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Handwriting difficulties in children

A detailed examination of the physiological and cognitive mechanisms of handwriting difficulties in children with Developmental Coordination Disorder: the role of attention, fatigue and joint hyper-mobility

Up to 90% of referrals to Children’s Occupational Therapy (OT) are for difficulties with handwriting. Handwriting is a vital childhood skill as it is an important gateway to academic success and deficits often result in academic underachievement. Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) are one group in particular known for a high incidence of handwriting difficulties. The aim of this project is to examine writing pauses that frequently occur in the handwriting of children with DCD. The study is using methods in eye-tracking and electromyography to investigate the role of cognition and fatigue. The findings of this project will be used to inform a much-needed evidence base for intervention.

The project examined writing pauses that occur in the handwriting of children with DCD using eye tracking technology and EMG to examine cognitive and physical processes during writing.

Eye-tracking technology was used to capture cognitive and attentional data during handwriting tasks. Eye & Pen software integrates the handwriting process (outlined above) with eye movements during handwriting tasks. To capture the eye movements the children positioned their forehead against an eye tracker. It was hypothesised that eye movements during writing would reveal whether distractors or other strategies, such as reviewing could interfere with the free writing process.

Electromyography (EMG) was used to measure muscle activation during the copy fast task in children with DCD. Surface electrodes were placed on the skin over the First Dorsal Interosseous, Opponens Brevis and the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis. Muscle activity of the dominant arm and hand was measured to ascertain whether fatigue occurred during writing.

The ROM for active flexion and extension were assessed in the metacarpal phalangeal (MCP), proximal interphalangeal (PIP) and distal interphalangeal (DIP) joints of the hand in children with DCD (n=16) and typically developing controls (n=31). A standard hand goniometer was used to measure ROM to the nearest degree. In addition, hand grip strength was assessed using a dynamometer across three types of grips; power, pinch and tripod.

Implications of the findings for Practice

  1. The eye movements of children with DCD indicate the labour demands of handwriting production in this group. Explicit teaching of the skill to this group is essential for their handwriting development.
  2. Children with DCD may benefit from strategies for revising text during writing.
  3. Extension in the joints of the fingers did not relate to handwriting performance. Clinicians need to be cautious when considering ‘joint mobility as a factor in poor handwriting performance.
  4. There were no group differences in hand strength (pinch, tripod & palmar). Clinicians need to be cautious when considering poor muscle strength as a factor in the handwriting of children with DCD.
  5. Children with DCD exerted less pressure on the work surface but this did not correlate with handwriting performance. Clinicians need to be cautious when attributing poor handwriting performance to pressure on the pen.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Mellissa Prunty
Dr Mellissa Prunty - Mellissa is the Divisional Lead for Occupational Therapy at Brunel University London. She is a children's Occupational Therapist by background. She qualified from the MSc (pre-reg) programme at Glasgow Caledonian University in 2010. She previously completed a BSc (Hons) in Kinesiology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, while on athletic scholarship for women’s basketball. She completed her PhD on handwriting difficulties in children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), which she undertook at Oxford Brookes University under the supervision of Prof. Anna Barnett, Dr. Mandy Plumb and Dr. Kate Wilmut. Mellissa has worked in a variety of childrens' services and specialises in working with children with coordination difficulties. She founded the children's occupational therapy research clinic at the university which investigates key skills and participation in childhood including handwriting, activities of daily living and cycling. The clinic currently offers placements to occupational therapy students at the university. Separate to this Mellissa co-led the development of wheelchair basketball and disability sport on campus. She has organised a series of inter-professional training days for health care students and has incorporated wheelchair basketball into the occupational therapy curriculum. The wheelchair basketball project has now expanded into the local community and a new club for children and adults is now underway (Brunel Bulls). Mellissa joined Brunel University London as a Lecturer in October 2013.

Related Research Group(s)

brain scan

Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience - Fundamental and applied research into brain function using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), electromyography (EMG), eye-tracking, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), infrared thermography together with psychophysics and cognitive behavioural paradigms in health and disease.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 21/11/2023