As a pediatric OT, I most frequently receive questions about pencil grasps. In fact, I wrote an entire article about When to “Fix” a Pencil Grasp. However, we also need to talk about those children (or even adults) that aren’t ever going to achieve a grasp that looks “normal.”
I know, it might be one of those things that makes them stand out. For some children, the last thing they want is to have one more thing that presents differently than their peers. However, all too often I see an obsession to change and tweak a grasp to the point that it actually interferes with the other skills a child should be developing.
With that in mind, here are some factors to consider:
-Remember WHY you want or need to change a child’s grasp. If it’s just to make their handwriting neater – hold up for a moment. Research states that changing a pencil grasp will not directly impact a child’s handwriting legibility.
-Some children are dealing with factors that make a traditional grasp impossible. Finger length, joint mobility, muscle tone – this can all impact what a grasp looks like.
–It is not a failure if a grasp doesn’t turn out as a classic tripod. As long as the joints aren’t strained, there is mobility in the fingers/hand, and there is no pain – they might have created a functional grasp on their own.
This is where an occupational therapist comes in very handy. We are skilled at analyzing a grasp to assess if it is functional, and if it needs to (or can be) changed.
Think about it – every time a child picks up a pencil, we are quick to say, “fix your fingers!” They shift it around in their hand for a few moments, trying to find the right fit. They can’t continue with the task until they look up and ask, “is this right?” Activities like writing or drawing can become a double motor planning challenge:
1) “Am I holding this pencil the right way?” and
2) “Am I writing this letter the right way?”
Listen, I know there are precisely 1 million references out there for ways to work on pencil grasps. Everyone has their own tricks and techniques that they swear by. Stickers, grippers, visual cues, songs and rhymes, special pencils, rubber bands, socks with holes cut in them… just to name a few. These are great, but we have all had situations in which NONE of these techniques stick.
In fact, while attempting to incorporate these techniques, I have observed some children fall even further behind in visual motor tasks such as writing, drawing, or coloring because they have become paralyzed by their grasp. When I see this happening after a significant amount of time or intervention, it might be time to move into an adaptive frame of reference. This might include only giving them very short crayons that they can’t manipulate in an incorrect way, allowing a modified or adaptive grasp, or sticking with a supportive gripper. Something that takes the pressure off of the child every time they have to pick up a writing utensil.
So maybe we accept an adaptive tripod. Maybe a gripper does the heavy lifting for a while as they focus on other skills. Maybe their thumb wraps around a little more than others. Maybe they use four (or even five!) fingers instead of three. Increasing acceptance of non-traditional grasps that are still functional might save a few headaches, tantrums, and increase compliance with other fine motor tasks.