Are the needs of teenagers with dyspraxia being overlooked in the drive for early intervention?
Dyspraxia, a form of developmental coordination disorder, is a specific learning difficulty affecting the organisation of movement, perception, language and thought. It can also affect speech. Early intervention is vital to help children with dyspraxia develop the fundamental movement skills they need to carry out daily activities such as writing, getting dressed, using cutlery and joining in playground games. Consequently, children aged five to 11 years are the main focus of dyspraxia research, intervention and support.
There is, however, increasing evidence that difficulties associated with dyspraxia continue into adolescence and often extend into adulthood. Many young people continue to be disadvantaged by poor motor coordination and organisational difficulties during adolescence. Such difficulties can have serious consequences at secondary school, as task demands increase and students are expected to take more responsibility for their daily lives and learning. While awareness and understanding of the impact of dyspraxia during adolescence is still limited, receiving appropriate support at secondary school can help teenagers with dyspraxia to reach their academic potential and develop important life skills.
This article will discuss some of the main issues faced by secondary school students with dyspraxia, alongside some revealing comments from students themselves which were gathered as part of a recently completed doctoral research project undertaken by the author. This qualitative study, involving 16 interviews with nine young people aged 13 to 15 years examined the impact of dyspraxia on teenagers’ daily lives from their own contemporaneous perspective.
What do students struggle with?
Teenagers with dyspraxia have a marked impairment of their motor coordination. This means that they have to work hard to carry out some physical activities that their peers manage easily. Despite this, by their mid-teens most young people with dyspraxia have mastered basic self-care activities through repeated practice as part of their daily routine, even if the end result isn’t quite to the standard that they had hoped to achieve. Whilst many teenagers with dyspraxia are able to tie their shoe laces for example, they might struggle to pull them tight so they come undone quickly. It is often easier to avoid laces altogether.
“It takes more effort and practice to get stuff not like perfect, but to a standard that’s OK.”
Poor gross motor skills can affect teenagers’ willingness to engage in sports and other physical activities that might expose their coordination difficulties. This could have implications both socially and for their long-term health and fitness.
“If it was a team sport with people that I didn’t know particularly well, then I wouldn’t particularly want to get involved in case I got it wrong.”
Handwriting is a particular challenge for teenagers with poor fine motor control and using an immature pencil grip can lead to pain and fatigue when writing. However, putting in more effort rarely improves the amount or legibility of work produced and students often have to decide whether to prioritise the quantity or quality of their writing in any given situation. Teenagers have to work hard to produce work that reflects their academic potential and can be very disheartened by teachers whose comments suggest they are careless and disinterested. There is the risk of underachievement when students are unable to demonstrate their ideas on paper.
“Because I ain’t got neat handwriting I’m not getting pushed enough. I’m in like not bottom sets, but not the sets I should be in”
“I have to make my writing short so that I can finish it in time. If they say like ‘five minutes left’ then I have to take a bit away. The teachers don’t say anything because they haven’t really noticed.”
Practical subjects at secondary school can be very difficult for teenagers with dyspraxia who lack the ability to handle equipment safely and effectively. This is a particular problem in design and technology where poor motor control makes it hard for students to measure and cut accurately, especially when working under time pressure or in a distracting environment. Anxiety about the risk of injury can damage student’s confidence, while disappointment and frustration at their inability to create an acceptable product can lead to disengagement. This is of particular concern in food technology where a perceived lack of competence might affect teenagers’ willingness to practice and develop their kitchen skills, which could have long-term negative consequences for their health and future independence.
“I don’t feel comfortable using the main woodworking materials at school, don’t like the equipment we use because it’s sharp and I’m just scared to use it.”
Difficulties experienced by teenagers with dyspraxia are not, however, just confined to their gross and fine motor coordination. Many also struggle with executive functions such as time management, attention, memory and planning actions. Teenagers with dyspraxia can spend much longer doing homework than their peers, but may not remember to hand it in, which is frustrating both for the student and the teacher. It is particularly hard for teenagers with dyspraxia to retain and act on a series of instructions that have a motor component. They have to put so much effort into organising their movements that they may not remember all parts of the task or might carry out instructions in the wrong order, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.
“I can’t take instructions, so I might have added the milk before doing something else. I might have cut too much or too little. It’s frustrating.”
What do students say about their support needs?
