Dyspraxia: positive moves in PE


Sally Payne explores how educators can help shape dyspraxic children’s attitudes towards physical activity.

Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD) affects movement and coordination in children and adults. It affects around 5% of school-aged children, making it difficult for them to carry out activities that others manage easily. The most common age for diagnosis is 7-8 years, although some are not diagnosed until adulthood.

Early Identification and early intervention for children whose motor skill development is behind that of their peers is essential to prevent gaps in skills from growing. We can help by embedding opportunities for physical activity into early years routines and activities. The Dyspraxia Foundation’s Early Years Guidelines offer practical activity ideas. Motor skills groups provide more structured, targeted support for children in Key Stage 1 and 2 with movement difficulties. Tools for monitoring progress are often included, enabling teachers to identify children who are not making expected progress and who may benefit from further assessment and support from an occupational therapist or physiotherapist.  

Dyspraxic people need more time and practice to master physical skills. They also need appropriate scaffolding for their physical development, and a positive, supportive environment to build their confidence. The evidence suggests that the way we deliver PE and games at school may be harming dyspraxic children’s confidence to take part in physical activity. 

Unlike their peers, children with dyspraxia rarely learn by watching others, and they will need extra time, support and practice to master motor skills. They also need a teacher/instructor who understands dyspraxia and can make subtle adjustments to enable them to take part and achieve without drawing attention to their differences.

  • Break activities down into component parts and ensure one skill is mastered before introducing the next. 
  • Provide more opportunities to practice and allow extra time to learn new skills, possibly away from peers with hand-over-hand guidance if needed.
  • For ball skills, pair a dyspraxic child with a more able child. The dyspraxic child will have more chance of hitting or catching a ball that is thrown accurately, while the more able child will benefit from learning to adjust their position to catch/hit a ball coming towards them from any direction.
  • Give clear instructions, one at a time and allow the child to organise their body into position before giving the next instruction
  • Use visual cues – such as colour spots – to indicate directions rather than left or right. 
  • Keep the environment as stable as possible when teaching new skills so the child can focus on themselves, rather than having to adjust to the people and things around them.
  • Consider the changing room. Dyspraxic children often take longer to get changed, may feel overwhelmed by sensory stimulation and may not be able to tie their laces. They could be in a high state of anxiety even before starting the PE or games lesson. Consider adjustments to reduce these challenges.

Encouraging ‘lifestyle sports’.
The structure and format of PE and games lessons can be difficult for dyspraxic people. There are however some ‘lifestyle sports’ that may offer a more positive physical activity experience that can be continued outside school. These include:

  • Activities where the child is moving but the environment remains stable, for example martial arts, climbing, archery, golf.
  • Activities such as pilates and yoga which build core stability and balance.
  • Activities that involve repetitive patterns of movement, for example rowing, cycling, running, swimming. 
  • Individual pursuits such as golf, archery, canoeing, climbing. 

Physical activity is important for everyone’s physical and mental health. Taking steps such as those described above will help dyspraxic people see physical activity as a positive experience.

Dr Sally Payne
Author: Dr Sally Payne

Dr Sally Payne
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Dr Sally Payne is an occupational therapist, Professional Adviser with the Royal College of Occupational Therapists and Vice Chair of the Dyspraxia Foundation.

Twitter: @sallydyspraxia
Dyspraxia Week:
th October 2022


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