Denise Donica: Handwriting Research and Education
Denise Donica, DHS, OTR/L, BCP
Denise, an assistant professor in the Occupational Therapy Department at East Carolina University and a presenter for Handwriting Without Tears, surveyed North Carolina public school teachers to discover what they do relative to handwriting and how they are trained in this area. The more than 500 responses pointed to the fact that the inclusion model has created challenges for the many teachers who have never had students with special needs in their classroom. In addition, most teachers do not receive any education in handwriting instruction.
Based on this information, Denise has a goal to help develop training modules for education programs for teachers. If the teacher is able to instruct an entire class in handwriting, then occupational therapy referrals can be reserved for those students with serious underlying issues that affect their handwriting. Over time this approach could decrease occupational therapy workloads by eliminating unnecessary referrals for students who simply need more instruction in handwriting.
Denise published two back-to-back articles about her findings in the Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools & Early Intervention. The first article was on the history of handwriting instruction, following the progress from the first records of handwriting through the 1970s. The second focused on how handwriting instruction has progressed, with a focus on occupational therapy’s role.
As an instructor, Denise has been involved in handwriting research projects at Head Start that explore Handwriting Without Tears, the results of which have provided more information on what types of teacher training would be helpful (this research has been accepted by AJOT, with a publication date of 2011 or 2012). The research results also have led to handwriting instruction in the Head Start centers. Current research is looking at the effectiveness of two handwriting programs, in addition to the Head Start curriculum.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with occupational therapy practitioners in the schools focusing on handwriting, doing so leaves less time for all the other areas in which they could help students to be successful in this environment. One way to ensure appropriate referrals to occupational therapy is to work with teachers. If they are interested in learning handwriting techniques, practitioners can share ideas that don’t require expertise, like using a vertical surface and correcting posture. Doing so will allow more time for the skilled services that other students need while educating teachers on the broader role of occupational therapy. Denise recommends providing this instruction in an interactive format; in-services are sometimes seen as requirements and may not get as much participation as more hands-on approaches.
In November 2010, Denise, as an accepted trainer for Rearden Educational Conferences, traveled to Dubai to present six workshops to teachers and administrators in the Middle East. Topics included the definition of occupational therapy and the importance of occupational therapy in the school system, the role of technology in assisting with handwriting development, and strategies to assist with instruction in writing English letters.
In an age of computers and smart phones, do we even need handwriting? Denise points out that we still need foundational math skills, even though calculators are ubiquitous. By the same token we won’t always have technology for expressing ourselves in writing, so we need those foundational skills as well. The goal is to clarify to school personnel that although occupational therapy practitioners can address handwriting, this is just one of many ways to help students be successful in school and live life to its fullest.