Sally Payne provides useful advice on how to help children with dyspraxia get ready for the move to secondary school
Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), is a common condition affecting gross and fine motor coordination in children and adults. Around five per cent of school-aged children are affected, making dyspraxia one of the most common developmental disorders of childhood. The typical age at which children are referred to health professionals for help with their movement difficulties is seven to eight years, but parents will usually have noticed differences in their child’s development from an early age. Teaching staff play a key role in identifying children with movement difficulties (and making onward referrals for those who require further specialist assessment) and providing support and adjustments to ensure that children with the condition reach their personal and academic potential.
Poor fine and gross motor skills are the main features of dyspraxia, but there is growing evidence that non-motor difficulties, poor planning, and organisation and attention difficulties are also common. People with dyspraxia often have difficulty remembering and following instructions, especially those that include a physical action such as writing or moving from one place to another. Maintaining focus, especially in a busy classroom and when a task is physically or mentally challenging, is also difficult. This can leave children feeling anxious, frustrated or confused when they are unable to complete a task as intended.
Dyspraxia was once considered a disorder of childhood, but it is now recognised that difficulties continue into adolescence and adulthood in many cases. Research also indicates the high risk of significant, secondary consequences for physical and emotional health. It is vital therefore, that systems are in place to identify children who may have dyspraxia and that early support is provided to build motor and non-motor skills and a positive sense of self-worth.
The transition from primary to secondary school can be particularly challenging for young people with dyspraxia as new environments and activities are encountered and expectations of a student’s ability to organise themselves and their equipment increase. Pupils with dyspraxia in years 5 and 6 will therefore benefit from support to develop skills and strategies before they transition to secondary school. Pupils in years 7 and 8 will also require monitoring to ensure they have the skills and strategies to be successful at secondary school.
Developing and maintaining motor skills
Dyspraxia affects large body movements such as balance, posture and the ability to run, skip, jump and keep up with peers. People with dyspraxia often avoid physical activities because they lack physical skills and/or worry about drawing attention to their difficulties; however, lack of engagement in physical activity limits opportunities for people with dyspraxia to practice and develop their movement skills and can have long-term implications for cardio-respiratory fitness and weight gain. It is important therefore, to help young people with dyspraxia develop their fundamental motor skills and to identify physical activities in which they can be successful.
School-based motor skills programmes are a practical way to help primary school children develop their fitness, gross motor skills and stamina. These are often recommended and supported by occupational therapists or physiotherapists and delivered by school staff. Several shorter (20 minute) sessions are better than a longer session once a week and challenging pupils to practice outside the sessions will lead to greater improvement in their motor skills. The need to develop and maintain gross motor skills continues in adolescence but withdrawing pupils for motor-skills sessions is less appropriate at this age. Instead, students should be given opportunities to participate in physical activities that develop balance, stamina and core strength which they might continue outside school, for example swimming, cycling, using the multi-gym and climbing. Confidence and participation in physical activities is optimised during activities in which the individual moves but the environment remains relatively static.
Managing practical tasks
Poor handwriting is a common feature of dyspraxia and it is frustrating for young people, parents and teachers when pupils are unable to effectively demonstrate their learning on paper. Primary school children should be given every opportunity to develop a functional pencil grip and the dexterity to reproduce letters correctly, fluently and consistently. Teaching touch-typing (alongside handwriting) to pupils in years 5 and 6 who continue to demonstrate poor handwriting (quality and quantity) and providing opportunities for pupils to type (rather than handwrite) some of their work will help maintain their self-esteem and confidence in learning whilst developing a useful life skill. Teaching typing at primary school will ensure typing is a viable alternative to handwriting to help students manage the increase in written demands at secondary school if required. When typing is agreed as an appropriate reasonable adjustment, discussions should be held with the pupil’s subject teachers to ensure the student is able to use their laptop in class and that arrangements are in place for storing and printing work.
Young people will encounter new subjects, tools and equipment when they reach secondary school. People with dyspraxia really struggle to master new motor tasks under pressure and in busy environments, so pre-teaching practical skills before pupils make the transition to secondary school can be very helpful. Primary teachers should work with parents to find opportunities for pupils to practice:
- pouring and measuring liquids accurately
- holding a ruler steady to draw geometric shapes and a compass to draw circles
- using kitchen equipment such as a tin opener, cheese grater and vegetable peeler
- handling a saw and using a clamp to steady equipment.
One of the most challenging aspects of secondary school for students with dyspraxia is the need to read a timetable and organise their equipment. Timetables are often presented visually at primary school for one day at a time, so to help manage the transition to secondary school, weekly timetables might be introduced towards the end of Year 6. Pupils with dyspraxia often find it easier if lessons are colour-coded, and if the subject colour matches that of their exercise book, that will also help ensure they have the correct books for their lessons.
Remembering and organising equipment is a real challenge for pupils with dyspraxia and many young people benefit from writing and referring to an equipment checklist to make sure they have the correct equipment at the start and end of the school day. This strategy could be useful at secondary school too (checklists and reminders might be held on a mobile phone at this age). Pupils with dyspraxia will also benefit from practice filing papers into a folder (practising when not under time pressure will be helpful) and packing equipment into their bag at the end of a lesson.
Students with dyspraxia often struggle to organise their thoughts and ideas for written work. Mind-mapping tools can be very helpful, but as different tools and approaches work for different people, a pupil may need to try a few alternatives before identifying the ones that work best for them. Students who have identified the right tool for them and who have experienced using these whilst at primary school will have an advantage when they make the transition to secondary education.
Developing self-advocacy skills
Although the pattern of challenges changes over time, dyspraxia is a life-long condition. One of the most useful things that staff at primary school can do is to help pupils with dyspraxia understand and articulate their own strengths and difficulties and identify the tools and strategies that work for them. Supporting young people to know when to ask for help and who to approach to help them access the adjustments they need to be successful is a life-skill that will be useful at secondary school, in higher education and in employment. Feeling understood and empowered and having a positive sense of agency will also support students’ mental health and wellbeing; this is particularly important for young people with dyspraxia who are at greater risk of anxiety and depression in adolescence compared to their peers.
The transition to secondary school is challenging for all pupils, but especially for those with additional needs. Motor and organisational difficulties mean that students with dyspraxia are likely to struggle with the increased pace and volume of written work, handling new equipment in unfamiliar and busy environments, and organising themselves and their equipment. Planning ahead and helping students with dyspraxia to practice and develop relevant skills and strategies before they move to secondary school will alleviate some of their anxieties and ensure a successful transition.
Preparing pupils for secondary school – key recommendations:
- develop physical skills and stamina through participation in a motor skills group at primary school
- teach typing as a parallel skill so that this is a viable alternative to handwriting if required
- enable pupils to practice handling “new” tools and equipment (for example, for technology and science) and filing paper/organising equipment whilst not under time pressure
- identify suitable mind-mapping tools and encourage students to practice using them
- promote self-advocacy by encouraging pupils to identify and articulate the tools and strategies that work for them.
Dr Sally Payne is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. She is also a Trustee of the Dyspraxia Foundation:
A range of guidelines for early years, primary and secondary school, and for further and higher education settings, is produced by the Dyspraxia Foundation and available for free to download on their website.