Is the Pen Mightier Than a First Grader’s Attitude?

Q: My 7-year-old first grader received notice that he did not meet district standards for penmanship/writing the past two quarters on his report card. I have printed out worksheets for him to copy what direction pencil strokes should be made, but he just throws a fit and cries rather than try to work through the worksheets. We practice spelling words 15 minutes a day, five days  a week. He seems to have a laissez fair attitude about most things and seems to just not care. He is a left-handed writer. He could put more care into how he holds his pencil. He could put more effort into it. I ask him to leave a space the size of two fingers between words and he doesn’t. How can I get him to care? BTW, his reading level is ahead of his peers.

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A: I don’t think you’ll like this, but the short answer is you can’t get him to care about something he doesn’t want to care about. This is true of the child who is 7, 10, 15 or 26. You can’t make anyone care about something, so stop trying to make him “care.” He’s not going to, and the more you pressure him to care, the more he will dig in his heels and refuse. Save yourself some angst and quit trying to make the kid care.

Now, about that not meeting district standards. Our school system also has the same “grading” system that you refer to, and I get that you’re concerned about his “failure” to improve his handwriting. But good grief, Mom, he’s seven. He’s left-handed. He’s reading well above his peers. What more do you want from a first grader???

If you want him to begin to hate school and learning, then keep doing what you’re doing. If you want him to love school and learning, I recommend implementing the following changes pronto.

  1. Stop making him practice spelling 15 minutes every day. His time after school would be much better spent playing outside, jumping on a mini trampoline inside, reading for fun, etc. In other words, doing typical boy things (but without electronics) for most of his time at home after school. Don’t think of him as “wasting time”—there have been numerous studies that show the value of free play in a child’s overall mental, social and spatial/motor skills development. This is part of his job as a kid—to decompress, to let off steam, to figure out how the world works, so don’t deny him a good healthy dose of play each day.
  2. Let go of your expectations for “grades” at this age. It sounds like he’s doing very well overall, so please, stop harping about his handwriting! Sure, leave the handwriting worksheets around, but don’t make him do them. Again, at his age, his motor skills have probably not caught up with his brain, so forming proper letters is probably frustrating and hard for him. He’ll outgrow this—but he won’t outgrow the resentment and stress of your standing over him making him do handwriting worksheets.
  3. Get some perspective. He’s not going to fail first grade because he gets consistent low marks in handwriting. My youngest son went through the same thing in first grade and he still gets the occasional low marks related to handwriting in the third grade. While he has improved, we didn’t make it the be-all, end-all of his academic career in first grade (or second grade, or third grade…). We focused instead on helping him to care about doing his work to best of his ability, to follow the teacher’s instructions, etc. In other words, we’re more focused on ensuring he becomes a good student, not that his work receives high marks.
  4. Think of the future. Some people simply don’t have good handwriting. While penmanship is important, it’s not the most important thing your son will learn or accomplish. Think more about the kind of person you want him to be at age 30 than on the fact that he got several low marks in handwriting at the age of 7.
  5. Finally, make it fun. Last summer, I bought my son a handwriting book for boys so that he could practice on his own. Writing things like “Girls are weird” and other boy-things was fun for him. I didn’t hound him about practicing in the book, and I did catch him a time or two doing it on his own. Usually, my kids all participate in a writing club during the summer, where they spend time writing stories together. Those kind of things are low-key and provide practice in a non-academic, low-stakes atmosphere.

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