Working with students with developmental coordination disorder

Relevant to students with a diagnosis of developmental coordination disorder (DCD) or any motor skill and planning or organisational challenges.

Whole-school approach

Effective teaching for any student with DCD is about building a model of support for the student with open lines of communication between the student, parents or carers, teachers and medical and therapy teams.

Strategies and techniques should be recorded and shared among teaching staff and at key points of transition.

Strategies for classroom organisation

Strategies to help make a classroom more physically accessible include:

  • having open spaces and clear pathways for students to move freely around the classroom
  • making sure students with DCD have access to seats in the classroom that are close to the entry, front of the room and near resources
  • providing suitable seating and desks. Students’ feet should be flat on the floor and they should be able to rest their forearms comfortably on the table
  • having a clearly labelled, central space with easily accessible resources, including options for adapted scissors, larger grip pencils, larger print or lines on pages and slanted writing boards
  • providing convenient storage for students' belongings. For example, an easily accessible locker at an appropriate height and hook for bags
  • allowing flexible options for unpacking of bags. For example, on a flat surface, such as a table or desk
  • having flexible seating options and supports as necessary for sitting on the floor. For example, a supportive cushion, bucket seat or bean bag
  • making sure assistive technology and alternative ways of completing work is available to students. For example, mobile devices, computers and whiteboards
  • creating quiet workspaces that limit distractions by positioning furniture in corners of classroom. This creates an open space that allows a student to complete their work without worrying about the distractions around them.

Strategies for an inclusive classroom for students with DCD

  • Using multiple methods of learning in all lessons such as:
    • visuals, timetables or schedules, clear instructions and expectations, breaking down tasks into smaller steps, modelling the task, providing hard copies of information for diaries or workbooks (if not required to write) and providing modifications or adaptions for activities
    • a range of learning tools: mobile devices, technology, whiteboards, chalkboards, variety of writing implements and ‘hands on’ resources.
  • Pairing students with DCD with a peer or in a small group for support and learning. For example, having a peer scribe ideas in a group activity (if handwriting is not the focus)
  • Providing flexible writing supports for students. For example, large pencils, pencil grips, slanted boards and desk supports
  • Building on the strengths of students with DCD; look at what skills they have and build on these
  • Modelling strengths-based language at all times
  • Have education support staff involved in the classroom team and discuss how they will support the student with DCD before the start of the lesson
  • Highlight and discuss the student’s attempts at work, rather than focusing on their mistakes
  • Building resilience when getting things wrong, talk to students about the importance of practising and trying again.

The M.A.T.C.H. strategy of task adaptation

The M.A.T.C.H strategy, formulated by occupational therapists Professor Cheryl Missiuna and Associate Professor Nancy Pollock, is a technique teachers can use to make sure that tasks and learning environments are right for each student.

Strategies for challenging behaviours

Challenging behaviours in students with DCD often stem from frustrations relating to their inability to ‘keep up’ with peers. Students with DCD can also tire easily. Some ways to minimise these issues are:

  • having clear procedures and routines
  • displaying easy-to-read visuals, pictures, timetables and schedules to assist with mapping out the student’s day
  • allowing for regular breaks between physical tasks such as sports, craft or handwriting tasks
  • breaking tasks down into smaller steps
  • using accompanying visuals alongside verbal instructions to assist with comprehension and understanding
  • set clear expectations. For example, the student is told they don’t have to complete all tasks on the worksheet within the time limit – this can minimise anxiety or stress caused by having to keep up
  • providing additional opportunities for success through simplified tasks and activities
  • providing enough time for students to process and complete tasks
  • encouragement and praise for effort
  • establish clear priorities within activities. For example, if a task isn’t focused on handwriting provide alternative options for students to present or document, such as video or recording speech instead of writing, typing out work, pairing them up with a peer
  • ensuring the classroom environment has been set-up correctly (see classroom organisation)
  • having students take turns writing in group work to give the student a break.

