How can we help dyspraxic learners?
Every teacher is a teacher of SEN and all teaching and support staff should be trained and have awareness of quality teaching for students with SEN. That’s the ideal but the reality is that teachers will encounter children with needs they know very little about and training is very much ‘on the job’ supplemented by studying you do in your own time.
This blog is intended to help colleagues learn more about dyspraxia because in all likelihood you may have at least one dyspraxic child in your class – it can affect up to one in 20 children with boys four times as likely to be identified.
What is dyspraxia?
Unhelpfully, dyspraxia has been described as ‘clumsy child syndrome’ but at its simplest level dyspraxia is a specific learning difficulty with coordination and motor movement. It is not linked to intelligence but dyspraxia can also lead to difficulties with:
- Speech and language
- Learning to read and write
- Following instructions
- Organisational skills
There is no cure for dyspraxia and it isn’t a condition that children grow out of so dyspraxic children become dyspraxic adults.
A really helpful definition comes from Professor Amanda Kirby in the following video:
The Dyspraxia Foundation also provide a valuable definition:
Dyspraxia is a form of developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. It may also affect speech. DCD is a lifelong condition, formally recognised by international organisations including the World Health Organisation. DCD is distinct from other motor disorders such as cerebral palsy and stroke, and occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.
Children with dyspraxia frequently find the demands of school life hard to cope with. For example,
- They may have problems making and keeping friends.
- Awkward movements may be misconstrued as aggression.
- Their inability to follow instructions or carry out a task may be misinterpreted as idleness or naughtiness.
- Academic failure and embarrassment in physical activities and in the playground may lead to low self-esteem.
It is important to realise that a dyspraxic child can easily become the victim of bullying, ridicule and social isolation.
What causes dyspraxia?
No one knows. Dyspraxic children have no clinical neurological abnormality to explain their condition but it is probably the result of certain parts of the brain not developing properly or by an interference in the way messages from the brain are transmitted to the body.
Although dyspraxia cannot be ‘treated’, teachers can help children cope with the effects. A dyspraxic child at school might
- Have poor communication and be unable to speak clearly
- Have trouble finding the right word or words to use
- Speak in short sentences
- Have difficulty with grammar
- Have difficulty reading
- Read in a monotonous tone
- Have difficulty following or remembering instructions
- Have a short attention span
- Have trouble with maths
- Hold a pen or pencil awkwardly
- Write slow and laboriously
- Have poor scissor skills and difficulty cutting and sticking
- Fidget and be unable to sit still
A dyspraxic child will find PE and physical activities very challenging and will avoid them because they may
- Lose belongings
- Be very slow getting undressed and dressing
- Put footwear on the ‘wrong’ feet
- Be unable to carry out instructions
Dyspraxia is complex and some dyspraxic children only have some of the characteristics and problems above whereas others have all of them. Some children may have a few of the features described but not be dyspraxic.
As Alison Patrick says in her book The Dyspraxic Learner: Strategies for Success,
Dyspraxia is on a spectrum, so some learners will be more severely affected than others and dyspraxic individuals will tend to have a ‘cocktail’ of symptoms rather than a whole gamut of attributes. Each learner with dyspraxia is unique and effective strategies will vary between individuals.
10 practical tips for teaching dyspraxic children
As teachers we can do a lot to support basic skills and minimise the impact of problems associated with dyspraxia.
1. One thing at a time
Rather than give children a string of instructions, focus on giving just one instruction at a time. Two or more instructions can cause a dyspraxic child to get in a muddle.
All children benefit from having instructions and messages repeated and dyspraxic children in particular. Constantly check that children have understood what has been said and what they need to do.
Help children with ways to remember information by using lists and diaries so they can tick off things they do as they go.
4. Avoid comparisons
Never allow a dyspraxic child to be compared to an able child as this is disastrous. Don’t compare full stop!
5. Strategic placement
Dyspraxic children shouldn’t be placed in the thick of the action but away from distractions where they can easily focus on their teacher.
Applaud every effort and every accomplishment however small. Dyspraxic children will be used to repeated doses of failure so take every opportunity to boost their self-esteem and celebrate all successes.
Dyspraxic children will find it hard to absorb and interpret information so allow them plenty of time, teach in small bursts and chunk your time so they can achieve and rest.
9. One to one
When possible, try to teach on a personal one to one level and never remove them from a class for support as this will only stigmatise them. Remember that they will need extra help and supervision in practical subjects so encourage team work.
Make sure children are prepared in advance for any changes to established routines as without doing so will be stressful.
Meeting the needs of a dyspraxic child requires copious amounts of patience, understanding and skill. For further support there are a number of book resources you may find helpful and will boost your own knowledge and understanding of dyspraxia including
- Dyspraxia/DCD Pocketbook by Afroza Talukdar
- How to Understand and Support Children with Dyspraxia by Lois Addy
- 100 Ideas for Supporting Pupils with Dyspraxia and DCD by Amanda Kirby
- Can I Tell You about Dyspraxia?: A Guide for Friends, Family and Professionals by Maureen Boon
- Caged in Chaos: A Dyspraxic Guide to Breaking Free by Victoria Biggs
- That’s the Way I Think: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and ADHD Explained by David Grant
- Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia (SAGE Study Skills Series) by Sandra Hargreaves and Jamie Crabb
Classroom guidelines for teachers can also be found on the Dyspraxia Foundation website.
Just because a child has difficulties does not make that child ‘difficult’ and so it is essential to adopt a practical and healthy ‘can-do’ approach at all times.