When to “Fix” a Pencil Grasp

When to fix a pencil graspHey, we can’t all have perfect grasps…but we can have functional grasps. Determining the differences between the two can save parents and children a lot of unnecessary headaches.

Before I dive too deeply into this subject, allow me to explain some of the terminology that Occupational Therapists tend to slip into when they talk about a child’s grasp. Since grasps don’t always fit into a certain category, we might use anatomical terms to clarify things. If you understand some of these key phrases, then you should be able to decipher what your child’s OT is describing:

MP / PIP / DIP joints: These are the “knuckles” of your hand. The MP joints are the ones closest to your wrist, the PIP joints are in the middle of the fingers, and the DIP joints are closest to your fingernails. If a child is demonstrating an inefficient grasp, they might be putting unnecessary strain on these joints due to awkward positioning.

Anatomy of the hand

Web space: The first web space is between your thumb and index finger. If you make the letter “c” with your hand, this web space is described as “open”. A child with a death grip on a pencil is going to have a closed off web space.

Web space open and closed

Separation of the Hand: The hand has two sides; a side for movement and a side for stability. Typically, the thumb, index, and middle fingers are the movers, and the ring and pinky are the stabilizers. Think of the way your hand moves when you cut with scissors, hold a utensil, brush your teeth, etc… you might not have ever realized how important this concept is.

Proximal: Closer to the center of the body. For example, the knee is proximal to the ankle.

Distal: Further from the center of the body. For example, the hand is distal to the elbow. A therapist might also use this terminology to describe the hand’s position on the pencil. For example, “the child grasps the pencil at the distal end,” meaning closer to the paper.

Static grasp: The fingers are locked in their position, and the muscles within the hand aren’t doing much work. This means that the pencil is being controlled by the larger muscle groups of the wrist, elbow, or even shoulder.

Dynamic grasp: The fingers and muscles within the hand are doing their job to move the pencil to create letters. Everything else is stable.

Thumb tuck or thumb wrap: The thumb might tuck under the first fingers or wrap around them. This is usually done for additional stability.

Thumb Wrap Thumb Tuck

So now that you know the anatomy and grasping jargon, let’s talk about the good stuff: pencil grasps! In my mind, a grasp can be classified a few different ways:

Developmentally Appropriate Grasps:

Fisted /Gross Grasp: No mystery here – this is when the child holds the pencil with a fist. This grasp is the most immature, yet is still a typical part of development. A toddler first begins to grasp writing utensils in this position.

Digital Prontate Grasp: The thumb, index, and middle fingers are holding the pencil on the underside of the hand. This grasp is also a part of typical development, hanging around for ages  2-3 or so. It is the start of a shift away from the whole handed “fisted” grasp and into a more controlled grasp with appropriate hand separation.

Tripod Grasp: Using three fingers to control the pencil.  This is the “cremè de la cremè” of pencil grasps, the one you are most likely to see as the example of the perfect pencil grasp.

Quadrupod grasp: Using four fingers to control the pencil. This is very similar to the tripod grasp, except the ring finger is incorporated into the mix. I think this one gets a bad reputation from some parents who think their child is doing something crazy with 4 fingers on the pencil. However, a quad grasp can be every bit as functional as a tripod. It might even be preferred if a little one’s fingers need just a little more support.

Developmentally Appropriate Grasps

A therapist may classify a child’s grasp as “immature” if it is still amongst one of these typically developing grasps, just a few stages behind. (i.e. a 3 year old that still uses a fisted grasp.)

Inefficient or Less Functional Grasps:

Inter-digital Brace: This one just sounds cool, right? It means that the pencil is being stabilized between the fingers of the hand. A child may assume this grasp when they need a lot more stability in the hand.

Fingertip Grasp: The pencil is controlled by the fingertips, with a majority of the movement directed by the pinky or ring fingers. This grasp may make a quick appearance in between the digital pronate and tripod grasp in typical development as a child is figuring things out. However, it doesn’t provide much stability in the hand or a lot of control over pencil movement.

