Whether a child is left-handed or right-handed may have more to do with nature than nurture. How does “handedness” develop, and how best can we support children who are left-handed? Liz Hodgman reports.

Early last century, it was thought that only 3% of people were left-handed. This compares with the current day, when 13% of men and 11% of women are left-handed. This increase is thought to be mainly due to the discrimination against left-handers in previous centuries. They were often shunned by society and being left-handed was “beaten out” of them. As a result, fewer left-handed people married and reproduction fell within this group.

During the 20th century, discrimination declined and people were allowed to remain left-handed. There has also been an increase in the age of mothers and research indicates that older mothers are more likely to give birth to a left-handed child.

Hand dominance or hand preference is when one hand (in 90% of people this is their right hand) is used consistently more than their other hand and is more skilled. It is best for a child to develop strength and dexterity in one hand, as this will help him or her to be accurate and fast in fine motor skills. It is vital in handwriting. Although some people are able to use both hands (this is known as being ambidextrous), it is thought better to have a specialised hand than two equal but less specialised hands.

How “handedness” develops

There has been a lot of research into how handedness develops. It is thought that being left-handed is mainly genetic and although there is no conclusive research regarding handedness, there does appear to be some research that supports this.

  • 90% of children born to right-handed couples are right-handed too.

  • 50% of children born to left-handed parents are left-handed.

  • 80% of children born to couples who are mixed are right-handed.

Research into adopted children shows that their biological parents’ handedness is more closely linked to that of their children than is the handedness of their adopted parents, supporting the theory that the likelihood of being left-handed owes more to nature than nurture.

In some areas, handedness emerges quite early. For example, on antenatal scans more foetuses suck their right thumb than their left, and newborn babies, while lying on their backs, turn to their right more often.

In 2013, research was published following a series of experiments using one-year-olds, three-year-olds and four- and five-year-olds. While the one-year-olds showed a preference for their right hand for reaching for food, the middle group used their right hand for picking food but their left hand for picking up lego bricks. It was only when the children reached aged four and five years that they demonstrated a clear dominance or strong hand, using the other hand to support their brick building. Researchers were unsure whether the older children understood the task better, were more skilled or the handedness had “clicked” with them.

Handedness develops through using bilateral co-ordination skills. Initially, these skills are symmetrical, using both sides of the body together, eg clapping hands together. The next phase is reciprocal movements, where the child uses one side of the body and then the next, eg in crawling and walking.

As the child develops, these skills develop into asymmetrical bilateral co-ordination. This is where the child uses both sides of his or her body together while doing different tasks that complement each other. For example, a child mark making will use one hand to hold the paper steady while the other hand holds the crayon to make the marks. Using scissors or kicking a football are other examples of asymmetrical bilateral co-ordination.

Children need to learn to cross their midline in order to strengthen their dominant hand (see our feature article: Crossing the midline). They need to be able to easily cross their midline with either hand.

Supporting a child who is left-handed

It is really important that children are allowed to use the hand that they want to carry out tasks and not be pushed into being right-handed. Although some research highlights that left-handed children do not do as well academically at school, with the right support from their early years provision, parents and family at home and their teachers at school, there is no reason why they will not reach their full potential.

Children need to be supported to develop skills such as writing and cutting, otherwise they will be working more slowly than the rest of their classmates and this may result in them losing confidence and being told they are “not doing it right”. As a result, they may underachieve at school and struggle in written exams, resulting in poorer grades at GCSE and A level.

Mark making

A left-handed child will need support to develop mark making skills. If such children are left to develop those skills unsupported, this will result in them being slower and maybe more untidy than their peers.

If you observe right-handed people writing, they pull the pen across the paper. Left-handed children will push the pen across the paper. This can result in messy writing and smudging and criticism from their teachers when they are at school.

Learning correctly how to hold a pencil in the early years and the correct writing position will support the children when they start school and enable them to work on the same level as their peers. Ideally the paper should be rotated 45�� with the hand and the wrist below the writing paper. The mark making implement should be held in a strong three-point grip and can be supported with triangular pencils or a moulded triangular grip fitted to the pencil.

Some left-handed children develop a hook grip when mark making. This needs to be corrected as early as possible. The hook grip leads to overtightening of the hold on the pencil and makes the hand ache after a period of time, leading to messy writing for older children and adults. Using a sloping work surface can help reduce the hook grip. Children ideally should use the tripod grip (this is where the child pinches the pencil with index finger and thumb and then rest it on the middle finger).

Left-handed children are also prone to “mirror” writing and mark making, writing from the right to the left. Marking the left hand side of the paper will help the child learn this is where you start from when you are writing.

In early years provision, the main focus for activities should be to encourage the development of the tripod muscles by doing activities that involving pinching movements. Using crayons, chalk, paintbrushes and sponges should be the main focus. When using tools provide short-handled items as they are better at developing the tripod grasp.

Scissors and other resources

Left-handed scissors should be a standard resource in all early years provisions. Right-handed scissors are not suitable for a left-handed child as the blade will be upside down so the child will be unable to see where they are cutting, resulting in a messy cut.

If you are using a computer with a child, remember that the child will need to have the mouse on the other side.

Have a walk around the environment and try doing activities with your left hand. If you find things difficult, like opening doors as the handles have been positioned for right-handed people, then you will have a better understanding of the left-handed child’s world. (Doors that open and run over your feet, or arms crossing over when you open a door.)

When giving instructions try to avoid using left and right but give directional clues, eg “the chair by the door”.

During large physical activities and sports left-handed children may not use their left hand, but they may have a more dominant hand when playing with balls and bats. They may also be ambidextrous.

Ensure that while left-handed children know they are left-handed (this will help when they start school as they can remind teachers and classroom assistants) they feel special in a good way and not have a problem or barrier that they need to overcome. Usually, it means that the right hand side of their brain is more dominant so they may well be highly skilled in right brain functions — ie artistic, creative and imaginative — and good problem solvers.

Crossing the midline

Provide lots of opportunities to do activities that cross the child’s midline. This will help develop their dominant hand (see our feature article: Crossing the midline)).

Transition

Ensure that children’s records clearly state if they are left-handed when they transfer to reception class in school. It is really important that their teachers are aware of this. They can then ensure that support is available for them including where they position them in the classroom. (Elbow collision is quite common when a right- and left-handed child are sat on the wrong side of each other.)

Discuss with the parents the need for them to regularly talk to the class teacher about their child’s left-handedness and to get them to explain what support they are putting in place especially around areas of handwriting. They may need to have this conversation each year as their child moves up the school and has a different teacher.

Last reviewed 17 September 2015