Updated: Feb 1
Understanding the challenges faced by left-handed students is not always easy for teachers. Younger children in a classroom might be unsure of which is their dominant hand. They may also try using their right hand for many tasks to conform with other classmates. However, facilitating a young student’s laterality is key to setting up the child for success for the short and long term. With that in mind, here are 3 skills teachers need in order to help their left-handed students.
Empathy is Key
Tracy Van Der Merwe was looking for ways to help her left-handed son. She started Left-Hand Learning in South Africa to provide resources for children, parents, and teachers. Mrs. Van Der Merwe says right-handed teachers she has helped over the years are often shocked when they attempt to use their left hand, “When we do the task with the scissors, some of them are so distraught and devastated knowing they have left these left-handed children to really struggle in their class without even thinking twice about it and just kind of letting it go without thinking ‘what are we doing to this child by not giving them the left-handed scissors and not helping with the correct directionality of cutting or the correct grip or wrist positioning.’ They then realize how uncomfortable it is for a child to have to experience not having the right information, understanding and supplies.”
The impact from the challenges left handers face vary for each person. Mrs. Van Der Merwe says left-handed children often think they’re the ones to blame for not being able to perform certain tasks, “If they’re not as fast with their right hand, and it maybe doesn't look as nice or as neat as the kids around them, then they’re not happy with what they've done, and they don't enjoy cutting anymore. It's the same with writing; their hand and fingers get sore, and their handwriting is not as tidy, and they can't stay on the line. So, the teacher who doesn’t understand because no one has explained left handedness to them, is the one who keeps correcting them for these little mistakes.”
Emanuella Correia, an expert in left-hand education and founder of Brazilian-based Canhotopia, says, “It might become very hard to be a lefthander if you don’t understand what you face. I see this especially in very young children when they don’t know that the challenge they face is related to the object or related to the writing system. They begin to think it is their problem. They begin to say, ‘I am not good at this, I am lazy.’ They begin to have this bad wording about themselves, bad thoughts about themselves.”
Mark and Heather Stewart own Left ‘n Write. Mrs. Stewart says someone once told her, “They had a left-handed teacher and when it came to handwriting lessons this teacher would group all the left handers together. He'd say, ‘Well we're kind of the best group you know. We all do it like this.’ He made a point to bring that to their attention. But a lot of people can struggle with this. We had a young lad, about nine or ten, who had an identical twin; one was left-handed, one was right. His parents brought him into the shop to come for some help from Mark. His right-handed twin could write beautifully, but this boy was made to stand up in class. He was being constantly criticized for his untidy handwriting and he was being told, ‘your brother could do it so why can't you.’ We felt that was really sad and the boy was very distressed about writing.”
Helping a child understand the supplies they are given are often not designed for a left-handed person is important to help with their self esteem. “Anxiety is something we like to ignore,” says Mrs. Van Der Merwe. “But it's also, I think, a bigger problem in our modern world. Helping them (children) understand why they have these challenges makes me think they accept themselves and they don't have to change themselves. If they are confronted with something that is a little bit of a challenge, they already have that background in their mind to know that ‘OK this is one of those things they spoke about that is comfortable for the right hander and that's why I am struggling a little bit, or I just have to make my little adjustments’ because they understand the world is perfectly set up for the right hander.”
Observe to be Aware
Teachers are excellent at recognizing their students’ strengths. Being observant is especially important to ensure a child is using their dominant side for various activities.
Most children will experiment between 3-and-7-years-old before deciding which hand is most comfortable for writing. They may even prefer using a different hand for different activities, for example the left hand for writing and the right hand for throwing a ball. Assistant Professor Dr. Marietta Papadatou-Pastou of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens also points out people may choose which hand to use through non-explicit model learning, “It's not like someone explicitly told you to use your right hand, but you see a role model for you,” says Dr. Papadatou-Pastou, “and they're modeling this activity and you say so this is how it should be done.”
Mrs. Van Der Merwe adds observation is very important as a dominant side becomes more visible, “Kids want to be the same as everyone else and obviously the majority are right-handed. So they pick up scissors with their right hand because they see the other kids are doing it with their right hand. The observance from the teacher to notice when they're doing that and also notice the quality of cutting, writing and fine motor skills is important.” She says teachers should do one-on-one sessions where other children are not influencing which hand is being used to pick up scissors, pencils, cutting and writing, These activities will be driven by the child’s instinct and will help determine their dominant hand.
Lefties do not have bad handwriting because of their left handedness. If they experience messy writing, or pain and fatigue in their hand, it’s usually because of not being taught proper skills for a left-hander from an early age. Mrs. Stewart says using the dominant hand to write is crucial, “It is best if teachers don't force them to use one hand or another until they’re about six-years-old. Then you have to start thinking, ‘OK, which hand, which side do they seem to be using most,’ because you really need to guide them at some point towards choosing one hand to write with and to practice to achieve good handwriting style.”
Ms. Correia says, “Sometimes you will hear some children say, ‘I don't like to write. I'm not good at writing. I prefer other things.’ We should pay attention to those signs. They just might mean the child is facing a challenge that might be corrected easily and quickly and it might give the child a better experience at school. Sometimes we see children become very frustrated because they feel pain, they get tired and because they're not having the proper technique for them.”
Communicate to Empower
Parent-teacher meetings are a great time to discuss what a teacher has observed in the classroom. It’s also important to have conversations with classmates. Every child needs to be validated, and Mrs. Van Der Merwe says, “The teacher plays a very important role because she needs to make their child feel they are as important as all the other children, they just do things with a different hand. Those conversations in the classroom are pivotal for the child to integrate well into a class and not feel they are an outsider in terms of being different.”
When it comes to bumping elbows, the easy solution would be to sit righties next to each other. However, some children don’t want to be removed from their preferred seat or placed in an area that is not as comfortable. It’s important to not single them out. Mrs. Van Der Merwe suggests the situation can be explained, “I sometimes think when we're working with kids, we must demonstrate the problem for them to really understand. So, give them each a piece of paper and pen and ask them to write with their left hand and the person next to them with their right hand. They must write something while at the desk, and it doesn't take very long for them to notice the problem because their elbows are right next to each other.” This helps children understand why a right-hander may have to sit elsewhere or why there needs to be more space between the two students.
Ms. Correia says her daughter’s “teacher did not allow her to use a left-handed scissor. The teacher would say she didn't want my daughter to feel different. But my daughter was different and if she was using the wrong scissors, she would find a challenge. When I guide parents and teachers, I say we need to understand each child’s specific needs. We need to help the child as a whole, not just the characteristic of being left-handed. Is it possible to seat the child with her friends? Is it possible to make the seating arrangements in a way that is not necessary for the child to change from one side to the other? As a parent, as a teacher, as a counselor, we have to try to accommodate left handedness without forgetting the other aspects.”
Empowering left handers with the correct supplies and knowledge is crucial for their success. Learning how to teach left-handed writing is a skill that will immensely benefit your southpaw students. Even left-handed adults are sometimes enlightened when they understand the struggles they’ve experienced were the result of not having the proper tools, “It's interesting,” explains Mrs. Van Der Merwe. “There was one mom who after the workshop put up her hand and she said, ‘I finally understand myself and my world better.’ And that was so sad because it means she had gone through her entire life feeling at odds with herself, just feeling not comfortable, feeling that she keeps doing something wrong.”
Mr. Stewart says, “It is a very right-handed world, but once you understand it, once you appreciate the potential problems and difficulties that a child can have and how simple it is to sort out, then it's so clear, so simple to do, but can have such a positive effect. It's about raising awareness.”