Tag Archives: pencil grips for hand strengthening

Which Improves Pencil Grasp Best: A Pencil Grip Or A Thicker Pencil?

 

kelli-tungay-324329A a pediatric occupational therapist, I am often asked to weigh in on this debate.  Not often enough, it seems.  There are a lot of kids out there using pencils with wonky grasp patterns because no one has made an effort to improve the way they hold a pencil, or they doubt that it matters.  Oops.  Although grasp isn’t often or evn usually the biggest issue with writing problems, a really poor grasp can reduce control and increase pain and fatigue.  Not every kid with poor pencil grasp is a hot mess.  Some of them just need good instruction and good materials.  For the others, it might be time to get an OT involved.

Kids that struggle with pencil grasp are often (in my opinion, too often) given a pencil grip and told to use it when they write. It may help, but it may not.  An yet, I will still hand out my favorite pencil grip if I think that it will build control and strength. The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.

I thought I would drill down into the ways that OTs think about the use of pencil grips, and present a few alternatives to reflexively sending kids home with a bit of plastic on the end of a pencil:

  • Change the pencil.  Triangular pencils give more sensory feedback during writing, and they offer a flat surface for finger pads.  Thick mechanical pencils still have a standard-thickness lead, but they also are easier to hold for some children.  Short pencils, including golf pencils, force more fingertip contact and can be helpful (but not if grasp is really weak or awkward).
  • Don’t jump into pencil use too early.  Until a child can manage a mature grasp, I try very hard to keep them using crayons when they are not yet in kindergarten.  I like the flip crayons from Learning Without Tears because they are so very small, but not all kids in kindergarten are ready for them.  I break a toddler crayon in two so that they get the benefits of a thick shaft but they will be unable to use a fisted grasp.
  • Like markers?  I only use them if they are the Pipsqueak markers from Crayola.  Nice thick, short shafts for little fingers.  Markers don’t give a child any resistance at all, so they don’t give enough sensory feedback or strengthening for my kids that need both.  And they make a mess most of the time.  I don’t have the time to scrub off markers.
  • Build strength and control with play.  Yes, fine motor play.  Totally outdated (just joking) but necessary.  I use the iCreate tablet stylus, bead stringing, therapy putty and lots of tiny toys like travel Connect Four games.  Even baking.     Utensil use counts too. How Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write    Children are spending less time with toys and more with tablets, so I insist that they use a tablet stylus with me in sessions.  They have no idea that the physical “drag” of the plastic point on the glass screen as they move objects around is creating resistance that helps their fingers get stronger.
  • Color with children, draw with children. A lot.  Coloring is less stressful to the risk-averse child who thinks he can’t write. Drawing simple shapes is directly applicable to writing letters and numbers.  Think “T” and a vertical cross, “A” and a volcano.  Watching an adult and listening to their narration, such as ” I am coloring around and around to fill in the balloon, since it is a circle shape”  is very helpful to young children who resist direct instruction.  The child that doesn’t naturally gravitate to coloring may need downloads of their fave character or stickers to add to the picture to make it exciting.  But the key is the adult interaction.

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The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.

The generic form of this amazing pencil grip!

Lakeshore Learning has one version this amazing pencil grip!

 

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The Grotto Grip; firmer plastic gives more sensory feedback and a strong barrier to incorrect finger “migration”!

Pencil grips are frequently recommended but mostly ineffective in improving pencil grasp. They are often placed at the wrong part of the pencil for best use, or quickly and repeatedly lost like mittens. I wrote a post on how to decide if you need a grip for a child  Should Your Child Use A Pencil Grip?, but once you need a grip, there is only one I can recommend.   I have found only one style that actually builds strength and control, instead of just propping up fingers on a piece of plastic.  As an occupational therapist, I spend a lot of effort working with preschoolers on hand strength.  For good ideas that actually work, not waste your time, read Strengthening A Child’s Pencil Grasp: Three Easy Methods That Work.  If they continue to struggle to control a crayon and cannot hold a pencil as they enter and complete kindergarten, I really have to think about whether a pencil grip would help them.  This is the only one that does.

I must have purchased every known type of grip over the years, and also constructed grips out of rubber bands/string/etc as well. They all went in the trash after I found this style about 10 years ago.  Turns out, this grip requires the use of the small muscles of the thumb and fingers to write, unlike the other types on the market.  It cannot be used comfortably without the child actively contracting those muscles.  This style blocks most of the compensating patterns that children develop by providing “wings” that prevent fingers from sliding over or around the pencil. It has a trough for placement of the thumb-side tip of the middle finger (radial aspect of the DIP joint on digit III for all those therapists out there) to support the thumb and index finger.

Many pencil grips look terrific, but if a child has true weakness, little fingers will wrap around the other grips and their hand collapses into a hook or gross grasp.  This is the very same (ineffective and immature) pattern they use without a pencil grip!  Now teachers and parents find themselves repositioning the child’s fingers or constantly telling them to “fix” their fingers.  Too much work for everyone!

A good OTR will do their best to develop hand strength and control and not hand out pencil grips like candy.  Younger children who are not yet writing words and sentences should have full opportunity to develop the required hand control.  But if a kindergarten teacher is insisting on pencil use when your child really does not have the physical control required for pencil grasp, you have to really think about what you are going to do.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have used the Grotto grip, the version with stiffer sides, with two four-year-olds that have seriously weak and unstable fingers.  These little girls tried very very hard with but never achieved much with therapy putty and finger exercises.  I think that is because therapy 2x/week for was not frequent and intensive enough practice, and they could compensate/cheat but seemingly perform each exercise. They have been writing and coloring age-appropriate activities every day using the grip for the last 3 months, and the progress is significant!  It really is doing everything I promised with these younger preschoolers.  The grip places their fingers in a position to build muscle bulk and they are able to assume a better grip on pencils without adaptations for short periods.  Strengthening is a long process, but they now know how the correct grip should feel.

Most children want to use a pencil.  They don’t care that their fingers wrap around the pencil like a snake because they are finally “writing like the big kids”.  Children have no idea that they are being set up for years of poor control, slow writing, hand discomfort and fatigue, and eventually an avoidance of writing just when they should be doing creative composition.  Imagine if your writing was slow and your hand was tired or sore: would you want to write more about your summer vacation?  You would write the minimum required.  And that is from a compliant child.  I have heard of kids screaming that they don’t care about grades or losing privileges, they won’t write at all!

This style is available in some learning-oriented stores and therapy catalogs both online and in the mail.  The Therapy Shoppe calls theirs the “Grotto Grip” and there are copycats that are a bit softer but also incorporate the “wings” and a trough for third digit placement.  If you have an OTR at school, they may have one available or be able to help you find one of these grips if they think it is time to consider using it. Because it requires the use of finger muscles that might be initially very weak, I recommend short periods of use that increase gradually.  Forcing large amounts of writing all at once when they cannot fall back on their compensatory finger patterns creates the risk of developing total resistance in a child.   I think the shape reminds me of a cobra’s head.  Lots of little boys find that using a pencil grip in the shape of a potentially deadly animal is a very appealing concept.  Sometimes you just have to spin things the right way to appeal to your audience!

 

Think your child needs a better pencil, not a grip?  Take a look at Great Mechanical Pencils Can Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills if they are over 5 and have a tripod or quadruped grasp.  And don’t forget erasers:  Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser will help you outfit your child with tools that make writing more successful.