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Exercises for the body and brain

Physical co-ordination exercises not only help children with motor skill difficulties but also seem to improve reading, handwriting and concentration. Elizabeth Buie reports on some remarkable work being explored in Perth.

Can a programme of physical exercises as varied as balancing on a low beam or flipping counters at a target improve the confidence, behaviour and co-ordination of pupils with problems such as dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

Motor skills programmes which Perth Grammar teachers Dave McCaw and Brigid Duthie started in 2000 have been evaluated and in many cases results have shown significant improvements in self-confidence, challenging behaviour, handwriting and physical co-ordination.

In the six years since the programme started, Mr McCaw and Mrs Duthie's work has been picked up by several schools in Perth and Kinross and other authorities. They have also been supported by the occupational therapy department at Perth Royal Infirmary and had funding from the Scottish Support for Learning Association.

Mr McCaw, now the acting depute rector, was a physical eduction teacher and principal teacher of guidance when he set up the pilot with Mrs Duthie, the principal teacher of learning support. He had been impressed by a training course on motor skills given by Madeleine Portwood, an educational psychologist in County Durham. He started with group work in 1998, but decided in 2000 that individual programmes might be more effective for pupils with obvious developmental co-ordination problems.

"I recognised there was a huge untapped area here," he says. "We were not doing any harm working in groups but, in terms of identifying the needs of kids, we felt we should tailor programmes specifically for them."

The pilot project focused on four pupils, whom the teachers assessed using a motor skills analysis technique before and after the six-week programme.

This was recorded on video and detailed notes were taken.

The screening assessed 10 aspects of gross and fine motor skills, balance and motor planning. The observers were looking for greater control in the children's movement, associated movement, such as fingers curled out or flailing arms, relaxation or tension, and distracting movements, such as head scratching.

The pupils were assessed on their ability to walk on their toes, on their heels, on the insides and outsides of their feet, finger recognition, finger sequencing, wrist rotation, to balance on one foot, to touch their nose and two-foot jumping.

At the end of the six weeks, the teachers wrote: "The clear recognition by the pupils that they were achieving on a daily basis, allied to the significant improvement in motor skills, contributed to their rising self-esteem and higher level of achievement in school. Long-term, we would hope to see greater access to the curriculum and higher levels of attainment."

As part of the pilot, questionnaires were issued to the pupils, their parents and their teachers in maths, home economics, English, technical studies, music, PE and art and design, asking them to rate the difficulty they had in performing gross and fine motor skills, organisation and planning, self-esteem, behaviour and concentration.

Among the comments, one parent said: "He has spent most of the Christmas holidays building and painting models, which he has done very well."

Another boy's parents said: "He has more staying power on homework tasks."

The boy's teachers said: "He is feeling more self-confident and positive about himself" and "He is less self-effacing."

A third boy's parents said: "A while ago you wouldn't let him make coffee, he was all fingers and thumbs, but now he is managing."

The boy said: "As a bonus I haven't had as much temper shortages as I normally would have had in the old days."

Teachers of the fourth boy said: "He is not going over and over the same letter when writing."

Overall, the teachers found that all four pupils demonstrated a greater degree of control in their handwriting and increased awareness of what they could achieve with due care and attention.

They added: "The biggest impact on pupils from the initial project has been to raise self-esteem, and we recognise that many of the current pupils with low self-esteem could therefore benefit from such a programme."

Ms Portwood, who had inspired Mr McCaw to embark on the programme, reported in her research: "Many pupils with developmental co-ordination disorder often exhibit behaviour problems, low self-esteem and poor handwriting, concentration and organisational skills. The intervention programme provides a vehicle to improve performance and to raise attainment across a broad spectrum of pupils."

Since the Perth Grammar project was evaluated in 2001, the programme has been refined to allow two groups of 20 pupils to take part each year. This is only possible because senior pupils have been recruited to supervise younger ones, with Mr McCaw and Mrs Duthie taking overall charge, producing the individual programmes, setting targets and carrying out the assessments.

Mr McCaw says the results are not just about improving pupils' attainment in reading and writing; they are also about giving greater confidence and making them better prepared for life. "We believe that is part of what we are about," he says.

At Perth High, the principal teacher of PE, Irene Findlay, has adopted the same methodology, assisted by Linsey Waddell, a support for learning assistant, and 10 senior pupils who are interested in PE or working with people when they leave school.

The S1 and S2 pupils Ms Findlay works with have various difficulties. Some are dyslexic, some have records of needs because of their family background, a couple have had Asperger's syndrome and two are verging on dyspraxia. She says she doesn't look at the reason for their referral to her (either from their primary school, record of needs meetings, or class teachers); she just concentrates on what needs to be worked on. She doesn't want the senior pupils to label the pupils.

"Some have missed out developmental stages when they were very young and some are on the verge of the autistic spectrum, which means they may have missed out logical processes.

"For the majority, the aim is to improve their self-esteem and their confidence in their own ability. A lot of these youngsters tend to be isolates; they don't have a big social peer group. This programme gives them a context in which they can achieve. They get attention and achieve success for themselves," she says.

Mrs Findlay uses her PE knowledge to set up the individual programmes, following the Perth Grammar guidelines. She works with four or five pupils at a time - any more would provide too many distractions - during her free periods, taking the children out of classes for about 20 minutes a session.

"We used to do it before school or at lunchtimes, but people would forget to come or would be late, We were not having sustainability,"

she says.

Mrs Findlay also runs a lunchtime club to develop team skills; the pupils with motor skills problems are encouraged to bring along a friend.

"My interest in this came about because I had a boy in my Higher PE class who was dyspraxic. He never got full marks because there was this delay in his performance.

"My view is that if you, as a classroom teacher, are aware of the children's needs, you can deal with them just slightly differently and recognise when they need attention," she says.

For a copy of The Individual Motor Skills Programme pack, write to Brigid Duthie, principal teacher of support for learning, Perth Grammar, Gowans Terrace, Perth PH1 5AZ


Gross motor skills

* Throw the small yellow sponge ball into a box which is 4m away. Stand with the left foot forward and throw with the right hand. Then swop over.

It is only a succcess if the ball goes straight into the box.

Target: 6 out of 10 for each hand with few stops in between each throw.

* Walk heel to toe along a low beam, such as an upturned bench. Do this forwards and then backwards while balancing an egg on a spoon.

Target: no errors

* Walk across five balance domes while balancing an egg on a spoon. Do this three times.

Target: no errors

Fine motor skills

* Using your right hand, stack as many cubes as possible in a tower.

Target: no talking during this task; reduce errors each day.

* Stand anywhere and attempt to shoot 10 baskets with a basketball. It is a success if it goes through the hoop or touches the top of the ring.

Target: 5 out of 10

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