In this post, we provide a detailed review of different approaches to tutoring dyspraxic children, along with the pros and cons of each approach.
Related article: The Complete Guide to Dyspraxia
Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyspraxia
The advice is based on our decades of experience tutoring neurodiverse students with dyspraxia, ASD (Autism/Aspergers), dyslexia and ADD/ADHD.
In this article, we will cover:
- Traditional approaches to tutoring dyspraxics (and why they often fail)
- The right way to tutor dyspraxics
Let’s break those down…
Traditional Approaches to Tutoring Dyspraxics
Traditional approaches to tutoring dyspraxic children focus on two things:
- Repetitive practice of motor skills
- Procedural training
Repetitive Practice of Motor Skills
As dyspraxics have challenges with motor skills, it makes sense to have them practice motor skills so that they can improve.
That seems like a no-brainer.
BUT, the kind of motor skills practiced makes a big difference.
Research has shown that practicing specific skills improves performance:
Practice tying your shoes and you learn how to tie your shoes.
Practice catching a ball and you get better at catching a ball.
Practice handwriting drills and your handwriting improves.
But research also shows that these skills are not transferable. Practicing one thing does not lead to improved performance on other tasks.
That leads to an awfully long list of skills to practice, with only incremental results over time.
It’s exhausting for your child and for you.
There is a better solution – practicing neurodevelopmental movements, which give your child new skills they can use in any situation. We’ll get into that a little later on.
Dyspraxics tend to have problems with organizational skills and following procedures.
So, it can be very helpful for them to learn and follow tightly defined procedures.
Accordingly, many dyspraxia tutors focus on teaching their students procedural rules. They break down tasks into simple procedural steps, and teach their students to follow those steps.
But if this is all the dyspraxia tutor does, the student can end up being able to follow the rules, but not understanding why the rules are important and what they mean.
And in fact, dyspraxics often learn best by grasping abstract concepts first and then figuring out the procedures second.
Without the abstract concepts, they may be able to follow the rules, but they’ll always feel lost.
Without the backdrop of understanding the concepts, they always have to rely on their tutors to teach them rules and procedures.
This can lead to learned helplessness. They can come to believe that they cannot figure it out on their own, so someone else has to show them.
With that learned helplessness, the list of procedures that others have to teach them is very long.
Now, here’s the good news…
It turns out that dyspraxics have a gift for learning. It’s just the reverse of how most other people figure things out. They need to get an intuitive understanding first, then figure out the procedures second.
Einstein didn’t figure out the General Theory of Relativity by following procedures. Instead, he did crazy, intuitive thought experiments. Then he figured out the ‘procedures’ and explained his answers later.
A hallmark of Albert Einstein’s career was his use of visualized thought experiments as a fundamental tool for understanding physical issues and for elucidating his concepts to others.
Einstein’s thought experiments took diverse forms.
In his youth, he mentally chased beams of light.
For special relativity, he employed moving trains and flashes of lightning to explain his most penetrating insights.
For general relativity, he considered a person falling off a roof, accelerating elevators, blind beetles crawling on curved surfaces and the like.”
Einstein used thought experiments to develop an intuitive insight first, then condensed those intuitive insights into rules second.
E = mc2 is the most famous rule that came from his abstract thinking. It’s simple and concise. But it came from figuring out how to explain his intuitive understanding to others.
So, what’s the right way to support dyspraxics…?
Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyspraxia
The Right Way to Support Dyspraxics
Instead of repetitive practice of motor skills and procedural training, the two keys to successfully tutoring a dyspraxic child are:
- Neurodevelopmental Movements
- Reverse-engineering Intuitions
At its core, dyspraxia is the result of issues with or delays in normal neurological development.
When babies are born, the neurons in their brains are hugely interconnected. There’s very little differentiation of which pathways are useful and important – and so need preserving and reinforcing; and which pathways are not useful – and so should be ‘pruned’ or removed.
Normal neurological development involves reinforcing the pathways that are useful, and pruning the pathways that are not useful.
Humans achieve this through repetitive movements – repeating the useful movements over and over again so those connections are reinforced. And at the same time, in normal development, the pathways that are not reinforced get pruned.
Now here’s the key. In the normal development process, there is actually a sequence of movements we need to practice and burn into the wiring of our brain. Each step in the sequence builds on the previous steps.
This truth is captured in the common saying “You have to learn to crawl before you can walk.”
Try to skip a step and the whole thing falls down.
Now, children with dyspraxia have either skipped steps or are still stuck at some step before they can move on.
