By the time they begin preschool, many children are already beginning to show a hand preference. Even as an infant, you may have noticed that your child has a clear preference for either their right or left hand once they began picking up toys, utensils, or food. And by 5 years of age, when most children are entering kindergarten, it’s usually apparent that they are a righty or a lefty.
But what if your school-aged child doesn’t show a preferred hand? There is a slight chance your child could be ambidextrous or mixed-handed. Ambidexterity is the ability to use both the right and left hand equally well for the same tasks, like writing or throwing a ball. Mixed-handedness is when a person may use different hands for different tasks. For example, some people can write well with their left hand and throw a ball with their right hand. Ambidexterity and mixed-handedness are extremely rare, with only 1% of the population falling in this category.
How can you tell if your child is ambidextrous?
It is unknown what exact factors contribute to hand dominance, but it is widely accepted to be an inherited genetic trait. Some research points to a relationship between dominance of the brain hemispheres and handedness as well as other environmental factors. For example, naturally left-handed children may see their right-handed parents or peers and try to mimic them, becoming somewhat proficient with both hands.
But suppose your child has begun kindergarten, and they still don’t seem to show a dominant hand. In that case, their teacher and their school’s occupational therapist will likely begin working with them to determine their handedness. They may observe your child during class to see which hand they use first for writing or reach. Some children without a preferred hand may switch hands often when writing and drawing because their hand tires easily, which could be a sign that the muscles in their hands are weak.
It can be challenging for your child’s teacher to determine if they are ambidextrous or just need to work on their fine motor skills. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg situation. You may wonder if their hand muscles are weak because they don’t have a preferred hand or if they don’t show a hand preference because their hand muscles are weak in both hands.
If your child truly is ambidextrous, they may have to overcome some other obstacles as they begin school, including:
- Less developed fine motor skills
- Reversed writing direction or mirrored letters
- Longer task completion time
- More difficulty with writing, cutting, and drawing
How can you help your ambidextrous child?
It’s important for your child to develop hand control as they enter elementary school. Hand control promotes not only their independence but also their learning ability. Of course, if your child can use both hands comfortably, there is no reason to be concerned. But if they are struggling to efficiently complete tasks such as writing or cutting, you may need to work with them to strengthen their hand control.
Here are a few things you can do to help your child:
- Encourage them to choose a hand for individual specialized tasks and stick to it. It may take some time, but eventually, they should strengthen the muscles in their hand and be able to write comfortably with one hand.
- Pay attention to which hand they naturally reach for an object with or use more often, and watch closely to see which hand seems to have more control, even if it is only slightly. Keep in mind that this may be different for different tasks.
- Practice fine motor control using fun activities and games and make sure they are gripping their pencil correctly when writing. This will help strengthen the muscles in their hands so they can write and complete other tasks efficiently.
- Talk to your child’s teacher, pediatrician, or occupational therapist if you don’t see an improvement in your child’s fine motor control or are concerned about them keeping up in school.
Armour, J., Davison, A. & McManus, I. Genome-wide association study of handedness excludes simple genetic models. Heredity 112, 221–225 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/hdy.2013.93
Michel, George F., et al. “Infant Hand Preference and the Development of Cognitive Abilities.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 7, 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00410.
Pudyaningtyas, A. R., & Wulandari, M. S. (2019, September). Learning difficulties in children with ambidexterity. In Early Childhood Education in the 21st Century: Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Early Childhood Education (ICECE 2018), November 7, 2018, Bandung, Indonesia (p. 206). Routledge.
My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.