What is it? Handwriting Without Tears, the handwriting instruction program, introduced me to the concept of the “helper hand”. The helper hand is a child’s non-dominant hand. I am a righty, so my left hand is my helper hand. Here is why it matters more than you (and your child’s teacher) think it does. It should be called the magic helper hand!
HWT encourages children to use their helper hand to steady their paper while writing. They even suggest that young children give their helper hand a name, allowing you to instruct and correct the hand (not themselves) to deflect any sense of criticism and create a sense of lightness and humor. That really works, BTW. It sounds pretty silly, but preschoolers and kindergarteners are silly. They like to pretend. Don’t try it with an 8 year-old. He will give you a withering look.
If paper is not stabilized by the non-dominant hand while writing, it will slide and affect legibility. But there is something even more helpful about the helper hand than paper control. Since most paper is about 8.5 x 11 inches here in the U.S., placing your non-dominant hand on the edge of the paper gives a child support for good posture. When a child has his helper hand on the tabletop and angled slightly so that he can steady the edge of the paper opposite their writing hand, he has more of a sense of midline, the center of his body. He automatically shifts his weight slightly forward, encouraging activation of his trunk, hip, thigh and lower leg muscles for balance and control. Are you convinced now that “helper hand” is so much more than a way to steady paper?
OTs and PTs are all about the midline. Controlled, balanced and graded movement happens around the center of the body. I have done a few consultations in the last 3 months in which the child has significant postural issues. Low tone, poor body awareness, serious weakness and fatigue. Their writing and their sitting posture while writing all improved immediately once their non-dominant hand was correctly placed and the paper was steady. Magic.
Kids develop habitual postures just like adults, so expect even a young child to say that it feels “weird” to use that helper hand correctly. I have seen it all: hand on the chair seat to stiffly prop a kid up, elbow on the table, head tilted and one eye focused on the paper, hand in pocket doing nothing…..
Helper hand is not just for writing. A child will occasionally need to stabilize a plate or bowl, but if they have a very hard time getting and maintaining good posture while eating, then the helper hand can come out of the lap and be placed permanently near the plate for postural support. Bad manners? Maybe. Falling off your chair or wiggling through dinner? Worse manners.
Many children automatically use their helper hand. There are also kids who are taught how to use their helper hand, and will use it consistently from that point forward. I have treated many, many more kids who struggled as toddlers to assemble toys, open containers, sequence crawling and learn other two-handed skills. When they started to scribble, they used their non-dominant hand to prop themselves up or it did nothing at all. These are the kids that really need to embrace the helper hand concept.
Good luck teaching “helper hand” and watch writing (and maybe mealtime) get a little easier right away!