Dyspraxia, how it affects students and what adults can do to help
Dyspraxia affects around one in 20 young people to varying degrees.
Adolescence can often be a turbulent time but for many children with dyspraxia their school days are plagued by added difficulties and frustrations. This can lead to anxiety, anger or depression. Supportive adults can make a huge difference to their self-esteem and mental wellbeing.
What is dyspraxia?
Dyspraxia is a recognised specific learning difficulty. These are conditions which affect certain areas of learning in people who are of normal or high intelligence and perform well in other ways. A child who is born with dyspraxia will not outgrow it but coping strategies can be learned. Many children also benefit from regular physiotherapy sessions and, in some cases speech therapy. Dyspraxia varies in the severity of symptoms and every individual is different. Dyspraxia can also be referred to as “developmental coordination disorder” (DCD).
What are the symptoms of dyspraxia?
Problems with gross motor skills result in poor overall coordination, causing clumsiness and difficulty mastering skills such as riding a bicycle or catching a ball. Fine motor skills are usually affected as well, so tasks involving manipulation and finger control such as writing, dressing or using equipment can be extremely difficult.
Disorganisation is an integral part of dyspraxia but it often comes as a surprise to exasperated teachers and parents. Short-term memory problems, coupled with difficulties in forward planning, can result in a downward spiral of disorder and confusion.
Social and communication difficulties
Many people with dyspraxia find social communication difficult. They do not always pick up on inferred and implied meanings of speech or understand how to interpret body language, jokes, metaphors or sarcasm. They may also have very different interests and hobbies to their peer group and this can lead to friendship difficulties, especially in early adolescence.
Overlap with other specific learning difficulties
Some students with dyspraxia also have additional specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, or conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), but others may not. It is valuable, therefore, to get a full educational assessment to understand and address the student’s individual needs.
Upsides of dyspraxia
These young people are often unconventional, outside-the-box thinkers, so they can add a different perspective to discussions or project work. Relying on intuition rather than a methodical approach can lead to exciting new ideas and developments. They tend to be visual thinkers, where thoughts are conveyed primarily as pictures rather than words, so they can be creative with an aptitude for design and colour. Often, students with dyspraxia are eloquent and make good orators, actors or debaters. Generally, they are very honest and straightforward; they will have their own ideas and will not readily bend to follow the crowd.
How does dyspraxia impact on school life?
Dyspraxia affects all parts of these children’s lives and can have a huge impact on their wellbeing and progress.
Everyday activities can be more taxing due to poor coordination. Extra concentration is needed for tasks such as writing legibly, working with apparatus, carrying a tray of lunch, getting changed for games or participating in team sports. Mishaps are common and this can lead to extreme tiredness, embarrassment, teasing and low self-esteem.
At secondary school, students tend to move between lessons and arrive with their books and equipment.
Poor short-term memory means that they may forget instructions, fail to bring the correct equipment or books to lessons, arrive late, or get lost on the way. As a consequence, they are often in trouble with teachers for lateness, coming ill-equipped to lessons or for forgetting to hand in homework.
Planning larger pieces of work such as essays or coursework can also be very difficult for these students and they are likely to get behind and miss deadlines.
Free unstructured time outside lessons can be very stressful for students with dyspraxia. Problems can arise with peers and friendships meaning that many young people with dyspraxia can feel like they are on an emotional rollercoaster. A great deal of teenage kudos comes from body image and sporting prowess and so students can be laughed at, rebuffed or bullied. Feelings of depression and isolation are common.
How can adults help at school?
Teachers and classroom assistants who are supportive and solution orientated, rather than critical and judgmental, will make a big difference. Many students feel that they are not valued and that others perceive them as being stupid. It is important for teachers to make it clear that they have faith in the students’ ability, appreciate their intellect and value their contributions. Having open discussions about how to make things easier in class is really valuable.
The seating position in class can make a difference. Students with dyspraxia should ideally be at the end of a row rather than in the middle and near the front, where there is less distraction and the teacher can keep a subtle eye on progress.
Simple strategies such as having a more stable chair or the use of a writing slope may make recording easier. Adapted pen grips can help handwriting and modified equipment such as scissors or geometry sets are available. Non-spill containers can also be a bonus. Students may find concentration aided by having a stress ball in their pocket to fiddle with.
