Little Man-handled

Last month I read the following advice on the “Understanding SPD,” the Facebook home of occupational therapist  Angie Voss:

***Sensory Tip of the Day!*** AVOID HAND OVER HAND TEACHING. Research shows that a child’s brain shuts down the instant the parent/teacher places a hand over the child’s hand to assist. The study was fascinating! Instead: Provide tactile/touch cues (as little physical contact as possible) and also provide the “just right challenge” and use backward or forward chaining to complete the activity.

I have learned so much about Sensory Processing Disorder from Ms. Voss’ website. I learned so much that I encouraged my parents to buy her book. Still, being the know-it-all that I am, I questioned this particular bit of advice.

“But,” I found myself arguing in my head, “that’s how I taught Philip to fasten the velcro straps on his shoes. And to eat with a fork. To pull up his pants and zip up his coat. It’s how he learned to use PECS. Surely, there must be some value in hand over hand teaching.

Of all the examples that came to mind, I certainly couldn’t forget the one that is Philip’s latest obsession: writing. I taught Philip to write his name by holding his hand in mine while I formed the letters. Before long, he was writing independently.

With this “evidence” backing me up, I noted the advice, but I wasn’t willing to give up the technique. I know that they use it at school, too, but I didn’t rush into the IEP meeting last week and demand, “Stop everything! Your causing his brain to shut down!”

Leave it to Philip to show me the truth when I don’t believe the experts.

Last night after supper, Philip got out a notebook and box of markers. He began to draw. Whenever I see him write a letter, I will point to it and identify it. Having brought myself to his attention by doing this last night, Philip gave me the marker. I wrote his name, spelling it aloud as I went. He giggled.

I tried to return the marker, but he pushed it right back into my hand. Then, he put his hand over mine while I wrote and drew.

Tonight, he repeated this pattern using his white board easel and dry erase markers. Philip held my wrist firmly as I drew shapes and simple pictures and wrote letters and words. He even held on when I wiped the board clean with a cloth.

What did the experience teach me?

  • I had no idea what Philip wanted from me. I knew in general that I was supposed to draw, but I wasn’t sure if he expected a specific shape or image. This was frustrating.
  • Since I wasn’t sure of the specifics, sometimes I was straining against Philip’s grasp to draw what I wanted. This was uncomfortable.
  • Other times, I let my hand go limp to see how Philip would move my hand. In reality, I was letting him do the work. This was unsatisfactory.
  • Not being much of an artist, I was “all done” after a short period of time. However, when I tried to give the marker back to Philip, he insisted that I continue. I actually began to feel a bit anxious not knowing when this would end. This was tiring.
  • He has a strong grip, and my wrist was sore after being held tightly for a relatively short period of time. This was painful.
  • In between drawings, Philip would just hold my wrist steady while he stopped to examine my creation. Occasionally, he would reward me with a hug. This was joyful.
  • Philip is totally capable of joint attention. This was wonderful.

Upon further reflection, I also realize that for each task that Philip has learned via hand over hand, there are probably at least two that he still does not perform. If the method were as infallible as I first believed, then he should already be washing his hands, putting on his own shoes and bathing himself in the tub.

Having now been manhandled myself, I understand the advice that Ms. Voss posted. I’d be lying if I were to say that I will never again hold Philip’s hand while showing him a task. However, I hope that I will take care in not holding his hand too tightly or for too long. I also need to keep in mind that if I combine the hand over hand with verbal instructions, I could bring on sensory overload.

What was the most important lesson I learned?

I need to add some new pictures to my repertoire.

Linking up a post from the archives to the Yeah Write Moonshine Grid. Even though the post is almost a year old, my drawing repertoire has yet to grow.

11 thoughts on “Little Man-handled

  1. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I use hand over hand for the hand washing still or it just doesn’t really get clean! This is really the only area I use it anymore. He tolerates it but we have seen no improvement either. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Ah-hand washing. I know what you mean. Modeling doesn’t inspire him yet. I am trying not to jump in from the start since he already picked up on turning on the water. I just need to remember that it’s going to take a lot of repetition for him to gain complete independence. Until then, we must have clean hands!


  2. Tate’s OT when he was 3-4 was a huge proponent of no hand-over-hand. Tate hates it. He “shoo’s” us away when we try to do it. He does much better with guidance and pictures. We have occasionally resorted to hand-over-hand, but he only really LEARNS the skill when he can do it on his own with visual cues and direction. I’ll have to read Ms. Voss’s book!


    1. I now can understand why Tate dislikes it. Thanks for suggesting the pictures. I’m not a very visual person myself, so it’s hard for me to remember that, just because I don’t learn that way, it doesn’t mean that Philip wouldn’t thrive with more pictures.


  3. That’s a wonderfully insightful breakdown of how the situation was reversed and how much learning you can extract from it! Guess it’s hard to believe the evidence unless you experience it personally. I’ve learned a lot just from this post, thanks!


  4. This was a really interesting post. As a teacher, I love it when I learn something new from my students or when I get to experience things from their points of view. I recently read a book and had to keep flipping to the back to look up all the references, and it completely destroyed any chance of enjoyment from the book for me. I realized that’s how many of my students feel when the book’s too difficult for them.


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