Developmental Coordination Disorder in the classroom

Elisabeth HillLaura Crane and Emma Sumner are based at Goldsmiths Action Lab. Their research focuses on a range of neurodevelopmental conditions, particularly autism and developmental coordination disorder. Here they discuss the topic of an event which they hosted in November 2016 as part of the Festival of Social Science.

Elisabeth Hill

Elisabeth Hill

Laura Crane

Laura Crane

Emma Sumner

Emma Sumner

What did you do in the first five minutes that you were awake this morning? Perhaps you hit snooze on the alarm? Buried your head into the pillow? Got out of bed and walked to the bathroom? Turned on the lights? Put some clothes on and went downstairs?

Whatever you did, it would have involved motor skill (in some way, shape or form) before anything else. For most of us, motor skills are rather effortless. However, for others, motor skills can be a source of constant difficulty, and can have far-reaching implications for their everyday lives.

Developmental Coordination Disorder (abbreviated to DCD, and often referred to as dyspraxia) is characterised by impairments in motor skill (including coordination problems, poor balance and clumsiness), as well as delays or difficulties in achieving or acquiring motor milestones (such as crawling, walking, and running). DCD is not merely a childhood condition – it persists throughout adolescence into adulthood, and it can have a significant effect on aspects such as quality of life, academic achievement and self-esteem.

Girl walking down steps1

DCD affects between two to six per cent of children, which means that at least one child in every classroom (of 30 children) will meet the criteria for a diagnosis of DCD. Recent initiatives have highlighted the need for training to improve teachers’ awareness of the difficulties faced by children with a range of conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and developmental language disorder, with a focus on how best to support them in the classroom. However, teachers receive very little advice, guidance or input regarding children with motor difficulties such as DCD.

What needs to be done?

It is important for there to be greater awareness of the different ways in which movement difficulties can present themselves in children. For example, children with DCD may have difficulties with one or more of the following:

  • Fine motor (eg grasping, pinching, handwriting) or gross motor (eg posture, reaching) skills
  • Locomotive (eg walk, run, jump, hop, skip) or non-locomotive (eg stretch, curl, pull, balance, swing) movement
  • Speed (eg writing quickly when taking notes) or accuracy (eg throwing a ball towards a target)
  • Unilateral tasks (requiring one hand, eg brushing teeth, using a computer mouse) or bilateral tasks (requiring two hands, eg holding a bottle with one hand whilst twisting the lid with the other).

Parents and educators should be aware of all of the potential areas in which children may experience motor difficulties, and who to turn to for help.

There should also be greater awareness of the fact that difficulties may be apparent very early on in development. Looking at early motor milestones of children with DCD including crawling, standing unassisted and walking unassisted, our research found that children with DCD were significantly delayed relative to their typically developing peers. For example, whilst typically developing children tend to crawl at around eight months of age, children with DCD (on average) tend to crawl for the first time at 10 months, if at all (23 per cent of parents of children with DCD reported that their child never crawled, whereas all children in a typically developing comparison group acquired this skill). Whilst there is considerable variation in the age at which all children acquire key motor milestones, parents and caregivers should be astute to possible ‘red flags’ in these areas.

end of school1

This is particularly important given that poor motor skills may have knock-on effects in other areas of development. Recent research conducted within the Goldsmiths Action Lab has shown that poor motor skills may be linked to both social skills and language abilities in school-aged children. Motor skills have also been linked to broader cognitive skills such as executive functions, which refer to aspects such as planning, mental flexibility and inhibition. Executive functions are crucial in the classroom; for example, teachers often provide a series of instructions that children have to follow, before the child must decide on an appropriate course of action, and then carry out the tasks. Unsurprisingly, many children with DCD find the classroom environment difficult, due to both motor aspects and related difficulties in broader areas of functioning. This ties in with our preliminary findings suggesting that teachers identify children with poor motor skills as being more anxious and downhearted, and highlights the negative effects poor motor skills can have.

It is important for motor difficulties to be detected and addressed early in development – by both parents and by teachers – so that appropriate support can be given to these children. Studies in adults with DCD have shown that they report significantly lower satisfaction with quality of life and also experience difficulties with aspects such as mood, general health, wellbeing and employment. If DCD is picked up early, and appropriate support given, this will have a positive effect throughout development and into adulthood, allowing those with DCD to better fulfill their true potential.

If this blog inspired you to share your own research, why not apply to be a part of this year’s Festival?  The call for applications for the 2017 Festival of Social Science is open until early May. Follow updates about the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival

This blog first appeared on the Psychology @ Goldsmiths blog.

You can follow @LauraMayCrane@ElisabethLHill@EmmaJSumner and @GoldActionLab on Twitter.

One thought on “Developmental Coordination Disorder in the classroom

  1. As a parent of a child with Aspergers DCD / PDD, executive functioning is a huge problem. It is difficult to find information on how to help and how to improve these skills. I’m also a secondary teacher in an inner city school. I see lots of issues which I think relate to DCD ( undiagnosed – just familiarity with the problems, and recognising patterns in behaviour). It’s a huge area and vastly misunderstood. I have never received any training in this area.


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