From Left to Right: Embracing Cognitive Differences for Student Success

From Left to Right: Embracing Cognitive Differences for Student Success

13 August 2023 is celebrated as International Left-Handers Day. While this is not a widely celebrated day, this annual call for recognition was started by the Left-Handers Club in the United Kingdom in 1992. The aim was to create awareness for this small group of our population.

While most activities on this day are centred around fun activities where right-handed people try to take on challenges with their less dominant left hand, there is a more serious need for us to examine how difficult certain tasks can be when you are a left-handed person. After all, most of the world has been designed for right-handed people as they make up approximately 90% of the population.

With a particular interest in Early Childhood Development (ECD) at The Love Trust, we specialise in delivering quality Christian-based education and training teachers to become accredited ECD teachers. As educators, we want to understand how right and left-handed children develop this preference and how it affects their learning capabilities.

How does left or right-handedness develop?

It is thought that a person can determine left or right-handedness from as early as in utero, with today’s technology allowing us to see which hand is dominant before a person is even born. However, children mimic what they see and will often choose or change their hand preference based on what dominant hand their parent has.

Hand preference usually settles by the time a child is 4-years of age, with only about 3-4% of the population being ambidextrous, which is the ability to use both the left and right hands equally well. In the past, left-handed people were thought to be abnormal and in some instances, were taught to ‘train’ their right hand, by tying their dominant hand behind their backs.

Today we are lucky to have access to the myriad of studies of the human brain that tells us that a person’s handedness can give us good insight into the organisation and function of their brain. When looking into what we currently know, we understand that the left and right hemispheres of our brain control motor action on the opposite sides of the body.

However, the hemispheres are not equal in their control of various behaviours, which means that we all develop a bias of one hand over the other when attempting to complete certain tasks. The term for this dominance of one side over the other in the brain is called cerebral lateralisation. Essentially cerebral lateralisation is positive as tasks are split between various sections of the brain, allowing us to control a process like language, while the attention span is housed in a separate part of the brain.

Learning abilities and handedness

While left-handedness was previously thought to adversely affect learning, we now know this is untrue. While many claim that left-handed people are in fact ‘smarter’, that’s a difficult one to back up. They are certainly more rare.

Both hemispheres of the brain (no matter if you are right or left-handed), control different functions. The left hemisphere controls speech, arithmetic, language and comprehension while the right hemisphere is generally responsible for creativity, musicality and artistic expression.

Through MRI scans, research shows that while right-handed people’s left brain hemisphere lights up when spoken to – remember this is the speech control hemisphere – the same cannot be said for the left-handed individuals studied. What this shows us is that in general left-handed people rely less on lateralisation, which is defined as the tendency for some cognitive processes to be specialised to one side of the brain or the other.

Neurophysiologists, such as Eric Zillmer, believe that this is proof that left-handed people are able to think outside the box, and therefore gives them a creative edge. It’s often said that left-handed people may be more creative because they have had to continually adapt to a world designed for right-handed people.

                               Neo Makgoka, Grade 3 learner at Nokuphila School

Implications for left-handed learners 

Despite claims that left-handed learners may be smarter or more ‘arty’, many of them will battle in the traditional school environment if allowances aren’t made.

Here are some tips guided by WeAreTeachers on how to best accommodate these learners in the classroom:

  1. Position the paper differently – higher up and slightly tilted so that the learner can see as they are learning to write.
  2. A left-handed grip needs to be adjusted to prevent smudging as they write. Mechanical pencils, also known as clutch pencils, also limit smudging.
  3. A common error for left-handed learners is to begin writing on the right-hand side of the page. Mark the left side of the paper with bullet points to prevent this from happening.
  4. Allow for variation in the direction they cross their  t’s and draw O or 0s.
  5. When designing worksheets, ensure that figures or models appear at the top or on both sides of the page, so learners can reference this while working, without their hand covering it.  
  6. Ensure seating arrangements are planned to prevent discomfort if learners find themselves writing with their writing hands too close to one another.
  7. Make it a priority to have left-handed scissors to reduce frustration and improve cutting accuracy.

While we may never understand how every neural path works, or why certain people have access to a different set of skills than others, it is important to understand how to make allowances for all children to have a comfortable and inclusive environment in which to learn and prosper. By offering a good support system and the correct tools, any child can grow through education… no matter which hand they use to write.