As a left-hander growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, I don’t remember much fuss being made about my “difference”. I do remember some teachers would place me on the left-hand side of a desk pairing so I wouldn’t bump elbows with my right-handed classmates. I also remember it hurt when I tried to use their scissors.
I mostly remember how Nicholas Waring, a fellow lefty in my primary school years, used to write like a “weirdo”. Imagine Nicholas, being told to “face the front”, with his wrist curved over and around his words in order to stay a precious few centimetres ahead of the sentence so as not to smudge the ink and to have a clear view of what he was writing. If he was left to his own devices he would sit with the left-hand side of his body over his workbook, which lay on its right-hand side. It sounds involved, but that’s because he was a left-hander trying to develop in a right-hander’s world.
I’m not sure why I didn’t do what Nicholas did. I think I might have been all too aware of my difference and forced myself to replicate the right-handers surrounding me who wrote “straight up”, because goodness knows I didn’t want to be different at the age of seven, eight, nine, 10…
Worldwide, about 10% to 13% of the total population is left-handed, says Joburg-based occupational therapist Kathryn Nish. But a rather hands-on, right-handed mom to a lefty, Tracy van der Merwe, notes that “Four years ago Denise Pape did a South African classroom study and found that in the five-year-old group there was 25% left-handedness. There is a genetic component to handedness so, the more lefties there are, the more there will be.”
He cannot do the tasks fast enough… his work smudges and doesn’t look great… he feels uncomfortable with some tasks and does not want to do them again…
He is different, and children don’t like different. As the majority of the world’s population is right-handed, the challenges that left-handers face are numerous. Right-handed people don’t have to think too hard about picking up a pen and writing as it flows comfortably from left to right. Just so, it is comfortable for the lefty to go from right to left but that’s not going to happen in the western world.
The following details the classic features of the left-handed child’s challenges.
ergonomic The child may not have the correct equipment and knowledge of the correct positioning at their desk.
teaching method Many teachers may not be aware of the correct teaching method for letter formation, and worksheets and activities may not be presented and taught correctly.
writing from left to right Lefties have to push when they write causing strain on the hand, wrist and shoulder as they squeeze the pen hard to prevent their fingers from slipping down the pen or pencil.
wrist-hooking This occurs in order to see their work as they write and to prevent smudging. Hooking places pressure on the wrist and can cause compression of the nerves, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome. It may cause fatigue and a slow pace of writing.
emotional Feeling different and being slow to finish work, possibly causes feelings of failure and unworthiness.
Nish has had a left-handed boy in occupational therapy for one and a half years. “He had a low self-esteem, struggled to make friends and was shy and mistrustful of others. He was encouraged to use his right hand over his left, even though he was showing clear left-hand preferences at about five years of age.” Though this should no longer be happening, Nish still finds children are forced to change their natural preference. “This requires education and compromise to ensure that the best functional outcome for the child is achieved.” Forcing a child to change their natural hand preference does not change their brain dominance and so it will affect concentration, memory, spatial, speech, reading, writing and fine motor (handwriting) skills.
Different, not abnormal
Clare Winter is a left-handed primary school teacher who models with both her left- and right-hand when teaching handwriting. “However, this is not the norm so more emphasis needs to be placed on this during teacher training.” Nish sees Clare’s method as a wonderful way to both model and normalise left-handedness. “The sooner teachers accommodate left-handed students, the sooner acceptance and awareness will reign.”
“A simple adaptation of the teaching methods and presentation of information would make a huge difference to the lefties in the classroom,” says Nish. Through gross motor activities, 3D and 2D perceptual games and finally paper-based activities, the left-handed boy Nish was working with resolved his spatial perceptual difficulties, is far more confident, is able to correctly orientate his letters and now even has a couple of friends on the playground.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a lefty in order to understand the struggles they experience every day. Help them with the things you can, and show empathy where you cannot. Attend or facilitate a workshop at your child’s school, where all of these things are discussed,” says Tracy. If your left-handed child is experiencing serious setbacks, seek professional assistance from an occupational therapist, but if you start with some of these points you could already be making a difference to your left-handed learner’s day.
- Make sure the appropriate learning tools are being used as this will make fine motor tasks easier: left-handed scissors; a left-handed sharpener, if they are experiencing difficulties sharpening with a right-handed one; thin workbooks, so that they can rest their hands on the page and start close to the margin; a chart showing left-handed letter formation; and an incline board and non-smudge pens or pencils.
- Position their work to the right of a table as this will decrease the wrist-hooking that occurs and the problems associated with it.
- Demonstrate left-handed letter formation with your left hand so that the child can model you and see the actual flow of writing.
- Teach the correct progression in art projects, which is right to left when colouring and painting, so they stay within the lines and don’t smudge their work.
- Left-handed children should also learn to progress correctly in cutting, which is in a clockwise direction (right-handers cut anti-clockwise).
- Support your left-handed child by advocating for them and teaching them how to advocate for themselves.
- Ensure that the basics are in place, namely equipment and positioning.
- Use a special grip on the pencil to help the fingers relax and not grip so tightly or slip down the pencil.
- When copying a letter, put that letter at the top of a page or on the right-hand side so they don’t have to lift their hand while copying.
- Symmetry drawings flipped to the other side of the page means the lefty won’t have to lift their hands while trying to complete the task.
- As a right-hander teaching skills such as knitting, fastening shoelaces or using cutlery correctly – place yourself opposite the child and let them copy you. If she copies while facing you she is learning the left-handed way.