Try to keep a record of the adjustments and strategies you use for each student and whether they were successful or not. This information is useful to pass on to the student’s future teachers and will allow for a consistent approach throughout their school years.

Strategies for handwriting

Handwriting is a challenging task for students with DCD. It relies on a complex set of fine-motor movements, which can change on different days, in different writing contexts and as students progress through their school years.

What handwriting looks like in a student with DCD

Some of the common issues you may see in the handwriting of a student with DCD are:

  • slower handwriting – produces fewer written words within a set timeframe
  • a speed-accuracy trade-off – when fast writing is required, writing quality drops considerably or when the quality of writing is key, writing speed is very slow
  • poor organisation of space on the page – this may be both within and between words
  • difficulty with appropriate letter sizing
  • difficulty understanding the implicit rules of handwriting, such as knowing where to start forming a particular letter
  • a change in the quality of writing when writing context changes – for example, writing on lined paper compared with writing on paper that has no lines
  • lots of erase marks or words written over again
  • difficulty copying writing from the board
  • difficulty in other subjects that require handwriting
  • variability in performance – a student with DCD may write well one day, but not the next. This may be due to physical or cognitive fatigue.

Classroom strategies for handwriting

While every student with DCD is different, these are some general strategies that can be helpful:

  • giving clear feedback around the rules of handwriting. For example, 'we need to work on leaving correct spaces between words' or 'we need to make our letter bodies the same height'
  • using extra visual and tactile cues to help teach these strategies. Some examples include:
    • using spacing sticks as a reference point to stop margins drifting inward, to help with spacing between words and to align columns
    • start and stop points to provide a student with DCD with clear rules to follow when copying letters and words
    • alternative types of lined paper. For example, paper with coloured or raised lines can provide additional visual or tactile input using graph paper for lining up maths problems.
  • providing a hard copy of information written on the board that a student can place on their desk to copy from. This is easier than having to look up at the board and retain the information to transfer to their page
  • some students benefit from writing on a slant board or using pencil grips.

The two most important adjustments that can be made for a student with handwriting difficulties are:

  1. allowing extra time to complete tasks such as tests, homework and other in-class activities where the quality of handwriting is important. Providing writing breaks during tests and for lengthy writing activities will also help combat the effects of fatigue
  2. reducing writing quantities when writing itself is not the focus or goal of an activity. For example, during story production or comprehension consider modifications to the task that will reduce the physical output for a student with DCD.

Some examples include:

  • typing – it is easier for students with DCD to master typing as the keyboard remains stationary and is predictable, unlike their handwriting which they must constantly monitor regarding size and spacing
  • dictation – there are several different talk-to-text options available for mobile devices and computers
  • working in pairs, where one student is the scribe
  • asking students to complete every second question on a worksheet rather than all of them or circle the ones you want them to answer
  • having students write just the specific word they are learning to spell rather than a whole sentence
  • providing maths sheets with the problem already written out so that they need only calculate and record the answer rather than copy the whole problem from the board
  • asking the student to spell words aloud, either to you or to be recorded, rather than writing them.

Strategies for physical education

Physical education (PE) can present many challenges for a student with DCD. Early success in sport and physical activity is crucial for students with DCD as those with poor self-efficacy in this area are more likely to become physically inactive.

Some strategies to try to make PE a more positive experience include:

  • activities that encourage participation by everyone
  • establishing what the student can do and provide them with the opportunity to develop their skills to the best of their ability
  • providing one-on-one support where possible for complex activities
  • breaking movements down into core elements (for example: legs, trunk, head and arms)
  • providing instructions explicitly
  • using analogies to reduce the number of instructions given
  • modifying equipment and rules to make activities achievable
  • small group activities or circuits that allow more time for active participation, reduce wait times and minimise social comparison
  • not forcing the issue if the student refuses. Try to engage them in other ways for example, as assistant coach or referee
  • providing positive feedback
  • avoiding situations of repeated failure, picking teams, competition and emphasis on winning or being first.