Dominance…Hand dominance

Hand dominance. Tying in from a recent post on crossing the midline, we thought why not go further and add in an important by-product of developing midline skills, Hand Dominance. One might even say the two go ‘hand in hand’…

What is hand dominance?

Hand dominance, hand preference or handedness are all terms used to describe a child’s natural inclination for favouring one hand over the other for skilled activities. These include functional activities (e.g. tooth and hair brushing) academic tasks (e.g. handwriting and scissor skills). For most children, hand preference begins to emerge between the ages of 2 to 4, and usually by the age of about 6, most children will develop a preferred hand. The onset of hand dominance usually witnesses the non-dominant hand becoming consistently used as the supporting hand. Some children may take longer to establish hand dominance, particularly those who have had difficulty and avoided fine motor tasks earlier in their development. In some cases, hand dominance is necessitated by certain physiological challenges (e.g. a long standing injury, cerebral palsy). However, even in these instances, hand dominance can be continued to strengthened and worked on.

They’re still swapping hands?!

Hand dominance is an important skill in child’s development as it ensures proficiency and efficiency in tasks that involve more complex motor plans, motor accuracy and greater skill. An ability to Cross the Midline and Bilaterally Coordinate the hands are contributing foundation skills that ensure consistency in hand dominance (e.g. in a cutting a a piece of cardboard, one hand needs to know that it is going to cut, while the other is going to support it by holding onto the cardboard). Most importantly, in order to achieve dexterity, fine motor coordination, motor accuracy and control, hand dominance is an essential prerequisite.

Hand swapping or using Right hand on the right side and Left on the left side are often attributed to a couple of areas of difficulty. One, bilateral coordination. To successfully have a dominant hand, a child must have some proficient symmetrical bilateral hand skills (e.g. catching a ball with two hands, holding a cup with two hands). To really get confidence in asymmetrical bilateral coordination (i.e. two hands engaged in different tasks) hand dominance must be formed.

The second common barrier to successful hand dominance is difficulties with crossing the midline. As discussed in one of our previous posts, if a child finds crossing their midline a challenge, then they may also experience challenges in using an emerging dominant hand, across their body (avoiding crossing the midline). Although not covered, another potential reason for hand swapping is hand or arm fatigue. Muscle fatigue is a common barrier for many children in early academic tasks. A child cleverly compensates for this by swapping hands once the dominant hand is fatigued. An easy thing to do is to allow that child to have a break at that time!

How do I make sure there is no competition?

Competing dominance is usually a sign that hand preference has not been established, that an emerging dominant hand is not consistent, a child may still have difficulties crossing their midline or that there has been a push to use another hand (rather than a child’s natural emerging dominant hand). This is something has historically been observed with Left handers. Some children naturally begin using their Left hand for a number of things early in their lives, but are guided to use their right by others (especially pencil based tasks). This undoes much of the early work of the brain to develop neural connections between the brain and the Left hand, and ultimately forces the brain to ‘start again’ developing the skills of the Right hand.

If there is uncertainty about dominance, below are some ideas that can be utilised to support hand dominance:

Language: Similar to crossing the midline, this is often an easy way to support describing and understanding hand dominance. Terms I like to use are ‘doing hand’ (dominant) and ‘helping hand’ (supporting hand).

Place items in the midline of the child: Place toys or items front and centre of a child so that they have a greater chance to ‘select’ which hand to use and eliminating a requirement to cross the midline.  This will remove the desire to select the hand closest to the item presented.

Observations: Spend a few days or a week observing them working with their hands. Try and keep a tally of the times they use a specific hand for more ‘fine motor tasks’. Tasks can include academic based tasks (e.g. drawing) functional tasks (e.g. brushing teeth) or play activities (e.g. construction work such as Duplo). Is there a hand that appears more ‘skilled’. Also be aware of times of swapping and difficulty crossing the midline. It is important to be patient and observant here, allow the child to problem solve and develop their own ability to determine which hand can complete the finer motor task they desire!

In addition to these ideas, simple activities to explore bilateral coordination (particularly asymmetrical) and support hand dominance include:

Hand Play: Tracing the hand, hand puppets and messy play with hands are all excellent ways to explore hand dominance. Place a hand puppet in front of a child and observe what hand they pick it up with and then play with. 

Construction Play: This can include building, box work, hammering and other woodwork construction play. Observe what hand is used to build, manipulate and complete most of the ‘finer work’ and what is used to support (e.g. dominant hand used to hold the hammer, whole supporting hand holds the nail in place). When building with blocks, lego etc. what hand is being used most to manage the smaller pieces?

Kitchen tasks: Similar to messy play, set-up spaces that allow for rollin dough, making cookies, gingerbread men etc. Even asking a child to ‘open a jar’ (provided it’s not on too tight!) and place lids on jars can give a further insight into the ‘doing’ and ‘helping’ hands. Using cutlery and kitchen utensils, especially for longer periods, can give a good gauge of what hand is preferred.

Ball games: Another simple activity is using a ball, where you can roll, throw or place a ball in a child’s hand. Get them to throw it at a target, or back to you, and see what hand is used most often. Even encouraging one hand to throw and the other to point can reinforce which hand is ‘doing’ and which is ‘helping’.

Academic and Craft Tasks: Cutting, drawing and beading. These often give a good guide into a child’s natural preference. Again, importantly placing on a table front and centre, or giving the items to a child front and centre, so midline crossing isn’t required. Cutting simple objects such as putty or play dough, colouring over stencils (e.g. embossed images or small coins) or placing large holed beads onto thick thread or pipe cleaners.

So, we may have found a preference!!

If, after trying a few of these activities and observing your child closely for a few days or weeks you discover your child appears to have a reasonably consistent preference, mention to the child which hand they prefer using, or what hand ‘feels better’ for them. From here, focus on supporting the child in activities where there is a requirement for a dominant and assisting hand. In this way, you’re encouraging provision and further development of bilateral tasks (particularly asymmetrical) to further a child’s confidence in consolidating a hand dominance.

The above list is just the tip of the iceberg in working on hand dominance. There are so many ways to work on hand dominance, bilateral skills and crossing the midline, the only thing stopping you is creativity!  Keep the above principles in mind, and soon enough you are likely to see patterns emerge in hand dominance and fine motor skill.


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