Findings from research that will be presented at a conference in London this week show that seven-year-olds with immature motor skills tend to be performing in the lowest quartile on measures of educational performance.
However, the studies from primary schools in London and the Midlands demonstrate that introducing a developmental moving programme for just 15 minutes during the school day has seen attainment levels rise.
The findings will be presented by head teacher Sue Harte from John Stainer Community School in south London (see box).
Creator of the screening test and movement programme and international director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP) Sally Goddard Blythe told Nursery World that 'children were slipping through the net' because of a failure to spot neuro-motor immaturity.
'Underlying baby or primitive reflexes, when they do not disappear at around six to 18 months, can affect the functional relationship between the brain, the balance system and the body. As a result, there can be an immaturity in processing information,' she said.
Teachers use a simple screening assessment to identify children who have problems with balance and co-ordination.
The Draw A Person test (above) reveals a measure of non-verbal cognitive performance, with children often performing two years below their developmental age.
Ms Goddard Blythe said, 'There is a correlation between neuro-motor maturity - for example, balance, co-ordination and eye movements - and the Draw A Person test.
'Children will often leave off the part of the figure that is not working properly. Children whose balance is affected will often leave the ears off.'
A nine-year-old child she met who had 'spent three years in a cot' in a Romanian orphanage and was then adopted in the UK would 'draw herself without legs', she said.
The Child Development in Education conference includes speakers from education, medicine and policymakers. The conference has been organised to bring together professionals from all disciplines involved in child development and education.
'We should be looking at screening children to make sure that everything is in place to meet the demands of the classroom,' she said.
Although Ms Goddard Blythe's developmental movement programme is 'most effective from the age of seven', she believes that a screening programme should be put in place from the age of four using a play-based approach for younger children.
She said, 'The results from projects to date indicate that when routine testing of children's physical development by school medical officers was phased out in the 1980s (when responsibility for assessing the development of school-aged children was handed over from the Department of Health to the Department of Education), it left a vacuum in terms of monitoring children's physical readiness for learning and ensuring they have the physical tools in place to achieve in the classroom.
'Gaps in the educational system mean that many children simply slip through the net of professional services, which should be in place to identify signs of difficulties with co-ordination, visual and auditory processing, and provide effective remedial intervention.'
Because developmental co-ordination disorder (dyspraxia) was a medical diagnosis, she said that often educators 'don't know what to do with it'. Children with dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, and autism 'have in common aspects of neuro-immaturity', she added.
- The Child Development in Education Conference - Integrating Neuroscience with Education in Policy and Practice is at the Royal Society of Arts in London on 7 October. Limited space is available until 5 October. See www.inpp.org.uk/child-development-education-conference-7th-october-2015 or contact the INPP on 01244 311 414.
'I call them the enigma children,' said Sue Harte, head teacher at John Stainer Community School in Brockley. 'It's when you can't put your finger on why children aren't making progress - it's not because of special educational needs or the home environment. It's a different group of children.'
To try to find out why, staff who had undertaken training with INPP assessed all the Year 3 children who were at or below age-related expectation at the end of Year 2, to give a baseline percentage measure for their neuro-motor immaturity.
Ms Harte, who will present findings from her school's experience at the conference, said that making the link between children's neuro-motor immaturity and their educational development was 'so enlightening'.
When mapped against national curriculum attainment, 100 per cent of pupils who scored below age-related expectations at the end of Year 2 in reading showed high levels (above 30 per cent) of neuro-motor immaturity.
The lower the national curriculum level (ie, Level 1), the higher the average neuro-motor immaturity percentage score.
Pupils with the highest neuro-motor immaturity (between 65 per cent and 78 per cent) scored the lowest (national curriculum Level 1) in reading, writing and maths.
For children above the national average there were still some with high neuro-motor immaturity scores, with an average of 27 per cent. The incidence of neuro-immaturity was twice as high among the level 1 children, with an average of 55 per cent.
Ms Harte said that the school decided that all children in the year would take part in the daily 15-minute movement programme during the academic year. The class moves on only when all pupils have mastered each move from the programme, which are followed in sequence.
Children in the school's nursery are also taking part using an INPP music and movement programme designed to 'break' primitive reflexes.
Ms Harte said, 'We believe this will reduce neuro-motor immaturity in our youngest pupils so they start school with the best possible chance of success.'
Pete Griffin, a retired primary head who has led research in a number of schools in the West Midlands into neuro-motor immaturity, said, 'If you have issues with neuro-motor immaturity there is a high probability that within that school you will be in the below average set.'
He added that even in schools where very few children performed below expected levels, 'those children with high neuro-immaturity were in the lower groups in that school'.
'The programme can make a difference to children in terms of academic performance and have a beneficial effect on some children's behaviour, confidence and general physical movement,' he added.