Joanne Riordan, who is dyspraxic herself, on supporting dyspraxia in the classroom.
By its very name, developmental coordination disorder makes us focus on someone’s physical motor coordination needs, and how to support these. Common areas for support include handwriting, ball skills and PE. The impact of this learning difference for the one in twenty dyspraxic learners in the classroom reaches far beyond coordination, and it’s important not to be guided by the diagnostic label or over-focus on coordination. Instead, we need to explore each young person’s unique strengths and difficulties, and what kind of support will help them thrive.
I am a dyspraxic Educational Psychologist specialising in neurodiversity. In line with the neurodiversity paradigm, I use the term dyspraxia when referring to this learning difference, but the diagnostic term used medically is still often developmental coordination disorder. I use this language shift because I am focusing on it as a learning difference (with strengths and neutral aspects, as well as difficulties), as opposed to a disorder. Also, I would argue that the term developmental coordination disorder has led us to overly focus on physical coordination aspects of this developmental difference. When I was younger, yes I would trip over more often than typical, and to this day I type with one index finger (as I am doing right now, typing this). But these coordination difficulties were the least of my issues when at school. Dyspraxia impacts on many aspects of functioning.
Below are five other areas beyond motor coordination that we should assess and support for dyspraxic learners.
At school, one thing that frustrated me more than most tasks was copying from the board. To this day I cannot write down a phone number being said to me, unless one digit is given at a time. Dyspraxia is known to impact on executive functioning, the ability to prioritise and switch between tasks, and plan and carry out individual tasks. Dyspraxia impacts on executive functioning skills, and research consistently finds that dyspraxic learners often have issues with planning tasks and working memory. This means that we need to be exploring executive functioning strengths and needs for our dyspraxic learners, and making accommodations as necessary. Structure, structure, and more structure often helps—from checklists to writing frames.
It can be stressful and anxiety-provoking to be dyspraxic in school. In common with other neurodivergent learners there is a higher incidence of mental health needs among dyspraxic young people. I would argue that a contributing factor is that our society and schools are not designed in a way that best suits the dyspraxic way of learning and experiencing the world, instead (often unintentionally) favouring the majority of learners and staff who are neurotypical. Dyspraxic children are much more likely to show depressive symptoms and also more likely to show anxiety than neurotypical peers. We need to be actively supporting the mental health of our dyspraxic learners and making accommodations around all their needs, to ensure they are more relaxed at school. Useful strategies to target mental health can include regular whole class mindfulness activities, strong and nurturing relationships with adults who can co-regulate emotions (allow the young person to borrow your calm), and building understanding and acceptance of dyspraxia and neurodiversity across the school community.
When visiting schools as part of my work, I still feel sick and find it hard to concentrate if I have to sit in on a noisy practical music lesson (no matter how lovely it sounds). I recently had an eight year-old dyspraxic child tell me that she was terrified of the busy playground. Many dyspraxic young people have sensory processing differences. Aspects of the school environment may feel too loud, bright, or noisy. There may be sensory issues with the uniform, or the food in the canteen. We need to be exploring the young person’s unique sensory preferences, and making adjustments to support these needs. Adjustments also include acceptance of sensory seeking behaviours that are used to regulate an individual, such as fidgeting.
Dyspraxic learners can absolutely make progress, but there are likely to be barriers and difficulties throughout life due to it being a different way of processing and experiencing the world. Therefore, we need to be teaching our dyspraxic learners how to advocate for their needs and accommodations now, so they can also effectively do this in future settings and into adulthood. It is important that we seek their views on the support they find useful at school, and then explain to them how we have acted on this information, so we model that their views are important and respected. This then builds their confidence in future self-advocacy.
As I would hope all educators would agree, all our learners have strengths. One of our jobs is to help learners find and recognise these strengths. Many aspects of school can be challenging for dyspraxic learners. So it is important that we plan activities and opportunities that allow our dyspraxic learners to utilise and showcase their strengths. Like all young people, our dyspraxic learners are unique and have unique strengths. Some common dyspraxic strengths to look out for though include being determined, being caring, lots of creative thinking, and strong problem-solving skills.
Dr Joanne Riordan is an Educational Psychologist and Neurodiversity Specialist. She is Director of Dr Joanne Ltd and supports the learning, emotional, and social development of children and young people from infancy to 18.