Do Motor Skills and Positioning impact Table Manners? Absolutely!
Many children have a little difficulty with “table etiquette.” Every family is different, and different cultures have different expectations of how a child should behave at the table.
But, putting all that aside, sometimes a child’s motor skills are the reason for their poor “table manners”.
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This post is part of a 12-month series called Functional Skills for Kids written by pediatric OTs and PTs to post on different developmental topics that impact functional skills for kids.
This month’s topic in the “Functional Skills for Kids” blog hop is Mealtime, so check out the landing page for the rest of our posts and information on all things related!
Positioning and Table Manners
Kids with poor postural control and weak core strength have trouble sitting up at the table without leaning on something for support. This may cause them to sit all the way back in the chair, causing food to fall in their lap on the very long trip from the table to their mouth. Or, they may lean all the way forward, so their belly is against the table, causing mom to say “sit up!” But they can’t. Not that they won’t try. But it is the same thing as when your trainer tells you to hold the plank and not let your belly sink toward the floor. It just goes.
Furniture SIZE Affects Positioning
As I mentioned in previous posts, grown-up furniture is not meant for little people. It is hard for them to reach, they can’t sit comfortably, and their bodies are just too little for our big dining room and kitchen furniture. If they have difficulty with motor skills too, they are balancing all kinds of struggles. Obviously, it makes no sense to buy small kitchen furniture. However, be aware of the sizing of the chairs and tables when it comes to your kids.
A booster seat helps them to be sitting in the proper position to let their arms reach the table and for their feet to have a place to rest. Even though your little one may feel “too grown-up” for a booster seat, it’s important that they are in an appropriate position to learn how to eat properly. Unfortunately, eating habits and table manners can be difficult to change. For one thing, they are very used to doing something “their way” and getting satisfactory results (not hungry anymore).
Also, if you do something a certain way multiple times a day every day, that becomes the way you do it. If you have child-sized furniture (Miss Jaime is a BIG fan), let your kids eat a few meals there. My best friend has four kids and lots of nieces and nephews. She actually bought a kindergarten table for them to color and play at! Love her. This is also the “Kiddie Table” at family parties. It works out great.
OTHER WAYS TO IMPROVE POSTURE & POSITIONING DURING MEALTIME
There are many kinds of booster seats out there. It’s up to you to decide what works for you and your child. If you see that your child has difficulty sitting at the kitchen table with the family, you may want to consider some other options.
- Child-size furniture for lunch or independent snacking. (There is no substitute for family mealtime at the table together).
- A seat cushion for a child who tends to wiggle, sit on their feet or stand up while eating.
- A booster seat that provides support for the back and feet.
Body Awareness, Positioning, AND Mealtime
Kids with poor body awareness don’t feel things as acutely as we do. They may be sitting in a totally awkward position and don’t even realize that it’s uncomfortable (it’s really not, they barely feel it). Their pants are falling down and they have no idea. These children are often behind in potty training because they don’t “feel” that their bladder is full or that they need to go. Kids with poor body awareness end up with food on their fingers, their shirts, their faces and they simply have no idea because
A) they don’t feel it when it’s happening and
B) they don’t feel it after it happens so it doesn’t feel funny or uncomfortable.
I once sat across from a seventh-grade boy who was eating fries (with his fingers, of course) and noticed that every single time he went to dip his fry in ketchup, he dipped it so hard that his fingers went all the way into the ketchup. He had no idea (and probably wouldn’t have cared if he did notice). I thought “how uncomfortable!? …to have sticky ketchup all over your fingers the whole meal?” But it wasn’t uncomfortable (for him anyway).
I thought “how uncomfortable!? …to have sticky ketchup all over your fingers the whole meal?” But it wasn’t uncomfortable (for him anyway).
EYE-HAND COORDINATION, Positioning, and Mealtime
Eye-hand coordination is involved in getting the food to your mouth, reaching for a drink without knocking it over, and spearing the piece of food that you want. If the child has poor body awareness and poor eye-hand coordination, they accidentally get some food on their chin on the way into their mouth, and THEN, they don’t feel it. These kids often end up with what my sister calls “the Ronald McDonald” red juice mouth. This often leads to a messy mealtime.
