Making a difference

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Judith struggled with practical tasks until a diagnosis of dyspraxia made sense of her problems. Now a newly qualified teacher, she tells Biddy Passmore how she aims to use her experience to help children with learning difficulties using methods tailored to their needs.

Judith Campbell has just qualified to teach children with specific learning difficulties. She is proud of her achievement especially of the bright, well crafted resources she has made for her pupils. For Judith remembers all too well how, as a child, she struggled even to make a Magic Roundabout Dougal dog. "The toilet rolls came apart and the wool fell off," she says.

In fact, Judith as a little girl was "a bit of a disaster area". "I was always in trouble for talking, distracted and a bit slapdash," she says. "My socks were always down, my hair was always a mess and I was always falling over and gouging my knees tripping over my own feet."

Things were not much better on the schoolwork front. She had difficulty tracking text, making reading and writing a struggle and copying from the board a nightmare. After she had looked down to write, would she ever find the place again?

But at Judith's primary school in Bedfordshire during the 1970s, nobody had any idea she had a special problem. And her mother? "My mum thought I had difficulties I would grow out of," says Judith, who will be 40 next month.

Children who suffer from dyspraxia are often labelled lazy and even stupid. But developmental dyspraxia known in the US as "developmental coordination disorder" is not something you grow out of.

The condition, which is often found in bright children, is thought to affect up to 6 per cent of the population to some degree, and up to 2 per cent severely. Boys are four times more likely to be affected than girls. Current research suggests it is due to an immaturity of neurone development in the brain, which results in messages not being properly or fully transmitted.

Dyspraxia is rarely found on its own. "I've never seen a child with dyspraxia and nothing else," says Wendy Fidler, who chairs the Dyspraxia Foundation's education panel. "It is often accompanied by Asperger's syndrome an autistic spectrum disorder characterised by high ability and poor social skills.

"There are some easy indicators of dyspraxia: children are late in reaching developmental milestones and may not be able to run or hop." Difficulty with dressing and walking up and down stairs, hand-eye coordination and spatial judgement are classic signs, she says. Parents might notice the symptoms, but it can be some years before doctors or education professionals acknowledge it.

"There's a lot teachers can do to make their own classroom dyspraxic friendly," says Cathy Shuter, special needs coordinator at a primary school in Kent. "The room should be well-ordered and very clear, with visual timetables. And teachers should break things down into small steps. If you say, 'Get your lunchbox and coat and book-bag, and then go and stand by the door,' many children especially dyspraxic ones will forget one or two things. You have to break it down."

Matthew Boyle was diagnosed with dyspraxia aged eight, after he had stormed out of the class at his Cheshire primary school in protest at having to do any more hated writing.

"I just walked out, sat somewhere and cried," he says. "Some teachers saw me, my parents looked into it and I got a diagnosis."

As he was such an obviously bright boy, Matthew's teachers were slow to agree there was a problem. They pointed out he was the youngest in his year he was born on August 28 and could not be measured against the rest. Even after the diagnosis, his parents had to lobby hard to win extra support. Eventually, a teaching assistant helped him with writing three times a week and he was allowed extra time and larger paper for his Sats. He scored three level 5s at key stage 2.

Now in Year 11 at Hulme Hall School in Cheadle Hulme, he is doing well with the help of a laptop and a strict daily routine, and hopes to take a degree in science.

For Judith Campbell, diagnosis came much later at 26 after she had come a cropper in her A-levels and failed at several jobs. She was referred to a psychologist after the birth of her first son and given occupational therapy. She learnt a step-by-step approach to woodwork and cookery, and became a teaching assistant specialising in motor skills.

Now, with her new teaching certificate, she is determined to teach children in a multi-sensory way, not by the chalk-and-talk method which made her early life such a misery

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