How to Improve Your Child’s Handwriting Skills: Part 1.
Last time, I wrote about how to improve the movement, more aptly the gross motor skills of your child. ICYMI, read it here. This time, I would like to talk about your child’s hand skills, or what we call, in child development, the fine motor skills. Since fine motor skills is a hefty topic, I am writing a series about it and I start with bilateral hand use and handedness.
What are fine motor skills and what are the signs that your child has problems with it?
If gross motor skills pertain to the large muscles and movements of the body, Fine Motor Skills refer to the small movement fired by small muscles, particularly of the hands so your child can engage in holding, transferring and manipulating objects in play, self-care and school work. With that being said, you may have already guessed how to tell if your child has fine motor difficulties. Common observations I have heard from my parents include difficulties in using small toys, holding spoon when eating and problems in handwriting.
When I see a child for OT evaluation, I first, take note of Bilateral Hand Use. This means using both sides of the body or both hands. Does your 4-year-old (or younger) child use both hands when playing or eating? If not, it may signal a weakness in the less-used side. Consult your pediatrician for an appropriate referral and diagnosis. Meanwhile, you can present bilateral activities, where your child is required two-hand use to do it. Examples are heavy-work tasks such as big-ball catching, big-basket carrying, crawling and pulling/pushing rope, chair or table with 2 hands. You can also give light-work but finer tasks such as threading or stringing (putting beads in a string), clapping, drumming and action songs such as Row, row, row your boat, The wheels on the bus and Twinkle, twinkle little star.
Next, ruling out weakness, I take note if preference is observed, meaning, the child uses more of one side so we know if he or she is right- or left-handed. Usually, we observe a dominant hand (the one that does the main work) and a helping hand (the one that supports) when they engage in bilateral play. For example, holding the box, while the dominant hand gets the crayons.
Preference, dominance, and handedness what?
Preference, dominance or handedness can be more evident in unilateral (one hand is needed) tasks such as writing. Like if you notice that your 7-year-old is switching hands in holding the crayon when coloring, this suggests ambidexterity (lack of handedness) which can be considered appropriate below 7 years of age. We expect to see hand preference as early as 2; Hand dominance as early as 4; and at 7 years old, we call it Handedness.
What do I do if my child demonstrates as an ambi?
As an OT, I always stress that we focus more on the functionality. If your child is able to finish her food and school work despite interchanging the use of both her hands, then that is okay. I say, we wait it out until she decides which side to use more. We may, actually, be waiting which brain hemisphere will dominate. As long as it does not pose a problem, it is good. However, if you are already recognizing a pattern, wherein, one side is more utilized and the other side just used for work residues (that is when your child seems tired), then you can provide subtle cues to strengthen the more obvious choice. Consciously put spoon or pencil on this side. Consider the task done when he starts using the other side. You can also hand him objects closer to the stronger side so he reaches and grasps more with it. The key is to use natural context to help him achieve handedness but do not force it.
Just like tonsils, handedness or laterality (there is a dominant side; not ambidextrous) is good but not necessary. Ambidextrous individuals proved to function well through adulthood. I know friends and relatives who grew to be ambidextrous and their only problem was the “ahhs” and “oohs” they get, when they reveal this hidden talent. However, laterality not only indicates brain dominance, it also makes an individual’s handwork more efficient, in that, more practice=more skill premise versus using both hands in tasks, where each hand must have had less practice. Some, however, say that ambidextrous individuals, just like lefties (who are right-brain dominant), are more creative than their counterparts. So some parents tend to ask the next question.
How about if I want my child to be a lefty? I want him to be more artistic when he grows up. Can I train him to be one?
As mentioned above, handedness is the outward expression of brain dominance and we do not ever want to mess up with what is happening on the inside. To do so, we may be causing more harm than good. I say, we let it be and just wait and see. Right-handed people can also be creative in their own logical way. I, for one, am a right-handed OT and I managed to sing and draw, and create fun activities for my kids in the past 16 years! I don’t think creativity and artistic tendencies depend solely on handedness. You may give other means to develop these skills, no matter which hand you child prefers.
To summarize, give your child a variety of toys and activities and see how he interacts with them. For obvious weakness, call your doctor. You can give more tasks as mentioned above.
For those without weakness, observe closely which hand he prefers and let him be. Subtle cues can be used to help him develop handedness if you have already noticed a stronger side but, please, never force it on your child.
I am a firm believer that children succeed more if we just let them be, in their own pace and in their own world. Let’s lead them where they’re happy 🙂
To learn more, read the part 2 of this series, Hand, Precisely, to Improve Writing Skills.
Molnar, Gabriella E. (1992) Pediatric Rehabilitation, Second edition. Baltimore, MR: p. cm.