We are thrilled to be here this evening with Amy Baez. She is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist. She is the founder of Playapy and she is also the creator of an award-winning handwriting program called PALS.
Amy is joining us today to share with us in particular about preschoolers, which I am really excited about. I have a daughter about to turn 3 and I have been a bit of a nervous wreck about her not being in school right now wondering if I am doing everything right and am I doing enough? I know a lot of our other moms have as well. So, we’re just so excited to hear what Amy has to share with us today. Amy, I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to you. Ladies, Amy has asked that we have paper and pen handy or nearby.
Hello everyone, thank you for having me. I’m going to be talking about Preschool and Pre-writing, and do you see my subtitle is Choosing Health and Happiness over Homework. So you might already know how I feel about certain things. That might give you a clue where we are going with this.
So, as I mentioned I am Amy Baez and I’ve been a Pediatric Occupational Therapist for about 20 years now. If you’re not familiar with Occupational Therapy or why it would be used with children, I work with children who have developmental delays for the most part.
Initially, I started working with mostly children with developmental disabilities and I am going to explain to you in a little bit how that transitioned. I have my own company called Playapy. It’s just a play on the words ‘Play’ and ‘therapy” put together. It’s not the same as play therapy just to clarify, that is a completely different profession. But we do use play in Occupational Therapy to work with children because that is their main occupation.
So, Occupational Therapy is a medical field. We often work hand in hand with a Physical Therapist and Speech Therapist. We do have our own things that we work on and some things that overlap. We really take care of a lot of the different things that a child spends their time doing, which often revolves around their education and fine motor skills, hence I have a lot of practice with working with children with handwriting. So that gives you a little idea of how that came about.
Play, as I mentioned, is a child’s occupation. One of my favorite quotes is ‘Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.’
We have to remember that when it comes to playing with children, they are learning. If we want them to gain the most knowledge then play is the best way to go about it. We’re going to talk about how to go about doing that. But that is what I want you to keep in mind, more so than achievement. I think a lot of times parents get into the mode of ‘okay my kid is getting ready to go to school’ and you focus a lot on achievement as opposed to play as being the way to go about learning.
So, what’s the problem here? Well, as I mentioned earlier, I started out working with children who had developmental disabilities, and then it was transferring more to developmental delays. What that may mean is that they may not necessarily have a diagnosis but they are coming to me with an issue. So, parents feel there is a concern and the doctor says “Okay, let’s have a specialist look at this”, and then they get to me.
What I was noticing, in particular, is that there were a lot of kids who were in preschool all the sudden being referred for handwriting. There is this increase in academics being pushed upon children in Kindergarten and PreK which is leading to what I refer to as “Preschool Pressure.”
That then leads to a decrease in their sensory and motor foundational skills. So, what happens is that in preschool and kindergarten, kids are now being taught, not really taught but forced to do handwriting. This was a skill that was traditionally taught much later on. This was a first grader type of thing. Then it got pushed down into kindergarten. Now they are pushing it down to PreK, because they have children they are trying to prep for testing.
They’re kind of thinking ‘oh they’ll just learn this,’ so it’s not being taught as a specific class anymore. Therefore the prekindergarten teachers are feeling like it’s their responsibility now to teach this. But what they’re not taking into consideration is the child’s developmental skills at that age and whether it’s really appropriate for them to be learning this type of thing. This is leading to what I refer to as preschool pressure, and really what that means is that the children are feeling pressure to learn this new skill, and the parents are feeling pressure to do this too. The teachers are feeling pressure like they are responsible for this activity. And then it leads to people like me, the therapist, who is then feeling the pressure as well even though we know because our training is based on a medical model, that this is not appropriate for children.
What they should be focusing on in preschool is building that foundation for their sensory and motor skills. We’re having children experiencing this chaos and they don’t know what they’re supposed to know. They’re just going along with the ride, but they can’t really handle it very well and it’s leading to problems later on. I’m getting referrals for 3 and 4-year-olds for handwriting. It makes me really sad, to be honest, because I don’t really feel like children should be feeling this type of pressure. I have gone to preschools and seen them have children copy sentences from a board instead of playing on the swings and building with blocks.
