Cathy Parvin recounts the story of a brave young girl who wanted others to understand her dyspraxia.
My mind was still very much on the previous caller when our helpline rang again.
“Hello I am the SENDCo at a primary school and I was wondering if you can help us? A year 5 pupil has asked me if she can do a peer awareness assembly about dyspraxia. She feels the children in her class don’t understand her dyspraxia, and this is making friendships difficult for her.”
I was impressed with Miriam from the start – her insight and desire to build understanding and empathy amongst her peers, her courage in wanting to tackle this head on. She described some of the daily struggles she faced – difficulties with her hand writing, doing up her coat, using a knife and fork and other fiddly things. The other children, she explained, just didn’t understand why these everyday tasks were so difficult for her. PE lessons could be particularly challenging and although she didn’t have a visible disability, she was attending the local Riding for the Disabled Association centre weekly to help with her core stability, muscle tone and balance. The other girls didn’t understand why she could go and they couldn’t.
Miriam left the meeting to return to class giving me the opportunity to express my concern about the potential for making the situation worse. The SENDCo assured me the other children were not likely to be unkind and that she would be ready to deal with it if it happened. Miriam’s mum had also discussed with her the possibility of a negative outcome but Miriam was still really keen to do it. She assured me that Miriam would report any adverse responses.
The Dyspraxia Peer Awareness Assembly
The morning of the assembly arrived and despite having delivered hundreds of training sessions and keynote speeches on dyspraxia, I have never felt so apprehensive. I was deeply concerned about making things worse for Miriam but decided to trust her SENDCo’s judgement.
We began the assembly by exploring the ways in which we are all different, asking the children to raise their hands if they have brown eyes or blue? If they are tall or short? If they wear glasses or not? We asked if they thought that difference was good and they all agreed it was. We explained how we all find some things challenging and asked them to think about what they struggled with. Then we talked about how some children use wheelchairs, some hearing aids, others use white sticks and the importance of us helping one another. Moving on to how some children have difficulties which are not obvious when you look at them but still really affect them and, we explained dyspraxia is one of them. I asked if any of them had heard of dyspraxia and a couple raised their hands saying a brother or cousin had it. I explained about dyspraxia and how it makes some things difficult. Keeping it simple I told them about how coordination is affected, especially with being able to use both sides of the body together such as using a knife and fork, poor balance and then how fine motor skills are affected making fiddly things challenging.
Miriam then did her power point presentation. I noticed her little hands shake slightly as she tried to get her memory stick into the computer and my heart was in my mouth.
My fear was unfounded because she did a brilliant presentation about how her dyspraxia affected her. She explained what helped her and how horse riding improved her balance. As I looked around, the children and her teachers were totally absorbed. I wished I could have recorded it. Needless to say she got a well-deserved round of applause and her mum looked so immensely proud!
Then we did some exercises with the children explaining that to really understand dyspraxia it was important to experience how it feels for Miriam. We asked them to put gloves on and then gave them some tasks to do using only their non-dominant hand. They had to try and undo sweet wrappers, open lunch boxes and write their name. This was to simulate poor fine motor skills. Next they had to stand on one leg (poor balance), close an eye (poor spatial awareness)and throw and catch a ball with one hand ( poor bilateral integration). The children completely engaged with it.
Having done these exercises with hundreds of teachers during Inset training sessions and witnessed the sudden appreciation by the teachers of the challenges these children face daily, I wondered would 10 year olds also be able to relate these exercises to Miriam and empathise with her? Would they appreciate that Miriam isn’t dealing with one area of difficulty individually but has to deal with them combined in every aspect of life, that the true impact is greater than the sum of the parts for her?
At the end the SENDCo brought them all together again and asked the children for their feedback and thoughts. One little girl raised her hand.
“I feel bad I haven’t always been very nice but now I understand how difficult it is for Miriam. I will help her from now on” and many others nodded in agreement.
I can’t begin to describe the sense of relief but of course the question in my head was, would this understanding and positive response last?
After a few days I had a lovely email from her mum quoting Miriam: “When I knew I was going to do the assembly I was really happy because I knew if people understood about dyspraxia I knew I’d probably be treated better. Everybody could understand my needs during that assembly and I felt really relieved that finally people would understand what I struggle with. Since then school has been way better for me. People have been really nice to me and have finally understood why I have special help and do things differently sometimes.”
Now the question became how long would it last? So I decided to follow it up with her mum in a month, and then a year on.
At a month
Her mum responded to my enquiry by saying Miriam was still reporting that things were “brilliant”! Her Mum said “It has made a big difference to her and has given her a little more confidence in, (for example) going up to her friends and trying to join in with them. She says they were more understanding and positive towards her – especially those in her class.
Miriam said that some of her classmates have told her how great they thought her presentation was and how impressed they were with what she had to say – they had thought of her as just a quiet girl and said they had no idea that she was facing so many challenges.
So, all in all, very positive! Miriam even said the other evening she’d like to write a book about Dyspraxia to help others understand it!”
At a year
Her Mum’s response was:
“The assembly was a real high point for Miriam and it undoubtedly made a difference – both to her confidence and to the understanding of her peers and many of her teachers. She often refers back to it and is proud of what she achieved that day. Her classmates, overall, were very accepting and are supportive of her – I’m certain that the assembly helped foster that.”
If you would like to hear more about this from Miriam watch her delightful video testimonial on our website dyspraxia-ed.co.uk
Reflecting on this, what did I conclude?
Firstly, I was left with utter admiration for Miriam that at just 10 years she could have such courage and show huge initiative
“They had no idea that she was facing so many challenges”
in wanting to solve her own problem. Typical of so many of these children. I was equally impressed by the support shown to her by the SENDCo, other teachers at her school and her lovely mum.
Would it work for every child with dyspraxia? I feel this is really down to each school to make that judgement on their own children and situation.
As a charity we are really concerned that few teachers receive any proper training and little support for a condition which affects approximately two children in every class. This hidden but life impacting condition is easy to misunderstand without training. We are passionate about addressing this issue for the children we care so much about. We offer both Inset and online dyspraxia training for schools and also workshops for parents. dyspraxia-ed.co.uk
We feel it’s vital all teaching staff receive training in this “hidden” condition and would like to encourage schools to become dyspraxia friendly. Our helpline is there to advise and support teaching staff.
We try to raise awareness in a range of ways and advocate for these often quiet and massively overlooked children. Teachers often express “There’s something but I can’t quite put my finger on it” when describing a child to us. Please feel free to call our helpline if you are concerned about a child. It is open to all parents, teachers and professionals working with children. School days 10-3pm 01905 676118 or email email@example.com
Both Miriam and her mother have not only readily agreed for me to use her name and write this article but kindly supplied photos.