Messy. Illegible. Sloppy. Are these comments you often see on your child’s school papers? For some students with ADHD, messy handwriting is just one more problem to deal with; but it is one that can directly impact grades and success in school. Your child may get answers marked wrong, not because they are wrong, but because the teacher can’t read the answers. Your child is not alone. Many children and adults with ADHD have difficulty with penmanship.
Some adults with ADHD have described the inability for their fingers to keep up with their thoughts as part of the problem. With their mind going a million miles an hour, writing becomes hurried and then ends up sloppy. But deficits in fine motor skills may also play a role. In a study published in Neuropediatrics in 2010, researchers found that the severity of inattention directly impacted fine motor skills; the worse the inattention, the worse handwriting became.
In another study, published in the journal Neurology in 2011, scientists found that children with ADHD have a difficult time controlling unnecessary movement. According to Dr. Steward Mostofsky, M.D. who participated in the study, “Just as they have difficulty controlling impulsive, hyperactive and distractible behavior, children with ADHD seem to have difficulty controlling unnecessary movement during motor tasks. These difficulties may help to explain why many children with ADHD show difficulties with motor coordination and control, and often have difficulty with performing a number of tasks that involve motor skills, such as handwriting.” 
No matter what the reason, students with poor handwriting are often seen as lazy, uncaring or defiant. Working with an occupational therapist can help improve fine motor skills. Parents can also work with the school district, especially if an IEP or Section 504 is in place, to have accommodations and modifications within the classroom, and for homework, for students having difficulties writing.
Some tips for parents and teachers to help improve handwriting:
- Use “mini” pencils, such as those found at golf courses, to help your child learn pencil grip. Rather than gripping unnecessarily hard or gripping with a fist, these pencils require fingertip grips. You can also break crayons in half to have your child hold the crayon with the fingertips rather than the whole hand.
- Use foam pencil grips to help your child properly position his fingers on the pencil.
- Use the computer for written assignments as much as possible. Word processing programs allow students to correct errors more easily in addition to making it easier for teachers to read assignments. Some children as young as 2nd grade have begun typing their assignments rather than writing them out. Speech to text software may also help.
- Provide extra time for written assignments. When students are hurried, penmanship worsens. Allowing students the extra time to slow down, process their thoughts and put them in writing can improve penmanship.
- Used lined paper to help make letters proportional. Some parents find using raised line paper helps allow students to better size letters.
- Find fun ways to practice penmanship. Writing letters over and over is tedious and boring – certainly not appealing to a child with ADHD. Instead, find games that require writing or have a written conversation, where you and your child spend 15 minutes communicating by writing notes back and forth to one another.
- Play games that improve fine motor coordination. Games like Jenga, Don’t Spill the Beans or other games that require manipulating small objects can help build fine motor skills.
- Make sure your child is sitting up straight and has plenty of arm room to write. The wrist and fingers should move only slightly when writing; the shoulders and forearms should be doing most of the work. Writing “air letters” can help get used to using the correct muscles when writing.