Success is especially rewarding for the child with dyspraxia, says Shirley Bumstead
You would easily spot Charlie in a class of seven-year-olds. He's the one whose clothes have a mind of their own, and one side of his body apparently has little idea what the other is doing. He holds his head at an awkward angle and never quite looks you in the eye.
Charlie has dyspraxia, a motor dysfunction affecting learned patterns of movement. Its cause is thought to be an immaturity of the brain, resulting in messages not being properly transmitted to the body. It affects at least two per cent of the population in varying degrees. In the past, children with this condition were labelled as clumsy or thought to have poor co-ordination.
The child with dyspraxia (70 per cent of those affected are male) constantly has to monitor his body position. During assembly or carpet time, Charlie tries hard to control his body and remain still like everyone else, but the effort results in constant involuntary movements - fiddling with a shoelace or tapping his feet.
Balancing on the floor and not falling over his own feet is an achievement in itself. But in PE, Charlie is expected to climb and jump. He constantly pushes himself to accept new challenges. One day, he managed to jump from the highest gym table. He was delighted with this and his classmates were also very pleased for him.
People with dyspraxia may have speech difficulties. For Charlie, it is frustrating not to be able to express himself in a way that others can easily understand. He is particularly unfortunate in this respect, as many dyspraxic children do have good oral communication skills.
Poor spatial discrimination makes it difficult for him to analyse letter and word shapes, and to read along a line, especially if the type is small. He has difficulties with using a pencil - his writing is spidery and the letters ill-formed and illegible - and with keeping to lines on a page. Poor hand-eye co-ordination also affects his use of simple construction materials and tools.
People with dyspraxia tend to be very disorganised. They find it difficult to order their work or settle down to a task. Charlie finds it difficult to set out a page; the letters become jumbled and number work has no order. Another significant problem is sequencing work, as he has no clear picture of beginning, middle and end. Tenses are frequently mixed and there is little concept of time.
People with dyspraxia are also very forgetful. It is not unusual for a dyspraxic child to get lost between the classroom and the school office when sent on an errand. They may also have some auditory or visual memory impairment. Charlie needs much reinforcement when learning a new skill. It can be very frustrating that what was achieved one day cannot be repeated the next.
There are many ways in which the busy teacher can help a child with dyspraxia. Ensure the child sits near you: you can check that he knows what to do. Frequent reminders will probably be necessary to enable him to complete work successfully. Be specific in instructions and in what is required, in work and behaviour. Dyspraxic children lack self-awareness and can easily get into trouble because they fail to appreciate classroom parameters. They may get demoralised by the length of time it takes to complete a simple task, so break their work into manageable units. Try to avoid giving work that involves copying off the board.
Remember to praise for effort, as results may be disappointing. If possible, give the child a responsibility. This helps to maintain self-esteem.
Allow the dyspraxic child with poor handwriting to use a word processor. Charlie recently had to invite his parents to school for a special activity. He was justifiably proud of his word-processed letter, which reflected his intellectual ability rather than a physical problem.
Finally, keep a sense of humour. Children with dyspraxia often speak without thinking of the consequences. Patience and kindness will achieve far more than anger, and the joyous smile when Charlie gets it right is reward in itself for all the frustrations along the way.
For more information, visit the Dyspraxia Foundation website: www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk