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Dyspraxic children anxious and downhearted, teachers say

New research shows children with dyspraxia suffer higher levels of emotional distress than their peers

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 17, 2016 | Health & wellbeing

In the UK between 5–6 per cent of children are affected by developmental co-ordination disorder, also known as dyspraxia. 

“DCD is a condition which has a significant impact on all aspects of daily life from the moment a child wakes up,” explains researcher Professor Elisabeth Hill from Goldsmiths, University of London, speaking at the ESRC Festival of Social Science. “Difficulties with motor skills and coordination make even routine tasks such as brushing your teeth, climbing stairs and using cutlery tricky for a child with DCD.”

Once in the classroom, life becomes even more challenging. “Fastening buttons after PE, sitting still, navigating other children and obstacles in the classroom, copying from a whiteboard, carrying a tray at lunchtime – all of these activities are more tiring and difficult for children with poor motor skills and coordination,” co-researcher Dr Emma Sumner points out.

“But, in addition to motor skill problems, our latest research shows that young children with DCD (aged 7-10) have poorer social skills than their peers, and can struggle emotionally as well.”

Close to 60 per cent of children with DCD find it hard to make friends and are less willing to play with their classmates. “In our survey, teachers reported that these children found it much easier to get on with adults and struggled to form bonds with their peers”, Dr Sumner points out. Initial findings from the survey completed by primary school teachers across England also demonstrate that two-thirds of children with DCD are more anxious, tearful, downhearted, nervous of new situations and less confident than their classmates.

Researchers suggest some teachers may not be aware that for children with DCD poor motor skills may go hand in hand with poor social skills

The findings of the study The role of motor abilities in the development of typical and atypical social behaviour funded by The Leverhulme Trust, are in keeping with their previous study which identified a link between motor skills and social skills. “Coordination and movement is absolutely fundamental to a child’s early development,” Professor Hill explains. “We found that children who stood and walked independently sooner were rated as having better communication and daily living skills at ages 7-10. In fact, as soon as a child can raise their head independently and look around, or stand and attract adult attention, then they have far more opportunities to interact with the world and gain social skills. Children with DCD are generally slower to achieve these important early motor milestones or miss them completely – indeed 23 per cent of our sample never crawled at all. This delay may underpin many of their later social difficulties.”

Researchers suggest some teachers may not be aware that for children with DCD poor motor skills may go hand in hand with poor social skills.

To raise awareness, the researchers showcased the latest research in this area and its educational implications at an event held during the ESRC Festival of Social Science. Organised by Goldsmiths Action Lab and Goldsmiths Teachers’ Centre, the event aimed to bring together educators, academics and the DCD community to learn more about the difficulties faced in the classroom by those with the condition, and the practical solutions for support.

Held on Friday 11 November at Goldsmiths, it highlighted a key research implication for teachers; that children who present with social difficulties may have underlying motor skill/coordination problems. If a child doesn’t want to play with others at playtimes, or is always forgetting their PE kit, then this unwillingness to participate may arise from a problem with motor skills that is affecting their confidence and sociability.

Early identification of DCD by teachers is important. Support from occupational therapists, manual dexterity exercises and a range of other focused interventions can help develop functional, transferable skills to be applied within the classroom and subsequently improve long-term outcomes.

Parents can also offer support to their children in the home: “parental support could be targeted at identifying what is important to the child to achieve, breaking down the task into manageable chunks, and supporting skill development through short but regular practice sessions,” Professor Hill added.

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