Maybe you’ve been trying to teach your child left from right since she was very young. But long after other kids have figured it out, she still puts her shoes on the wrong feet and forgets which way to unscrew the peanut butter jar.
Most kids develop a firm grasp of “left” and “right” by age 7 or 8. As they get older, they can do more complex tasks that involve telling left from right. For some people, though, it never becomes second nature. In fact, a study of college-age students showed that 26 percent still struggled to some degree with the concept.
“Left-right confusion” can be an isolated disorder. But it’s often related to certain learning or attention issues. These include dyslexia, dyscalculia, nonverbal learning disabilities and visual processing issues.
Left, Right and the Brain
The ability to learn left and right isn’t well understood. But it likely relates to how the brain makes sense of where objects are in space. This includes a person’s own body parts. The term used to describe this is “visual-spatial processing.”
Kids with certain learning and attention issues often struggle with visual-spatial processing. This may be why they don’t easily develop an internal sense of what the left and right sides of the body .
The Impact of Left-Right Confusion
Left-right confusion can affect kids’ schoolwork and daily lives in many ways. Here are some examples.
Reading and Writing
- To understand math in the most basic way, kids must think of numbers as they exist on an imaginary number line. They need to have a sense that “4” is to the “right” of “2” and “-4” is to the “left” of “2.”
- Kids may struggle with math computations because they don’t understand that they need to start on the right and “carry over” numbers to the left.
- Older students may struggle with graphing, since they must use direction to plot points.
Daily Living Skills
- Left-right confusion can cause mix-ups with similar letters and numbers like b and d, or 6 and 9, long past the early learning period.
- Children might read a word starting from the right instead of the left. They might read t-a-c instead of c-a-t.
- Kids may be delayed at developing a clearly dominant hand or side of the body. When learning to write, they may switch the pencil between hands.
- Kids who don’t have an internal sense of left and right can’t use it to gauge where other things are or should go in relation to themselves. Directions like “Watch out for that bicycle to your right!” or “Put the fork to the left of the plate” can be confusing or meaningless.
- Learning how to tie shoes, which requires instructions like “right over left,” can be challenging.
- Reading maps, following directions and navigating a car or bike could be tricky. The GPS may say to “Take a right at the light,” but what does that mean?
- It could be tough to play games and develop skills like throwing, catching or kicking a ball and running, hopping or skipping.
How You Can Help
Fortunately, most kids can eventually learn left from right. Here are a few strategies that can help you coach your child along.
- Have your child place her hands, palm down, on a piece of paper. Her two thumbs should touch in the middle. With a crayon, trace down her left index finger and across her left thumb to create a capital “L.” Explain that when she needs to figure out which side is left, she can hold her hands out in that same manner and see where the “L” is. (This may not work for kids who can’t see that the “L” on the right hand is backwards.)
- Let your child wear a bracelet or rubber band on one particular wrist. If you agree it will be on the left, she’ll know that’s her left side. Make it a fashion statement.
- If your child shows dominance in one hand, always start activities with that hand and announce what side that is. For example, “Take your right hand and put it on the jar.” Or, “Put your right hand on the rope first.”
Over time and with some coaching, kids can develop a sense of right and left. You may want to read up on visual-spatial processing to learn more.