It’s not that they can’t learn the steps. It’s that it is harder for them to learn them, or for some reason they just missed a step.
For example, it’s quite common for pre-toddler dyspraxics to move across the floor by sitting on their butt and shuffling around.
Some never learn to crawl.
But the contralateral movements of crawling are essential building blocks of other movement skills. (“Contralateral” is just a fancy word meaning that the arms and legs move in opposite directions. When you crawl, your right arm moves forward as your right leg moves backwards.)
Walking uses the same contralateral movements as crawling. If a child accidentally skips learning to crawl, their walking is likely to be clumsy.
And other physical skills that require the contralateral movements developed by crawling will always be more challenging.
So, if a very young child has skipped learning to crawl, simply playing with them on the floor and teaching them to crawl will enhance all of their more complex movement skills.
Of course, neurodevelopmental activities need to be age appropriate, so activities for older people would be different than those for young children.
This is where neurodevelopmental movements come in.
Madeleine Portwood has written extensively about this approach in her book Developmental Dyspraxia: Identification and Intervention: A Manual for Parents and Professionals.
HANDLE® providers are also trained to develop Neurodevelopmental Movement Programs for individual students.
Neuroscientists at the Harborview Medical Center have shown that the HANDLE approach can be effective in treating issues even as severe as chronic traumatic brain injury. The neurodevelopmental issues of dyspraxics are generally much less severe than traumatic brain injury, and so it is reasonable to assume, easier to address.
A good practitioner will observe the child in action in real life situations to see what developmental steps they’ve missed or haven’t mastered yet.
Then they’ll create a neurodevelopmental movement plan. These plans need to be completely customized to the child – as every child is different.
The neurodevelopmental movements are usually remarkably simple, and can often be accomplished easily by a parent ‘playing’ with their child.
The difference between this approach and the more traditional repetitive practice of motor skills is that these simple, repetitive neurodevelopmental movements build the pathways in the brain that form the essential foundations of all other, more complex movements.
You have to learn to crawl before you can walk.
And there’s no point forcing a child to practice more complex skills like holding a pencil and writing until they’ve got the fundamentals in place for reaching, grasping and manipulating objects.
But once a child has the fundamentals in place, learning and mastering the more complex motor skills they need in life becomes much easier.
When I started working with Oxford Specialist Tutors, I had difficulty absorbing written text. The only things that would keep my attention were things like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook.
Now I’m able to focus not just on reading the words, but what these words are describing. I recently finished reading a book, and when I was done, I was able to tell people what happened in the book from beginning to end.
Also, I was very clumsy, bumping into things and having serious falls with remarkable frequency.
I’ve had only one fall recently. But that was after going to the gym and I think I overstrained myself.
The last time I fell before that? It’s been so long that I can’t even remember!
So my balance and coordination have improved a lot.
My self confidence has improved a lot too. And for the first time in my life, my family has started to take me seriously.
Read Roisin’s story of her her Neurodevelopmental Movement Program changed her life: Roisin’s Story
Now, back to Einstein.
This genius engaged in wild flights of fancy to come up with the intuition that energy and mass were related.
If he’d stopped there and told people “Energy and mass are related” he would have been laughed out of town. (Or more likely, just completely dismissed and ignored.)
So then, he had to reverse engineer his intuition to be able to prove it and explain it to other people. Eventually he distilled it down to the simple formula E = mc2.
This is how dyspraxic genius works. They have this seemingly vague ‘cloud thinking’ intuition. The answers often just ‘come to them’ without explanation.
But try saying “I just know it’s right” to your school teacher, and you’re not going to get a good grade.
So what dyspraxic children really need is to learn how to reverse engineer their intuitions so they can explain it to others in the way that others expect – usually as steps and procedures that ‘show their work.’
A great tutor for dyspraxics will teach their students how to do this.
Which is a huge relief to the dyspraxic child.
Instead of being ignored or dismissed, they can explain their thinking and interact with others in the way others expect.
It takes them some work to do this, but it’s a whole lot easier for them than being forced to follow step-by-step procedures without being first given the intuitive understanding to make sense of it all.
Once they get the concepts, they can learn to figure out steps and procedures on their own, without developing a lifetime dependence on others.
Before meeting Margo I was mostly getting B’s.
Now with her help and expertise almost all of my essays are getting an A+.
The most important thing that Margo has taught me is to believe in myself.
And that is a lesson that I can’t thank her enough for!
If you would like to discuss how we could work with you and your dyspraxic child to not just get by, to to thrive in school and in life, book a free consultation today.