This one is a hot topic – when do children develop a hand preference? When should parents be concerned if they haven’t developed a hand preference? And is it ok to choose a hand preference for your child? I remember as an early career therapist (and a definite lefty myself) being completely shocked that there were still children being forced to use one hand over another! Today my focus is on what parents can expect and encourage when it comes to their child developing a hand preference.  

What is a hand preference? 

A hand preference is when one hand is consistently used over the other for completing the skilled parts of an activity. Such as when writing or drawing, a person will hold the pencil with their preferred hand, whilst their other hand supports the paper. 

When will my child have a hand preference? 

Most children usually start to develop a hand preference between the ages of two and four years. During this time, many children will continue to swap hands. It’s not until between the ages of four and six that most children will establish a clear hand preference, which coincides with when a child is usually starting school.  

What if my child is swapping hands? 

We don’t ordinarily get too concerned about a child who is swapping hands when writing/drawing or completing other fine motor tasks, particularly if they are under the age of six. If you are watching your child swap hands a lot, it’s important to think about why they are doing this: 

  1. Are they getting tired? Does it appear that your child is starting to use their preferred hand, but after a period of time, they change to their other hand because they are tiring? This could be related to several factors, such as reduced strength in the muscles in their hands. 
  1. Are they avoiding crossing their midline? Does your child start an activity with one hand, then when they are needing to draw or use something on their other side of their body (so crossing their midline), swap sides (swap hands) to continue completing the activity? There could be a number of causes for this too, including reduced body awareness, or the ability to cross their midline hasn’t fully developed yet (we need to remember that all these individual skills take time to develop). 
  1. Are they having difficulty completing the task? Is your child swapping between hands and is unable to complete the specific skill, such as threading small beads and continually swapping hands to improve accuracy? This may be because the fine motor tasks being asked of the child is too difficult for them or is a new task and they are developing their own motor planning for completing the activity with accuracy. 

How to help? 

As you can see, there can be several reasons why a child may be swapping hands. If you’re concerned, it’s recommended you speak with an occupational therapist, early educator or early childhood nurse who can advise you of developmental expectations for your child. It’s handy if you’ve thought about what the possible causes for your child swapping hands might be and can share them with the professional you’re speaking with. 

In most cases, the best way to help your child develop their hand dominance is through practice – encouraging them to engage in drawing, writing and fine motor activities with their hands. This will help them to develop their hand strength and provide them with opportunities to develop their planning and sequencing for tasks.  

What if my child is over the age of six? 

If your child does not yet have a hand preference, do not choose a hand preference for them!! It is best to seek guidance from an occupational therapist around the individual circumstances for your child. However, some ways you can encourage your child with their development include: 

  • Encouraging them to finish the activity, or component of an activity with one hand they started with, before swapping (for example threading all the bead on the string with their right hand, or writing all the letter of their name with their left hand). 
  • Position all toys and activities directly in front of your child, so that they can choose between both hands (rather than just using the hand the activity is presented on). 
  • When handing items to your child, hand them to them in front of them so they can choose which hand to hold them with, rather than handing them to a specific hand.  

What if there’s another reason my child can’t use their preferred hand? 

There are also several obstacles some children encounter when developing their hand preference, such as fractures or other injuries to their preferred hand/arm, and other medical and developmental causes and disability such as the impact of seizures and other neurological conditions and disability like cerebral palsy. In these instances, it’s best to seek the assistance of an occupational therapist who can work through the individual circumstances for your child, and the best strategies for them.  

The big take home message today is please don’t choose a hand preference for your child – it’s best to promote and encourage them to develop this on their own. If in doubt, seek assistance from an occupational therapist.

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