Inefficient Grasps

Components of a Functional Grasp:

As educational demands increase to ridiculous levels, children are finding themselves forced into writing tasks and grasping skills that they just aren’t ready for. They are scolded when those three little fingers are joined by others in a desperate search for stability that hasn’t developed yet. If a child doesn’t have the foundational skills for a proper grasp, they are going to start doing some funky things to try to compensate.

With that said, what are some of the components of a functional grasp?

Proximal Stability: Child has to have a stable base of support in order to move fine motor muscles appropriately. “Stability before mobility” is a common therapy mantra. This means a proper seat in their chair, stable shoulder muscles, and a stable forearm on the table.

Stability within the hand: This is where that “separation of the hand” concept comes into play. In a typical functional grasp, the ring and pinky fingers are the stable ones, as they relax in the hand or rest on the table to provide a base of support.

Mobility within the hand: The thumb, index, and middle fingers are the ones that should be doing most of the pencil moving. They are made to complete the small movements necessary to create delicate fine motor work such as writing. These muscles within the hand need to be developed so that other fingers aren’t pulled in to create a basket weave of grasping chaos.

Using this sort of criteria for a functional grasp assessment, you may notice that the tripod doesn’t have to be the only one that works. I often say to parents, “It doesn’t need to be pretty, it needs to be functional.”  It’s important to mention this because children can get stressed out when someone relentlessly harps on their grasp, or when they are forced to use these hugely embarrassing grippers on their pencil. (Especially when it’s for no reason other than their grasp doesn’t look exactly like what everyone else has.)

When to Change a Pencil Grasp:

There have been several research studies about pencil grasps and handwriting. Most of which state that pencil grasp does not influence legibility. (Check out this research article here: Effect of Pencil Grasp on the Speed and Legibility of Handwriting in Children) So if that is the main reason you want to change a child’s pencil grasp, I’ll have to stop you right there.

However, there are definitely some situations that call for intervention:

Biomechanical stress on joints of the hand: If a child doesn’t have the strength necessary to control the pencil, they are going to start locking joints in order to “hold” themselves in the writing position. This can lead to hyperextension, putting unnecessary strain on joints we want to be in good shape for a long time.

Fatigue or pain during writing tasks: Yes, a child might grasp the pencil for dear life as they try to exert some sort of control. This can cause fatigue or pain during writing tasks, which can then lead to avoidance or behaviors related to writing. No need to make handwriting more painful than it already is.

Compromised writing speed: If a child’s pencil is woven into their fingers, it might be challenging for them to write with any sort of functional speed. If they are having trouble in school because they can’t keep up with their peers, or are unable to get their school work done in time due to their grasp, then it needs to be addressed.

Immature grasps that lack stability and/or mobility: A child may be stuck in an immature grasping pattern due to lack of strength or stability. Strengthening the muscles of the hand or training them in the proper position can help to move the child along the developmental road.

Pencil Grasps and Handwriting:

As I mentioned previously, changing a pencil grasp is not going to magically change your child’s handwriting. Yes, it is a component of handwriting, but most certainly not the only thing that should be looked at. (Check out my previous post: Evaluating a Child’s Handwriting: An Inside Look for other components of handwriting.) Some parents come to an evaluation with the unrealistic expectation that changing a grasp will be the magic “fix” they were looking for.

Most likely, with a lot of work, a child’s grasp can be adjusted. With this change, they might see less fatigue and/or pain with writing, and therefore might be more willing to work on letter formations, line placement, and spacing: components that are really going to change the legibility of their writing.

OTs could go on about pencil grasps for ages, so this is by no means an inclusive list of all the aspects of grasping. However, the big message here is to understand why a grasp might need to be changed and the realistic impacts of that change.  Ok, I’ll just admit it- I’m a quadrupod grasp with a thumb wrap, but hey, I’ve made it this far. Or maybe I’m just jealous of all those tripod grasps out there…

Related Posts:

Evaluating a Child's Handwriting: An Inside Look

Evaluating a Child’s Handwriting: An Inside Look

The Handwriting Debate: Which Program is Best?

The Handwriting Debate: Which Program is Best?

