Typically developing 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.
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.
Children with DCD need a little extra help learning new skills
Children with DCD have difficulties learning new skills in the same easy way that typically developing children do. For more complex skills they may need additional coaching to learn to perform a task.
Coaching a child with DCD includes:
- Simplifies the task to allow the child to succeed.and over time increases the difficulty 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.
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.