Hence, we have a problem. Today I want to talk to you a little more about the research. I knew this was becoming a problem about ten years ago. It’s when I started to see this shift in the types of children that were being sent to me.
I wanted to see that it wasn’t just me, so I started looking at the research. The first research I found was actually what I just talked about. There is research that shows that children are experiencing less foundational skills directly because of this increase in academics in preschool and in kindergarten. But a lot of people say, “kids are on iPads now, they’re using computers, you don’t really handwrite anymore, it’s no big deal!”
Well, it’s not true! They spend 30 to 60% of their day in school either performing handwriting tasks or fine motor tasks. Those fine motor tasks can be things like cutting or coloring. In addition to writing they need to be able to tie their shoes, open up their water bottles, and open up their snack packages. If they don’t have these additional skills they’re not going to be able to do those tasks easily. And they’re also not going to be able to sit and attend for a long period of time. Because they are also part of those foundational skills that are built in preschool beforehand. So that is something to consider.
The next thing we want to consider in our research is that children who don’t have these foundational skills are then likely to see a decrease in competency later on with handwriting. So if they don’t have foundational skills, as they get older every year we start increasing the amount of work we’re giving them. We’re giving them all this work and it keeps compounding and getting harder and harder for them. If they can’t do it then, once they get to third grade it’s a huge problem for them.
We have kids now that are having a really hard time with school. They’re developing behavioral problems, they’re developing attention problems, and they’re hating school. All these things we don’t want them to feel, they’re having this experience because we’re rushing into this process.
Another thing that we’re seeing in research is if we just take a step back and wait and don’t push kindergarten so quickly – instead focus on what kindergarten should be – then we’ll see children have less likelihood of developing attention deficit and hyperactivity. This research in particular was showing that if we delay kindergarten for just one year, by the time they’re 11 you’re going to have a reduced rate, at 73% which is a huge chunk of children that could be helped.
There is a term called RedShirting, don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s just the idea of delaying kindergarten. Often in sports, sometimes they’ll do this with children, they will hold them back a year so that they’re the oldest on their team. So if you’re older, you’re going to be stronger and more ready to face your opponent. Sometimes that also happens with kids in school, they are not rushed into kindergarten. Or, say they are a really young kindergartener, it might be better for them to wait. Especially now because they are pushing them to know so much by kindergarten.
Another piece of research shows that we have found no relationship between homework and improved grades. Again, we are going to ask “is this necessary?”
I have kids that are coming home from preschool who have sheets of homework to do instead of just relaxing when they get home from school or playing with their parents. I have kids who are known to have a diagnosis of autism and can just draw a circle and their homework is to write their name 10 times. Why is this necessary? Especially when the research is showing there is no relationship or benefits.
I’ve done all this research for you. Saved you all that trouble! Now you know this.
What are we going to do about it? How can we be a part of the solution instead of exacerbating the problem? I want to talk to you a little bit more about what you can do.
The first thing I would suggest is to choose Happiness. It sounds like such a nice thing to do. I’m briefly going to talk about these steps individually.
In terms of homework, the National PTA recommends only about 10-20 minutes per night starting in 1st grade, and going forward it should only be another 10 minutes a night per grade. So 2nd grade would maybe be 20 minutes, 3rd grade 30 minutes. Nowhere in there does it say: kindergarten or preschool.
We want to eliminate preschool homework. One of the things I always remind parents is that nobody is going to fail your kid for preschool if they don’t do their homework. You can always just say “no.” I think a lot of parents feel like they want to please the teacher and they want to feel like they’re doing their best, and doing everything they could. But, there is no one forcing you to do it. So sometimes it might be sharing this research with the teacher and saying “they’ve shown that homework isn’t really needed” or “I don’t feel like this is right for my kid.” You must advocate for yourself and your child.
If you’re not going to really put yourself into that position you can just have your kid not complete it. If you want to take a more passive approach then just don’t do it or just do an amount that you feel is right. You could send a note saying “we worked on this activity instead.” Or “we did a puzzle tonight instead.” That’s another way you can approach it if you don’t want to take on your child’s teacher head-on.
Another thing we can focus on is play-based learning. We want to go back to this idea of instead of writing on paper, doing our name, doing these rote activities, we want to go back to all those activities: coloring, cutting, drawing, painting, thinking, sorting. There are so many other choices you can do instead of focusing on writing itself.
Then we want to adjust your expectations. This is probably the hardest thing.
I think parents have a lot of goals for their children, which is wonderful. They really want them to be successful. But a lot of times parents can be overly zealous about handwriting and then not so much about other things. For example, you have a kid who is 9-years-old and the parent won’t let them use a knife, but they’re expecting them to write at 3-years-old. Those should actually happen around the same time. You want to think about what your expectations are and if you’re placing them onto your child.
You also want to be sure you are not comparing them to other kids. Sometimes when I do workshops with teachers they will say, “well Johnny can do it.” But that doesn’t mean you should be forcing it on every child, just because you have a child who is more advanced.
What happens is children learn to adapt. They may learn how to do that skill but they also may learn in the process some poor behaviors along with it, some poor habits that go along with it. Then you have to train them to undo those behaviors and re-learn how to write later in a way that’s better for them.
We want to think about what their developmental age is and learn more about what you shouldn’t be expecting them to do and focus more on that as opposed to your expectations of “I want them to write their name and know the alphabet” and all these things before they even get into kindergarten.
That’s choosing happiness. I guarantee if you focus on those things you are going to lead a happier life in general.
Next, we want to choose health. What I mean by that is providing aerobic activity, limiting screen time, and seeking support services.
Provide Aerobic Activity
The Center for Disease Control actually recommends an hour per day of aerobic activity for kids. Three times a week that should include muscle and bone strengthening. One of the reasons I suggest this is because kids are not getting enough. They are spending a lot of time in front of screens, they are sitting down a lot, and are less exposed to exercise outside of the home. They’re just not getting enough of it.
Exercise is needed in order for them to be able to sit down and learn at a table, hold their body up, to have the core strength to sit there for hours in class, and to write. These are all a part of those foundational skills. We want to spend time focusing on these skills instead.
We have to think about exercise like food. You wouldn’t go through an entire day without feeding your kid. You have to remember that part of their diet is actually their sensory system and that includes movement. Getting that aerobic activity in is a part of your daily plan for your child so that they are ready and have those foundational skills.
Limit Screen Time
This is the one I tend to get most scared of parents on. They look at me like “what do you mean an hour! How can I do only an hour?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to one hour a day of quality programming. That includes television, phones, I-pads, all these things.
When a child is looking at an I-Pad the time they are spending there means they are not moving. You are taking that time away from their movement. Their eyes are not fully developed, so they are having this experience that really wasn’t meant for them. It really does affect them in many ways.
If you look at the habits of all the CEOs of tech companies they’re not letting their children use I-Pads. There is a reason why.
You have to really think about those things. Think back to when you were a kid – I didn’t have an I-pad. I did have a television, so I did have some time in front of the screen but I also spent a lot of time just playing with toys, knick-knacks, a set of cards.
We need to find ways to get them off the screen and really using their fingers so that they have that motor control to do things like handwriting.
Playing on an I-pad and touching that screen is not doing anything to develop their hand coordination so they really need to spend their time using those muscles in order to exercise them and have the strength to hold writing utensils and things like that.
Seek Support Services
If you feel like you’re doing everything you can and you still feel like your child is experiencing some sort of delay or struggling with handwriting what you can do is see an occupational therapist, someone like me.
If you go to your doctor and they give you the prescription and you go see the therapist and the therapist says, “I don’t see anything wrong here your child is developing normally” maybe you should trust them. Think about going back and adjusting those expectations.
We also want to think about it the other way. If a teacher is telling you their may be a delay – oftentimes parents come to me because a teacher noticed some kind of delay. A lot of times parents don’t see the signs. We want to think about both ends of that.
It could be that you get an answer saying that everything is fine and we just have to keep working at it. Or, it might be that you need some extra help. Either way, you’re going to feel better eventually because you are going to get the help that you need or you’re going to feel less stressed about it.
The other thing to consider is if you don’t want to go down this whole rabbit hole with a therapist would be using some type of handwriting program. This would not necessarily be for a pre-schooler, but by the time they are about 5-years-old you may want to start looking into handwriting programs.
The thing about handwriting programs is the research shows there isn’t necessarily one that is better than others, but the research does show that using one is effective. The idea is that it doesn’t necessarily matter which one you use, but if you’re using that extra instruction they will benefit from it. That’s pretty much what should be happening in schools. They aren’t sitting them down and giving them instruction directly.
So we discussed six little steps that you can do to choose happiness and health: eliminate preschool homework, focus on play-based learning, adjust your expectations, provide aerobic activity, limit screen time, and seek support services.
If everyone can grab your piece of paper we are going to complete what I call an empathy exercise. We are going to pretend we are children right now. Have your paper in front of you, preferably on a flat surface or something you can write on. Grab a pencil and hold it in your non-dominant hand, the hand you don’t write with. I want to give you the perspective of someone that doesn’t have control. I want you to hold it tightly in a fist instead of the grasp you normally would use. So hold it in a fist just like the picture shows you.
Next, I want you to close your eyes and try your hardest to resist peeking. What you’re going to do is draw a house upside down. Draw a house, it’s going to have a door, maybe a door knob, some windows, and a roof, if you want to go for the chimney. Give it a little detail, but don’t look! Don’t peek! This should just take a few seconds. Don’t put too much thought into it. Don’t try to be a perfectionist.
When you’re done I want you to turn it right side up and look at it. Think about how you feel about it. Are you super proud of it? Did you think, “wow! This doesn’t look anything like what it should look like.”
When I did it I was like “woah! I’m really not good at this!”
The reason I wanted to do this exercise is because I wanted you to have a little bit of empathy for your child. If you are asking them to learn how to write when they are three and four-years-old in preschool, they don’t have their grasp perfected yet. It’s not even expected to be until four-years-old or so. They may not even have a dominant hand yet. They don’t even know which hand they want to use. Their eyes aren’t fully developed so they don’t understand what they’re seeing yet. They often don’t understand diagonal lines until they are four-years-old, maybe four and a half.
Then we are asking them to draw multiple things. In your house you might have had a triangle, a rectangle, a square, a circle, all of these different shapes. Now at three-years-old they are supposed to just know how to do a circle, maybe they are getting to that square when they are four-years-old.
Here we are asking them to draw on a line with multiple angles and multiple meeting points and get their name down correctly and attach it to this, and it’s supposed to look this way. I want you to think about how they feel when they’re not successful doing it. A lot of times what we are doing is setting children up to feel disappointed in themselves for something they shouldn’t even know how to do yet.
One of the things I do when I first go to see a child in their house is gross motor exercise. We exercise those big muscles before I have them do anything writing related. I prep their body through gross motor activity, some sort of movement play. That will prep their body to be able to focus. If they are all over the place and I ask them to sit down they aren’t going to be able to focus. So, that’s one thing to consider when you want your child to practice a drawing activity. Do they have the attention span to do that right now? Can they sit still? You might want to move their body around and get them regulated so that they are able to do that.
Then I have them play with tiny toys. Little toys will help get those small muscles in their hands working. We start with the big muscles and then move to the small muscles.
Then I spend time with them lying down. This position really helps them develop the muscles in their arms, core, and joints. That will also help increase the strength in their hands as well.
A lot of times I won’t have them write at a table either. We may do writing or coloring right there on the floor, puzzles on the floor, playing on the floor. Especially for kids that were reluctant to come to me, they need to spend a lot of time on the floor.
That would be some quick things to think about to take home today that you can think about doing when you want them to work on visual and fine-motor skills.
Who’s ready to go on the fun train?
Raise your hand if you think play-based learning is a good idea for you? Something you want to do? If you’d like to learn more I have some ways you can learn more from me. There are plenty of people you can learn from, but if you like my style these are some different avenues to connect with me.
