Does your unique learner struggle with clumsiness? Do you laughingly joke that your child is just “clumsy” or “a klutz”? While lack of coordination seems like no big deal, it is often just a symptom of a bigger challenge.

These clumsy children bump into furniture, trip over the carpet and sometimes just fall down for no apparent reason. While this can at times seem comical, it is an indication that the sensory-motor system in your child’s body isn’t operating quite like it should.

“Clumsiness” is often the tip of the iceberg. The brain-body processes contributing to clumsiness also create huge gaps in the ability to relate to peers in order to enjoy meaningful friendships, fully participate in the academic curriculum, and enjoy a sense of personal satisfaction leading to personal happiness.

Take, for example, Fabulous Franny. Franny’s parents were concerned because she didn’t follow through with tasks at school and home. For example, she had difficulty following through with her parents’ request to “clear the table”. She seemed to need to be reminded every time of each step of the task. She wasn’t able to generalize the overall instruction despite being 10 years of age.

In addition to Franny’s inability to follow through with tasks both at school and at home, she couldn’t sit for very long and often bumped into other students, desks or other furniture. She often used tools and equipment incorrectly, either handling items too roughly. For example, she often broke the pencil she was trying to sharpen by pressing too hard. Sometimes she broke levers and buttons on toys from handling them too roughly.

These are all common behaviors for children with coordination problems. These problems with movement often result in academic difficulties.

The clumsy student may have difficulty in planning and executing movements, postures, and body mechanics for day to day activities. They may bump into furniture, other family members, poorly negotiate the location of the pet dog and frequently stumble. They seem to forget the exact parameters of their own body.

They often lack an understanding of left and right and have difficulty with directions, such as stand above the blue dot or sit underneath the green table. They don’t generalize spatial concepts such as above, below, beside, in front, and behind. In short, their understanding of their brain and body in relation to other objects in space is often lacking.

These spatial processing challenges in the three-dimensional world have profound carryover difficulties in the two-dimensional world of classroom academics.

An understanding of spatial relationships is necessary for reading and writing. One must have an intimate understanding of spatial concepts to appreciate the distinction between a lower-case letter “b”, “p”, and “d”.

Additionally, arithmetic concepts of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing require an understanding of physical space to be able to conceive more of an item [addition], less of an item [subtraction], and grouping items together [necessary for multiplication and division].

To help the clumsy child in school, you must help them improve their brain-body processes. Here are five strategies that can help. The clumsy child needs to:

Understand the parameters of their own body.

The clumsy child has difficulty truly recognizing the size and space that their physical body occupies. Childhood games, such as hide and go seek and Simon Says can help.

  • Hide and seek will help a child understand how big they are. They quickly discover they are too large to hide in a shoe box and better suited to hiding in a closet.
  • Dress up allows children to see their physical size in relation to the adult clothing that they are playing dress up in.
  • Tag incorporates spatial relationships and helps a child learn how much space is needed between themselves and another participant in the game in order to avoid being caught or being tagged.

Improve core strength and posture.

Children with poor core strength or poor posture tend to sit in a collapsed and rounded forward posture. Their standing posture may alternate from a collapsed and rounded forward posture to one in which the back is maintained in an exaggerated arch. Alternating the pelvic position from an arched back to a position with the back rounded and collapsed forward has a significant impact on the entire body, specifically the head, neck, and visual system.

Practicing cocoons and airplanes can help improve both posture and core strength. They will improve tolerance to good posture while sitting as well as stabilizing and strengthening the neck for keeping the head and eyes steady to view the front of the classroom.

  • A “cocoon” is an exercise performed when lying on the back and knees held up to the chest, hugged with the arms, and the chin raised toward the knees.
  • An “airplane” is performed by lying on the tummy and raising the legs, arms, and head up.

Improve their vestibular sensory system.

Our growth and development are keenly connected to our ability to master the earth’s gravitational pull. The ability to detect the gravitational pull of the earth’s surface occurs in a portion of the brain known as the vestibular system.

The clumsy child will benefit from a home program to help their body learn about gravity. Here are some home activities that will help lead toward heightened school abilities.

  • Activities that might be viewed as “roughhousing”.
  • Summersaults, headstands (safely performed against a designated wall with a large pillow underneath the head and upper body), rolling down a small hill
  • A beginner yoga program with varied postures can improve understanding of their body and their body’s response to a change in their center of gravity.
  • Swimming, dance, and bike riding
  • Trips to the playground to enjoy the playground equipment

Develop tactile processing (i.e. sense of touch)

Tactile processing assists with all brain activity as well as assisting with a feeling of emotional security. The connection between the brain, all the nerves in the body, and the skin’s ability to sense touch impact every action, every thought, and every deed.

Here are some fun home activities that will improve tactile processing:

Teach the skin new feelings.
  • Try clothing items with a variety of textures.
  • Expose the skin to different textures by using a variety of toothbrushes, hairbrushes, and combs for brushing teeth or hair.
  • Use different scrub brushes and loofa sponges to enjoy new textures during bath and shower time.
Certain types of touch to help the brain stay alert.
  • Making gentle and repetitive fists
  • Pushing the palms of the hands together
  • Placing the palms on the seat pan of a chair while straightening the elbows and lifting the body slightly off of the seat pan surface

Slow Down

The clumsy child will function best when encouraged to slow down. A slower pace of performance will be an important life skill for this child.

  • Encourage slower timing and rhythm (pace) when possible at home and during family activities.
  • Smooth out any erratic pace of doing
  • Encourage a consistent rate and pace rather than praising speed of performance

Of course, ups and downs, highs and lows, celebration and support will be part of your child’s growth and improvement. Recognize that there are different types of knowledge and different means of acquiring knowledge. Affirmed your child’s unique way of learning about the world. Realize that the very challenges that tend to create difficulties at school may, one day, become the very source of your child’s success once they mature and are out of the school structure.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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