Fine Motor Skills, Grasping, Positioning AND Mealtime
The position of the fork and spoon has a lot to do with how much control your child has. This is directly related to how they hold their pencil. Many kids who hold their pencils incorrectly tend to wrap their thumb around the rest of their fingers (this is called a thumb wrap grasp). Usually, these kids make the same mistake with their forks and spoons. This leads to a “shovel grasp”.
Many children don’t develop the muscles in their hands as well as they should because they don’t hold their forks and pencils properly.
Back to the trainer and the plank—if you do the plank every day, but you do it incorrectly, you don’t develop those rock-hard abs you were hoping for. Same thing with the fork and the pencil.
If your child writes and colors every day, but they aren’t holding the pencil properly, they aren’t using the right muscles, and they don’t develop the hand strength and the hand skills that they should.
Moral of the story? Correct the way your kid holds their pencil and their fork—it will help them in the end!
For more information about fine motor skills and Mealtime, check out this wonderful post from
Okay, so I think you get the picture. Here are some other reasons that positioning and motor skills impact your table manners at mealtime.
Bilateral Coordination, POSITIONING, and MEALTIME
Bilateral coordination is the ability to use the two sides of your body together in a coordinated manner. Think of using one hand to hold your fork and the other to steady your plate, or one hand to hold your food steady with your fork and the other hand to cut it with a knife.
Many children tend to leave their non-dominant hand hanging by their side during mealtimes because they haven’t developed good consistent bilateral coordination. You may notice this when they are writing or coloring as well as when they are eating. By the age of four or five, your child should be starting to use two hands all the time.
One is a dominant hand, and the other is a stabilizer (holding things steady for the dominant hand to do its job). If your child isn’t doing this, always give them verbal reminders to use their “helping hand” when coloring, writing, and eating. It will result in a neater, more precise job every time. Now your paper isn’t wiggling, your plate isn’t moving, etc.
Check your child’s position. If both hands aren’t “working”, give them verbal reminders to use their “helping hand” when coloring, writing, and eating. It will result in a neater, more precise job every time. Now your paper isn’t wiggling, your plate isn’t moving, etc.
This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids series. Check out all of the bloggers who are participating and learn more about the series by clicking on the link above.
To read all of Miss Jaime, O.T.’s posts in this series, check out my Functional Skills for Kids landing page.
For more information on the components and considerations related to Mealtime, stop by and see what the other Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists on the Functional Skills for Kids team have to say:
Fine Motor Skills For Mealtimes | Therapy Fun Zone
Postural Control, Gross Motor Development and Mealtime |Your Therapy Source
4 Ways to Modify Meal Times for Fussy Eaters | Your Kids OT
15 Tips for Picky Eaters | The Inspired Treehouse
Visual Perceptual Skills Needed for Independent Feeding | Growing Hands-On Kids
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I hope that these tips have alerted you to some of the reasons kids have difficulty sitting and eating with the “best” manners. It can be a lot of work! Please comment if you have any tips or tricks!
Hi Jaime, What a great overview of the large impact that motor skills have at the table! Love it. Thia My blog: http://capitalsfirst.blogspot.com/
Great information – especially the connection with table manners. My latest pet peeve is tablets at the table for children – increasing distraction and decreasing manners.
And your comments about practice ring true! Families are so busy and overscheduled children do not have the time to practice eating properly.
I can’t stand the tablets either – talk about rude. But then I remind myself- we have no idea what other people are going through. Hopefully, they sit around the table and talk at home.
Such a great post! You are so right – often, parents are concerned with pencil grasp development, but when it comes to cutlery use, it seems to be an ‘after thought’, once habits have been well established! There are some fabulous ideas here, thank you!
There are so many great suggestions here! You are right–that Ronald McDonald juice mouth is SO cute when they are little, but an indication of difficulties when it continues at an older age.
Bilateral coordination can be so tricky at meal times! Totally agree about helping kids to use both hands at meal times and how this also helps with other functional tasks like writing.