In terms of social media you can find me @playapy. I am on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I also spend a lot of time on YouTube. On my website there is a page of resources and a blog you can check out. You can sign up for my newsletter where I share different information.
Last but not least I have the PALS Writing Program. I usually recommend it for kids about the age of 5 if they are developmentally ready for it. We will look at upper and lower case letters.
Thank you, Amy! I have a question. I know it varies age by age, but if a kid is heading into kindergarten what, in general, would you be looking for them to have in place as far as handwriting skills go?
Sure, it really depends on their age as opposed to just what grade they are going into. One of the things I hear back from teachers often is that one of their requirements is that the child is supposed to know how to attempt to copy their name.
We have to be very clear about that language. Attempting to copy their name is different from writing their name perfectly by themself. Copying is different from writing. Copying is when you see an example and try to draw it. It’s not from memorization. And attempt means you are trying to do it as opposed to a kid that looks at it and just walks away.
They may recognize letters by that point, but not necessarily know how to draw them. That’s a whole other field. If they are trying to draw their name that is normal, but expecting them to write their name by themself and have it look perfect on lined paper is not something you should be expecting of your child going into kindergarten.
Now the school may expect that of them, but we have to remember if we are pressuring them too early what might happen is that they start to do it incorrectly and then you have to re-teach them. What I mean by incorrectly is that they may start drawing things backwards or going in the wrong direction. If they aren’t going in the right direction when it comes to writing other letters or even cursive it might be really difficult for them to do later on because they’ve developed that muscle memory. Your hands start to memorize how they move in life, just like your brain does. If you learn how to do something incorrectly it can be really hard to unlearn that skill. We see a lot of kids writing upside down, or from the bottom up instead of top down, which makes it really laborious for them to write later on as they get older and it becomes harder for them to write up to speed. They can’t write as fast because they aren’t doing it in a flow that is natural.
What I usually do is tell parents to focus on shapes. You really need to focus on shapes more than the letters. Shapes have different angles. If you think about the triangle, it has diagonal lines and three meeting points. If you think about the first letter of the alphabet, what shape does it look like? An A, right? If your child doesn’t know how to draw diagonal lines yet and you’re trying to force them to draw the alphabet and you start with A you’re already setting them up to fail, or to feel like they’re not doing well, because it’s one of the hardest letters to do.
If we focus more on shapes and getting them to improve those they will then be better prepared to learn letters later on. So what I usually do, I’ll work on these foundational skills, I’ll make sure the child’s hands are strong enough, that they’re able to sit, that they have an appropriate grasp. When they have all those things and they can start drawing shapes pretty well and understand how to do them fairly easily, then I feel ready to introduce letters to them.
I’ll start out and look at something like the letter L. It’s pretty much half of a square. If they know how to do a square then they can probably do an L.
Another thing I do specifically with the handwriting program I created is focusing on “action words.” I will give them words that match the direction they are going in. I’m giving them another sensory system to use to help them. In addition to just seeing things they are hearing what they are supposed to do as well. Giving them that direction and instruction really helps them understand what they’re forming better.
In terms of writing, to answer your question, that is the thing I would focus on first, making sure they know how to draw some basic shapes. Now, I’m not talking about a pentagon or a star, that’s a little bit more complex. Triangle, Rectangles, Squares, things like that. So you can start with that and then you can move into letters. When I say they can do them I mean it’s a form that is recognizable and it’s not too huge. If they are still drawing a square really big, they probably aren’t ready to do really small letters. If they can draw a small little square upon command then they are probably ready to do letters.
I was going to say I might have trouble with a pentagon. I would have to think through all the sides.
You know it’s surprising for a lot of parents, and I only know this because I work with students but shapes actually have a specific direction. You are supposed to draw them in a certain way. I even have a video on my YouTube Channel called How To Draw Shapes and it really goes into it in detail. But, what we want to remember is going at it from a top down, left to right approach. That’s how we read, we read from the top down and left to right.
The big thing is not worrying about it so much. You’re going to be okay. As long as they have those other foundational skills, kids pick up writing really fast.
