Motor learning and effortful control

Behaviours needed for successful learning of movement based skills

Persistent and repeated practice is needed to learn any new movement skill – whether it be learning to ride a bicycle, play the violin, learn to walk, stand on one leg for 10s  or cut with a pair of scissors. 

You start of by having a good idea of what you want to achieve,  a goal and possibly some idea of how that goal might be achieved. The next step is to explore ways of achieving your goal – trying out different possibilities and deciding which is the most efficient and then repeating the actions until you can do the action easily.

This process of exploring, trying out possibilities, refining coordination, checking progress is supported by a number of important behaviours including:

•    Willingness to approach a new and unfamiliar task

•    Ability to put up with the frustration of failure – and the patience to try again

•    A sense of your own ability to solve the problem – a belief in your abilities – called self efficacy

•    The desire to achieve your goals – to get things right – called mastery motivation

•    Ability to pay attention to the important details of the task – and not be distracted by irrelevant detail


“Mature cognition is characterized by abilities that include being able: (a) to hold information in mind, including complicated representational structures, to mentally manipulate that information, and to act on the basis of it, (b) to act on the basis of choice rather than impulse, exercising self-control (or self-regulation) by resisting inappropriate behaviors and responding appropriately, and (c) to quickly and flexibly adapt behavior to changing situations. These abilities are referred to respectively as working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.”
Davidson et al (2006)


Effortful control, attentional control  and working memory underpin successful learning

Children with movement difficulties (DCD, joint hypermobility, learning difficulties) often have poor self regulation and executive skills which impacts on their ability to learn new skills and perform activities that require physical effort and persistence.

Effortful control is a dimension of temperament that includes the ability to manage attention and inhibit (inhibitory control) or activate (activational control) to adapt behaviour as needed, especially when a child does not particularly want to do so.

Effortful control (EC), defined as “the efficiency of executive attention, including the ability to inhibit a dominant response and/or to activate a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors”  (Rothbart and Bates 2006)

In the second year, children begin to develop the ability to suppress a predominant action—often the one the child most desires at the moment—and to perform instead a subdominant response, often mundane or unappealing but required by socialization agents.

The amount of inhibitory or activational control a child needs to exert depends on the child’s general level of arousal and tendency to avoid or approach situations that are novel, difficult or exciting.

In children with a strong drive to approach and try-out new and interesting things, effortful control is needed to moderate this tendency in situations where it hampers the child’s attempts to master a task.

Avoidant behaviour is often seen in children with behavioural inhibition as a temperament trait. Fearfulness in the face of novelty or complexity is seen in children with very active emotional fear systems.  The term “highly sensitive child” is an alternative term that has become part of everyday lexicon.

See Higly sensitive child learning movement skills

These children are easily aroused by novelty, in situations where they are uncertain or have had a previous negative experience, and respond with a tendency to freeze and refuse to do a task. This is often perceived a stubbornness or willfulness.

It is important to realise that the child’s response is a way of coping with anxiety and the unpleasant sensations associated with fearful arousal.  Read more about the very cautious child and the learning of movement skills 

Emotion regulation:  is defined as  “the process of initiating, maintaining, modulating, or changing the occurrence, intensity, or duration of internal feeling states and emotion-related motivations and physiological processes, often in the service of accomplishing one’s goals”  (Eisenberg and Spinrad 2004).

Mechanisms involved in emotion regulation include:
attentional processes (e.g., attention shifting and focusing),
cognitive constructions or appraisals
overt behaviors such as inhibiting movement toward an evocative object).

Executive attention: refers to the ability to regulate responses, particularly in situations that require thinging about the task, and in situations where several responses are possible.

This aspect of attention is thought to develop until early adulthood but seems to undergo a particularly rapid development between 2 and 7 years of age.

Working memory: is the ability to hold goal relevant information in mind in the presence of potential distractions, in order to guide action.

Baddely propsed a 3 component  limited capacity system allowing the temporary storage and manipulation of information necessary for such complex tasks as comprehension, learning and reasoning (Baddeley 2000)

The model comprised an attentional control system, the ‘central executive’, aided by two subsidiary slave systems, the ‘phonological loop’ and the ‘visuospatial sketchpad’ . The phonological loop is assumed to hold verbal and acoustic information using a temporary store and an articulatory rehearsal system.  The sketchpad is assumed to hold visuospatial information, to be fractionable into separate visual, spatial and possibly kinaesthetic components. (Baddeley 2000)

The model also includes an episodic buffer which is "assumed to be capable of storing information in a multi-dimensional code. It thus provides a temporary interface between the slave systems (the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad) and LTM. It is assumed to be controlled by the central executive, which is responsible for binding information from a number of sources into coherent episodes".


Useful links

Temperament - Encyclopedia of early childhood development

Eisenberg N. Temperamental effortful control (self-regulation)



Baddeley A. The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends
Cogn Sci. 2000 Nov 1;4(11):417-423.

Davidson MC, Amso D, Anderson LC, Diamond A. Development of cognitive control and executive functions from 4 to 13 years: evidence from manipulations of memory, inhibition, and task switching. Neuropsychologia. 2006;44(11):2037-78

Rueda MR, Rothbart MK, McCandliss BD, Saccomanno L, Posner MI. Training, maturation, and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Oct 11;102(41):14931-6

Rueda MR, Posner MI, Rothbart MK. The development of executive attention: contributions to the emergence of self-regulation. Dev Neuropsychol. 2005;28(2):573-94.

Rothbart MK, Bates JE. Temperament. In: Eisenberg N, Damon W, Lerner RM, editors. Handbook of Child Psychology. 6th. New York: Wiley; 2006. pp. 99–166.

Thomason ME, Race E, Burrows B, Whitfield-Gabrieli S, Glover GH, Gabrieli JD. Development of spatial and verbal working memory capacity in the human brain. J Cogn Neurosci. 2009 Feb;21(2):316-32.



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