When learning to write, some children have difficulty developing an effective pencil grip. Holding a pencil with the right grip and appropriate amount of strength can make a big difference in a child’s handwriting.
Parents and teachers can use strategies to help children improve the strength in their hands, how they hold their pencil, and the overall appearance of their handwriting.
A common grip taught to children when developing handwriting skills is the tripod grip. The tripod grip is an effective way to use hand muscles when writing. The child holds the pencil with their thumb and index finger, while the pencil rests on their middle finger. See an example below.
Some children learn the tripod grip naturally, while others need help from parents and teachers. It is recommended to teach the tripod grip when a child learns to write his or her own name, generally around age 5.
What You Should Know When Teaching the Tripod Grip
The child should not be gripping the pencil too tightly. Signs a child is holding a pencil too tightly include:
- Rips in the paper
- Pencil tips frequently breaking
- White knuckles when writing
The child’s fingers should be relaxed so her hand will not tire too quickly. Specifically, observe the index finger knuckle for signs of redness or whiteness which would indicate pressure on the joint. Also ensure your child is not making a fist.
For children who consistently hold the pencil too tightly, make a fist, or put pressure on the joint of the index finger, have them hold a small ball of clay or tissue, a small rubber ball, or a penny in their palm when they write. This should help relax the grip. See an example below.
Ensure the grip is close to the tip as in the pictures above. Holding the pencil too far back allows for less writing control.
To ensure correct positioning of your child’s body when writing, check that she is sitting with her feet flat on the floor and her bottom in the center of the chair’s seat. See correct body posture for writing in the image below.
Keep in mind that some children have significant difficulty sitting this way for long. While it is best to encourage this posture, do not stop a writing lesson if a child struggles to sit this way. Just do the best you can to encourage them.
The child should use her free hand to hold the paper in place as she writes. For children who have trouble holding the paper, you can tape the paper to the table.
Let your child choose and practice the tripod grip with different writing tools such as pens, markers, crayons, pencils, and coloring pencils.
Another great tool to practice writing and pencil grip is the stylus for the IPAD. Occupational therapists who often work with children on handwriting and pencil grip skills have recommended a grip friendly stylus such as the Universal Capactive Stylus Pen.
Many children who do not like to practice handwriting the traditional way, are eager to practice with writing apps on the IPAD such as the iTrace- Handwriting App for Kids or the iTrace Free (which is highly rated but has a limited number of letters, words and settings). If you have an Android Tablet or Smart Phone, a recommended handwriting app is Writing Wizard.
- Try using a rubber band. This is an effective strategy for some children. A rubber band helps keep the pencil in place, while allowing the pencil to slant naturally. Twist the rubber band once around the pencil and then around the child’s wrist as shown below.
- Encourage frequent practice through writing, drawing, or both
- Sessions should be short (5 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration)
- Let your child know when they are putting forth good effort or making progress with their skills (e.g., you worked hard on your writing today, you have been practicing hard, you wrote very nicely today).
- Let your child know how they can improve (e.g., try pressing a little lighter, open up your fist, move your fingers closer to the tip, etc.)
- Do your best to make sessions fun for the child so they want to practice again. Let them make choices such as what writing tool to use and what to write or draw. Obviously they may not have these choices during homework, so have additional practice sessions that allow for choice making.
- If you are a teacher, give your students choices within the classroom or for homework as much as possible. Research shows that children are more eager and willing to participate when they have some choice and flexibility within the activity
- Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting. If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.
For children who have significant difficulty developing the tripod grip after consistent guidance and practice, try using tools to assist your child with grip development. Two highly rated tools by parents, educators, and specialists are the The Pencil Grip Writing Claw, shown here:
and the The Pencil Grip Original Universal Ergonomic Writing Aid, shown here:
Since not every tool will work for every child, you will find some mixed reviews on these products; however, The Pencil Grip Writing Claw, and the The Pencil Grip Original Universal Ergonomic Writing Aid both have positive ratings overall.
Another strategy to use is breaking crayons in half, or using very short pencils.
It is difficult to use a fist grip on a writing utensil that is that short. The hand automatically goes into a pincer type grasp similar to the tripod grip and the quadropod grip shown below.
The Quadropod Grip
The quadropod grip is also an acceptable grip. If a child develops the quadropod grip naturally and is using it effectively, there is no reason to change their grip. Additionally, if a child has trouble developing the tripod grip after trying different strategies and practicing consistently, you could try teaching them the quadropod grip. All the same strategies listed above should be utilized when teaching the quadropod grip.
Keep in mind that every child is different. Some respond to several strategies, others respond to a few, while others may not respond to any of these strategies. If your child is significantly struggling with pencil grip or other fine motor skills (e.g., using scissors, buttoning, zipping, using utensils, picking up small objects, etc.) despite consistent practice and guidance, inform your child’s school and/or doctor. They should be able to get a specialist involved such as an occupational therapist to determine what might be interfering with your child’s fine motor progress and what additional strategies might help.
You may also find this video helpful which suggests activities for improving hand-strength. When fine-motor muscles are stronger, pencil grip is easier!
Recommended Tools to Improve Handwriting and Pencil Grip
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers.