Back to school time is often filled with common questions raised by parents and teachers. One question that finds its way to occupational therapists’ inbox unfailingly at the beginning of each school year is this. What am I supposed to do with a student who switches hands during skilled tasks, like writing or cutting? It’s a great question, so let’s dig a little deeper to find out!
Hands are the tools we use most often to accomplish play, self-care and work tasks. Using hands effectively includes reaching, grasping, manipulating objects held within the hand, carrying, releasing and using two-hands together in a coordinated fashion. Hand skills are necessary for the child to be able to functionally use all educational and classroom tools. It is important for the student to have good postural control (trunk, shoulder, wrist, neck and head muscles, body stability and alignment) before speed and accuracy manipulating objects can be refined.
First, you should try and identify the student’s dominant hand. Observe the child completing hand tasks and watch for which hand they most often use, and with the most skill. Watch how the student picks up, holds, and moves a pencil or crayon, and note which hand is better at writing or coloring. It would also be beneficial to observe other tool use and participation in play activities to discover which hand is more skilled. After identifying the more skilled hand for the task, you can encourage the student to use it consistently by having them wear something special on that side (a ring, bracelet, etc.) as a reminder.
Remember that hand dominance may not emerge in Kindergarten for all children. Some children do not develop well established hand dominance until age 8. It is common for children to have mixed dominance between hands and feet, and there could also be mixed hand dominance for different hand tasks (eating, writing, cutting with scissors, throwing a ball, etc.). Mixed dominance (for different tasks) is common and is not necessarily a sign of a problem, as long as the student is functional when completing all of these tasks. If it is clear that a student consistently begins an activity with the same hand, encourage the use of that hand.
In addition, here are other suggestions for encouraging your student to use their dominant hand to complete skilled tasks:
- Have the student use only one hand to pick up objects placed on the opposite side of his/her body (puzzle pieces, small blocks, beads, etc.).
- Have the child wear a sock on their non-dominant hand to use as an eraser while using a dry-erase or chalk board.
- Play movement imitation games (think “Simon Says”) with an emphasis on moving the arms/legs across the body to the opposite side, encouraging diagonal movements.
- Offer many chances for the child to engage in tasks that require the use of their preferred hand to manipulate and their non-preferred hand to stabilize the activity. You could try:
- Cutting activities.
- Pouring water or sand.
- Scooping or pouring to/from containers.
- Drawing activities using templates, stencils or rulers.
- Wind-up toys.
- Opening/closing bottles or jars.
- Digging with sand toys.
- Fastening nuts and bolts.
- Using a hammer/nails, screwdriver/screws.
- Lacing cards.
- Stringing beads.
- Placing stickers.
- Sweeping the floor.
- Raking leaves.
What are your thoughts/suggestions? Leave a comment below!