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About TheAnonymousOT

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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45 Responses to When to “Fix” a Pencil Grasp

  1. Sherry says:

    Thank you! Beautiful and thorough explanation of what I’m seeing when I look at how a student holds their pencil!

  2. Toni says:

    Finally got this read…..nicely done AnonymousOT. And I agree-we just love an open web space! LOL

  3. Amy says:

    This is a great explanation of grasps. Is there anyway to get this helpful information in an Adobe format so it could be shared with teachers and parents? Thank you…this is an awesome blog!

  4. Donna says:

    Great article. Another grasp that I sometimes try and get kids to do when they don’t have a functional tripod, is the adapted tripod. It works really well.

    • Hi Donna,
      I thought about putting something about the adapted tripod grasp, but for whatever reason I haven’t had a lot of luck getting my clients to maintain it as we work on it week to week. Although I’m glad to hear it has worked for you! Thanks for your comment!

  5. Pingback: The Oh-So-Important-Pencil Grip (or maybe not?) | Theramingo

  6. Econteach says:

    eeek! I am an adult waaaay past the age when something should have been corrected and I have a bent right index finger because of my quadrupod grasp. It looks and feels like the bone has a subtle bend between the first and second joints because of years of too strong pressure. All this is probably a result of learning to hold a pencil from my dad who was a natural lefty forced to become a righty because of a religious nut job at his private school. Thanks for taking the time to help people learn the correct way to hold pencils and the scientific reasoning behind each hold.

  7. Nicole says:

    AWESOME post! You’re right about legibility though I’ve seen it affected indirectly as students try to go faster and compromise quality… I just got a grant to provide slant boards and grips for proactive use in kindergarten classes and can’t wait to see if there’s a difference on next year’s screening of grasp. Not hard core research, just trying to do my best for the kiddos. I made a video tutorial to help teachers know what to do if you’re interested. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duNfdXgJyAY&feature=youtu.be

    I will be referencing this post at work so THANK YOU!
    Nicole

  8. Kathryn says:

    Thank you thank you for addressing if there is a Need to “fix” the grasp. My 7 year old son (asd) uses a fisted grasp and has the most beautiful penmanship! However we were encouraged to add this to his IEP and therapy program. These were the times he consistently had outbursts escalating into meltdowns. Touching his hands is a big no no.I finally had them remove these “fixes” and let him be and he’s more relaxed and creative than ever!

  9. Cindy Jacobson, Med, OTR/L says:

    Great article. I work on trying to develop mature pencil grips and there does come a point if the grasp is functional, why are you fighting. I, too, have a funky grap which I tell everyone it is functional but inefficient.

  10. Pingback: Pencil Grip 101 | The Anonymous OT

  11. christiekiley says:

    I’m a quadrupod with thumb wrap too! Haha. Great post, well articulated, have pinned to my therapy board, thanks!

  12. Gifi says:

    For young ones with poor grasp I just used broken bits of crayon and they would naturally learn a better grasp ! Building pincher muscle is a first step!

  13. Great article, beautifully illustrated! The comments come from adults who say their own grips are poor. I gave an adult student a small ball of yarn to hold in the palm of his hand with his little finger and ring finger, holding the pen in the traditional tripod hold. He still communicates with me and says he still uses the yarn ball to relax his hand. Cotton balls are good for young children. If you have a chalkboard here is a fun activity for a child. Please see the 06/07/2013 post on my blog, http://www.bfhhandwriting.com titled, Pre-Writing Activities.

  14. zia says:

    really liked this article….but i’d like to know if you have advice for children who have sweaty hands which makes it frustrating to write for a long period of time…any hints/ solutions for this ??

  15. Pingback: OT Resource of the Week: Pencil Grip 101

  16. Julie F. says:

    I feel more relieved after reading your article. My 7-year old just started 1st grade and her teacher is trying to correct her pencil grasp. Her grasp looks somewhat similar to the photo of the Inter-digital Brace. She has held pencils and crayons this way since she was 3 years old and numerous teachers have tried, since then, to correct her grasp. I have also tried a few times, but gave up because she has beautiful handwriting and it wasn’t worth her tears.

    At the beginning of last school year, when my daughter was in kindergerten, I told her teacher that I knew she used the “wrong” grasp, but I wasn’t willing to push the issue with her unless there was a problem. Her teacher said that she didn’t see a need for it either because of how nice and neat she wrote. Her teacher even commented at parent/teacher conferences and on report cards about what beautiful handwriting she had.

    My daughter never complains about her fingers or joints hurting unless she is forced to try writing the “correct” way, and she writes a lot. In fact, I have never had to make her work on her handwriting because she loves to write, draw and color in her free time so she already gets plenty of practice.

    She had a meltdown tonight and was paralyzed with frustration when I asked her to practice spelling a few words. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but she was so upset and stressed about how to hold her pencil, even with a pencil grip, that she just fell apart crying. She took everything so personally and felt like her teacher was trying to hurt her feelings, although I’m sure that’s not the case. I don’t know what to do because I refuse to encourage her to change what works for her and what feels natural simply to make her fit a mold, however, I don’t want to tell her to ignore her teacher either.

    Thank you for this great article. At least now I feel more confident that there’s really no need to force my daughter to change her pencil grasp since it works just fine for her.

    • Hi Julie,

      Thank you for sharing your story! I’m so glad you feel more confident in this issue. I hope that the pressure eases off so that your daughter can enjoy writing and drawing again! It’s easy for people to pick at something because it looks different or wrong, they key is to know when it’s appropriate to intervene. I wish you the best of luck!

  17. Janet B. says:

    Wow! This is a great article. I wish I had had this info before I retired from my position as an elementary school teacher! No one ever discussed this with us! I will share it with my friends who are still in the trenches! Thanks!

  18. Tsunoba says:

    So, what kind of grasp is it that left-handed people use?.You know, the “hook-handed” one?

    I ask because that is how I hold my pencil, but I do it with my right hand.

  19. I’m a K4 teacher. I have a student that holds her pencil the “fingertip grasp” as pictured above. She has great fine motor skills (zips/unzips, buttons/unbuttons, strings small,medium, and large beads, cuts with scissors in straight and curvy patterns). Her older sister also holds her pencil that way. Her mom wants it corrected. What do you suggest?

    • Hi Kristi, I would recommend an OT evaluation if mom is gung-ho on changing the grasp. That way the therapist can get in there and make sure there isn’t anything else going on.

  20. Gillian says:

    What would you call the grip at the very top of the page? My 8 year old holds her pencil this way and the OT at her school has half heartedly encouraged her to correct it but because my daughter has such beautiful penmanship and drawing skills, the OT says it’s most likely fine unless she feels strain. Our friend who teaches elementary school says it might become a larger problem when the writing assignments get longer in the higher grades. Can you give advice about what to watch for that would indicate strain and the need to change what seemed to be a functional grip?

    • I’ve actually heard someone call that a “violin” grasp, or a tripod grasp with a hook of the first finger. Whatever you want to call it, that first finger position is probably hooking high on the pencil due to instability. I agree with the OT most pencil grips are fine as long as they are functional and don’t cause unnecessary joint stress. If I was analyzing the grasp in the picture, I would see stress on the hyperextended joint of the thumb, as well as strain on the knuckle joint. You don’t want to see the joints locked in at their end range or beyond. Look to see if your child is shaking out her hand after a short burst of writing to indicate fatigue and/or strain. I recommend that if you don’t agree with your OT about the issue, don’t be afraid to get another opinion. Best of luck!

  21. KSL says:

    Well thank you! I’ve used the four-finger grip since preschool. It drove my Kindergarten teacher NUTS and since she hadn’t ‘fixed’ it by the end of the year it just stuck. Now I know I’m ok :)

  22. Shayla says:

    Oops! I am currently 13 years old and use a pencil with the quadrupod grasp, and when I try to do a regular tripod it just feels “wrong” and my writing is messier. I guess its too late to change that.

  23. I have a first grader that holds the pencil with a quad grasp but his thumb pip joint is slighty hyperextended against the pencil.. what are your thoughts?

  24. Alyssa says:

    We are a homeschooling family and I am an SLP. I have a 7yo that uses a thumb wrap grip and points the pencil up rather than towards her shoulder. We’ve used HWT as our handwriting curric, but she doesn’t form letters the way the program instructs her too. Her writing is legible, but she can only write 10 words before her hand is so tired she has to stop. When we try a pencil grip, her handwriting deteriorates to the point where it is totally illegible and she refuses to write more than 5 or 6 letters. Our local OT is unable to offer any advice or help. I would appreciate any insight.

    • Hi Alyssa,
      Shame, I feel for your daughter. My kids also struggled with fine motor and handwriting issues and I am an OT myself, also homeschooling :-). I really like what anonymous OT says about getting kids to have functional pencil grasps, not necessarily pretty ones!

      I’ve put together some fine motor hand exercises, finger exercises etc over at my website, and the way I use them as a homeschooling mom is to assign one activity for the week, and then the kids do that activity before handwriting exercises and between lessons – I personally find that the quick 3 minute bursts of fine motor focus once or twice a day has really helped my kids improve their endurance of handwriting and other fine motor tasks. So that is one huge benefit of homeschooling for me – I can work their gross motor and fine motor needs into our daily routine! You can find the exercises under the fine motor tab on my site – OT Mom Learning Activities – hope they help a bit!

  25. Michal says:

    Thanks a lot from far Israel :)
    Just love it! well written and informative!
    I keep telling my children’s folks that grasps are hard to change (unless a dictator is sitting next to them to override it); and if their kids are succeeding in writing everything down from the board (speed), their writing is legible and are not tired- everything is good and functional!
    OT-Israel :))))

  26. Emily says:

    Inter-digital brace grasp-er here! Age 25. The OTs eventually decided that my handwriting was good enough and I could use a keyboard. Miraculously I am quite able to draw, go no? Anyways, nice article, glad there’s a name for my asana.

  27. Alyssa C. says:

    I’m almost 21 and I still use the fingertip grasp. I remember my kindergarten teacher briefly trying to correct my grasp by giving me a raised surface to write on (?) but it didn’t stick. Funny thing is I hold my cutlery and everything else the “normal” way, but I’ll probably always hold my pencils with all my fingertips.

  28. Summer says:

    Great article! I would love to send a pic of my daughter’s grasp just to get an opinion. After reading this, I still don’t know what to classify it as!! Please email me if you are able to take a quick look. Sumtarr at telus.net

  29. nicole king says:

    Thank you for the great info. I have a son soon to be 5 and he is having so much trouble with pencil grip, which is greatly affecting handwriting at school. He is currently using the finger tip grasp but switches it around some. He complains that pinching it correctly hurts his hand. He also appears to be ambidextrous (runs in my family) because he chooses to do some tasks with left and others with right…also some with equal use. Could this be why his little hand isn’t strong enough yet to hold that pencil right? He fights me when practicing and avoids writing if he can help it. He will start Kinder in the fall and I’m worried he won’t be able to legibly write his name.

  30. Arlette says:

    Hello, I looooove your article… I am doing research on fine motor coordination skills in 3 years old children and would love to quote your article, but I need some information as when you wrote it? what’s your last name? (to give you credit for this). And would you be so kind to recommend me literature about this subject. ?… please

    I’d really appreciate it. Greetings from Mexico.

  31. Briana says:

    Wish somebody had told my 3rd grade teacher this. I’ve always had your “quadrapod” grasp. And I’m 26 and still do. I have the neatest handwriting of anyone I know and get complimented on my penmanship often. But anyway, she was so hateful she would literally come and change my fingers to grasp in a different way. Or she would take the pencil out of my hand completely, while I was writing, and make me pick it up again. Although, when she walked away all it took was a wrist flick to get everything back in order, but still….she was pretty mean. :\

  32. Kristy Doody says:

    Thank you for sharing your expertise! I am a kindergarten teacher and I found this information very valuable. Do you have any advice for helping a child with a traditional tripod grasp who uses an extreme amount of pressure? I’m not surprised this little one hates writing…it is exhausting just to watch.

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