Hand Dominance – a key factor in handwriting success
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
Hand dominance is a key factor in handwriting mastery. Handwriting is a complex functional task that demands the hand to work efficiently with a tool. This is accomplished through the hand’s intricate link with the brain. Handwriting is considered to be the highest form of unilateral hand dexterity skill attained by the general population. (1) The establishment of hand dominance provides the child with a skilled hand for efficient pencil control to facilitate the learning of letter formations and line alignment as well as a stabilizing hand to monitor paper placement.
What is hand dominance or handedness?
Hand dominance is the term used to describe the hand a child is observed using spontaneously during skilled activities such as brushing his teeth, using scissors, or handwriting tasks. It is the hand a child naturally prefers to use because it performs skilled tasks more efficiently, leaving the other hand to act as a stabilizer. For example, a child who is right-hand dominant, or right-handed, will use his right hand to manipulate the scissors and his left hand to stabilize the paper during a cutting task. The development of hand preference is a sign that the brain is maturating and that brain lateralization is occurring. Initial development of a preferred hand occurs from about the age of 4 months to the age of three to four, shifting from a reach that is convenient (such as using the right hand to pick up objects on the right side) to one that crosses the body’s midline. Hand preference for the completion of unilateral tasks becomes more evident during this time with further bilateral differentiation occurring between 5 and 7 years. Although children may continue to switch preferred hands at this stage for use with different fine-motor skilled activities, a fully established hand dominance presents itself between the ages of 6 and 9.
What are the behaviors associated with an Unestablished Hand Dominance?
Hand dominance is a foundational skill that promotes using the hands together efficiently during activities that involve more complex motor plans, motor accuracy, and greater skill. These tasks include tying shoes, buttoning a coat, playing with interconnecting blocks, or handwriting. Crossing
the midline and bilateral coordination are contributing foundational skills for the establishment of hand dominance and equally important in the performance of skilled tasks. Difficulties in either of these skills can result in unilateral hand preference (using the right hand for performance on the right side and vice versa), difficulty with symmetrical bilateral hand skills such as catching a ball or holding an object with two hands, or competing dominance where the child switches hands during a fine-motor task. It is also important to note that if a child who demonstrates a clear preference for one hand is observed switching between his dominant and non-dominant hand during skilled activities, muscle fatigue could be the underlying cause rather than difficulty with any of the above skills.
How can you determine the Establishment of Hand Dominance?
There are several ways to determine a child’s preferred hand and to determine the establishment of hand dominance.
- Observe the child participating in skilled fine-motor tasks such as brushing his teeth, buttoning his coat, drawing, playing with construction toys, or cutting paper. Record the number of times that he uses a specific hand as the dominant one within each task, switches hands within the task, or uses only the hand located closest to the object when reaching for it (e.g., using the left hand solely to reach for items on the left side).
- Place items at the child’s midline on a table during a fine-motor play or functional activity. Observe the use of a dominant hand or the switching of hands during the activity.
- Place items for use in activities such as puzzles, tangrams, or construction tasks in random positions on the table on the child’s left and right sides as well as in midline. Observe his use of a dominant hand, his switching hands, or the use of a unilateral reach as he completes the activity.
Activities that Promote the Development and Establishment of Hand Dominance.
After collecting observational data that reflects the child’s level of hand dominance, determine the hand that he appears to prefer. Direct him to use that hand in activities that will reinforce it as the dominant hand. If the child does not yet appear to have a preferred hand, begin with the foundational activities below to encourage the development of a dominant hand. Progress to the activities that follow to enhance the underlying skills that promote the development and establishment of hand dominance.
- Place objects for a task at the child’s midline. This provides him with the opportunity to select which hand to use and enhances the development of a dominant hand by lessening the chances to use the unilateral hand to avoid having to cross midline.
- Use auditory cues to direct the child’s reach across his body during play and functional tasks. Positions items included in the activity randomly on the table on both sides of his midline. Ask him to reach for them using the opposite hand. For example, to direct him to reach across his midline to an object on his left, you might say, “Joey, please pick up the yellow marker with your right hand.” This activity also promotes the development of crossing the midline and bilateral coordination skills as well as the understanding of directional concepts.
- Use auditory and visual cues to establish labels for his skilled and stabilizing hands. This helps him to understand how he uses his hands for fine-motor activities and supports their use as skilled or stabilizing hands. For example, if the child has been observed to use his left hand predominantly during skilled tasks, you might verbally label his left as the “worker hand” and his right as the “helper hand.” Demonstrate these labels as you and he complete tasks such as cutting, lacing, or construction play. You may add a sticker to his worker hand to remind him of its role in the activity.
- Use auditory cues as reminders to continue to stay with one hand for the duration of a skilled activity.
Gross motor games. Position balls or bean bags on the side of a child’s preferred hand and have him toss them at a target placed at his midline or on the opposite side of his body. This activity promotes the development of hand dominance, as well as balance, bilateral coordination, visual attention, and crossing the midline skills. Games of throw and catch (for example, baseball or bowling) and basketball (dribbling and throwing) also promote these skills.
Fine motor activities. The activities below promote the use of a dominant hand as well as the development of visual attention, crossing the midline, and bilateral coordination skills.
- Drawing circles or lazy 8’s simultaneously on the left and right sides of a paper taped to the wall or on a chalkboard using a pencil or chalk in the hand on each side
- Clapping games or games that tap knees and ankles on the opposite sides of the body
- Tracing the non-dominant hand with the dominant
- Drawing or coloring with the preferred hand. The performance of this activity on a vertical surface will further enhance balance and visual attention.
- Stacking blocks with the preferred hand
- Activities that include stencils, rulers, or rubbing motions over textures using the dominant hand with the pencil or crayon and the other hand to stabilize the stencil, ruler, or paper.
- Molding clay or putty using the dominant hand to pull and mold while the other stabilizes the clay or putty
- Beading, lacing, and interlocking toys using the dominant hand to thread or position the interlocking toy while the other hand stabilizes the string, board, or opposite toy part.
- Cutting and pasting using the dominant hand to perform the task and the other to stabilize the paper.
- Construction activities with blocks, hammers, or screwdrivers using the dominant hand to perform and the other to stabilize during the task.
- Opening containers using the preferred hand to turn or pull open the lid while the other hand stabilizes the container.
- Whole body writing (making large movements using the dominant hand) promotes the use of the dominant hand as well as the enhancement of motor movement planning skills.
- Activities that include non-traditional materials such as finger paints, shaving cream, sand trays, or writing with water on the chalkboard or a piece of paper taped to the wall provide increased tactile input to promote the use of the dominant hand as well as the enhancement of motor movement skills.
- Create letter formations by shaping them out of pipe cleaners or other tactile tools to promote the use of the dominant hand.
- Writing or practicing letter formations with a pencil on a piece of paper over fine-grade sandpaper using the dominant hand for tool use and the non-dominant to stabilize the paper provides additional tactile input to promote the use of the dominant hand.
- Tracing letter formations on a vertical surface using the dominant hand while the other hand positions and supports the paper also enhances visual attention skills.
Children who have not established a dominant hand may also be working with inefficient body image and spatial awareness skills. It is important to observe the child in a diverse array of activities and provide a variety of opportunities to engage in bilateral tasks in order to determine the underlying developmental skill needs.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills and understands the link between handwriting skills and writing. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; in the Universal Publishing Handwriting Teachers’ Guides; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the author of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.
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