In order to carry out smooth, coordinated movement, we need quick and efficient feedback and feed-forward between our senses our brain and our muscles. If any one part of this communication highway is under-performing it will result in difficulty in learning new movement patterns. We will see this in the children who take a long time to learn to walk and then we notice that they also take longer learning other movement skills as they get older. Learning to tie shoe-laces can be very difficult for these children and learning to hold and
control a pencil is a monumental task.
Dyspraxia is a spectrum disorder in that you can have it mildly or more severely. Many children who have a mild dyspraxia only come to light when they begin formal schooling and struggle to write neatly and hold their pencils in very inefficient grips.
Watching children in the playground is a good way to see those who struggle more with learning new movement patterns and sequences. Children with Dyspraxia will usually stay on the periphery. They struggle to do what the others seem to find so easy and if we, as adults and their supporters, do not recognise the problem and deal with it effectively, they can become real outsiders in their peer group. If your child has Dyspraxia, be aware of his self esteem. He is too young to understand the reason and too young to cope with their teasing. I see many children with Dyspraxia struggling to maintain a positive self esteem because they can see that they are unable to do what the others can do but they do not understand why and therefore begin to believe that they must be lesser beings or stupid. We cannot sit by and allow any child have that happen to them! But jumping to their defence and becoming angry with peers who boast that they are better, is also dangerous for our child’s sense of self worth and ability to socialise. So what can we do?
Having recognised that your child has Dyspraxia and that it is a real difficulty, is a very important step. Seeking professional assessment and treatment is also very important because that will directly and specifically address the underlying causes of the Dyspraxia and help your child bring his early developmental foundations to his real potential. But there is also a lot
you can do in your everyday interactions with your child.
Take a good look at the tasks your child has to cope with in his everyday life and see which ones can be changed so that they are easier for him. Children with Dyspraxia struggle with shoe laces, so rather let them wear shoes with Velcro fasteners. Be thoughtful in the fastenings of the clothes you buy; buttons and zips are difficult for children with Dyspraxia. There still will be tasks that you can neither adapt nor can he avoid. For these tasks he needs to be given help and support while you go about training him in the earlier foundation skills needed to be able to complete the overly complex task. You will see this most often in pencil work. Children with Dyspraxia struggle to learn how to hold a pencil and should not have to write, draw or colour with one until they have learnt how to manage holding a variety of objects in a thumb and finger pincer grip. Spend time using finger paints and painting with small sponges, pinch-tear paper into little strips to make papier-maché. Help your child learn how to thread beads and mould clay. Then begin teaching him how to use scissors. When he has mastered all these, he will be ready for you to start helping him cope with a pencil.
Be realistic in both your demands and your praise. A child with Dyspraxia is not a fool and he will be very aware if you simply praise him no matter what he does. In order to bolster his self esteem and help him learn from his successes, you need to praise things he does that were a result of effort he made. Praise him for everything that he does which is better than he had done before or where he would not give up and therefore achieved something that had been very difficult for him. Set your goals appropriately and help him to do the same. Watch him trying to do something and try to work out how you can make the component steps in the task simpler.
One of the methods I use is “backward chaining”. “Backward chaining” is teaching the last step in a sequence first and then slowly getting your child to do the second last and third last steps until he is doing the whole sequence by himself. This works because your child finishes the task and gets a sense of success, right from the very beginning of your teaching. An example of this would be tying shoe-laces: first, do most of the work and just let your child pull the last part of the bow through and VOILA! – he has completed his first bow!
Something carers often overlook in children with Dyspraxia, is that the difficulty many of them have with planning in movement is also a problem in other spheres of life that need planning.
Many children with Dyspraxia have a lot of difficulty with social skills and can struggle to make friends. This can be the part that hurts them and their parents more than all the other difficulties put together. Children can be cruel and children will tease and mock those less able; but that is not the main reason children with Dyspraxia struggle with peers. They also struggle because they lack the organisational skills to break into a group of peers and join in an on-going discussion or game. They are often among the last out of the class at recess because their poor organisational skills make them take longer to pack up and get into the playground. By the time the child with Dyspraxia arrives in the playground, everyone is already playing. Teachers and play-ground attendants need to be aware of the needs children with Dyspraxia have. Attendants need to gently and diplomatically create an opening in the peer-group’s game so that he can join in and be part of the group. Training in social skills groups also helps children with Dyspraxia develop the organisation and skills to cope more easily in different social situations.
Teachers and sports coaches need to be aware that children with Dyspraxia need more step-by-step instruction and need empathic support while learning new movement patterns. Give each child an opportunity to find which sports he enjoys. Do not rush him or force him; spend time giving him the input to try the skill and see for himself if it is one he wants to work hard at. As
adults, we might find ourselves getting frustrated that a child with Dyspraxia needs so much step-by-step guidance, support and practice; but imagine how much more frustrating it must be for the child. We are their supporters, or we certainly should be.
I have met children with Dyspraxia who have earned distinction in dancing exams. I have also seen children with Dyspraxia take prizes at horse riding shows. Oh, yes! When carefully helped through the earlier movement demands and skills and step-by-step shown what they have to do, these children can learn and can surpass their peers who are less inclined to put in the effort. So, the most important thing you can teach your child with Dyspraxia is not to give up! If they really want to do something and love it enough to put in the extra work and if they have a supporter to help them break the task into manageable movement-bits, they can shine.
Children with Dyspraxia have great potential and we need to give them the best foundations in childhood to allow them to discover their true potential and grow into adults with a strong sense of worth, participating fully and meaningfully in society.
You might enjoy this revolutionary programme designed by Sharon Stansfield to teach reading. It's aimed at parents but therapists and teachers are also using it
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