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Helping left-handed children

Diane Paul

Although left-handed children are allowed to use their dominant hands by teachers and parents nowadays, very little in terms of guidance is available. Here are some practical suggestions for teachers.

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Left-handed children are allowed to use their dominant hands by teachers and parents nowadays, except in rare cases. Although the prevention of this practice became recognised as a possible source of psychological disturbance—for example, stammering, behavioural problems—very little in terms of guidance is available. Few, if any, guidelines are given at teacher training level and advice from left-handed equipment suppliers is usually based on popular mythology and not on authentic research.

Much of the research into laterality is conflicting. Whatever the conclusions, practical help for left-handed children is not included. Most libraries are unable to help, but university libraries should be able to provide bibliographies and copies of articles and research material. The only private organisation to do this in the United Kingdom is the Centre for Left-Handed Studies, (CLHS), 43 Norwood Avenue, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6EX, which provides a bibliography and copies of the papers they hold.

Financed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the CLHS's research findings in eight Manchester junior schools in 1992 was used as a basis for producing the first set of practical guidelines.


Many right-handed teachers are not aware of the left-handers in their class. If they are, it does not always occur to them that some of the difficulties experienced are left-handed ones. Left-handers are often labelled clumsy or slow or stupid, when they may be highly intelligent but lagging behind the right-handers for two reasons:

Image They are trying to cope with utensils designed for right-handers.

Image They have different brain organisation resulting in different modes of perception.

Difficulties are often overlooked because:

Image There is a lack of knowledge about left-handedness.

Image It is erroneously considered to be the reverse of right-handedness.

Image Not all left-handers have difficulties.

Consequently, for those who do have difficulties, the links with laterality may be overlooked. In addition, there are not very many left-handers—no official statistics exist, but the incidence has been placed at anything from eight to 20 percent of the population. There are various causes of left-handedness, and varying degrees, so they cannot be classified as a homogeneous group and they will not all experience the same handicaps.

Although a mass of research concerning direction exists, little has been researched on degree, the all-important factor which defines the strength or weakness of non-right-handedness. Non-right-handers range from strong to weak left-handers and include right-handers who use their left hand because of a weakness in their right hand. Therefore their abilities may well depend on their degree of laterality.

Although most write with their left hand left-handers are usually mixed-handed carrying out different tasks with a different hand. A problem exists when children are ambiguous handed, where no definite dominance has formed and they change hands between and within tasks. This sometimes occurs with special needs children such as dyslexics. Cross-laterals, who may be a mixture of sides (for example, left hand, right foot) may have co-ordination difficulties or be rendered more clumsy.


1. If a child prefers to use the left hand for handwriting, or other tasks, never force him/her to use the right hand. Right-handed teachers should try carrying out the task with their left hand to appreciate the difficulties in skill changing would create for them, and to gain an insight into what it is like for a lefthander to function in a right-handed world. If lefthanders are experiencing difficulties, they should not be left to their own devices. Analyse the possible source of the problem. The solution is often quite simple.

2. Ensure that left-handers are seated on the left of double desks and not next to a wall, both in the classroom and at mealtimes. If possible, seat them next to another left-hander, to avoid elbow clashes. In some classes they could be taught together as a group.

3. When demonstrating skills, such as handicrafts, knitting, sewing, sit opposite the left-handers, so they can copy you in mirror-image. Because some skills have to be taught, particularly those involving both hands, it may not at first be apparent whether the preferred hand for that task is left or right, because of many non-right-handers’ tendency towards mixed-handedness. If mirroring does not appear to help, stand behind the child and try guiding the hands to see if the preferred way is right-handed. Do not assume that because some children write with the left hand they are left-handed in all they undertake. Guides on how to knit and crochet left-handed are available.

4. As they may need more space on the desk, check that there is enough room as they will be angled the opposite way to the right-hander. Check that they do not have to twist to see the blackboard.

5. Right-handed equipment may render them accident-prone or clumsy. Be vigilant when using electrical equipment with controls or flexes which entail reaching across to operate. Some worktools could be dangerous. Place the mouse on the left of computers. You may have to position equipment at a different angle, and ensure that flexes don’t trail across keyboards or the child’s body. Areas to watch for include laboratories, workbenches, kitchens, computer stations.

