Hand Preference and Performance in Children

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Hand Preference and Performance in Children

As psychologists practicing in the field of neuropsychology, we make certain assumptions about hand preference.  We know that most adults are right-handed, but does the same apply to children, and if so, does this apply from birth?  A fairly recent article by Scharoun and Bryden (2014) explored this matter by doing a literature search of research published over the past few decades on hand preference and hand performance in children.  Their findings are summarised below, followed by an application of the information.

Development of Hand Preference and Performance

Most people who are right-handed have language and manual preference lateralised in the left hemisphere.  For 60 – 73% of left-handers, the same applies, i.e. that these functions are lateralised in the left hemisphere.  A small group of people have these functions either in the right hemisphere or spread between both hemispheres.

Research into the assessment of hand preference (the preferred hand to complete a task) and hand performance (the ability of the one hand compared to the other) of children, revealed that hand preference seems to manifest very early in life and has a strong genetic influence.  There are stages of hand preference and performance development, though, as given below:

In infancy, hand preference is highly flexible.

Young children (aged 3 – 5 years) tend to use both hands to explore their worlds.  Left-handed children tend to have weak, inconsistent hand preference.  When reaching for tools, though, children in this age group tend to use their preferred hand.

Older children (aged 7 – 10 years) tend to have an increased reliance on the preferred hand than their younger counterparts.  By using the one hand more than the other, performance ability is increased in the dominant hand through practice.  The large discrepancy in performance between the preferred and non-preferred hand can be particularly observed when children engage in tasks that require precision (such as writing, drawing or inserting pegs into the holes of pegboards such as the Grooved Pegboard).  The difference in left- and right-hand performance is smaller in tasks involving less precision, such as finger tapping tasks.

When children get older (aged 10 – 12 years), they tend to rely on the preferred hand less, and the difference in hand performance between the two hands becomes small.  It is when this happens that a child’s hand functioning is deemed to be adult-like.  The increased performance of the non-preferred hand may be due to the non-preferred hand gaining experience and exposure with manual skills.

Another factor to bear in mind when testing hand functioning in children, is that right-handers tend to show a greater difference in performance between their hands (with right stronger than left) than left-handers, who tend to have a small difference in performance between their hands.

The development regarding midline crossing, seems to mimic hand preference and performance development in children.  Children aged 3 – 5 years tend to explore the environment around them using the hand that is the closest to the task attempted.  Children between the ages of 6 – 10 years start to use their preferred hand no matter what the task, and by the age of 10 – 12 years, children rely mostly on their dominant hand, but the skill of the non-dominant hand has increased, so is used more often.


Considering the above, the following should be born in mind when testing hand motor functioning in children:

  1. For children aged 3 – 5 years, the child’s preferred hand is best tested by asking the child to use a tool (such as a toy hammer to hit toy nails or a brush to brush a doll’s hair).
  2. For children aged 7 – 10 years, a pegboard test, such as the Grooved Pegboard will reveal a greater difference in hand performance than a finger tapping task and thus the pegboard task will yield more information about hand performance.
  3. For children aged 10 – 12 years, only a small difference in performance is to be expected between the left and right hands and thus a large difference is likely to be significant.
  4. When testing a left-handed child, bear in mind that there will be a smaller difference between the performances of both hands compared to right-handers. Left-handers’ dominant hands will thus be weaker than right handers’ dominant hands and left-handers’ non-dominant hands will be stronger than right-handers’ non-dominant hands. This also points to the importance of norms being reported separately for right- and-left-handers.
  5. Age-appropriate hand norms need to be used when testing hand motor performance in children.


Article written by Sharon Truter


Scharoun, Sara M. & Bryden, Pamela, J. (2014). Hand preference, performance abilities, and hand selection in children

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