Why Neglecting Good Old Fashioned Penmanship Has Fueled the Dumbing Down of America-- Part 2
by Jeanette Farmer
The previous section offered insight into why using handwriting movement patterns and therapeutic music as a powerful sensory- motor process "trains the brain," e.g., develops impulse control or self-control, with children and teenagers. This section portrays a few of the results.
New research about television merits attention. An April, 2004, Pediatrics article stated that early TV exposure has been found to cause future problems with a child’s ability to pay atten- tion by age 7, fueling future problems with ADHD. Since TV’s influence is passive and the young brain is still developing, the lack of active stimulation detrimentally affects the developmental ability to focus and gain impulse control. The learning process suffers as a result which helps ex- plain why there has been such an epidemic of ADD and ADHD over the past 30 years.
Graphic Samples of Success Due to Sensory Inputs
The first two samples are 9-year-old boys. The changes shown are the result of a small amount of time, but more practice over time is needed to solidify the changes. Jason, the first sample, has ADD, but was off Ritalin during the summer. With a stepfather and two young siblings, family stress was significant. He was visiting his grandmother in Denver for a week when a short article about this program appeared in the paper. She asked me to work with him. We did some gross motor exercises on the wall, then he sat down to do the paper exercises. He did the first one, but in doing the Lazy Eight pattern, he made only one attempt. He quickly threw the pen down and refused to continue. I sensed that the therapeutic music tapped deeper levels of the brain that made him uncomfortable. Not wanting the sample to be nameless, I wrote his name on second part of the July 6, sample. Then I had him do some of the exercises on a specialized plastic template and he calmed down a little. Before I left, I asked him if he’d like to sign the empty Lazy Eight exercise page. I was surprised that he did not even notice that he had signed his name right over the signature I had written for him, but I took it as a signal of his internal distress. I left instructions with the grandmother to encourage him to retrace the lazy eight pattern to the music on the template several times with each finger on each hand twice a day. She called four days later, elated at what she could see in the samples. I was surprised to see a lessening of the emotional stress which generates tension in such a short period of time. Lessening that tension is a major benefit.
he large capital in "Jason" in his last signature is a well-formed genuine capital, revealing a sense of "I feel so good about me." Compared to his terribly squashed "J" in the first sample, it reveals the low sense of self-esteem, how badly he felt about himself. While such drastic change in a very short period of time can’t be considered habituated, it must be consistent over a longer period of time for the changes to be permanent.
Gregory: This 9-year-old learning disabled, left-handed boy had a traumatic birth which is known to stress the brain, often leading to learning disabilities. He had been in Special Ed his entire school experience. While not labeled ADD per se, he was on Ritalin for impulse control. His mother, a teacher, very diligently supervised the exercises. He started the template exercises a month after starting the paper exercises. The following full-size samples track the major changes in his signature. The first, very exaggerated in size, was written at the end of letter to me before starting the program. Since handwriting is emotionally driven, its exaggerated size portrays his enthusiasm in describing his vacation in Lake Powell.
The last signature has decreased in both size and horizontal expansion, revealing that he has been able to rein in and regulate his emotional energy to some degree. The date suggests that it was attributed to the non-threatening tactical stimulation with the fingers on the template.
First sample on lined paper: When he first started the program but not on Ritalin.
On unlined paper: The pen choice used in the following sample reveals the shaky quality of the ductus (the stroke). It portrays the underlying stress he experiences in trying to meet expectations. The large difference in the samples on lined and unlined paper reveals the support offered by the lined paper. The lined paper indicates where he is with support while the unlined paper reveals where he actually is. For the child, gaining emotional control is a process over time which speaks to the need for sufficient practice. Boys need far more practice in fine motor control than girls do.
Some two months later after adding the template practice to the process. His writing is becoming more regular and consistent. The stroke quality has improved in the before and after samples.
Feedback from his mother, a teacher, indicated that his teachers had commented on his improved ability to focus. He was moved into the regular spelling group, which was a struggle at first. However, in my last contact, she said he had had his best year yet and had also received im- proved marks for his behaviors. They still do the program sporadically to strengthen habituation.
Handwriting’s Impact on the Injured Brain
While most handwriting remediation generally occurs in the educational system, the following samples portray its influence in rehabilitation for an injured brain. Kim, 11-years-old, was in a car accident and in a coma for a month. On the day she came out of the coma, her mother, without understanding handwriting’s deeper implications, told her that she wanted her to keep a diary while she continued to receive occupational and physical therapy. While her remarkable recovery did not involve music, it portrays handwriting’s extraordinary capacity to retrain the brain, or more accurately, to reorganize the brain to regain the skills lost.
When the brain is injured, depending on the severity, its organization and skills are lost or become inaccessible due to damaged pathways, etc. Rehabilitation has to retrain the brain to re- establish conscious awareness. This is done by gross motor and fine motor movement. Conscious awareness is one step away from the senses -- sensory integration is the key to achieving that state. The remarkable improvement in this young girl’s progress when she left the hospital a month later was striking. Although I did not participate in this rehabilitation, it clearly portrays handwriting’s capacity to retrain the brain. Her mother was unusually perceptive in intuitively knowing how to further her daughter’s rehabilitation. The sample on the left is the day she came out of the coma, revealing the emotional turmoil her brain was in. The one on the right is the second day, improved a little but still very shaky, evidence of her emotional vulnerability.
The 3rd sample, written 30 days later, on her last day in the hospital reveals remarkable improvement. Mental clarity and emotional control are much better and as are her coping skills.
Whether her recovery in such a short period of time would have occurred without handwriting’s efficacy as a mental force in actively engaging the brain’s lower levels is doubtful. That action flooded the conscious brain with neural activity to help reclaim her previous self. Her last comment on the page is pertinent --"I came a long way." She is now a budding writer.
Sensory Stimulation with At-risk Kindergartners
The following samples are from a high at-risk kindergarten class, so at-risk they were in school only 4 days a week so the teacher could spend time trying to encourage their parents to support their children. These students have great difficulty in learning, but the essential first step is to gain impulse control so they could focus and attend.
Andre: The October signature is the first signature before starting the exercises.
The December signature shows he had begun to gain some control. It is down in size and he can make it sit on the baseline. This is a very gradual transition. Only when the signs of control are consistent over time can it be said that the change is permanent. The practice needed to gain that control is not a few weeks. Before teaching young children typing for computer use, the handwriting process should be stressed for three years or so because typing does not provide the same effects as the rhythmic, repetitive manipulation of the thumb and fingers does.
Oct., 1994: Andre’s first attempt at doing the exercises. He retraced the pattern on the first line and then reproduced it on his own in the second line, using a felt-tip colored pen.
Jan. 1995: He is able to hit the top and bottom baseline. The horizontal lines above and below the patterns are marks I made to show where he had recognized that the form was not well done. He went back over it to make it better conform to the model, visual evidence of the brain learning to focus and attend.
Reflecting the Emotional Turmoil of Teenagers
This writing of a male teenager portrays his vacillating emotional state. He attends an alternative high school for those who have difficulty in being in a traditional classroom, largely due to underlying emotional issues. The degree of vacillation between the samples indicates he has not yet achieved graphic maturity. He needs more practice so he can regulate the movement. The top writing is erratic and inconsistent, indicating his lack of control, suggesting lack of impulse control, e.g., self-control is still a major issue. It portrays the axiom that handwriting reveals the writer’s physical, mental and emotional state at the time of writing. He was in a much different emotional state of mind in these samples written some two weeks apart. While the first sample indicates he was emotionally agitated which affects his ability to focus and attend, impacting the learning process, the bottom sample reveals he was calmer and was having a better day.
Brandon: student in alternative high school.
Francesca: While her changes are far more subtle than the male’s sample, some positive differences are evident. After a couple months of practice, the second sample is smaller in size, more simplified, less exaggerated strokes, denoting she had reined in her emotional energy. Able to focus more easily, she could think first rather than simply reacting impulsively. (reduced 25%).