I can work on just handwriting for a year with these kids or I can work on all these foundational skills and then spend three weeks on handwriting and come up with the same results, except now I have a kid that is happier and not stressed out over it. When he’s ready for it, he’s so confident and knows he can do it. This is easy! But, if we make them struggle the whole way though they don’t like it and they don’t feel happy about it. You’re not doing them any favors either. For what reason? Why are you putting them through that? It’s going back to your own expectations for yourself.
Amy, with all of the research that you cited about how this is detrimental to their development – I know there is standardized testing and that’s the focus of everything – but, do you see this shifting in our education system in the future?
Well just because there is research doesn’t necessarily mean people want to listen to it. I think it depends on the school and if they are more willing to listen. I’ve even had schools where I’ve gone in and taught a whole workshop and they are amazed, but then they still go back to the old way of doing things because they still feel pressure somewhere in the system that they have to do it this way. It’s really sad, in some ways it’s almost abusive to have some kids do this in this way, especially the really little ones.
I don’t really know. I feel like it really depends on the school. There are some schools going back to the idea of adding a handwriting curriculum into the school day and there are some that make an effort to use a program.
One of the biggest pet peeves I have with schools is the requirement for kindergarteners to have those composition books. I hate those things. The lines are so little and it’s so confusing to kids. I wish they would never make them use them until first or second grade when they are more appropriate. So, I’d be careful about those composition books! Sometimes you may have to use them and I have different techniques on how to make that a little bit of a better system for kids.
Sometimes I think we have to remind teachers that not everything they suggest may be right for your kid. I think it’s still better for them to feel happy than to feel like they have this unattainable goal they have to reach. If you focus a lot more on the play, everything else will truly come with that. That’s how they are really naturally supposed to learn.
If we look at other schools, I believe Finland has the best school system, and they don’t even start kids in school until they are 7-years-old. They are just playing up until that point and they seem to be doing just fine. You have to pick your battles. Maybe it’s’ the homework versus something else. But, what you do in your house is entirely in your control. You have to research and learn new ways to approach these things. That’s why I always start out with movement as the first thing to get the brain going, and then going from there.
If you’re going to be the parent that is like we are going to get this work done, we are going to sit down and do it right now, you’re just making it more difficult for yourself. If you take that play-based approach first and ease into it, even if it’s just five or ten minutes, you’re going to have better results than if you just go in like we have to get this done right away.
I do have a question. My daughter is four and a half and they do practice writing at her preschool. It’s mostly tracing at this point. She loves practicing. She’s so proud of herself when she does it. But, she does a lot of things like write really large, start in the center of the page, if she doesn’t have enough room she’ll get creative with where she goes next. Right now, I’m sort of like ‘yeah do your thing having fun practicing writing,’ should I be monitoring that more so that she doesn’t get into bad habits?
Yeah, so what I usually do in that case when they’ve already started, they already have that pressure put on them so it’s hard to reign them back and say “this is not necessary” they’ve already been indoctrinated to think “this is what I’m supposed to do.” So what I do then is try to provide the instruction they are not getting. If she’s going to learn it I want her to learn it the right way. You can model for her, “we start on the top left of the page when we are doing things.” You can make sure that she is mastering her shapes first. Go back and just encourage that, “Oh, I really like and want to work on shapes today.”
It’s still good to praise her and her wanting to trace her name and stuff, but I would make sure she’s going in the right direction. Make sure she’s going in the right direction, top to bottom, left to right type of approach. Using a handwriting program might be good for that, just in terms of getting her to follow the right way of doing things. Just being there and giving her some more guidance. What happens is they go off on their own and they learn how to do things, maybe backwards or from the bottom up and when you try to fix it later their hand is already like this is the way I know how to do it and it’s hard to unlearn that. So go in and give her instruction without putting too much emphasis on it. If she already has it then go back and work on some other things. Make sure she’s holding her pencil correctly.
Well Amy, I can say that personally this was something I needed to hear so thank you.
Yes of course. I could’ve focused on more specific things that parents can do with their child but a lot of times I feel that that can be overwhelming.
This was perfect! I’m sure we will be in touch with you again soon!
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