6. Exercise patience if they work slowly. Handwriting is slowed down because the writing is covered when the pen is pushed across the body and left-handers need to lift their hands from time to time to see their work. Correct paper position and penholds need also to be checked. This may affect exam work. Obtain authentic guidelines for helping with handwriting. They may process information more slowly, taking a circuitous route to arrive at the correct answer. If they are the day-dreamers of your class, try stimulating their imagination with visual concepts (for example, drawings, diagrams). If short-term memory is poor, they may not remember your instructions easily in class, so check afterwards that your lesson has been understood. Tape recorders can be helpful for this.

7. Don’t make an example of them if they are slow or clumsy, or if their handwriting is poor. Often lefthanders are really trying hard but, without essential guidance and understanding, they will be conscious of lagging behind. Singling them out will make them feel worse. Often they are the last to understand that their difficulties are caused by their laterality and they may assume they are less able than their right-handed peers. They may not tell you that they cannot use the right-handed scissors because they assume that they themselves are to blame for their inability to cut with them. Awareness of these drawbacks, and sympathy, is essential.

8. A high percentage of left-handers have been noted among special needs children. Many symptoms are common among children with developmental dyslexia. Be aware that the difficulties encountered by some left-handers may be compounded by other educational, physiological or neurological conditions and make sure that their left-handedness is not overlooked. If they are displaying behavioural symptoms, this may simply be on account of frustration in trying to master skills, such as handwriting, without help and guidance and because they are being upbraided for being slow or producing messy work. If all else fails, it may be necessary to refer them to an educational psychologist.

9. If they produce untidy work, mark with comments, rather than crosses, which can be demoralising. Coloured highlighters are more effective than red pens. Analyse the reasons for the mess (for example, posture, paper position) and keep an eye on the child to ensure that he/she masters your suggestions. Your instructions should be reinforced as demonstrating once may not be enough to break bad habits.

10. Be aware of the left-handers on the sports field. Those who may not achieve academically may shine in certain sports, particularly tactical sports like tennis or fencing, where the opponent may be put off by having to respond to the opposite direction from usual. Some equipment (for example, fencing clothing, hockey-sticks) may not be available for left-handers. Check which hand they are most at ease using and do not force them to use their right hand if they do not wish to do so. Again, demonstrate in mirror-image fashion. They will have to play hockey on the right, so check which side of the field is more comfortable for them. The same applies in football if they are left-footed.


11. Ensure that the appropriate equipment is available and that, having obtained it, it does not get mixed up with right-handed equipment or left in a drawer. It is essential for the wellbeing of the child that equipment is as easy and comfortable to use as for right-handers and that they do not have to “try a bit harder”, as is often stated. They should not be placed at a disadvantage, which could create what is basically an equal opportunities issue. Bulk purchases can command discounts from suppliers. Some educational catalogues offer scissors but specialist suppliers have a wider range of equipment.

12. Scissors should have reverse-engineered blades, not merely reversed handles or right-handed blades with two sharp edges (“ambidextrous” scissors). If blades are not reversed, the child’s cutting line is obscured and the material slips between the blades which have to be forced along. This can create red weals on the fingers and build frustration. Scissors come in various sizes. Make sure they have round-ended blades for safety. To avoid mixing them up, keep them in special wallets or buy those with two different-coloured handles.

13. Provide rulers with the numbers running right to left. Left-handers rule lines this way, otherwise the numbers are obscured by their hand.

14. Check your writing equipment. Ink pens with left-oblique nibs slide along smoothly and do not stick in the paper, creating holes and ink blots. Italic and calligraphy pens and sets are also available. The Berol Handwriting Pen is recommended for its quick-drying ink which does not smudge, but the writing angle needs to be more vertical. Circular pencil grips with indents for fingers and thumb are more comfortable than long ones. Triangular pencils and crayons are good for the grip.

15. Try the new sloping boards which are specially angled for correct posture and writing position. Because the wrist is pushed upwards, left-handers cannot form a hooked position above the paper, which they frequently do in order to see what they are writing.

16. Compasses can be difficult to use because of orientation confusion and the exertion of undue pressure common among left-handers. Begin with a large one like the Rahmqvist Universal Compass where the arm locks the compass into position. Once accustomed to making large circles, transfer to a spring-bow compass as the lead is harder to break under pressure. Guide your hand over the child’s to help them get the feel of it.

