1. Age to Intervene
From my experience, the grasp of children age 3-5 is flexible, and small modifications in writing utensils and surfaces and how they are presented can sometimes make a big difference in how a child holds a pencil or crayon. As adults, we are able to influence the grasps of children older than 5, perhaps up to age 8 or 9. The more time a child spends holding a writing tool, the more ingrained their motor habit becomes, and over time those habits will be more and more difficult to change. I would like to share the tips and tricks that I have found most helpful in supporting pencil grasp development.
2. The Tool
If your student is using a whole hand grasp, a great way to give him the experience of using his fingertips to hold a tool is to give them short chunks of fat crayons instead of intact crayons. If you give a child a 1.5” to 2” chunk of fat crayon, they will not be able to grasp it inside their whole hand and get it to make color!
In my experience, the vast majority of children demonstrate their highest level of pencil grasp with the standard diameter pencil or crayon, not a fat pencil, fat crayon, or fat marker. While I have worked with children who had more control with a fat tool than a with a skinny tool, these were mostly children who had cerebral palsy.
Many children who have poor strength are drawn to markers and avoid crayons. If you are trying to improve the maturity, strength, and endurance of your students’ pencil grasp, markers are not the most helpful. Of course, most of us use markers from time to time, for instance, to add variety and engagement to visual motor tasks. But because markers slide on the surface of the paper without resistance, they do not give the same feedback as a pencil or crayon and will do nothing to build strength.
If the child in question so strongly resists crayons that you cannot get her interested in visual motor activities [coloring tracing drawing writing], then sometimes markers can be used as a short-term bridge.
If on the other hand, the child in question has developed a functional grasp with good endurance, I see no reason to limit the use of narrow markers.
3. Presentation of the Tool
This is my number-one way to give children with primitive grasps experience holding a pencil, crayon, or paint brush with their finger tips instead of their whole hands. Give them the tool. Yes, it’s that simple. If you can cover the top 3/4 of a pencil or crayon with your hand and offer it to the child in a vertical position [not horizontal], the child will not have enough room left to hold the pencil in the palm of his hand. If he does try to hold it with a less than ideal method, don’t let go. If you keep holding onto the pencil, you can use your other hand to gently guide the child’s fingers, and as soon as he has it – let go.
4. Writing Surface
It is more difficult for young children to write, color, or draw on a horizontal table surface than to do so on a vertical or easel surface.
A simple table modification is to have children write on the cover of a three-ring binder.
5. Cognitive Approach
If the child knows what you want him to do, it is much more likely that he will be able to do it! I teach the use of a tripod grasp to preschool-age children, but once they are in the middle or end of Kindergarten, if they use one of the other functional grasps, I am usually satisfied.
- Use a common language. Teach the child the names of her fingers. Thumb, Pointer, Tall Man [or Tall Woman], and Pinky are the most important.
- Teach the child that each finger has a job. Thumb and Pointer use their “pad” or soft part to pick up a pellet. Have the child see that he uses the soft pad part of Thumb and Pointer as he picks up very small objects, e.g., a bean, one piece of popcorn, or an M&M. But when the object is bigger, like a pencil, Tall Man needs to help. Tall Man has a different job. Tall Man uses his side. Demonstrate by picking up a pencil near the tip, with just your thumb and index finger, and show the child how the eraser end flops down to the table. Now talk to Tall Man. “Tall Man, I need your help! Thumb and Pointer can’t do this big job all by themselves. They need your help. Can you come and help us, Tall Man? Will you come and use your side?” Then demonstrate how you can hold your pencil upright when Tall Man comes to the rescue. “Oh, Tall Man, you are so strong when you use your side! Thanks, Tall Man!”
- Later if you see the child using a Transitional grasp, you can whisper in his ear, “Did you ask tall man to come to the rescue? Did tall man remember to use his side?”
- With the tip of a marker, put a little dot on the child’s fingers in the three places where the pencil touches his fingers. [Thumb pad, pointer pad, and the side of the middle finger between the last joint and the end of the finger.]
- Some children don’t want a color dot on their fingers. You can also place a thin piece of painters tape on the last bit of paint on a sharpened
pencil to show kids that this is where your fingertips touch the pencil. [You will, of course, need to remove and replace the tape when you sharpen your pencils.]
6. The Stable Side of the Hand
After children have learned where to put their thumb, index finger, and middle finger, they will sometimes keep the ring and little fingers straight and extended rather than curled and tucked into their hand. Curling and tucking these fingers gives a mechanical advantage to a tripod grasp as it provides the hand with a stable side allowing the moving side to be more precise. There is an easy way to help kids learn to tuck those fingers in. Just give them something to hold. It can be almost anything that is small enough and pleasant to be in the hand. Some children love to hold ½ a cotton ball or small art pom-pom, but others prefer a firm surface, like a pop bead.
7. The Wrist
If the finger placement looks good, but the grip still looks wonky or off, it may be that the wrist position is less than optimal. When the wrist is bent with the palm of the hand coming nearer to the arm, that is “wrist flexion.” When the wrist is bent with the back of the hand coming towards the arm we call that “wrist extension.” When holding and using a writing utensil, the optimal position for the wrist is to be in slight extension. My best suggestion for improving wrist position is to increase strength and fine motor control. But in the moment of writing, using the inclined surfaces we talked about previously – a vertical board, easel, or three-ring binder on the table – can often help.
8. Physical Cues
A cognitive approach can go a long way in helping a child understand what you are looking for, but it alone will not change long-term habits. You can fade cognitive cues by backing off to primarily physical cues. This is especially important if you are working with children who have autism, because they can easily become dependent upon verbal cues and prompts.
9. Last-Ditch Effort
You may be wondering why I have not mentioned the fifth functional grasp, the “adaptive grasp.” It is an odd-looking grasp and not very common. Mechanically, it has the advantages of the tripod grasp, with the smallest muscles of the hand controlling a writing tool with precision. Yet the adaptive grasp can be easier for some children [and adults] who lack endurance when using the other functional grasps. In fact, the adaptive grasp can be used to build strength for those small intrinsic muscles. This grasp will feel strange to the user when he starts. Remember wearing flip-flops for the first time at the beginning of summer when you were a child? That piece between your toes felt very strange and slightly uncomfortable. Don’t expect the to child pick this grasp up overnight. Try it for short times on a regular basis at first, and then build up expectations for using it for longer periods of time.
Practice makes Perfect?10. Practice Makes Permanent!
Every new motor skill takes countless repetitions to learn to the point where it is automatic and you no longer need to think about it. BUT, if you practice a motor skill the wrong way, that wrong way becomes automatic. At some point, after becoming automatic, motor skills become like cement, very hard to change! (Schmidt & Lee, 2011; Graham 1992; Graham 2006)
We can easily see these academic findings applied in children’s acquisition of pencil grip and handwriting skills. If children practice the same non-functional grasp day after day and year after year, it becomes harder to change and eventually impossible to change.
If you are interested in one product with all the information I’ve posted on pencil grasp:
What grasps look like in the major three categories and why some grasps are more advantageous than others
What ages are typically developing children using these three types of grasp
Four main factors interfere with pencil grasp development and what parents and teachers can do to address those factors
10 Occupational Therapy Tips and tricks to support the highest level of grip a child is able to use
Pencil Grippers When should a pencil grippers be used?
Treatment Video with Therapeutic techniques in use.
Tracking Tools Track the pencil grasps of all the children in your classroom or just one individual child, all on one sheet.
Printable Intervention Tools Shown in Video & Pictures
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