Supporting children with dyspraxia

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child with dyspraxia who got hurt being comforted by her mother

Kim Griffin shares her six useful strategies to help children with dyspraxia feel at ease in the classroom.

Dyspraxia is a term used to describe the difficulty children and adults have when they struggle to plan and organise their movements. It is sometimes used interchangeably with the term Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). This is because dyspraxia itself isn’t a formally recognised medical diagnosis, whereas DCD is.

Defining dyspraxia

The term dyspraxia is frequently used to describe anyone that is a little clumsy. However, dyspraxia is more than just a little clumsiness. Sensory integration therapists would also expect an individual with dyspraxia to have difficulties with ideation or planning, as well as execution.

Ideation means coming up with an idea, or a plan on what to do. Some individuals with dyspraxia struggle with this. They cannot think about what they could do with equipment, or items. So, if you give them a box of Lego they won’t be able to think of what to build. Or if you ask them to write a story, they may struggle to come up with an idea. 

Planning is the ability to figure out how to execute the idea. This includes organising the steps and movements of an activity. To build a house with Lego, steps might include putting a row of bricks along the bottom to create a base, and then building more bricks upwards to create the doors, walls and roof. As another example, in the case of writing a story, the child needs to think about the introduction, problem and conclusion of the story and how to link those sections together.

Doing is the part where your body moves to execute the plan. For Lego, it involves using your fingers to put the bricks together and having the ability to line bricks up so that they fit and making sure that enough pressure is used when pushing the bricks together. With writing a story, it includes the ability to write, and the ability to put the ideas down in the right order. 

Dyspraxia can be a great hindrance in day-to-day life, so I have included some tips on how to help those who suffer from it. 

Supporting ideation

Ideation is often the forgotten part of dyspraxia. When children have trouble with ideation, they often struggle to get started. Because of this, they are often the ones that follow rather than lead. This is because following is much easier for them than coming up with an idea. For these individuals it is important that they get extra opportunities, and more encouragement, to come up with their own ideas. 

It’s all about planning

Planning is very important to remember if you are the one helping a child or adult with dyspraxia. They will need more help and more time when learning new tasks. They will likely benefit from visual demonstrations alongside verbal instructions. Additionally, they will appreciate extra opportunities to practise when learning a new skill or task.

Parents and teachers can help by setting activities up to ensure that children are successful. Sometimes, this means that they do all of the planning for their children or pupils. If there is enough time and the child is calm, it is essential that they do start to plan on their own. Sometimes, it can help if the adult talks through their steps out loud. This helps the child to understand how the adult is thinking and planning. Playing ‘what if’ games can be a nice way to practise planning skills. 

Generalising 

It is also important to understand that children with dyspraxia often can’t generalise skills. Generalisation is the ability to transfer skills learnt from one activity to the next one. For example, transferring the ability to put on a heavy winter coat with large buttons across to putting on a light autumn coat with a zip. For some children, this may be like learning the skill of putting on a coat all over again. 

This can be very frustrating for those working with children who have dyspraxia, as it may look like they are being ‘difficult,’ or ‘challenging’ when they actually don’t know how to start an activity or don’t know what to do. It is important to not make the assumption that because they have learnt ‘Skill A’ they will automatically move the knowledge to ‘Skill B’. You may need to teach them again, from the start.

Poor planning can sometimes be mistaken for inattention

Sometimes children who can’t plan look like they are inattentive. This is especially true if they have good ideas. For example, they might have the Lego box and want to build a car, a house and a tree. However, they can’t figure out how to create their idea. So, they move over to the K’Nex. Then they want to build a car and a gear but don’t come up with a plan. So, they move on to playdough. Here, they might push the dough out, and roll it up again, but then become bored when they can’t figure out how to use the cutters. These children need support with planning so they can complete a task. Use their idea, and ask them questions on what might come next and how they think they can achieve their idea. Help them to stay engaged with the task by assisting with planning.

Difficulty with planning can also increase anxiety levels

Imagine you are asked to fix a broken car. How does this make you feel?  Unless you are a mechanic, you will likely feel quite anxious. You most likely do not even know where to start!  You might not even know how to open up the bonnet, let alone what you should be looking for once it’s open.  This is because it is an unfamiliar and unknown task. 

Individuals with dyspraxia have this feeling all the time. Even for tasks that are similar to what they have done before, they may not know where to start. If they have not had multiple opportunities to practise, they may not remember the steps, which can increase anxiety. Children may need reassurance and extra help with the planning and extra time.

Asking for help

The final piece of advice is to teach the child to ask for help. Teach them to ask ‘Can you show me?’ or ‘How should I do that?’ or ‘I’m not sure I understand what to do’. This gives them a strategy they can use when they are stuck with their planning. So, rather than avoiding the activity, getting worried or escalating their behaviour, they will have a functional strategy to use.

Patience is key!

Finally: be patient! If you can help to support planning, this will also decrease anxiety and increase participation. Individuals with dyspraxia typically need more support at the start, but once they have learnt the activity they can be successful. With the extra support for planning, they really can fly.

This article appeared previously in SEN 108. Click here and here for more articles on dyspraxia!

Kim Griffin, smiling at the camera wearing a white top with black dots
Kim Griffin

Kim Griffin is a paediatric occupational therapist.  She has extensive experience working with children who have sensory and/or motor skill challenges, including those with autism and dyspraxia.  Her current focus is creating online training and resources for schools, teachers and parents, including training on sensory processing and dyspraxia.

 

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