After the death of her grandmother who lived with the family and a major conflict with the father, she had begun running with the wrong crowd, which gravely concerned the mother. The mother decided to use a monetary approach to solicit Francesca’s cooperation to carry out the necessary practice. She willingly carried it out daily and after a few months of practice, the mother noted that her behavior had improved greatly. She backed away from her previous social crowd and her grades improved. The mother raved about the changes she saw and was so struck when Francesca could sit and read a book, something she had been too restless to do previously.
In closing, these few examples reveal the potential of using handwriting’s inherent capacity as a mental and emotional force to train the brain. Its non-threatening format can be used as a remediation technique for those who struggle to learn as well at the kindergarten level. While its non-threatening format is fun and easy to use at that level, it also ensures that the young child makes that necessary shift in dominance early in the educational process so learning can proceed unhampered.
For homeschooling parents, it is well to remember that nothing done at the kitchen table can begin to compare with the repetitive, interactive manipulation of the thumb and fingers in its impact on the brain. One of handwriting’s unrecognized assets is its capacity to help a child harness his/her will. Stimulation is a gift to the child’s brain as it sculpts it. Movement and music is the first step in harnessing the will so self-control is gained, leading to self-mastery. Harnessing the will develops character. Marva Collins, the highly esteemed teacher of young kids from the ghettos in Chicago, said, "I will is more important than I.Q."
The first example portrays how one child who was derailed early in the first grade, causing enormous educational turmoil over the next 6 years. In light of the above research, I learned why Shelby experienced such a severe case of learning disabilities. A bright, bubbly, very right-brain-dominant 6-year-old, she used to watch videos by the hours before she started school. She lived in the fantasy of her imagination, entertaining herself for hours at a time playing school with her dolls.
Shelby: Her signature at 6 years old before starting lst grade, before she started the exercises. Clearly, high emotional energy and lack of impulse control is an issue. The placement of her signature portrays her boundless energy as she could hardly get stopped to hit the page.
These following samples track her downward spiral into the learning disabled pit because the school failed to spend enough time stressing the handwriting process to stop her decline. Being so right brain dominant, her left brain, the brain that goes to school, had not been fully activated to come "online" before pressure on the left brain learning process began. This left her under the gun from the start. Her kindergarten teacher alerted her mother that she did not know her ABCs. Early in the first grade she was heartbroken in receiving a "U" on a spelling test. The teacher told the mother to work with her on the alphabet and numbers. Each session quickly ended up with Shelby very frustrated and in tears and the mother being very stressed.
Continuing to play extensively with her dolls through the lst grade and watching too many videos only strengthened her right brain’s talents. And since handwriting was not stressed enough to counteract the right brain’s influence, it hampered the left brain’s capacity to learn the 3Rs. The mother and grandmother were upset that Shelby was having problems and urged the schools to test her for learning disabilities. Recognizing that left-brain dominance was not in place, I told them both that Shelby had a "processing problem." I urged the mother to back off, avoid stressing her further and start the exercises to give the brain interactive stimulation without pressure in trying to meet expectations. As the school didn’t move fast enough to suit them, they wanted immediate action, electing to have Sylvan Learning Center test her. Sylvan said she had a "processing problem."
Each hemisphere possesses a different processing style that produces a striking difference in perception -- how the child perceives the object before him or her. Perception is reality. The right brain’s perception style delivers a global, holistic overview with little awareness for subtle details while the left brain is able to perceive those subtle details. She globally perceives the correct number of letters in the words, but not subtle details. Stress is evident. As the left-brain processes speech sounds faster than the right, with a slight speech impediment, it’s likely she was not processing the sounds clearly either. All told, the test portrays significant stress which generates anxiety.
Shelby: Her spelling words after 6 weeks of multi-sensory handwriting stimulation reveals a little improvement.
The writing is not as stressed as the previous sample, but she did not cognitively produce them, just copied them. While impulse control has not been reined in, she appears to be able to perceive some of the letters’ details, indicating a small shift in dominance has begun to take place. She made small strides, but the stimulation should continued so the left brain’s processing style is fully activated and the emotional brain’s influence is dampened. However, her ongoing stress and anxiety continued to undermine her progress
Stepping in early when the first signs of trouble appear avoids the downward self-defeat- ing spiral that undermines the learning process. Every child wants to meet expectations and when things start to go downhill, the child quickly accepts an "I’m dumb - I’m stupid" belief that quickly becomes self-fulfilling. The power of belief, both positive and negative, is an incredible force in the human mind.
