One of the most common reasons OT is consulted during the first few weeks of school is if a student visibly has difficulty holding a pencil. Children spend a lot of time doing writing tasks at school, and pencil grasp is one component of this important school occupation. However, just because a student has a less than perfect grasp doesn’t mean there will be significant impact functionally. Some people just hold their pencil in a different way but can still write legibly. There are a lot of factors that influence development of a functional grasp pattern. Let’s take a look today at the components of a functional pencil grasp, ways you can support your students and when to consult your OT.
What is a functional grasp?
A functional grasp may look different from person to person. If the student is able to write legibly, keep up with the class work and doesn’t have any pain in their hand – that grasp pattern may be considered functional for that student even if it isn’t what we would consider to be ideal. That being said, the dynamic tripod grasp still tends to be the ‘gold standard’ for pencil grasp, which includes in the following components:
- Holding the pencil with thumb, index and middle finger with the ring and pinky finger tucked out of the way.
- Thumb web space (curved part between your thumb and index finger) is open.
- No finger joints are hyperextended, or bent too much.
- Pencil movement comes from the fingers.
- Pencil is resting back into the thumb web space.
- Forearm is resting on the writing surface.
- Wrist is bent slightly backwards (extended) and bends forward when writing (flexed).
By 5-6 years old, we would expect to see a child using a more mature, dynamic tripod grasp. It is OK if a 3 year old is not quite there yet. Children younger than 2 may hold the crayon with their whole fist. 2-3 year olds typically hold the crayon with their hand turned over. These grasp patterns are expected of a child at that young age and would not be cause for concern.
Why may a child’s grasp pattern be less functional?
There are many factors that influence how a child holds his pencil, which can include:
- Decreased hand strength. This is so common now as children are simply not playing how they used to.
- Decreased core and shoulder strength. If a child’s core is weak, it will be very hard for him to demonstrate refined hand movements.
- Decreased hand/finger dexterity. It is important that the joints of the fingers are able to move freely, especially in the thumb, index and middle finger.
- Decreased hand separation. This is an extremely important developmental skill. The ring and pinky fingers should provide stability, as they should stay in one place and be tucked out of the way, and the thumb, index and middle finger should be mobile. If a child has not developed hand separation, the fingers will all work together, which makes things really challenging.
What can you do?
Working on all of the underlying factors that influence pencil grasp can be really helpful as a child is developing and will help support them in a variety of ways in the classroom. Here are some of my top tips which include both adaptations and ways to work on the underlying factors directly.
- Provide small writing tools. This is the most common tip I give to teachers. Break your crayons, use golf pencils and Pipsqueak markers. Little hands need little tools! If the tool is small, it almost forces students to hold it with three fingers. This is a really easy intervention to put in place.
- Explore alternative writing tools. One of the most common examples of this is the Twist n Write pencil, found here. I’ve seen many elementary students use these successfully in the classroom as the shape helps facilitate a tripod grasp.
- Check posture. Make sure a child’s feet are on the floor. If a child does not feel stable in his trunk, it will be very hard to use refined hand movements. Is the child’s arm stable on the table? If not, try using a slant board! The angled surface helps the forearm come in contact with the writing surface. It also helps get the wrist into an ideal position (bent back a little), which then naturally supports use of the index, thumb and middle finger on the pencil. You can purchase them or make one cheaply yourself by using a large binder and clips.
- Explicitly teach pencil grip. We may say things like ‘pinch your pencil’, but does the child really know what we are talking about?Learning without Tears has great resources for this. Check out their pencil grip song – see an example here.
- Incorporate core strengthening activities into your day. A stable core is key! Have students read books while laying on their stomachs, or have them sit on therapy balls to work on those muscles. Yoga is also a great way to develop core and shoulder strength, as well as playing on the playground.
- Incorporate hand strengthening activities into your day. Using theraputty, playdough, ripping paper, using scissors – they all work on strengthening the little muscles of the hand that are so important for a functional pencil grasp.
- Incorporate activities to work on finger dexterity and hand separation. The finger joints should move freely and the index finger, thumb and middle finger should be doing most of the work. In order for this to happen, it is important that students can separate the muscles of the hands. Clothespin and tweezer activities are great for this!
- If your student struggles with hand separation, try putting a small item (like a small pom pom) in the ring and pinky finger for the student to hold. You can also try this cool little gadget called the Handiwriter. It holds the pencil back in the web space and there is a little charm that the student can hold in his ring and pinky finger.
What about pencil grips?
Pencil grips tend to be last on the list of suggestions I give when working on pencil grasp with students. They can be helpful for some students, but can also be very distracting. I would first suggest trying to address the underlying skills as mentioned above or trying to change the writing tools utilized before I would recommend a use of a pencil grip. Usually, my first recommendation is to use those small pencils, crayons and markers!
The most common grip I see utilized is called The Grip, available here. It’s nice because it can be used for both right handed and left handed people. There are so many kinds of grips out there, if you’d like to explore one I’d recommend talking with your OT for specific recommendations to ensure it meets the needs of your student.
I’ve tried many different things and my student still has a less functional grasp. Should I fix it?
Remember that just because a student isn’t using a tripod grasp, doesn’t mean that grasp needs to be fixed. If a school age student has pain, fatigues easily, can’t keep up with the work or their writing is illegible, it may be worth looking at changing their pencil grasp. This is harder as a child gets older. I would strongly recommend consulting your OT if you have these concerns. Pencil grasp isn’t the only factor influencing legible handwriting, but it can be indicative of underlying challenges. An OT can assess all of the skills that may need to be addressed to help support the student’s performance in the classroom.
This blog is for informational purposes only. Please consult your OT for specific recommendations.