Assisting a Dyspraxic Child

Dyspraxic children have difficulty in working out what is meant when an instruction is given. They do not necessarily have difficulty in following the verbal instruction, but cannot determine how the instruction is to be executed. The problem lies not in the auditory-language process of following the instruction, but in determining how they will actually fulfil the instruction.

A Dyspraxic child cannot always comprehend how to make their hands or their bodies do what is required. Often they may have a disturbed or inaccurate body scheme, or "internal picture" of their body and how it works. On seeing an unusual looking swing or climbing formation, the Dyspraxic child might not easily grasp how he can climb onto the swing or play on the jungle-gym. It is as though he can’t easily or automatically "see" the possibilities for fun and play on an unfamiliar piece of equipment.

Such children often ask to be shown "how". Their questions seem confusing to parents and teachers who may reply, "Go and find out", or, "Go and try for yourself".  This may be the correct approach if the child feels secure and has sufficient confidence to take the risk. For most Dyspraxic children, it confuses them still more and makes them feel more inadequate, since they probably don’t have a clue where or how to begin. For some children, this type of reply simply reinforces their feelings of inadequacy since they sense that the adult expects them to know what to do.

These children can be very confusing since they sometimes appear to be coping and managing perfectly, and yet at other times they appear to be completely incapable.  If you look at the situation more closely you will discover that the child copes well when he tackles known and familiar tasks. However, when he is faced with an unfamiliar task, he needs to formulate a whole new plan of action and this leaves him feeling very vulnerable as he does not easily know how to do this. Most of these children have poor self confidence, and such situations raise their anxiety level and result in feelings of inadequacy related to the task. The child can be assisted by demonstrating the task, and by giving step by step instructions. Keeping anxiety levels in check is most important.

Ideally, one would want the Dyspraxic child to work out for himself what he needs to do in various situations, rather than to tell him how to do it. By telling the child what to do, he then misses out on the experience of determining for himself what needs to be done. The Dyspraxic child, however, needs to be supported through the task as he cannot work it out independently for himself. One would then give assistance without doing all the thinking and planning for child, and without actually doing the task for him.

When Dyspraxic children are about to make a mistake, we tend to be very quick to stop them before they make the mistake. A better approach would be to ask the child to pause, and to tell you what is going to happen next. Help the child to see for himself what the consequence of his actions would be. For example, "I think the window could break if you do that". "Now let’s see, what if the ladder slips, where will it land if it slips? Yes and what would happen then?

By taking the child through the possible consequences of an action in this manner, you make him work out for himself how things work.

Very often, if Dyspraxic children are not given the opportunity to work out how things work for themselves, they simply follow your reasoning and do things your way without knowing why. This lack of understanding is often illustrated by the fact that many Dyspraxic children think that there is only one way to do certain tasks. They have learned one method, and they do not try another way as they assume that a recipe applies. A little boy once illustrated this very well when building a jigsaw puzzle. He looked up at me, randomly picked up a jigsaw puzzle piece, and asked, "Is this the right one to begin with?" He had no clue how to fit the pieces together, but knew that sometimes he was advised to do the edges first, or to start at the top and work his way down, etc. He assumed that like so many other things, which he found difficult to do, there must be some method that he had not yet learned or fathomed. This child adopted a stereotypical approach to many tasks as this worked for him. He coped with tasks, but seldom knew what to do if the task was changed slightly in any way.

Children who are Dyspraxic do not easily generalise their newly learned skills from one situation to another. This explains the reason why they may master a new skill in one situation, and may then struggle to perform the task if something minor changes. This is because they have learned a "recipe" or "method" without much understanding of the process. In order to help them to learn the process, the child needs to experience a wide variety of "doing tasks", and needs to be able to make mistakes and to work out how to correct them in a non-judgmental situation where no anxiety is experienced. When the child asks to be shown "how", you could reply, "I am here with you; let’s see if you can figure it out?"  "I suggest you start by...” This approach gives the child some structure and makes him feel supported, but still leaves him to experience the process. You could guide the child as he follows each sequence in the task, but still let him work it out.

Often Dyspraxic children may approach a new task in a most clumsy and disorganised manner. For example, when negotiating an obstacle course, it is as though they cannot easily feel where their arms and legs are, or cannot easily feel where the obstacles are in relation to their bodies. Their movements often lack fluidity and may be clumsy. As the task becomes more familiar and as they gain practice, they may quickly overcome this initial difficulty, and their difficulty may no longer be apparent. Activities that enhance the child’s tactile sensitivity offer a variety of textures, and in which involve several sensory modalities are of value. Sometimes feeling or listening without seeing can be fun. Hiding everyday objects in a bag of noodles, or in a box filled with fine sand for the child to feel for and identify while blindfolded can also be fun. The child could be encouraged to listen to the sounds of everyday objects while his back is turned to see if he can identify them. Use your imagination as there are many fun ways of enhancing sensory function. Care should however be taken to avoid overwhelming the child with too much sensory input.

These brief notes are intended to give some information on how Dyspraxic children might behave, and to try to explain how they might think or feel.