Occupational Therapist Kim Griffin explores some of the aspects of dyspraxia that affect daily life.
Dyspraxia is a term used to describe the difficulty with planning and organisation some children and adults experience. Here, the term dyspraxia will be used interchangeably with the term Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). This is because dyspraxia itself isn’t a formally recognised medical diagnosis, whereas DCD is.
More than clumsiness
The term dyspraxia is often used to describe anyone who is a little clumsy, but there is more to dyspraxia than just a little clumsiness. Dyspraxic children (and adults) will also have difficulties with planning and organisation. This could include difficulty sequencing steps of tasks, poor organisation of belongings or difficulty structuring ideas onto a page for writing. Time management can be a challenge as this requires planning. Difficulties can lead to unwanted behaviours. Newer research also highlights the mental health impacts of dyspraxia, such as low self-esteem and lower confidence. The motor, cognitive and behavioural aspects of dyspraxia are often not sufficiently recognised and, as they can impact on many aspects of daily life, it is helpful to share strategies that can support.
Motor skill challenges
This is the area that most people are generally aware of when they think about dyspraxia. I’d like to give you two pieces of information that many people do not consider. Firstly, dyspraxic students have the most difficulty with new tasks. Once they are familiar with the task it is much easier for them to do it, as they know the steps. However, the first time they do a task, they need to plan how to do it which is harder.
Secondly, dyspraxic students have more difficulty generalising skills. Generalisation is the ability to use skills with different activities. For example, if you have played tennis, you can generalise the skills of holding the racquet and your knowledge of the rules of tennis to badminton. Yes, the two sports are different, but there are several similarities and skills you can use or generalise. Dyspraxic students may not automatically do this, so for them it’s like starting at the beginning again.
To support motor skill challenges, it is important to allow more time when the student is learning something new. Be explicit when showing the student the steps of the tasks, and include physical demonstrations to help their understanding. Remember the student might not automatically transfer skills from one activity to another, so you might need to explain to them how activities are similar.
A key challenge for dyspraxic people is organisation and planning. This could be planning the steps of a single task or organising the sequence of multiple tasks. Single tasks, like making a sandwich include a lot of different steps, all of which must be planned and executed in the right order. The child must also coordinate the physical movements, but before they move, they need to plan the steps. It’s the same with sequencing multiple tasks. Sometimes these might need to be done in order, at other times they just all need to be remembered and completed. Dyspraxic people may skip steps or do them in the wrong order which means they don’t achieve the desired outcome, or they arrive without things they need.
Checklists can be a helpful way to support activities that need to be completed every day, such as packing their school bag both for school and to go home. An activity list can help children who need support to remember what to do in lessons, this can be written on a whiteboard to help keep them on track. For individual tasks, it typically helps to physically demonstrate the task and give the child a bit more time to learn. If the child gets stuck and doesn’t know how to start, teaching them to ask for help is also a useful support.
Time keeping is an extension of organisation. Some dyspraxic people have a poor concept of time. This is sometimes due to difficulty estimating how long a task might take. Sometimes it might be a lack of attention to the time or becoming totally engrossed in an activity and not checking the time. At other times it is struggling to plan all the steps of the task and allowing sufficient time for them all. For example, if they are making dinner, but hadn’t brought the ingredients the day before, dinner may be late because they had not included time to go to the supermarket on the day.
One of the best supports for timekeeping in the 2020s is a phone or smart watch. You can set a variety of different alarms to remind you when to do things, including when you need to start getting dressed to leave and a five-minute timer. Smart speakers can also provide reminders and prompts for children (and adults) to help them be ready on time and even remember things like homework. It is also useful to get into the habit of being ready five or ten minutes before leaving time just to give a buffer.
Behaviour difficulties are not uncommon in dyspraxic children. Some children externalise their planning and organisational difficulties by acting out. They may avoid tasks, change the subject, or start an argument. Other children internalise their difficulties and may not start or continue with work. This means means they can be labelled as lazy or disengaged. It is important to keep an eye out for these children as they can easily be overlooked.
Difficulties with planning can sometimes be mistaken for inattention, particularly in nursery and reception classrooms. This is because children may not know how to get started with an activity, so they move to something else. The child might have great ideas, and engage well when talking, but could struggle to put their plans into action.
You can support children’s behaviour by remembering that the behaviour you see is driven by an underlying difficulty with planning. They are not being lazy. They find it much harder than others to complete the task you have set. You can set the child up for success using some of the strategies mentioned already. Finally, it’s also important to support the student’s self-esteem and confidence. Find an activity that they are good at to help bolster their self-esteem.