Difficulties children have learning a new motor task

Typically developing young children learn new, age-appropriate skills with little formal instruction. They observe and imitate, experiment with different ways of doing things (trial and error learning) and learn quickly from instructions. Young children learn new skills at an amazing rate and and in such an easy manner that many of  the underlying processes that contribute to such learning are taken for granted.    

Typically developing children make these brain connections easily in the course of everyday experience. They are motivated to take on new challenges, explore different ways of achieving their goals and expect to master new skills with repeated practice. This gives them a sense of self-efficacy and I-can-do. 

Children who have movement difficulties associated with developmental coordination disorder (DCD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD)  joint hypermobility (low muscle tone) and having a highly sensitive and fearful temperament, often with a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder (SPD) do not learn new motor tasks with the same ease and need help and guided practice to acquire the new motor skills.

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, learning 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

The basic skills that contribute to learning any new skill include:

  • Sustained attention 
  • Paying attention to a demonstration and noticing how a task is performed. 
  • Picking up the most important visual cues from the environment - what do I need to see and notice for this task
  • Knowing how to explore doing a new task in different ways until a solution is found
  • Using past experience to solve a new movement problem
  • Persistence in achieving a goal
  • Trying a different solution to the motor problem when the first attempt fails 
  • Knowing when a failed attempt is due to one's own actions - rather than blaming something or someone else for the failure.

Difficulties children with autism and DCD have learning new motor skills

  • Often  avoid challenges and tasks that require physical effort - associated with being very cautious/fearful
  • Get upset when they make a mistake or cannot do a task on first attempt
  • Difficulties integrating sensory information and past experience to plan and monitor actions
  • Poor attention, working memory and persistence in the face of repeated failures needed for practicing a new task 
  • Predicting and anticipating what happens next may be poor
  • Poor use of visual information - not good at selecting right visual information to guide the task
  • Difficulty integrating visual and proprioceptive feedback 
  • Dislike the sensations of effort that come from the body when doing activities that require physical effort
  • Balance responses my be slow and not adapted to the task

Children with DCD tend not to learn from their errors.

Children with DCD do not register an error and adapt the movement plan in order to achieve a more successful action.  They repeat the same error over and over again. 

A child with DCD may need explicit instructions with repeated practice of planning their movement path around obstacles and through gaps in order to walk without bumping and tripping. 

Integrating information, predicting, anticipating and planning 

Learning new motor skills depends on the brain's ability to form rich connections between the different parts of the brain involved in controlling movement including the ability to use sensory information from the environment and from the body to predict what is going to happen next, to plan actions and adapt the actions as needed. 

Coaching a child with motor learning difficulties

  • Simplify the task to allow the child to succeed.and over time increases the difficu3lty in a graded manner.
  • Sets very clear goals for a task. Makes sure that the child understands what is expected and how to judge success
  • Helps the child pay attention to important aspects of the task. 
  • Supports and helps the child persist and stay on task
  • Helps the child to identify mistakes .

Learning to walk through doorways without bumping into the door frame

Take a simple task such as walking through a doorway with a low lintel.  We take it for granted that the child will not bump into the side of the door or trip over the lintel. We are not surprised when the child can do it when carrying a ball, having a conversation or even when running.

What are the underlying skills? And why do children with  DCD often bump into the door frame or trip over low obstacles?

There are a few basic motor planning abilities needed for avoiding obstacles.

Firstly, the child needs to pay attention to where she is going – look at what is ahead and plan her path. This requires transforming the visual information about the position of the doorway into a set of body centered coordinates which are used to adjust the direction of leg actions so as to walk in a line that goes through the middle of the doorway.

We also pre-plan our footsteps so that the one foot lands just before the obstacle so that it is easy to lift the other leg over and place it on the floor without having to take a large step.

Very young children know that the door lintel is a hindrance and will approach the doorway slowly, adjust the position of the feet and maybe even touch the door frame for balance.

Over time they learn to plan their walking path as well as adjust their footsteps to allow for easy stepping over the lintel with increasing levels of accuracy. 

The movement brain learns from errors

This ability is built up with repeated experience of  planning a path through a gap: when the plan is good and the obstacle is avoided, the movement brain registers a success.

But when the plan is not so good, and the child bumps into the side of the gap the movement brain registers an error and this information is used to adapt the motor plan next time round.

This error detection and adaptation of the plan happens implicitly, that is without conscious awareness.