, pets, everything.  When a child comes to school, they start teaching him to read and write words and numbers.  And a word and a number are the first things in the child’s life that are two-dimensional [2D].  If a child is highly visual [which means that he processes most information as seeing still or moving pictures in his head], the child’s brain will work very hard to try recreate the third dimension.  Visual people process information much faster than do those who are primarily auditory [sound-oriented] or kinesthetic [physical, i.e. process most of the information from their environment in feelings], because the human brain is capable of processing 32 frames per second!  To give you an example, if I turn my hand 90 degrees in my wrist and then back to its original position, that’s 2 frames per second.  So imagine the speed of  the brain working at 32 frames per second!  The fact that the brain tries to recreate the third dimension in words and numbers and every time the child sees another word or number the third dimension won’t be there yet again will eventually confuse the brain and it is exactly this confusion that causes havoc with reading, writing, and drawing.  Not the motor skills.

I said earlier that your child was highly visual.  What you say about having received reports of nonlistening behavior from school confirms this fact!  Think about it: when you’re busy admiring an object, for instance a dress in a shop that you see and really like, you’ll concentrate on the dress VISUALLY so much that for the moment when you’re immersed in admiring the dress you don’t hear any activity in the shop around you.  If you’re painting a wall, embroidering, sewing a button on something, or reading something on the internet, you’re so busy paying attention to it visually that your auditory [hearing and listening] processing is very low (or nonexistent) in that moment.   This is why your son won’t listen – because he’s busy seeing still or moving pictures in his imagination and that takes up all his concentration.
Have you noticed that blind people usually have excellent hearing?  That’s nature’s balancing act = giving these people a chance to survive and cope.  So if it works one way, i.e. where sight [visual] is nonexistent= hearing [auditory] is heightened, then it definitely works the other way, i.e. high visual = low auditory.

The fact that this child is very bright and intelligent doesn’t surprise me!  Life is full of paradoxes and the one applicable here is that things you’ve described, and other symptoms of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other learning difficulties happen EXACTLY to highly visual people, because they’re taking in a lot of information at once – and have great capacities to retain a lot – and try to turn it around in their heads at 32 frames per second as well.  Visual memory is the most reliable of all types of memory and this explains why your son knows all his letters, numbers, shapes, and colors.  But sometimes this overcrowded visual sense can cause chaos in the head.  And then even the highest of intelligence won’t budge the issue.

That was the background to his issues.  And now that you hopefully have a clearer picture, let’s see what we can do about helping him improve:

1. Observe the concept of grounding and do what it says – for the rest of your lifetime helping your son.  Your son’s young age and lack of grounding is also part of the cause of his issues.

2. If your child can’t even trace a straight line, it’ll be happening for a good reason which you need to find.  Have you ever asked him whether the pictures he was imagining were moving around?  I bet you haven’t!  And that’s what I strongly suspect will be at the bottom of this.  Think about it: imagine a straight line.

  • Do you see it still or is it moving around?
  • Do you see it clear and sharp or fuzzy and obscured?
  • How far do you see it from your face?  Do you see it so close to your face that you can only see a part of the line?  Or do you see it so far away from your face that you can’t even properly detect what it is and whether it’s a straight or a wavy line?
  • Where in your visual field do you see it?  Center?  Top right?  Bottom left?
  • How brightly do you see it?  Is there enough clear contrast between your line and the background against which you see the line?

Once you notice all these factors, you’ll be clear on why and how you see what you see.
It is essential and inevitable that you find all this information out from your son.  If any of these factors is uncomfortable, it’ll be one, but not necessarily the only reason why he’s having such problems.  When you encounter something that needs to be worked on, play a little game:

  • Ask him to imagine that he has a hi-fi in front of him with round knobs on it.  If he wants to turn up the volume, he’ll have to keep turning the volume knob slowly to the right until he gets the volume he wants.  You can do exactly this same thing with altering brightness, sharpness, contrast, etc.
  • For altering distance use the metaphor of a camera with a zoom lens.
  • If you find that the pictures in his imagination are moving and the line he’s trying to trace is dancing around, use the metaphor of pressing the pause button on a remote control of a video player.  What happens when you press the pause button?  The picture on the screen freezes.  And THIS IS EXACTLY what you need to achieve with your son.  If his pictures [which he should be able to see as still] are moving, you must help him freeze them.

3. Once his pictures are still [where appropriate], clear, sharp, of comfortable distance from his face, and in a comfortable place in his visual field, do the following:
For the first few weeks invest in a few large sheets of paper – size A2 or the ones you see on flipcharts used in conferences.  Fasten one sheet at a time to the wall so that the sheet is slightly above your son’s eye level and every time you practise writing at home with your son get him to write on this sheet on the wall – for the first few weeks – until he improves.
When we are processing information visually, we automatically unconsciously look up above our eye level, because that’s where the visual field is.  When we are writing on a straight desk, we’re inevitably forced to look down which is where our FEELINGS are.  Feelings for writing are the wrong tool for the job!  Writing, reading, and drawing are visual activities, yet you’re asking your son to process them through his feelings = no wonder he fails every time.  The other dangerous side effect of this is that if he constantly has been failing, he’ll have developed negative feelings about writing and drawing.  Examples: “I hate this“, “I don’t want to do this“, “I’m terrible at this“, “I’ll never be able to do this“.  If he’s as young as 5, he won’t yet be able to verbalize most of these negative feelings, but he most certainly already has developed them!  And I bet you’d never have thought of asking him about them, so how would you know?
Lifting the writing pad above his eye level will take him out of his feelings = remove the barriers to his success.  And he’ll remain the happy child he is!

4. Once his internal pictures are the way they should be and you have the writing pad on the wall, start by asking him to draw that straight line.  It helps if you give him time to first imagine what he’s going to draw in his head and then let him copy it on the pad on the wall straight from his imagination.

5. And once he can draw the straight line, he can do everything else!  The key is to persist and do it slowly, step by step.  If you say that you’ve been trying with him for over a year, your patience and determination won’t be an issue!  Keep them up.  And that one day when it all clicks together in your son’s brain will be the eureka moment you’ve both been waiting for!

8. Make it fun for your son!  Once he’s having fun – and you with him, half the battle will be won!

Contact me for more help when any children you know grapple with writing difficulties.

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