However, due to complications at home, the program was neglected. Early in the second semester, Shelby was in danger of being held back. The mother urged the school to start my program. They took it on, keeping it up until the end of the year and she passed. In receiving extensive remediation, the following was written at the end of the first grade. It reveals that she had made progress in forming the letters, but still could not maintain an even baseline.
However, the necessary practice did not continue, and by the end of the 2nd grade, she had lost much of her gains. Being a very right-brain-dominant child, she continued to indulge her fantasy world. Without enough remediation to counteract that stronger right brain influence, the left brain was unable to gain control. She needed the inhibiting influence that handwriting provides to dampen the emotional brain. By the third grade her troubles began to derail the learning and she began to develop significant anxiety. This is very debilitating, especially if it continues over time.
The sample below, as a fourth grader, was not written under the pressure of classroom expectations but the anxiety is clear. Below grade level, she was having major problems. The significant irregularity of the movement indicates she had not been able to harness her emotional energy, gets hyper easily and has to be urged to calm down.
In the sixth grade now, she continued to fall through the educational cracks and had to have an individual educational plan (IEP) developed. The following samples, one written on lined paper and the other on unlined paper, reveal her varying ability for control. While the first sample is a picture of where she was with support, the second reveals just how emotionally vulnerable she really was. She experienced a vacillating, disheartened, discouraged emotional state.
In the 6th grade now, her reading/spelling were on a 3rd grade level. Problem #14 reveals varying letter size, erratic up and down baseline, jump up letters and erratic, displaced pressure, portraying how easily her emotions vacillate and her battered sense of self esteem.
As a sensitive, right-brain-dominant child, she struggled in trying to meet expectations but was easily discouraged as she believed she was a failure. Performance anxiety undermined her efforts. As her learning style was not strongly emphasized, she performed poorly, creating anxiety that only made progress in improving her performance difficult -- a vicious circle.
Samples of Successful Remediation
The following before and after samples portray the success achieved with daily practice over two months time in a special education classroom with the whole class.
Before starting the program: The following is the writing of a 9-year-old Attention Deficit Hyperactive male (ADHD). He also has a minor hearing loss, further complicating his ability to learn. The teacher reported "he was out of control" in the classroom (parents did not want the child on medication). While the handwriting carries the same message, it indicates how little control he is able to exert over his emotionally driven behavior. However, one must speculate about how much influence the stress and anxiety created by his hearing loss contributes to his hyperactive behaviors.
A Graphic Perspective of Emotional Instability in Handwriting
This writing visually reflects the variation that occurs over time in the intensity of one’s emotional energy flow. The samples below were written without the assistance of music. Scott, an 8-year-old who has ADD, wrote the first one while off medication. One of three children, both he and his older brother have ADD. The writing increases in size as he continues to write, indicating the infusion of emotion, evidence of his lack of control. In the sample on unlined paper, it rambles up and down in getting from one side of the page to the other, indicating his lack of control. While he has more control in hitting the baseline when writing on lined paper, the intensity in the rush to the other side of the page signifies his racing mind and the intensity of his emotions. There is scarcely any breathing room, revealing his inner turmoil. The handwriting is basically illegible. Indeed, the rush of emotion (lack of impulse control) is the primary driving force in getting through a task as quickly as he can. Note the difference in lined and unlined paper.
In closing, these few examples visually portray why capitalizing on handwriting’s inherent capacity as a mental/emotional force is so vital. Its non-threatening format primes the brain for the learning process. It can be used both as a remediation technique, or to start positive stimulation at the kindergarten level to train the brain, as well as an exercise to calm the emotional mind before or after heavy intellectual efforts. While children love this concept, especially in the primary level, it also ensures that the young child makes that necessary shift in dominance early on to avoid potential for learning issues. -- J.F.
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