Do left-handed children get the support they need to thrive in a right-handed world or are they being forgotten? Absolutely Education investigates

Words: Libby Norman

Genius or challenged – being left-handed still singles you out for labels. Parents of any child who favours left may be concerned that their offspring will have a bumpier journey, with more obstacles to overcome, because – let’s face it – the world is designed for right-handers. Parents are likely to have read eagerly the stories of famous southpaw creatives – Picasso and Einstein, et al – and read (less eagerly) that left-handers have a lower life expectancy. Misinformation is still common and both of the above widely circulated stories are not true, according to Professor Chris McManus, author of Right Hand, Left Hand.

McManus, Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL, has a long-term interest and academic specialisation in handedness and lateralisation (the study of left and right brain functions). He devotes a whole chapter of his book to some of the more persistent myths surrounding left-handedness. Picasso and Einstein were both extensively photographed during their lives and every photo shows both to be right-handed, and with no other recorded evidence to suggest otherwise.

Most children start to display their hand preference by around the age of two, but it can take longer to show a dominant hand

Today most estimates of left-handedness place it at around ten percent of the population. The increase is put down to a societal shift – left-handedness is no longer a source of shame in most societies so most children are not ‘re-trained’. Left-handedness was once closely associated with otherness, even witchcraft, but if you imagine that idea had vanished by the 20th century, then think again. The English Dialect Survey, conducted on living subjects between 1950-61, unearthed only two terms for right-handed (one of which was right-handed), as opposed to at least 87 distinct dialect terms for left-handers. Many were obscene or scatological. Others, such as southpaw – which looks to have first emerged in Cumbria rather than on the baseball field or boxing ring – tap into the idea of ‘not from around here’.

While the left-hander largely escapes negative labels today, parents who are investigating what being a ‘leftie’ means for their child’s future would be wise to read around the sources with a sceptical mind. Inaccurate information and dubious methodologies are still out there. Implied causal links between left-handedness and illness or cognitive/development issues are unproven and raise more questions than answers. What we can be certain of is that the incidence is currently somewhat higher in boys (around five boys to every four girls).

What are the primary concerns for parents?

The first concern for most parents of left-handed children is development of writing skills. Children typically start to display hand preference by the age of two. In early years settings, the current practitioner focus is on all the fine motor skills. Dr Paulette Luff, Course Leader for the MA in Early Childhood Education at Anglia Ruskin University, says it’s about a head down approach. “It’s not just about hand dominance, but also arm and foot.” She also suggests we may be in danger of labelling children too early – they may take a while to show a dominant hand. So, early-years settings should offer a range of equipment so they can watch how children interact with it and let them experiment. “Children try to do things like the people around them, so sensitivity and awareness of all possible differences are key. Children who are struggling can be encouraged to try the other hand,” says Luff. “Part of the problem is that children are taught to write when their fine motor skills are still developing”.

Mark Stewart of Left ’n Write, a left-handed shop in Worcester, believes we are not doing enough. He and his wife Heather, a teacher, have created handwriting practice books and guides, delivering courses and advice to individuals, schools and early years settings as well as retailing left-handed equipment. Their work grew out of a quest to find functioning scissors for their “very left-handed” son. They have campaigned via their MP to get more information on teaching left-handers included within the teacher-training curriculum. Stewart is particularly exercised by writing. He says: “It takes five to ten minutes to sort out a good technique and correct grip”. Children have come from as far afield as London for his guidance – his oldest pupil was in her late 60s, and she had never been taught how to use a pen left-handed.

Here, I should declare my own hand – left – and my recollection that even in my dim and distant schooldays at a small rural primary school I had lots of guidance. So teachers have long been helping left-handers overcome their individual learning challenges – although there’s no doubt some have slipped through.

Katie Paynter, Head of Pre-Prep and SENCO lead at St Nicholas Prep, says that today left-handedness is often handled by SENCO staff as they have specialist training, and know the adaptations that help. The good news for parents, she says,  is that these small changes are easy to implement. The most important part of school and home support is to ensure children are encouraged to experiment, rather than made to feel awkward or different.

4 really simple aids for left-handers

  • Sitting on the left so they don’t bump elbows with their classmates
  • Slanting paper to stop smudges – a writing mat may help
  • Specially designed pencils and pens – and a left-handed nib for fountain pens
  • Left-handed craft scissors – so they can see what they are cutting out

Read more about the art of handwriting here