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«Assessing handedness in pre-schoolers: Construction and initial validation of a hand preference test for 4-6-year-olds URSULA KASTNER-KOLLER1, PIA ...»

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Psychology Science, Volume 49, 2007 (3), p. 239-254

Assessing handedness in pre-schoolers: Construction and initial validation of a

hand preference test for 4-6-year-olds



The aim of this study was to develop and validate a test for measuring the handedness of pre-school

children. The newly developed test consists of 14 activities for checking various aspects of hand prefer- ence and was administered to a Viennese sample of 120 children of the ages 4 to 6.5 (18 left-handed, 17 ambidextrous and 85 right-handed). For the purpose of validation, the handedness of the children was assessed via a questionnaire given to parents, observation of the hand used to draw and testing of visual-motor skills as well as general level of development using the Viennese Development Test (WET, Kastner-Koller & Deimann, 2002). The hand preference test proved to be reliable (α=0.97). The inter-correlations of the handedness measures gathered (parent’s estimate as well as observation of drawing hand) with the hand preference test substantiates the concurrent validity of the procedure.

Right-handers exhibited the most pronounced hand preference; while the hand use of left-handers was significantly less lateralized. Irrespective of the direction of handedness, children with a consistent hand preference had higher total development scores than children with inconsistent use, i.e. frequent changes in hand used for a specific activity. Compared to ambidextrous and right-handed children, left- handers achieved significantly lower scores in the field of visual-motor skills. The results highlight the necessity of a reliable method for differentiated measurement of handedness as early as pre-school.

Key words: Handedness, pre-school age, hand preference test 1 Department of Developmental Psychology and Psychological Assessment, Faculty of Psychology, Univer- sity Vienna, Liebiggasse 5/1, 1010 Vienna, Austria; email: ursula.kastner-koller@univie.ac.at U. Kastner-Koller, P. Deimann & J. Bruckner 240

1. Research goals The importance of handedness of children comes into play within the context of the de- velopment of visual-motor skills and acquisition of cultural techniques. While half of all three-year-olds already show a clear preference for using either the right or left hand, this percentage rises to about 90 percent by the time children enter school (Öztürk, Durmazlar, Ural, Karaagaoglu, Yalaz & Anlar, 1999). Altogether, about 10 percent of all children show a preference for using the left hand, left-handedness is about 25 percent more common among boys than girls (Bryden & Steenhuis, 1997).

Correlations between lateral preference, spatial perception and fine and visual-motor skills have been empirically proved for pre-school children. Bryden and Steenhuis (1997) point out that distinctly developed handedness facilitates right-left differentiation and thus spatial orientation. Karapetsas and Vlachos (1997) were able to show that right-handers performed much better on the task of copying complex figures. They attributed this to the different speeds of brain development, the myelin coating of the corpus callosum and the lateralization of the hemispheres. Giagazoglu, Potiadou, Angelopoulou, Tsikoulas and Tsimaras (2001) compared the gross and fine motor skills of left and right-handed children and concluded that right-handers show significantly better fine motor skills. In both studies, left handed boys usually exhibited the lowest visual-motor and fine motor ability (Giagazoglu et al., 2001; Karapetsas & Vlachos, 1997).

Spatial orientation and visual-spatial intelligence develops through active handling of spatial conditions, especially grasping (Olsson & Rett, 1989). Perceptions of visual figures, directions and spatial relationships are an important pre-condition for learning to read and write. Perceptual differentiation of graphic symbols, such as e.g. letters, places demands on the perceptive and cognitive ability even of well-lateralized right-handed children entering school. Left-handed children have greater problems ascertaining the spatial position of letters and groups of letters, even if no switch in lateral preference has taken place. In a recent study carried out among 8-12-year-old pupils with writing difficulties, Bonoti, Vlachos and Metallidou (2005) found out that this group consisted almost exclusively of left-handers. As Olsson and Rett (1989) observed, left-handers do experience more difficulties learning cultural techniques than do right-handers, while left-handedness is not necessarily connected to dyslexia. In order to prevent learning difficulties among left-handed children and children without a distinct lateral preference, a diagnosis of laterality should be accomplished at preschool age.

In spite of the neuropsychological significance of handedness, the methods of assessment are open to debate. The easiest approach is to define handedness via the writing hand. The Hand-Dominanz-Test (Steingrüber & Lienert, 1976) for example, a handedness test for children from 6 to 10, is based on this approach. This procedure is often criticized, since using the right hand to write is suggested by culture (Bryden & Steenhuis, 1991). Generally, a distinction is made between two different ways of assessing handedness: lateral dominance tests check whether a task is easier to perform using the right or left hand (cf. Trolldenier, 1993, Annett, 1992, Tapley & Bryden, 1985). In contrast, tests which assess hand preference focus on the quality of the performance and spontaneous preference for a certain hand.

Reiss and Reiss (2000) distinguish among five diagnostic methods for ascertaining the preferred hand: in addition to determining the writing hand, the criteria used are selfAssessing handedness in pre-school children 241 reporting, observation by and questioning of parents or caretakers, questionnaires and observation of children while performing certain tasks.

Beukelaar and Kroonenberg (1983) analyzed data on handedness gathered via questionnaires and found item clusters differing according to the muscle groups used in performing the activities. The first two clusters comprised activities involving the hand and wrist. The tasks in cluster three required the use of the entire arm (such as e.g. throwing a ball). The fourth cluster contained activities requiring precise finger movements and were more likely to be influenced by the environment than other activities (e.g., writing, drawing, sewing).

The fifth cluster consisted of activities carried out using both hands while also tensing the back muscles (e.g. sweeping). According to the authors, interpreting the final two clusters proved to be difficult.

