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How do motor skills affect a pupil’s ability to learn?

In many schools, there are older pupils who are underachieving and it may be due to their lack of motor skills rather than cognitive ability
© University of Reading

Motor skills are the mechanics of motor development and are about the body’s ability to control body movements. A good grasp of control of your motor skills is needed in everything you do.

You may already possess a good level of motor skills to be able to form letters on the page without thinking about it. However, if you were asked to write with your non-dominant hand, would you find you were concentrating more on forming letters than you were on your short story?

Try it. As well as helping you empathise with pupils when they’re learning new things, you will hopefully appreciate the importance of your motor skills in this exercise.

Other examples of using motor skills include:

  • If you’re in danger and need to run away. To achieve this you need the motor skills of strong legs, arms pumping, and a physically fit heart and your mind free of the mechanics of running because you need to think about exit routes and places of possible safety.
  • If you’re hungry and need to cook. Cooking is much more complicated than you first think and requires good motor skills. When cooking, you want to be considering the quantities of each ingredient needed for the meal, the heat of the cooker, judgement about whether something is cooked, the skills to cut and chop and whisk etc. However, if you’re at a low level of motor skill, the most you may be able to do is concentrate on the chopping and not think about any else.

Lacking motor skills

In many schools, there are older pupils who are underachieving for their age group. Have you considered it may be due to their lack of motor skills rather than cognitive ability?

Some pupils can’t keep up with the quantity of writing involved in their learning because they haven’t mastered handwriting. This means the brain has to concentrate on the correct formation of letters and words, not the ideas for that particular piece of writing. If the automatic motor skills have not been developed, the pupil will find themselves concentrating with forming letters over anything else.

Individual development

When working with pupils you need to consider not just the cognitive aspects – such as writing and reading and mathematics – but also each individual’s motor development and whether it’s that lack of motor skill that’s stopping their development.

Below is a summary of motor skills that we all need to master and the stages we have to go through:

Motor Skill Definition Examples
Locomotor or gross motor How the body moves in the environment Walking, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, sliding, leaping, crawling, climbing, standing, and sitting — yes, sitting is a movement!
Non-locomotor This is all to do with balance Bending, stretching, twisting, pivoting, swinging, rolling, landing, stopping, dodging, balancing and inverted support (holding oneself upside down)
Manipulative or fine motor Imparting a force on objects Catching, kicking, trapping, striking, volleying, bouncing, rolling, pulling, pushing, punting (eg: drop kick in rugby), dribbling, grasping, reaching, gripping, holding (eg: sewing, cutting, typing, writing, drawing, painting).
Table: Summary taken from Gallahue, D.L. & Ozmun. J.C. Understanding Motor Development. Infants, children, adolescents and adults. 6th ed. New York:McGraw-Hill. 2006
“In terms of children, it is important that the support staff are kind and patient, as for some particular pupils, it can be very difficult to carry out tasks which we understand to be basic, however they need to be empathetic. They must also attempt to help teachers to understand what they could be doing better to support the pupil, to make lessons more accessible to pupils.” – Ayeasha Cindy
© University of Reading
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Supporting Successful Learning in Secondary School

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