Motor skills are vital to children's development

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The link between immature motor skills and lower educational performance has been overlooked, says Sally Goddard Blythe

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Sally Goddard Blythe is calling for rigorous large-scale research into the relationship between motor skills and educational performance

Education secretary Damien Hinds has launched two projects worth £13.5 million aimed at giving disadvantaged parents the confidence to help their children learn new words through activities such as reading and singing. This news follows on the heels of government plans for a £10 million initiative on a new baseline assessment for children at the start of Reception. This ‘tunnel vision’ approach to education, focusing on symptoms and outcomes fails to address the fundamental issue of children’s readiness for formal education.

Just as immature speech and language skills, if not the result of hearing or specific language impairment can be specifically linked to lack of opportunity and experience of conversation, reading and vocabulary, the same can be true for the development of motor skills.

Motor skills are important because they support the ability to sit still, develop good hand-eye coordination needed for writing and the eye movements needed to support reading, writing, copying and catching a ball. 

Speech is also a motor related task. At a conference in Madrid this weekend, I will be presenting an analysis of 45 cases where there was a history of subjects having received speech and language therapy (SALT) prior to seeking help for specific learning difficulties a few years later.  All of the sample showed signs of neuromotor immaturity with more than 80 per cent displaying difficulty with control of rapid, alternate fine finger movements. 

Adjacent areas in the brain involved in control of the fingers are also involved in control of the muscles of the lips and tongue, suggesting that speech impairment is not always an isolated function of language but may be linked to general maturity in the functioning of the central nervous system, of which neuromotor skills provide a marker.

In 2004[1] and 2005[2] the results of studies carried out in schools in the UK and Northern Ireland indicated that a significant percentage of children were entering the school system with immature motor skills and there was a correlation between immature motor skills and lower educational performance using baseline measures of education.

Subsequent (unpublished) projects in schools have revealed a similar picture comparing children’s neuromotor skills to results from national curriculum (NC) assessments and showing that children with less mature motor skills perform less well on NC measures.[3] [4]

Because these follow-up studies were not published they have been dismissed by academics and policy makers, but one carried out in cooperation with the University of Loughborough, used a standardised assessment tool (Movement ABC-2) to investigate children’s physical development. In the sample involving 116 children it revealed a 6.2 per cent decline in measures of balance, 19.7 per cent decline in aiming and catching, 15.8 per cent decrease in manual dexterity and 18.1 per cent deterioration in overall physical development since the norms for the assessment battery were last revised in 2007.[5]  

After more than 30 years in practice assessing the neuromotor status of children presenting with specific learning difficulties, and taking a screening and developmental movement into schools, I can no longer remain silent about what needs to be done.

Action plan

  1. Further rigorous large-scale research into the relationship between motor skills and educational performance.
  2. Developmental testing (physical) of all children at the time of school entry and at key stages through education.
  3. Re-instatement of the school medical officer.
  4. Improved inter-disciplinary communication and cooperation (medicine and education) from birth through the school years.
  5. Implementation of effective (researched) daily physical programmes into schools.
  6. Flexibility within education systems to allow young children an extended period of time to develop physical skills either before entering formal school or the provision of support in the first year(s) at school.
  7. Improved awareness and education of parents, and training to teachers, trainee teachers and teenagers (parents of the future) of the importance of physical development in childhood to support learning.
  8. Improved education of the general public in what children need in the early years to develop the physical and language skills that are necessary to support cognitive learning and social integration.
  9. Value the role of parenting in society.

References

[1] North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB), 2004.  An evaluation of the pilot INPP movement Prepared for the NEELB by Brainbox Research Ltd. http://www.eani.org.uk Commissioned by the Department of Education, Northern Ireland.

[2] Goddard Blythe SA, 2005. Releasing educational potential through movement.  A summary of individual studies carried out using the INPP test batters and developmental exercise programme for use in schools with children with special needs.  Child Care in Practice. 11/4:415-432

[3] Griffin P, 2013.  Personal communication. http://www.open-doors-therapy.co.uk/

[4] Harte S, 2015. Physical development and National Curriculum Levels – the incidence of neuromotor immaturity (NMI) in London primary schools and the relationship between NMI and National Curriculum measures of achievement. Paper presented at The Child Development in Education Conference, London, October 2015.

[5] Duncombe R, Preedy P, 2017. Personal communication. http://movementforlearningproject.co.uk.

Further Information

Sally Goddard Blythe is director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP) http://www.inpp.org.uk/, a private research, clinical practice and training centre dedicated to researching into underlying physical factors in children with specific learning difficulties.  She is the author of eight books on child development including Assessing Neuromotor Readiness for Learning and The INPP Developmental Screening Test and School Intervention Programme.

Movement: Your Child’s First Language by Sally Goddard Blythe will be published by Hawthorn Press later this year.

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