The following recent idea of mine appears, at the time of writing, to be a good one:
+ + +
My eight-year-old son is squirrelly; wiggly; given to making random loud noises of gunfire; constantly doodling ninjas, sharks wearing explosive vests, gratuitously well-armed employment opportunities, and fantastic attack vehicles with all sorts of pointy bits sticking out; never voluntarily positioned in any way that could remotely be called "seated;" easily distracted; hard to hold onto.
No, I don't think he needs a diagnosis of any kind. I'm fairly certain that all this is within the normal range of "eight-year-old boy."
He wasn't very much different one year ago, when I was looking at the start of second grade for him, and amassing curriculum materials. I picked up the second-grade handwriting workbook I had ordered for him. I looked it over. It started with review of printing, then introduced cursive, what we sometimes call "attached writing" around here.
(No, I am not going to get into whether it was D'Nealian or Zaner-Bloser or whatever. I just call it all "cursive." Anything deeper is micromanaging.)
Mind you, I think that neat and tidy handwriting is important. Develops care and attention, is a type of artistic expression within limits, is an opportunity to fine-tune the motor skills, gives children a chance to practice a manual skill and work towards creating small things of beauty in their everyday lives. And of course kids have to learn how to read other people's handwriting, even if they themselves mostly get by with typing and printing.
But as I flipped through that second-grade cursive handwriting workbook, I knew that if I tried to make my then-seven-year-old sit still long enough to do all that... well... there wouldn't be much time for other writing. It was hard enough, then at the beginning of the second grade year, to get him to write anything at all in any kind of writing. I would turn my back and he would have wandered off, mid-sentence. I would ask him to write a sentence and he would whine about how many words were in it.
I put the book away. Maybe I won't even bother, I thought. I was really the only person in the house who cared about handwriting. My husband thought it bordered on archaic. My older son printed everything. I decided it was not worth the battle. I did not teach him handwriting in second grade.
Fast forward nine or ten months, to the last couple months of second grade. The eight-year-old boy is still squirrelly and wiggly, and still doodles constantly, and still never sits down. But he has (thanks to a lot of daily journal writing and composition assignments, which have steadily and relentlessly and slowly expanded in length and complexity over the course of the year) learned how to write five or six sentences in a row without complaining. Much. He has also learned to read for fun, which is a big help in the staying-still department.
And meanwhile, his five-year-old sister has learned to write letters which are shaped well, if large, and has started begging to learn cursive like her older friend. Also at the same time I have recently instituted a policy of teaching the five- and eight-year-olds together at the same table at the same time, which saves time and also cuts down on escapees. Which gets me thinking: Maybe I can teach them both cursive now, at the same time, at the same rate.
So I start talking it up, a couple of months before the five-year-old finishes her printing workbook. "When you finish all the printing exercises, I'll get you an attached-writing book, and you can start to learn that kind of writing," I tell her, "and I'll get one for you, too," I tell him, "and I'll teach you both at the same time." To my shock he seems interested. And when the books arrive a few weeks later and I start them on A-a and E-e, to even more of my shock, the eight-year-old cheerfully copies the letters the way I show them, proudly shows me his best specimen, comments on how cool they look and how fast he can write them, and innocently suggests that his letters look better than his sister's (receiving a kick in return, which I pretend not to notice).
It turns out that waiting a year to try cursive writing with him, even though all the curricula (it seems) start cursive in second grade, was a great idea. He has more attention for it, and oddly enough, he actually seems interested. I'm not sure how to explain this. Maybe the smoothly flowing lines appeal to his doodly side. Maybe it feels like writing a secret spy code, or like Chinese calligraphy. Maybe it's competition with his sister. Maybe he was simply developmentally ready for this task. Whatever it is, I'll take it.
+ + +
This good idea does, incidentally, have a bad idea behind it.
My oldest son (now 11) has always been a fairly diligent, seatwork-loving sort of boy, with an appreciation for symmetry and straight lines, and good fine-motor skills. When he was seven years old and starting second grade, I thought he'd sit down and learn cursive from the copybook and that would be that. I told him all about how he'd be able to write faster in cursive, how important it would be for him to sign his name on documents, how pleased his grandparents would be to receive handwritten notes from him. I opened up the second-grade handwriting book, and we got started.
He dutifully copied the letters, words and phrases in the copybook. But when we started to get to sentences it began to take him longer and longer to finish. I waited for cursive writing to appear in his daily journal entries, and it never did. I started to suggest that he could try a little cursive in the journals. No cursive appeared. Finally I began assigning him to write in cursive.
The journal entries got very, very short.
"You'll get faster," I said. He did not. After a while printing started to appear again. I reminded him he was supposed to write in "attached writing." He stopped writing interesting and funny journal entries and started writing very short ones with very short words.
Time passed with this back and forth. He got older. I would assign him a piece of writing, and he would look up at me, worried, and ask, "Does it have to be in attached writing?" The problem, from his point of view, was that he could not write in cursive very fast; he thought faster than he could write, and it took him so long to write in "attached writing" that he could not get all his work done. Tears were shed almost daily for months.
I fretted about the right thing to do. What was more important?
That I stand my ground and show him that I would not back down just because he didn't like a task?
That he be free to concentrate on learning the structure of paragraphs and sentences, on expressing himself clearly and correctly -- obviously more important than cursive, and something that he had just been blossoming into (with printing) when I came along with my stupid cursive handwriting book and ruined everything?
That he endure the rough part of skill-building, painstakingly practicing, and writing slowly and uncomfortably at first, until he developed enough fluid comfort with cursive writing that he could start really using it as a tool to express himself?
In the end I gave up. It never seemed to get any easier for him, and I started to worry that my stubborn insistence that he write everything in cursive was going to hold him back from the real business of word-craft. His printing was and is perfectly legible, and he learned enough that he can at least read the cursive handwriting of others. I told myself that this was good enough. His father certainly thinks so.
But I still wonder where I went wrong. Was it in assuming that seven was the right age to start, just because the book said so? Or did he fool me into letting him get out of learning something he didn't want to learn, by pretending it was too hard? Or am I still wrong in regretting that this particular learning attempt failed, because handwriting isn't all that important and obviously he had no intrinsic motivation, so it would have been a waste of time anyway?
Somewhere in there is the source of the rot in this particular bad idea. But at least I learned enough to pay attention to my second son, and to give the benefit of the doubt to waiting.