Does your dyspraxic child take an age to get dressed, and always remember a key piece of equipment needed just as you arrive at the school gates? Occupational therapist Rosie Gibbons offers some top tips to ease your way through the school day.
Children with dyspraxia have difficulty co-ordinating their body movements (motor control). This means that they have to work harder than their classmates to complete everyday academic and self-care/independence skills. Sometimes this is easily observed by teachers and parents as the child struggles to keep up with the lesson and is generally disorganised.
However, children often develop their own coping strategies, for example, engaging adults/peers in conversation to avoid getting started on a task, or simply working so hard during the school day that they are exhausted by home time.
Schools and parents can help dyspraxic children to identify and incorporate positive (rather than negative/avoidance) strategies to maximise engagement and self-esteem, whilst minimising fatigue. Here are some ideas to try:
- Lay out clothes the evening before, in the right order (eg underwear on top of the pile)
- To develop independence, talk through what they need, which drawer to look in, what is clean/dirty
- Ensure clothes have easy fastenings (elasticated trouser waistbands, polo shirts rather than button down shirts, velcro behind the top button, larger buttons)
- Make sure that the clothes tag is at the back when dressing
- Use socks with coloured heels and toes, to help get them the right way around
- Use fabric conditioner so that socks are stretchy and easier to put on
- Avoid shoes with laces until your child is confident; use shoes with velcro or try curly elastic ‘no-tie’ shoelaces
- Place a small red dot or sticker inside the right-hand shoe to help identify left and right
- Look in a mirror to brush hair/teeth/wash face, check appearance before leaving the house
- Practice general dressing skills such as buttons and laces at the weekends when there isn’t a time pressure
- Use a rucksack with easily grasped zips and separate sections for snacks, pencils etc.
- Plan what books/equipment are needed for the next day. Take out any unnecessary items.
- A clear pencil case makes it easier to locate the item needed
- Place shoes, coat and school/PE bags ready by the door
- Follow the same morning and afternoon routines where possible
- Make sure the school timetable is uncluttered. Use highlighter pens to make it easier to read
- Keep desk/workspace clear and uncluttered. Identify the equipment needed for a task and tidy away afterwards (a checklist can sometimes be helpful)
- Have a set time and quiet area for completing homework
- Practice little and often when developing handwriting skills. Five minutes daily is more effective and motivating than a longer session once a week
- Use a hand warm-up exercise before starting and have regular hand breaks
- Use a checklist for handwriting tasks to encourage self-monitoring, eg: Capital letter at the beginning of the sentence, space between each word, letters on the line, full stop at the end of the sentence, all words written legibly
- Consider using a laptop to record longer pieces of work if handwriting is tiring
- Practice cutlery skills at home to gain confidence; using the knife and fork together is a complex skill.
- Place a piece of non-slip Dycem mat under the plate to stop it moving whilst cutting food
- Practice carrying the plate and cutlery from the table to the sink/dishwasher at home, in preparation for moving across the busy school dining room
- Noise in the dining room can be overwhelming; sitting at one end of the table facing towards the serving area can reduce anxiety
- Self-check that face is clean using a mirror after eating
Sports and PE
- Children with dyspraxia may avoid physical activities; being active and practicing physical skills with a ‘just right challenge’ is essential to develop motor skills
- Grade elements of the activity to make it easier to start off with; practice the individual skill elements of a game, then introduce the rules of the game, starting with easier options (eg rounders with a larger, softer ball) before making it more challenging
- When playing ball games stand close together to start off with and gradually throw/catch over longer distances.
- Large, soft balls are easier to catch than small, hard balls.
Promoting success and independence
- Break down tasks into small, achievable steps.
- Use backwards chaining to help children learn new tasks; for example, adult completes the task up until the last stage, which the child completes. When this has been mastered, the child practices the last two stages and so on.
- Make sure that effort is valued and praised as well as overall achievement
Rest and recuperation
- After school, children with dyspraxia may be more tired than their peers. Help your child to listen to their body and rest when needed, and build in daily relaxation/down time after school each day
- A healthy snack and drink after school can help to stabilise blood sugar levels
- Break homework time into short sessions, rather than one long block
Rosie Gibbons is a paediatric occupational therapist. Contact her at RosieOTforchildren@gmail.com