According to Jean Piaget, children are only developmentally capable of writing once they reach the age of six, and yet many of them are in school much earlier than that and forced to write.
They don’t have the motor skills to do this properly. It’s difficult for young children to hold a pencil for sustained periods of time, so they end up tightening their whole arm and back for what should be a simple task.
I always hated penmanship. I never got comfortable with cursive writing and gave it up once it was no longer mandatory (somewhere around sixth grade, I think, when I came to America).
As an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve learned easier ways of using a pen or a pencil, but the habit of writing is one of the hardest to change. Most of us use way too much tension and effort. We grip the pen too tightly, compressing our shoulders and back.
The best teacher I know for teaching how to write with ease (and how to set up your office for most efficiency) is Babette Markus of USC.
In the course of my work as a teacher of the Alexander Technique (1), I’m often asked just how it is that so many of us have developed harmful patterns of posture and movement. I tell them about the horrible furniture children are forced to use in most schools (2), problems with carrying heavy backpacks and the unconscious immitation of parents who themselves may have poor posture.
But underlying all these is the fact that most parents and teachers really have no idea just how easy it is for children to pick up bad habits of posture and movement, and how quickly these habits can become lasting distortions.
Take for example the process of teaching children how to write. “Penmanship”, it was called when I was in school and it was a most unpleasant experience. My handwriting was judged not acceptable and for awhile, I was forced to stay after school for additional practice. But no matter how hard I tried to copy the perfect examples posted on the wall of my third-grade classroom, my writing just didn’t measure up.
In hindsight, it is clear that my attempts to “get it right” probably made my writing worse and certainly contributed to a pattern of holding a lot of excess tension in my hands, arms and shoulders. It was only after I began taking Alexander Technique lessons some thirty years later that I learned how to release this harmful habit.
Think about what’s involved in teaching a class of thirty 8-year olds how to write: Some of the children will learn this skill quite easily. But others – like me – will not, often because they simply have not yet developed the fine motor control necessary to move a pen or pencil in a precise way across a page. All too often, the pressure to “get it right” causes them to produce a lot of extra tension as they write, including scrunching themselves down over their desks.
From the classroom teacher’s point of view, these scrunching children are “making an effort” and they may even be rewarded for their obvious desire to do well. After all, they’re not disrupting the classroom as some of the other children may be doing, perhaps in frustration with being forced to learn something they’re not ready for. Inadvertently, these tension patterns may be reinforced by their teacher’s approval of their effort.
The problem is that these habits of tension often persist into adulthood. Take a look at what people around you do to themselves when they write – you’ll often see shoulders hunched up, stiff hands and fingers and other forms of tension totally inappropriate to the task. If you have children, take a look at what they do when they take up pen and paper (or, for matter, when they use a computer keyboard). Take a look at yourself doing this in a mirror. You may be shocked at what you see!