Tag Archives: handwriting and lefties

Want Your Child to Show Hand Preference (Righty/Lefty?) Where You Place Their Spoon Matters

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I get a lot of questions about this issue, based on my experience as a pediatric OTR.  Starting at 12 months, some children show a strong hand preference and never look back.  Other kids are switching hand use long after 4.  Without the existence of disorders that directly affect hand dominance such as orthopedic disorders, cerebral palsy, or untreated torticollis, hand dominance is hard-wired and emerges naturally.  But there are situations in which it is delayed or incomplete long after the typical window of skill development.

Here is what can be happening, and here is what you can do as a parent or a therapist:

Hand dominance only emerges with the development of refined hand control and the child’s awareness that they need more skilled control for an activity.  I tell parents that I can pick up my coffee cup with either hand to drink, but that doesn’t make me a lefty.  If you paid me $100, I probably couldn’t thread a needle with my left hand.

Children that aren’t practicing refined skills like feeding or assembling blocks, or even intent on picking up every darn piece of lint on the carpet…they don’t need refined grasp, and they probably will not demonstrate hand dominance on time.  Kids that are scribbling wildly but haven’t tried to draw a circle with closure ( a 36-month skill, BTW) also have no need to develop dominance.  The self-starter, the baby and toddler that watches you intently and decides to learn all these skills?  They won’t need much help.  But the child who avoids challenge or gets help because it is easier and faster for an adult to feed them or help them build a tower?  They may lag behind in hand development.

Some kids are very tuned into adult actions, and copy the hand that a parent or teacher uses.  These are the children that are great mimics.  They can see that you are using your right hand, and even if they naturally grab with their left hand, they transfer objects into the same hand you are using.  Adults are naturally inclined to assume dominance as well.  I cannot count the number of times I absent-mindedly handed a pen to a left-handed parent into their right hand.  If you do that to a child under 5 , they assume that you want them to use that hand, and will struggle on.  This is where spoon placement matters.  I encourage parents to place the utensil in the center of the placement or tray, and watch which hand (both of the child’s hands must be free) their child chooses over many trials.

If a child is inconsistent but clearly uses their left hand more often, placing their spoon on that side of the tray should boost use, and with skilled use comes more skill and awareness.  I never pull objects out of a child’s hand.  I don’t need to.  They will drop their crayon or spoon frequently enough for me to have another chance to offer it back to them.

What if I (or a parent) picked wrong?

Dominance isn’t that easy to alter.  Ask your grandmother what the nuns in Catholic school did to alter dominance in lefties (it was considered “the devil’s hand”, and what they did wasn’t pretty).  Children will eventually simply transfer their spoon over to the other hand.

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The Two Important Handwriting Teaching Strategies For Lefties That Everyone Forgets

Teaching left-handed children to write in a right-handed world (estimates for right dominance varies, but always hovers over 80%) isn’t really all that different.  However, there are two specific actions that parents and teachers need to make while teaching that rarely make it to the blogs and articles on the web.  Read on.  I will highlight the basics of lefty teaching, and then explain the missing moves.  They can make all the difference in the world to a left-handed child.

Tilted paper placement and using the non-dominant hand to stabilize the paper apply to both righties and lefties.  Left-handed kids will often want to tilt their paper to a more extreme angle to see their writing.  Let them.  They need to use a mature grasp pattern with their fingertips on a pencil.  Lefties who do not do either will twist their wrist so that they can see what they are writing.  This makes for more fatigue and less comfort.  The likelihood of hearing “I hate to write!” goes up dramatically under those conditions.

Make sure that the printed model on a worksheet is not obscured under their hand.  Most worksheets usually give one letter model on the far left side of the page.  Add more models in locations that they can see. Handwriting Without Tears does an excellent job of supporting left-handed kids in this way.  They give all children multiple models across a line on a worksheet, so that kids don’t have to pick up their hand to check the spelling and letter formation/placement of a model.

The two comments that very few bloggers or professionals mention when giving suggestions relate to the almost-forgotten art of teaching children to write by demonstrating how to write.  This starts earlier than you might think, as your curious 3 year-old watches you write his name.  He is taking mental and motor notes on this skill, and is practicing with crayons to copy circles and other shapes.  If you have a lefty, you are going to change HOW YOU WRITE to support their learning:

  • Teach kids to cross their letters in the direction that is easier for them, i.e. not the way righties do it.  The letters that they can cross more easily from right-to-left are: A, E, F, f, G, H, I, J, T, and t.  There are plenty of letters that are harder for left-handed kids and cannot be altered easily, such as “U”, “L”, and “B”.  Don’t make even more of the letters tricky for them.  I have a few preschoolers in tutoring or therapy that have already created a habit of writing with the right-handed cross.  When I ask them which is easier, and they admit that the right-to-left cross is easier, they still go back to the way they were originally taught. The right-hand way.   I am sad that I did not meet them earlier and make these letters a bit easier for them.
  • If you are right-handed, sit to the right-side of a lefty when teaching so the they can see what you are doing, and you can see what they are doing.  You are already writing upside-down if you are sitting opposite them, right?  Where you sit as you write matters.  Imagine if I were teaching you to dance and you had to mirror all my moves, versus having my back to you so that you could move exactly as I do.  So much easier.  Let’s make this easy for everyone.  If you are teaching a small group, where the lefties sit so that they can see your writing matters as well.  It isn’t a criticism or at all negative to tell the other children that you care so much about every child that the girl who writes lefty needs to sit in a particular spot so that she can see you.  Delivered properly, your comment coveys that the difference is no way a problem for you, nor should it be for anyone else.  We accept everyone for what they are.

Not sure if your preschooler is a lefty?  Two words of advice:  watch which hand they use for utensils at mealtime and with skilled play like LEGOS. Since it is very hard to alter dominance, it should become apparent over time with fine motor skill development.   If a child is wired for dominance of one hand but you have been demanding use of the other, she may comply, and then she will switch the pencil or spoon to the hand with which she feels has the most control.

Unless you are very vigilant and unbending, you will see natural dominance emerge between 2 and 5 years.  So far, I have had just one client who did not develop clear hand dominance in this period.  He had ASD and many other issues, so it wasn’t a total surprise that dominance did not emerge even at 7.  We watched him carefully, and saw that he was slightly more right-handed.  That is what we supported, but it was only after a lot of observation and targeted fine motor play.  He was encouraged, not forced.

Please feel free to comment and share your strategies and challenges of left handedness in pre-writing and beginning writing instruction!