Teenagers who were involved in a recent study supported by the Dyspraxia Foundation recognised that most teachers wanted to help them reach their potential, but felt that poor awareness and understanding of dyspraxia limited the availability, type and effectiveness of support that was offered at school. Teenagers felt that the support provided by SEN departments was not adequately differentiated to meet their coordination and organisational needs. Help was rarely offered in practical subjects, for example, where students with dyspraxia felt that being shown how to handle equipment safely and effectively would enhance their confidence and performance.
“Everyone got the same in the SEN unit so I don’t think they really differentiated between dyslexia, dyspraxia or autism, whatever it may be. I think they just sort of gave everyone the same sort of support, and that wasn’t what I needed.”
Teenagers felt there was a need for more training about dyspraxia, but also said that teachers should not make pre-judgements about their support needs based on their diagnosis alone. Teenagers wanted to be involved in making decisions about the strategies and supports that were provided and for these accommodations to be made without fuss. While teenagers were concerned that doing things differently or using alternative equipment might draw unwanted attention from peers, they were prepared to use equipment such as a laptop if they felt this would enhance their performance.
“Having a laptop for exams is a bit of a relief. I’d usually be stressing over them, losing sleep but this year I’ve just been able to focus. With the handwriting, I’d be worried about the neatness and that, but now that really isn’t a problem.”
Teenagers also identified a need for help with organisation and planning. They were puzzled and frustrated at their inability to retain and act on instructions and to plan tasks with multiple steps. They wanted subtle support from teachers and assistants in the classroom to check that they had processed information correctly, and individualised help to develop skills such as time management and essay planning. Some felt this would be more useful than being given extra time in exams and would give them useful skills for the future.
Understanding the perspective of teenagers with dyspraxia about their experience within the secondary school setting will help teachers and other professionals to identify the accommodations and approaches that are most likely to have a positive impact on students’ well-being and academic performance. Furthermore, developing students’ self-awareness and empowering them to articulate their support needs are important life skills that will help them to access the resources and support they might need to enable their future performance in higher education and the workplace.
Top tips for supporting students with dyspraxia
- Don’t assume that strategies and approaches that work for one student with dyspraxia will work for another. While teenagers with dyspraxia share many underlying problems, each will have their own unique profile of strengths and difficulties.
- Involve students in identifying the strategies and supports that work for them. Teenagers are more likely to use equipment and learning aids that they have chosen themselves which is therefore more likely to enhance their academic performance.
- Equipment and support should be easily accessed or provided for a student without fuss. Teenagers with dyspraxia work very hard to fit in and do not want unnecessary attention drawn to their difficulties.
- If equipment such as a laptop is to be introduced, ensure that all staff know that it is to be used and why.
- Make arrangements for broken equipment to be replaced or repaired quickly.
- Teach students how to handle technical equipment such as woodwork tools and kitchen utensils. People with dyspraxia don’t learn by watching others; they need to experience activities for themselves.
- Acknowledge the effort students have applied to a task. Telling students to work harder when they have already done their best is unlikely to improve their motivation.
- Reinforce multi-step instructions in writing. The cognitive and motor effort required for students with dyspraxia to manage tasks may mean that they miss instructions and opportunities to learn and master activities.
- Help students with dyspraxia to identify a sport or physical activity that matches their ability. Participation in sports such as cycling and martial arts can continue into adulthood and can have long-term benefits for health and fitness.
According to the Dyspraxia Foundation, it’s the emotional aspects of the condition that often hit young adults the hardest, especially when they are trying to navigate the already tricky aspects of growing up, such as the transition to secondary school, friendships, bullying, leaving home and generally fending for themselves.
That’s why Dyspraxia Awareness Week will be focusing on teenagers. The results of an exclusive new survey of teenagers with dyspraxia and their parents will be released, to reveal exactly what dyspraxia means to them.
For more information, go to:
Sally Payne is Head Paediatric Occupational Therapist at the Heart of England Foundation NHS Trust and a Trustee of the charity the Dyspraxia Foundation:
A set of Secondary School Classroom Guidelines for students with dyspraxia is free to download from the Dyspraxia Foundation website. These include strategies to support students’ handwriting, social and organisational difficulties. Printed copies can also be ordered via the online shop: www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/dyspraxia-children/secondary-school-guidelines
Advice for teachers to consider before introducing a laptop for a student with dyspraxia can also be found on the charity’s website.