Help at hand for dyspraxic pupils who suffer

24th October 2008 at 01:00
New tests designed to help identify pupils with movement disorder

Sitting an exam is stressful enough for most pupils. But for those who struggle to hold a pencil, it is an almost insurmountable task.

To support these pupils, academics from Oxford Brookes University and the Institute of Education have developed a new set of tests. These help teachers to identify children with dyspraxia, a developmental disorder affecting movement and coordination.

Dyspraxia, more correctly referred to as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), affects approximately 5 per cent of pupils, or one to two in every class. Linked to dyslexia and ADHD, its exact causes are unknown: some academics believe it is genetic, while others say it is linked to premature birth.

But its effect on children is significant. Sheila Henderson, of the Institute of Education, has spent years researching the condition. "The defining feature is that these children are bright," she said.

"They have the cognitive ability to develop normally. But in the movement domain, they are much, much less coordinated than you would expect."

Primary-aged children with DCD often avoid playing with jigsaws or manual puzzles. They find it difficult to hold a knife and fork, and tend to eat messily.

They find the games that other children play also almost impossible. They lack the coordination to play football, or ride a bicycle, and would find it difficult even to hop. Most will climb one stair at a time, putting both feet on each stair before moving on to the next.

While it is increasingly common for children to arrive at school unable to dress themselves, most can be taught this skill in one or two days. "You might spend weeks teaching children with DCD and they still wouldn't be able to do up buttons," Professor Henderson said.

"They'll put socks and shoes on the wrong feet. And they can't put their trousers on, because they can't stand on one leg."

Their handwriting suffers. At four, children with DCD struggle to hold a pencil, and their drawings are noticeably immature. "Sometimes these children have horrendous problems with handwriting," Professor Henderson said.

"At the top of primary, this is a major issue. These kids simply cannot write fast enough or fluently enough to do the things that are required in class."

Many are unable to write down homework, as the teacher says it. And Professor Henderson spoke of children with IQs of 140 who produce only three lines of work when challenged to write an essay. "These children are not prepared properly for secondary school," she said.

Working with Anna Barnett, senior lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes University, Professor Henderson developed the new test to help ensure that DCD pupils receive the support that they need.

Pupils sit five separate tests, which teachers can administer, including creative writing and copying text at speed. A movement test looks at manual dexterity, ball skills and balance.

"There's been increased awareness of the condition in the last five years," Dr Barnett said, "so people are becoming aware that a lot of older children have been missed."

DCD often occurs together with other, linked conditions, such as dyslexia or ADHD. The new tests compare any results against those of more than 1,000 pupils nationally, so that relative degrees of dyslexia and DCD can be identified.

"We usually find that support or intervention is helpful," Dr Barnett said. "But these are persistent difficulties. So we're looking at how to support people and help them to cope, rather than how to overcome them completely."

www.action.org.uk

For information on training and courses about DCD, see: www.nha- handwriting.org.uk.

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