Using a computer can transform the work of students with dyspraxia, enabling them to produce material more closely reflecting their intelligence and ability. Some pupils may be eligible to use voice-to-text software. They may qualify for extra time in exams, the use of IT or having a scribe. Teachers should be aware of this and make allowances in tests and timed tasks.
Collaborative work can be challenging and it is generally better if teachers choose the group members and assign a specific role to each pupil. This helps to avoid or reduce conflict.
It is helpful if this is given early in the lesson, both in writing and verbally. Some schools put homework instructions on an intranet site where it can be found if the pupil forgets. Clear indications as to where and when it should be handed in are essential.
As being disorganised is part of having dyspraxia, students may need help and support on a daily basis to follow timetables and find their way around if the school is large. Keeping lockers or desks tidy is very difficult, so items are regularly lost. An adult can help to organise a locker but this will have to be repeated at frequent intervals.
Arranging notes in files also causes problems and should be checked regularly. Colour coding different subjects books and files with stickers can be helpful. If the doors of teaching rooms or shelves to hand in work are marked with the same colour, this makes it much easier as students link the subject to a colour.
Another easy way of averting problems is to have spare equipment in the teaching rooms, such as pens, pencils, rulers, calculators and text books. This also goes for games kit.
Similarly, exam stress can be defused by having a spare, fully equipped regulation pencil case or two in the school office so that a student can borrow one if they forget their own. This is a safety net and, in my experience, is rarely used, but it does reduce anxiety.
Fitness is important for keeping healthy and should be encouraged for all, but some students with dyspraxia really struggle and the whole PE experience can be miserable and humiliating. However, a few minor adjustments can ease the anguish. If these students can get changed for games slightly earlier, it reduces the crush and stress. The same is true at the end of the games lesson when they must change back.
Some uniform adaptations could be considered, depending on the school’s policy, for example, allowing trainers and school shoes with Velcro rather than laces or skirts and trousers with elasticated waists.
Games staff should choose the teams and playing positions to avoid the hurt of being the last to be picked.
Sometimes physiotherapy appointments or an individual exercise session can be timetabled in place of team sports.
As children get older it may be possible for them to do alternative sports such as swimming, running, keep fit, martial arts or dance.
Additional roles can sometimes be found to enable less sporty students to accompany the teams, perhaps as timekeepers, lines-people, scorers or the team photographer.
The pupil’s kit should be clearly named so it can be returned or put in a known and accessible place if it has been lost. School lost property offices are often only open at restricted times, adding to the problems and worry about lost kit.
Unstructured time at school
Students could be encouraged to go to hobby sessions in lunchtimes or to have a responsibility such as helping with younger children, or in one of the departments, depending on their interests. In time, they may wish to run their own society.
Above all, teachers should remember to be upbeat and positive and to reward success, originality of ideas, effort and progress.
How can adults help at home?
Ideally, home should be a sanctuary, a place in which to relax, unwind and regain a sense of balance and humour. Adolescence is a confusing time and these students are likely to be tired after school and they may be cross, anxious or upset. A calm and supportive approach from parents can help greatly.
Practical assistance with organisation is generally appreciated. A weekly timetable pinned near the door is useful. This enables students and parents to check what is needed each day and bags can be packed and ready the night before. Putting out school clothes for the morning also alleviates stress. Students should be encouraged to get up early, allowing time to eat breakfast before leaving for school.
Parent should put name tags on all school uniform and equipment so that it can be returned when lost.
It is best when parents work closely with the school as a partnership; having good communication with the form teacher, year head or SENCO can make a huge difference. Potential problems can then be picked up early, worries can be shared and successes can be celebrated. It is really important to keep the students’ self-esteem high and to find the things that they are good at and enjoy.
Both teachers and parents can work alongside adolescents to discover strategies to help them to learn and cope with their dyspraxia. It is important for all to maintain a sense of humour and perspective when things go wrong, which they will from time to time, and to focus on strengths and abilities. These young people can then begin to appreciate their own unique self-worth and have the opportunity to become confident and successful adults.
Diana Hudson runs inset training for teachers and mentors teenagers and adults with specific learning difficulties. She is the author of Specific Learning Difficulties: What Teachers Need to Know, published by Jessica Kingsley: