Handwriting and ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Messy handwriting that results in illegible homework assignments and sloppy work is a frustrating problem for many kids with ADHD. Handwriting difficulties often leave parents and teachers wondering why kids who are bright and knowledgeable can seem to be so "careless" when they complete assignments. Kids and teens get frustrated because they lose points on homework and tests not because they didn't know the material but because their answers weren't legible. As kids get older and more of their written communication occurs electronically, having neat handwriting becomes less problematic on a day-to-day basis. But during the school years, handwriting weaknesses contribute to poor academic performance, anxiety, stress and lower self-esteem.

In more mild cases, handwriting difficulties may be due to factors directly associated with ADHD, like weaknesses in executive functioning or fine motor control. In more severe cases, a written expression learning disorder (dysgraphia) or a motor control disorder (developmental coordination disorder) may be an underlying issue. So, if your child or teen with ADHD struggles with handwriting, he or she is probably not being careless or failing to take pride in his or her work. In fact, he or she may care very much and want to have neat handwriting but face challenges that make it difficult for him or her to achieve this goal. Fortunately, as a parent you can help your child improve his or her handwriting and compensate for their challenges.

  1. Empathize with your child. If your child or teen has had persistent problems with handwriting - so much so that he or she can only write neatly if he or she works at a painfully slow pace or her or she seems unable to write neatly or efficiently at all, then writing is probably much harder for them than it is for most other kids his or her age. Chances are that over the years he or she received a great deal of negative feedback and criticism from adults and classmates about his or her handwriting. On the flip side, he or she probably also received very little praise when he or she did put effort into writing well. Let your child know that you recognize that writing is difficult for him or her, and acknowledge his or her effort even when his or her written work doesn't look as neat as you'd hoped it would. This validation will go a long way in helping your child follow through when you try to help him or her improve his or her handwriting, and will help lower his or her anxiety and stress overall.
  2. Get an evaluation. Persistent handwriting difficulties require an evaluation to determine the underlying cause of the problem. The evaluation should include an assessment of learning disorders and coordination problems, and should provide recommendations for programs and services to address the handwriting issues, as well as school accommodations (e.g., being allowed to use a keyboard, modified homework assignments, etc.). A psychologist or educational therapist will be qualified to complete this evaluation.
  3. Get your child involved in a handwriting program. For children with ADHD who do not also have a learning disorder, a targeted handwriting program may be all they need to see improvement. An experienced occupational therapist at your child's school should be able to help your child get started with a program. Most programs are specific to kids in elementary school and take either a multisensory approach or a cognitive approach to teaching handwriting. Multisensory approaches engage touch, sound, sight, and other senses and use multi-media, while cognitive approaches focus more on imitation, practice, and self-evaluation. Some kids will respond better to one approach over the other, but it can be difficult to predict which will work best for your child. Research does tell us however, that regardless of the approach it is essential that the handwriting program include regular practice sessions – at least 20 hours of practice over the course of a few weeks or months. The program should also include regular evaluations to determine whether or not handwriting is improving. If you don’t see improvement with regular practice over the course of a few months then it's time to try a different approach. If you'd like to try a program at home, Handwriting Without Tears is an evidence-based multisensory program that includes many opportunities for practice through workbooks and an iPad app.
  4. Teach keyboarding early. Keyboarding isn't a replacement for handwriting, but it is an essential tool for kids and teens with handwriting challenges. Help your child learn to type as early as possible, and request that your child be allowed to type his or her homework assignments. If you have a teen, encourage him or her to take an online keyboarding course that will help him or her become faster and more efficient at typing.
  5. Provide an incentive. Kids with ADHD struggle with motivation, especially for tasks that are hard or painful for them – like handwriting. So, even if your child or teen wants to improve his or her handwriting in the long term, chances are that he or she will go out of his or her way to avoid any handwriting task or practice exercise in the short-term. Help him or her overcome this resistance by providing an incentive for working hard on his or her handwriting. Allow him or her to earn points, privileges, or tangible rewards each time he or she practices without whining or complaining.

Dealing with handwriting problems can be challenging for kids with ADHD as well as their parents and teachers. But improvement is possible with a proper assessment, solid instruction, practice, and some very motivating rewards for all of your child's hard work.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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