Dyspraxia is a developmental co-ordination disorder. Its precise cause is unknown, but it is thought that in people with dyspraxia, there may be a disruption in the way messages from the brain get transmitted to the body. This means that a person with dyspraxia may not be able to perform movements smoothly and in a coordinated way.
Distinct from other motor disorders such as stroke and cerebral palsy, dyspraxia varies in the way people are affected and the difficulties encountered may change over time. The Dyspraxia Foundation explains that children with dyspraxia may have difficulties with self-care, writing, typing, riding a bike, and play, in addition to other educational activities. These difficulties may extend into adulthood, meaning lifelong challenges for some.
Knowing how best to support children in your class with dyspraxia is the key to enabling them to thrive at school. But there will never be a sure-fire way to help, naturally. Each child will require personalised strategies, as is the case with any additional need.
Helping children with dyspraxia in the classroom
Dyspraxia is a hidden disability, like Dyslexia, ADHD, ADD and some Autistic Spectrum Conditions. Understanding the needs of the specific child is the key in providing classroom support, rather than a blanket condition-based approach.
Rosaline Van de Weyer, Occupational Therapist and Director of Dyspraxia UK, an organisation that offers expert advice, assessments and strategies to children, young people and adults with dyspraxia, explains the need to be aware of the differing rates at which children become ready for key tasks. She says: “Children develop at such rapidly different rates and are ready for key tasks, such as handwriting, at different times. Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as Dyspraxia, take longer than their peers to master pencil control. Often these children are cognitively able and are misattributed labels such as ‘lazy’ or ‘not trying hard enough’.”
Identifying dyspraxia is key for such children, given the harm that mislabelling can do. Helping children with dyspraxia to master pencil control is an important step in helping them to develop their handwriting. Rosaline suggests, “Handwriting is one of the most complex tasks we do. There are three approaches to helping children learn to hand write:
1) Manage the environment: consider posture, chair and desk height, consider using a sloped writing board
2) Fix it: Teach new skills and methods of letter formation, ideally as advised by the National Handwriting Association (the NHA methods are evidence based)
3) Cope with it: Adopt coping strategies, such as pencil grips to promote optimal tripod grip.”
Underlying the development of handwriting skills includes sensory processing, gross motor skills including strength, hand skills, bilateral integration and coordination of the eye muscles. This takes longer to come to fruition for some, and for others, difficulties may remain for years. Further abilities that underlie writing skills are: cognitive function, attention and concentration, behaviour and motivation.
So how do we know when children are developmentally ready to be working on handwriting?
“The Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration” (known as Beery VMI), states that until children can successfully copy these shapes, they are not developmentally ready for handwriting:
\ / + X
When children first start to draw kisses in a birthday card (for example), they are crosses and as they develop, they can make diagonal lines needed for an X.” Evidently, seeking to move all children through certain tasks at the same time will not be developmentally appropriate.
Another way of helping children with dyspraxia is to set up sensory circuits. These are a series of exercises that children work through in a particular, structured order. The exercises fall into three zones, the alerting zone, the organising zone and the calming zone. “Sensory circuits are a fantastic way to start the day for children who are slow to meet developmental milestones,” says Rosaline, “or who are struggling with writing. The physical exercises help children with dyspraxia (and other neurodiversities) to feel regulated and ready to learn. Some schools run a sensory circuits class first thing, or after lunch. The best resource for setting up a circuit is Sensory Circuits: A Sensory Motor Skills Programme for Children by Jane Horwood (2009).”
It is not just the physical difficulties associated with dyspraxia that children can struggle with. Children start developing self-insight at around age 7. This is when they may start to compare themselves to their peers. “Children with dyspraxia should be supported in maintaining self-esteem, especially at this stage,” Rosaline stresses. “Positive feedback and constructive strategies are the best way forward for these young people.”
If you suspect one of your pupils may be showing signs of dyspraxia, Rosaline suggests encouraging parents and carers to see their GP, to get into the health system for an informative assessment by an occupational therapist and paediatrician. Dyspraxia UK also provides independent assessments for families who have sought GP support but are subject to long waiting lists: www.dyspraxiauk.com
Find out more…
- Teachers are well placed to spot the early signs and symptoms of dyspraxia. There is a list of signs and symptoms provided on the Dyspraxia Foundation website: dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk
- There are numerous information sheets on all ages and phases of education on the Dyspraxia Foundation website https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/about-dyspraxia/information-sheets/
- Rosaline can be contacted here: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.