17. For older children, peelers, knives, can openers and many other kitchen gadgets are sold by specialist suppliers. Study desks can be obtained with the paper rest on the left.

18. Launch a South Paw Club at your school. Meet quarterly, have discussions and workshops. The older children could help the younger ones, particularly with handwriting practice and tips. Carry out research projects. Perhaps a left-handed teacher could lead the group.

19. Above all, praise the child for the tasks they carry out well and encourage them when you see signs of improvement.





DIANE PAUL, Centre for Left-Handed Studies (CLHS), 43 Norwood Avenue, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6EX, lectures and broadcasts on left-handedness. She wrote in 1990 the definitive book, Living Left-Handed, and in consultation with psychologists, special needs advisers, teachers and handwriting consultants, produced Left-Handed Helpline in 1993. It contains a wealth of practical advice and probably the most comprehensive chapter on handwriting ever produced, compiled by Dr Jean Alston, Dr Rosemary Sassoon, Prue Wallis Myers and Paula Chapman. In 1995 the Left-Handed Helpline won a book award in the Primary Health Care section in the British Medical Association (BMA) Book Competition.

She recommends that all schools have a policy for lefthanders and suggests monitoring them from the reception class onwards. She encourages schools to launch “South Paw” clubs which meet quarterly. The older left-handers help the younger ones, especially with handwriting. They hold workshops and discussion groups and embark on projects which may involve their parents. She also provides illustrated lectures/workshops on helping left-handed children.

For suppliers of specialist equipment in the United Kingdom, see:

The Left-handed Company, PO Box 52, South D.O., Manchester M20 2PJ, England. Tel/Fax: 0161 445 0159.

In Australia, see:

Left Handed Products, 29a Playfair, GPO Box 5189, Sydney NSW 2001, Australia. Tel: 02 247 3674.

In New Zealand, see:

The Left Centre, P O Box 2060, Raumati Beach, New Zealand. Tel: 04 299 9409.

The Centre for Left-Handed Studies’ first set of practical guidelines were published as:

CLHS. (1992). Report of laterality survey in Manchester junior schools. Manchester: CLHS.

This has been reprinted with kind permission of the publishers, National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales (NFER), from:

Paul, D. (1995, Autumn). Helping left-handed children. Topic, 14 (8).

The Left-Handed Helpline is:

Paul, D. (1993). Left-handed helpline: An essential guide for teachers, teacher trainers and parents of left-handed children. Manchester: Dextral Books.

Estimates regarding the incidence of left-handers can be found in:

Seddon, B.M., & McManus, I.C. (1991). The inheritance of left-handedness: A meta-analysis. Unpublished manuscript.

McManus, I.C. (1983). The interpretation of laterality. Cortex, 19, 187–214.

The importance of the degree of left-handedness is discussed in:

McManus (1983), see above.

The relationship between ability and the degree of laterality is discussed in:

Annett, M. (1993). Handedness and educational success: The hypothesis of a genetic balanced polymorphism with heterozygote advantage for laterality and ability. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 11, 359–370.

Annett, M. (1993). The disadvantages of dextrality for intelligence-corrected findings. British

Journal of Psychology, 84, 511–516.

Annett, M., & Manning, M. (1989). The disadvantages of dextrality for intelligence. British Journal of Psychology, 80, 213–26.

Co-ordination difficulties or clumsiness experienced by cross-laterals is discussed in:

Paul, D. (1990 & 1994). Living left-handed. London: Bloomsbury.

That right-handed equipment may render left-handed children accident-prone or clumsy is noted by:

Graham, C.J., Dick, R., Rickert, V.I., & Glenn, R. (1993). Left-handedness as a risk factor for unintentional injury in children. Paediatrics, 92, 6.

Guidelines for helping with handwriting are available in:

Alston, J. (1987). Writing left-handed. Manchester: Dextral Books.

The problems experienced by left-handers while writing are noted by:

Wallis Myers, P. (1992). How the sloping board assists pencil hold and writing action in young children. Handwriting Review, 20–22.

Suggestions on how to help left-handed children with compasses are found in:

Lowy, S.A. (1991). And with your compass, draw a circle..… Handwriting Review, 83–84.