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OT Month

Ask an OT | Pencil Pressure, Learning Cursive, and Hand Strength

April 17, 2023

by: Katrina Erickson

4 mins


Join us for Ask an OT, a series dedicated to answering burning questions from educators, parents, and OTs like you! Join us each week this month to discover new tips, strategies, and more from our occupational therapy experts.  

This week, we’re addressing how to build appropriate pencil pressure, teach cursive to children who haven’t yet mastered print, and effective ways to build hand strength.  

Have a question for our OTs? Send us a message on Facebook or Instagram!  


1) How can I help a child increase pressure on a pencil or crayon when writing? 

Every student tackles learning how to use a pencil differently. Grading pressure when writing, coloring, or drawing relies heavily on the body’s ability to use information from the proprioceptive system—which varies among students. The proprioceptive system coordinates and grades the amount of force and pressure used when writing. 

Here are some warm-up activities before coloring, writing, or drawing. 

  • Animal or wheelbarrow walks 
  • Wall pushups or yoga poses 
  • Tug-of-war 
  • Outdoor play, including climbing and using push or pull toys 

Warm-up activities are a great way to prepare students to properly grade the pressure and force they need to write! 

What to do if students are pressing TOO hard: 

Use crayons (or colored pencils) to color. Ask students to use varying levels of force when coloring to emphasize the effects of decreased pressure. One way to practice this is to color in a heart using a red colored pencil. Gradually darken the shade from light pink to medium pink to red! 

Check their grip. If it’s too tight, teach them to take breaks and relax their fingers to release pressure. 

Show them how to use a mechanical pencil and demonstrate the effects of excessive pressure on delicate graphite. 

What to do if students are pressing TOO soft: 

Use crayons (or colored pencils) to color. Have students vary their levels of force to emphasize the effects of increased pressure. 

Put carbon sheets under their writing or drawing and encourage them to apply enough pressure to make a copy.  

Place a firm surface between the pages of their notebooks to give them more stability. Introduce an element of fun to their writing with a vibrating pen. Children will have to use more force and pressure to control the wiggling pen, which can help them develop an awareness of the pressure they're applying. 

2) Can I continue to teach a child cursive even if they haven’t mastered print first? 

Contrary to what you might think, yes! Children can learn to write in cursive without being fully versed in print writing.  

In typical classrooms, children start to learn cursive in second or third grade, and that's when we begin to teach cursive in our Handwriting Without Tears® curriculum. 

For students who never mastered print and continue to struggle with it, learning how to write in cursive can be the answer to ending their frustration. 

  • Cursive is more fluid and can help children who have struggled with print. 
  • Cursive naturally helps with spacing problems, as the only spacing occurring is in between words, not letters. 
  • Learning cursive can bring an exciting spark and a fresh start for students with poor print-writing habits. 

Three tips to keep learning fun, easy, and child-friendly. 

Introduce multi-sensory activities such as the Wet–Dry–Try strategy or the Blackboard with Double Lines before starting on the workbook. This will help young writers learn the correct formations, using larger movements with tactile feedback, and create correct habits for cursive letter formations and connection skills. 

Engage children with fun animations, videos, and digital letter formations. Use the Handwriting Interactive Teaching Tool to access cursive letter formation activities, teaching videos, and more.  

Use child-friendly language with step-by-step formations on how to form cursive letters easily.  

3) What are some best practices for building hand strength? 

Hand strength is a necessary skill for a variety of classroom activities. From cutting to writing and manipulating objects, building hand strength helps your child use the tools at their disposal with confidence. 

Fun, easy-to-implement activities for children building their hand strength: 

  • Squirt toys are loads of fun! Ask students to squirt water from spray bottles to water plants or spray water on a fence or sidewalk. 
  • Practice using medicine droppers to build pinch strength. 
  • Utilize dough or clay to squeeze, pinch, and roll. You can push items into the dough and create shapes! Give our Roll-a-Dough Letters® a try. Kids will build hand and finger strength as they roll, pinch and press dough to form letters and numbers. 
  • Play around with clothespins. Pinch and clip two items together to make a match, or simply line them up on the edge of a folder or piece of cardboard. If you have more than one color, you can create patterns. 
  • Challenge students to a relay race using water. Gather a few containers, water, and a sponge. How fast can your child soak up water from one container and squeeze it out in another? You could change this activity to include a turkey baster too. 
  • Crumple or tear paper! You could turn this activity into an art project using the little torn bits of paper to create a mosaic picture or use this opportunity to let your child shred items that will go in the trash. 


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