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Schools can do this themselves

Paediatrician Frances Ross believes motor skills programmes can deliver significant learning benefits to children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit and autistic disorders, though there is no accepted scientific explanation for why it works.

Physical co-ordination exercises focused on improving fine and gross motor skills date back to the 1970s and the work of the American occupational therapist Jean Ayres on sensory integration.

Her theories were taken up by occupational therapists in the UK, including Mandy Adamson, an occupational therapist at Edinburgh's Western General Hospital and member of the Edinburgh Additional Support for Learning health team. However, Dr Ross, feels they did not receive the recognition they were due from the medical community.

The theory, in simple terms, is that problems in developmental co-ordination disorders, attention deficit and some forms of autism stem from inputs from parts of the brain not travelling through various sensory areas properly. Dr Ross compares the effect to "a fuzzy picture on the television" and explains that motor skills programmes are trying to retrain parts of the brain.

It is generally accepted that if a child has a motor skill difficulty, then practising physical co-ordination routines will help. More controversial is the idea that juggling bean-bags or balancing on a beam or threading holes on a picture card may also improve learning, handwriting and concentration.

"Getting someone to twirl around one way and then the other to improve their reading is controversial," she says, "but I have seen children who have done these things and their reading has definitely improved.

"Whether that is a direct result of stimulating the brain or there is a placebo effect is still not clear. The power of the mind is extraordinary."

Most would acknowledge that when it comes to learning, confidence has a huge part to play, and teachers and other practitioners involved in motor skills groups attest to the boost they give to children's confidence and self-esteem.

Some private clinics charge up to pound;2,500 a year for a motor skills programme. However, Dr Ross believes there are other routes open to parents, including brain gyms run in schools and home-based programmes.

She knows that it can be difficult for parents to achieve the necessary compliance from children to carry out repetitive, twice-daily exercises month after month. For that reason, it is better if the programmes can be done at school.

However, to get good results, she says: "The schools have to have a hugely dedicated teacher who understands what it is about and who is prepared to put their heart and soul into it, encourage the kids and motivate them."

She praises the teachers at Perth Grammar who have led the way in introducing motor skills groups, evaluated the programmes and produced a video about their work, but she is concerned that the impetus to adopt the programmes across Scotland is still not great enough.

"I attend meetings of the Dyspraxia Foundation and hear about kids who are failing and it breaks your heart. If we could get that (programme) into every secondary school and the equivalent of it in primary it would be magic," she says.

The earlier programmes can be introduced, the better, she says. "Every bit of research will show that if you can get it at the beginning, you can prevent problems, particularly with dyspraxia.

"Sometimes it's not diagnosed until P3 because there is a feeling that the child might just be a slow developer. But if you get the help going early, there may not be a need to label the child and you may get in before behavioural problems and lack of self-esteem kick in."

There are now several initiatives going on around Scotland. Some are linked to the Additional Support for Learning Act and some are an extension of motor skills work already in practice.

Kirsty Forsyth, at the school of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh, is leading a research project looking at best practice in the development of occupational therapy and speech and language therapy to support the implementation of the Act.

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