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?

About TheAnonymousOT

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
This entry was posted in Insider Information, Occupational Therapy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

84 Responses to When to “Fix” a Pencil Grasp

  1. sandra says:

    Hi there, the pencil grip you have show with the caption “When to Fix Pencil Graps” is exactly my child’s graps! Is there a name for it?

    • Mary says:

      My son also has the pencil grip in the first picture. He refuses to change it, despite all my efforts to help him. Is there a name for it?

      • Jenny says:

        My 9 year old daughter has the same grip. She has nice handwriting and good speed. Her teacher is wanting to change it now thinking it will cause problems for her in the future. My daughter says when she uses the normal grip, she feels like she’s using her left hand and handwriting is bad. She says this grip gives her more stability. We have tried over the years to change it, but she goes back to it. Is this just her grip? Should we leave it alone??

      • Micaela says:

        My 11-year-old also has that grasp, and I’ve never seen anyone else with it. I’ve tried to change it, but to no avail. Is it one of those that could cause extra stress on the joints, causing problems in the long run? Thanks!

    • Micaela says:

      My 11-year-old also has that grasp, and I’ve never seen anyone else with it. I’ve tried to change it, but to no avail. Is it one of those that could cause extra stress on the joints, causing problems in the long run? Thanks!

  2. Saara says:

    This is very helpful article! My daughter is in first grade(homeschooled) and her handwriting is much neater when I let her grip her pencil her way – which is a slight thumb wrap grip. If I use a pencil grip that forces her into a tripod pincer grip, she can still write legibly but she is slower and the work less neat, Should I let her grip her pencil her way? Or encourage her to try for the perfect tripod grip buy using the pencil grip attached to her pencil?

  3. Hannahbanana says:

    Hi, my 20 month old holds a pencil/pen with a grown-up tripod grasp and prefers her left hand. On the Internet it says that doing this too early can cause problems. Her daddy showed her but didn’t force anything, she just seems to prefer it. I’ve only looked it up today because preschool have mentioned it. Is there anything I should do to encourage a more developmentally appropriate grip or should I just leave well alone? Thanks

  4. brittabeach says:

    My 4 year old has problems with pencils, spoons, scissors, crayons, etc. When I try to correct her hand placement her hand is so stiff I can’t move her fingers or she springs back to where she was. For a while I didn’t fight it because she has a very strong personality and we struggle with so many other issues, I didn’t want to fight this battle yet. But she is going into preschool this year and still can’t hold a pencil with anything more than the fist grasp. Do you think this is something we can keep trying to address at home or do we need to get a professional involved?

  5. Diana says:

    My daughter had absolutely beautiful handwriting but was holding her pen with a heavy thumb grip that was putting a lot of strain on her and meant she got tired quickly. I have been encouraging her to hold the pen the tripod way, and although she is picking it up now, her handwriting has become messy and awkward-looking. Now I am concerned I should not have intervened, and that she has lost that beautiful handwriting forever. Help! What do I do?

  6. Diana says:

    By the way, my daughter, of the above comment, is 10.

  7. Noel says:

    I have a 9 year old boy with a fist grip. He hates to work on it, let alone talk about it. He is not eligible for school OT, because he is not in special ed (he’s in the gifted class). He has other SPD issues, is generally uncoordinated, but he’s started violin (successfully so far) this year. But the grip remains unchanged. Should we pursue private OT? Do we need a pediatrician or other referral?

  8. Lynn says:

    My daughter has the type of pencil grasp in the picture where it says when to “fix” a pencil grasp. You haven’t identified what it is. I don’t want to fix it (it is too late now anyway) but I am just curious to how it develops in a child and how it can possibly affect her writing. Can you please clarify that one?

  9. Jenny says:

    My nine-year-old daughter uses the very top grip on this post with her pointer finger around the top of her pencil . She has gravitated toward this grad since she was four years old . We have tried lots of different things but that seems to be the grip that his sat with her . Her teacher now currently wants to change it and now my daughter complains that it’s hard for her to write with the normal pencil grip and she feels like her handwriting looks like it does with her left hand now . Her speed is a good bit slower and she’s getting frustrated I’m just wondering if her grip is her grip and we should not try to change it . Her handwriting has always been really nice and she has good speed . What do you think would appreciate any thoughts 😊

  10. jack says:

    okay, this is a little silly, but I’m nineteen and I hold a pencil like how you did demonstrating a closed web space. Should I be concerned? Is it an inefficient or damaging grip?

  11. Leslie says:

    My son has high functioning autism and uses a fingertip grasp. I’ve been trying to get the OT’s in his school district on board for YEARS to try and change his grip. He was doing great until he hit middle school then his grip reverted to this. Now that he’s 15 and in high school, the writing demands are becoming heavy and his hand is CONSTANTLY fatigued. I worry he’s going to damage his joints with the way he grips his pen/pencil. Is it even possible to change him at this point?

  12. Clara B says:

    My almost-7-year-old has a very tight grasp (more or less like the FIRST picture). He holds his pencil with the 3 fingers (forefinger, middle & thumb) but the pencil points away from him just like in the first picture. No matter how much we ask him to hold it rightly, he gradually (naturally) starts holding it in such awkward position. His handwriting is inconsistent and not pretty but not so bad-looking either. What could be done? PLEASE help.

  13. monu barnala says:

    beauutiful article …loved reading it…it cleared all my doubts….and surely this article will help every parents in good parenting

  14. Pingback: Grasp/Grip Patterns and When Do We Correct Them?

  15. nosipho msomi says:

    Hi i am 40 years and my hand is illegible and very small. Please help because i have got a promotion and writing is the daily task. I think the problems started at grasping, i do not know how to grasp the pen nicely. Please help.

  16. Holly says:

    Neat article! I’m an inter-digital bracer myself- my older sister taught me to hold a pencil that way before my parents or teachers could get to me- and teachers throughout my whole life have tried to “fix” my grasp. I never even tried to change it- I can write just as fast as anyone for just as long, and my handwriting is fairly decent. Why bother? I wish I could shove this article into their faces haha

  17. h k says:

    Why are there no replies to any questions?

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s