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Masters in Educational Practice: Child and adolescent development 0-19


Motor development


What are motor delay and disorder?

Most of us can think of something that we cannot do well. However, some people are unable to learn a basic skill that they need in order to function successfully at school. These individuals are likely to experience a specific learning difficulty (SpLD). One SpLD used to describe the symptoms of individuals who experience problems in organising their movement is known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD). Formal definitions emphasise that attainment in fine and gross motor skills should be substantially below what might be expected given the chronological age and cognitive abilities of the person, and those difficulties should interfere with daily activities (e.g. DSM–IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Within the typical population 4 to 5 per cent of mainstream primary school children present with deficits of motor coordination (Wright & Sugden, 1996). Although there remains little agreement as to how best to define the parameters of motor coordination difficulties in children, there is compelling evidence to suggest that there is often an overlap between developmental disorders (see Kirby & Sugden, 2007). It is also generally accepted that children with DCD do not simply ‘grow out of it’; their difficulties often persist into adolescence and adulthood with daily functional consequences, such as preparing a meal and learning to drive a car (e.g. Kirby, Sugden, Beveridge, & Edwards, 2008; Kirby, 2011).

In such instances, where motor development is considered atypical, a paediatrician would generally ensure that:

  1. the movement problems are not due to any other known physical, neurological or behavioural disorders, and
  2. more than one disorder is not present.

The characteristics of children with DCD, however, are usually noticed first by those closest to the child because their motor difficulties interfere with academic achievement and/or with activities of daily living (e.g. dressing, playground skills, handwriting). Children with DCD tend to have associated problems, including difficulty in processing visuospatial information needed to guide their motor actions and they may not be able to recall or plan complex motor activities such as:

  • dancing
  • catching or throwing a ball with accuracy
  • producing fluent legible handwriting.

Often there is a history of early delay in the development of motor skills. This may present as a delay in the ability to sit up or learning to walk. Often, these children are described as clumsy or forgetful (for example, they may never turn the water tap or lights off). These children may have difficulties using a cup, spoon or fork to eat. They may have the tendency to drop items or run into walls/furniture and have frequent accidents due to motor planning difficulties. They may have trouble with tasks requiring hand-eye coordination and dexterity (e.g. hammering a nail, connecting wires, etc.). These children may also have difficulty holding a pencil and learning to write. DCD can be extremely disabling particularly within school, as well as in everyday life. Children with this disorder are also at risk for associated health difficulties such as obesity, due to the higher rates of physical inactivity, and often suffer from low self-esteem as well as academic underachievement.

The characteristics described above have led researchers to believe that the coordination difficulties of children with DCD may lie not only in learning how to move their bodies but also in learning how to use strategies to problem-solve solutions to motor tasks. Because motor skills do not become automatic for these children, they must devote extra effort and attention to complete motor tasks, even those that have been previously learned. Qualitative and quantitative studies suggest that children with SpLDs like DCD experience emotional and educational consequences, including social exclusion, academic self-concept and academic motivation.


Find out:

  • In your school, who do you talk to if you are concerned about a learner with potential motor delay?
  • Does the school have visits from an occupational therapist or physiotherapist?
  • What resources or programmes are there to develop motor skills in your school?
  • See if there is a learner in your class who has some difficulties with motor skills, e.g. ball skills, dressing, writing, that may need some more intervention. 

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