Does your child hold his pencil or crayon with a “death grip?” Does she hold it too lightly or touch it only with the tips of her fingers? Does your child complain that his hand hurts so he can not complete his assignments at school?
As an occupational therapist in a school district I often see children using inappropriate grips when writing. Why is a pencil grip so important? An appropriate pencil grip will directly impact your child’s handwriting. If his/her hand becomes tired too quickly, they will not want to hand write. Kids will try to avoid handwriting altogether, which ultimately affects their academics.
There are developmental stages to grips, just like a child learns to crawl before they walk. The first stage is to hold the writing implement like a fist, which is called a gross grip. This is increasing the strength and stability in the pinky side of the hand. Stability is extremely important when the child is expected to write for long periods of time years after this is developed. The second stage is to hold the pencil with a digital pronate grip. This is where the child holds the pencil at its tip with his thumb and forefinger and the palm of his hand is on top of the shaft of the pencil. This is increasing the strength and dexterity in the first three fingers of the hand. Dexterity is extremely important to improve fluidity and efficiency when writing. The third stage is to hold the pencil at the tip with the eraser pointing up and the shaft of the pencil rests in the space between the thumb and forefinger. This space is called the webspace. The webspace should be open and loose so as not to cause stress in the hand. In addition, the last 2 fingers of the hand should be tucked into the palm for stability (which was learned in stage one). At this time it is typical for the child to move his hand as a unit. He may also use his entire arm when coloring. This is acceptable if it is functional for his/her developmental age level. The following stages incorporate this tripod grip. However, the main goal is to move only the tips of the fingers while the arm and wrist are stable.
Now that you know the progression of grips, what can you do to help facilitate these grips? The most effective GRIP TIP is to throw away all long and thick writing implements. Children have small hands and should use small writing implements. I strongly recommend that you break all of your crayons into halves or thirds. Use golf pencils and sharpen them so that they are 2-3 inches long. Many parents and teachers are often shocked when they are asked to do this “silly” act. However, the result is usually well worth it. If a writing implement is long or tall there is room for the child to hold it with all kinds of whacky grips. If the implement is short, there is only room for the first three fingers to hold it. This will ultimately encourage a perfect tripod grip!
Now that you know how to promote dexterity when writing, what happens when the child seems to lack stability? Typically a lack of stability is indicated by very sloppy writing, print is very faint, or the child has difficulty writing on the line. The other possibility is that the child is trying to compensate for their lack of stability by holding onto their pencil with a “death grip.” This is when a child may overlap their fingers over other fingers. For example, a child may wrap his thumb across the front of the pencil and his index finger. This ultimately causes a tight webspace. The child will tend to write with very hard pressure, break the tip of the pencil, or complain of hand pain after only a few minutes. An effective GRIP TIP to promote stability is to tuck a small object into the palm so that the last two fingers have to hold the object. Any object would suffice, as long as it is comfortable to the child. A popular item is to use a penny and call it a “magic penny.”
Please keep in mind that these techniques may cause hand fatigue when your child first attempts to use them. This is because your child’s muscles have already been trained in performing a certain way. You are ultimately retraining your child’s muscles. However, once your child’s muscles adapt, your child’s handwriting will be on its way to success!