Use these red flags to help identify kids who need to work on hand strengthening, and then you can introduce fun and playful activities geared toward building hand strength!
When I first meet a student in my school-based OT practice, the first thing I ask the child is if they know what OT is. Most often, the answer is no, so over the years, I’ve developed a super simple way to explain what an occupational therapist does in the school setting:
I ask the child to name all of the things they can think of that they use their hands for during the school day.
And then, like magic, they make a list of almost all of the skills we address in school-based OT. Skills like:
-Opening a combination lock on a locker
-Getting things in and out of a backpack
–Opening food packages at lunch
Of course, it’s not the perfect definition of OT, but it usually works to give kids a general idea of what we do.
And every time a child starts making that list, my mind is blown thinking about a typical day in the life of a kid and how much of it is spent using their hands! And for a child who has weak hands, these daily tasks can be difficult and frustrating.
When I’m assessing whether a child may have decreased strength in their hands, I look at their performance of some of these skills more closely and usually there are some red flags that stand out.
Hand Strengthening: Red Flags for Kids
These performance issues are often present in kids who have weak hands and can be considered “red flags” when it comes to observing hand strength and identifying when kids need to work on hand strengthening activities.
1 || Pencil Grasp Red Flags
-Using both hands on the writing utensil at the same time
-Switching between grasp patterns frequently when writing, drawing, or coloring
-Switching hands frequently during writing, drawing, coloring tasks due to fatigue
-Using the whole hand to grasp the writing utensil instead of the fingers
2 || Handwriting Red Flags
-Difficulty controlling writing utensils, resulting in messy or illegible handwriting
-Using very light pressure on writing utensils, resulting in marks that are not dark enough to read
3 || Scissor Skill Red Flags
-Scissors appearing to “fall off” the fingers instead of being firmly secured in the hand
-Scissors “getting stuck” in the paper, with the child struggling to open them against the friction of the paper
-Attempting to hold scissors using both hands at the same time
-Frequently switching hands to grasp scissors during cutting tasks
-Difficulty with continuous cutting across a paper (struggling with repeated open/close motion)
4 || Clothing Management Red Flags
-Inability to grasp and pull elastic of socks open to get foot inside
-Inability to grasp and pull waistband of pants up and down over hips
-Difficulty with holding shoes open to push foot inside
-Shoelaces tied correctly, but always coming undone because they’re not tied tightly
5 || Clothing Fasteners Red Flags
-Difficulty with maintaining grasp on button to pull it through a buttonhole
-Zippers coming disconnected mid-zip because the two sides aren’t being held together tightly to engage
-Inability to snap/unsnap pants, sometimes resulting in toileting accidents
-Inability to pull with enough force to fasten or loosen a belt buckle
6 || Mealtime Red Flags
-Struggling to open lids of Tupperware containers
-Difficulty tearing open food packages and containers
-Difficulty opening screw-top containers (e.g. water bottles)
-Frequently dropping eating utensils or dropping finger food items
7 || Other Self-Care Red Flags
-Struggling with opening toothpaste, deodorant, other toiletry containers
-Difficulty with pushing the pump of a soap container
-Inability to turn a faucet on to wash hands
8 || Other Hand Strength Red Flags
-Decreased interest in fine motor toys or games
-Frequently dropping small objects, toys, or manipulatives
-Decreased interest and attention for crafts/art activities or frustration during these activities
-Decreased interest and engagement with climbing/playground equipment
When I see a pattern of these performance issues for a child that occur across settings (home, school, recreational activities), it’s usually pretty clear that he or she is demonstrating weakness in the muscles of the hands and needs to work on some hand strengthening!
The good news is that there are tons of fun and playful ways that we can help kids build hand strength in the classroom, in the therapy room, and at home!