Steenhuis and Bryden (1989) also turned to musculature used in performing tasks when classifying the items for the Waterloo Handedness Questionnaire, but only made a dichotomous distinction into proximal and distal. Movements including the arm and shoulder or the axis of the body were termed proximal, while movements requiring only the use of the fingers and/or hand were designated as distal. Moreover, the authors distinguished between activities of picking up objects or manipulating objects. In their factor analysis, they could not identify any differences in hand preference related to movements of the proximal and distal musculature. Items for these two qualities were classified under the same factor. The two resulting factors differ mainly in that one factor comprised activities requiring skill, while another factor comprised automatic activities.

Questionnaires used to assess handedness, such as the Waterloo Handedness Questionnaire, are usually aimed at adult subjects. Using such questionnaires on children is of course subject to the usual limitations met in other diagnostic fields and is only possible when taking into account the level of verbal development, reading comprehension and selfperception. Adaptations for pre-school children have occasionally been used, providing for oral administration of items and requiring the child to provide a response by gesticulating (e.g. Karapetsas & Vlachos, 1997).

Krombholz (1993, cf. Tirosh, Stein & Harel, 1999) suggested an ethological approach for diagnosing handedness in children, based on video observations of play and everyday situations. Other authors have extended this approach to standardized observations (cf. Pryde, Bryden & Roy, 2000; Fagard & Marks, 2000).

Up to this point, there has been no test which enables a thorough assessment of handedness in pre-school children. The aim of this study was therefore to construct and carry out an initial validation of a hand preference test for kindergarten and pre-school children, which

should fulfill the following requirements:

1. Assessment of hand preference irrespective of motor ability

2. Assessment of preference via standardized observations

3. Assessment of preference via an appealing test design which fosters motivation U. Kastner-Koller, P. Deimann & J. Bruckner 242

2. Method

2.1 Construction of the hand preference test Two selection criteria were utilized in the construction of items for assessing hand preference in children aged four to six. The aim was to develop tasks which can easily be carried out by children of this age group. Moreover, the content classification of the test items was based on Steenhuis and Bryden’s (1989) idea of four components of movement types and musculature used and two qualities of execution. The movement components comprised (1) proximal movements involving arm and shoulder or the axis of the body, (2) distal movements involving the hand and/or fingers, (3) grasping objects and (4) manipulating objects.

Each of these components was implemented in two stages of execution: (1) precise movements requiring skilled, often complementary use of the hands and (2) rapid, automatic movements. Table 1 relates the activities to components of movement and qualities of execution. Two activities were selected for each of these combinations, resulting in an item pool of 16 tasks. This ensured that the items covered as many aspects of handedness as possible.

To increase reliability (cf. Bryden and Steenhuis, 1997), each item was administered three times, which pre-supposed that one hand would be used in at least two out of three cases, thus making a preference obvious.

One major criterion of test development was the age-appropriate, appealing and motivating design of the testing conditions. To this end, the 48 tasks were integrated into the context of a treasure hunt. The test materials needed to accomplish the tasks were distributed all over the room in precisely determined positions (cf. example in Figure 1), explored with the child before the start of the test.

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The examiner then opened the treasure hunt with the following instructions: „Imagine you’re an explorer on a voyage of adventure through this room. I have a tape here with a speaker asking you to perform some activities. At the end of the adventure you will hear where you can find a small treasure.“ An audio tape was used to provide the child with instructions against a music background. The child was to react to the instructions on the tape, receiving help from the examiner when necessary. The examiner also had the task of recording hand preference for every item on the observation sheet.

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2.2 Sample 120 Viennese kindergarten children of the ages 4.0 to 6.5 participated in the study, with 24 children in each half-year increment. These half-year groups included 12 girls and 12 boys each. The written consent form allowing the child to participate in the study included a question to the parents as to whether the child was left or right-handed (global handedness).

After this initial rough assessment, the sample consisted of 85 right-handers and 35 lefthanders, evenly distributed throughout the age groups.

6% of the mothers and twice as many fathers reported being left-handed themselves, but there was no family in which both parents were left-handed. There was no correlation between the handedness of the children and the fathers or mothers (rFather/Child =.07, p =.51;

rMother/Child =.06, p =.55). There was also no significant correlation between the occurrence of left-handedness in close relatives and the handedness of the child (r =.11, p =.24).

2.3 Measures

The newly developed hand preference test was administered to all the children (cf. Chap.

2.1). In order to carry out an initial validation, the handedness of the children was also assessed using two other methods, parents’ estimate and observation of the drawing hand.

Parents’ estimate: In addition to the global assessment of handedness within the context of the consent form, parents were also asked to fill out a short questionnaire. On a five-point scale („always left“, „usually left“, „no preference“, „usually right“ and „always right“) they were asked to give an assessment of which hand the child used for five common everyday activities (drawing, throwing, cutting using scissors, holding a toothbrush when brushing teeth, holding a spoon when eating).

Observation of the drawing hand: While the child was taking the Vienna Developmental Test, the examiners observed which hand the child used for the drawings of the subtest Nachzeichnen.

Since left-handed children often exhibit problems with visual-motor skills, their developmental status was tested using the Vienna Developmental Test (WET, Kastner-Koller & Deimann, 2002).2 The WET is a general developmental test for children aged 3 to 6. It is based on a social-ecological perspective of development pointing out the importance of social interaction for the acquisition of competences (e.g. scaffolding). Focussing on the enhancement of competences, the WET assesses the actual developmental level of a child in its entire scope. It provides a profile of strengths and weaknesses thus giving assistance in planning remedial interventions. In order to take into account the special needs of the age group three to six, the test material, tasks and test sequence were set up as a game. The WET consists of 13 subtests and a parent questionnaire, covering 6 functional areas of development (see table 2).

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