Assessing students with coordination difficulties

Teachers often ask whether slowness or difficulty in using the mouse or a touchscreen device makes a significant difference to a student’s performance on CoPS. In general, the answer is no, because it is the accuracy scores derived from CoPS which are of paramount importance. Other than in Toybox, the speed scores only provide a check that the student has attempted the task in a reasonable time – e.g. not too fast – see Speed scores for a discussion of how to interpret speed scores. Even if a student is totally inexperienced with using a mouse or touchscreen and is consequently very slow, the accuracy scores would still be a valid measure of their performance. Of course, a student may be slow on a CoPS subtest because they are finding it difficult – i.e. the cognitive load is high. Sometimes, if the test is far too difficult the student may appear very quick – in such cases they cannot remember the items at all and so their responses are random. In exceptional circumstances where a student’s extreme inefficiency with the mouse or touchscreen is affecting their confidence (e.g. in cases of students with a physical disability), it is acceptable for the teacher to allow the student to point at the target on the screen and the teacher uses the mouse to click on that target. Alternatively, using a tablet or touchscreen device may be preferable.

However, the distinction between students who are slow in using the mouse or touchscreen (perhaps because of inexperience) and those with more serious motor co-ordination difficulties may be tricky for the teacher. Children with motor co-ordination problems are described as having ‘Developmental Co-ordination Disorder’ (DCD) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). They are students with significantly poor motor performance which may manifest as co-ordination problems, poor balance, clumsiness, dropping or bumping into things, delays in achieving developmental motor milestones or the acquisition of basic motor skills. These symptoms interfere with daily life, onset in the early developmental period and are not explained by intellectual disability, visual impairment or a neurological condition. In adults who have acquired such problems (typically due to stroke or head injury) the term ‘apraxia’ is normally used, ‘praxis’ being defined as the ability to manipulate and deal intelligently with objects in the environment (Ayres, 1985). Thus, in students who have similar problems, the related term dyspraxia (or Developmental Dyspraxia) is also often used.

Developmental dyspraxia covers a range of childhood disorders affecting the initiation, organisation and performance of action (Ayres, 1988; Fisher et al., 1991). However, there is no universal agreement amongst neuropsychologists and neurologists about the categorisation of such problems because dyspraxic students do not form a homogeneous group. Some seem to have problems more at the planning stage of skilled action, others more with the execution of actions. Furthermore, successful actions must usually be underpinned by a number of visual processes as well as motor ones and it may be the case that these visual processes are faulty as well as (or instead of) the motor ones (Lord and Hulme, 1987). Indeed, there appears to be some degree of overlap between students diagnosed with dyslexia and those with dyspraxic difficulties, although many dyslexic students exhibit excellent motor skills and coordination (see Thomson, 2001).

Assessment of dyspraxia can cover a very wide range of tasks, including manipulation of small objects, shape copying by drawing, imitating and repetition of actions and postures, ability to co- ordinate arms and legs together, throwing, catching, jumping and skipping. Both large and small muscles may be involved, as well as fast and slow actions. Tests of motor co-ordination include the Movement ABC-2 (Barnett, Henderson and Sugden, 2007) and the Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration-6 (Beery, Beery and Buktenica, 2010). Scores are sometimes averaged to give a ‘motor age’ but this is not usually very useful, because it is possible for a student to have a co-ordination difficulty in one area and not another. Thus, a limited range of tasks may fail to identify a real difficulty and an overall measure may be misleading (Anderson and Fairgrieve, 1996; Beardsworth and Harding, 1996).

For the above reasons, the incidence of DCD is difficult to establish with any certainty. Figures vary according to the procedures used to assess the students. Reviewing this, Hoare and Larkin (1991) conclude that it is safe to assume that about one student in 10 has co-ordination difficulties, although these will vary in severity. Studies generally report a higher incidence in boys than in girls (Piek and Edwards, 1997). Evidence provided by Knuckey and Gubbay (1983) suggests that some young students with observed DCD have a delay in maturation and will eventually grow out of it. Labelling such students ‘clumsy’ at an early age may consequently be harmful. On the other hand, several studies indicate that long-term effects of DCD are common, including continuing motor difficulties as well as a variety of social, educational and emotional problems (Losse et al., 1991; Piek and Edwards, 1997). Gueze (2007) concludes that, although the incidence of DCD decreases with age, particularly during adolescence, 50% of cases continue to have motor difficulties. Because of this, many educationalists now believe that it is desirable to identify students with DCD as early as possible in their school lives, because it may affect their educational progress, and as such come within the heading ‘Special Educational Needs’. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0-25 years (2015) states that schools should take all reasonable steps to identify and address such needs as early as possible in the student’s school career.

For an overview of the current state of knowledge on developmental coordination disorder, see Zwicker et al. (2012). Guidance on assessing dyspraxia/DCD is given by SASC (SASC Working Group on Dyscalculia: New Guidance on Dyscalculia, 2019). General advice for teachers and parents is provided by Ripley, Daines and Barrett (1997), Boon (2010) and the Movement Matters organisation (