For some children, it’s obvious by the time they’re in kindergarten that they’ll probably never play tennis on the center court at Wimbledon or take the field at Yankee Stadium. Child development professionals describe these children as having difficulties with gross and fine motor skills. But on the playground, their classmates simply refer to them as klutzes.
Being a klutz has increasingly profound social and even academic implications as a child passes through elementary school and into adolescence. It interferes with social relationships and often decreases preadolescents’ self-esteem, especially among boys.
Psychologists and early physical education teachers are paying much more attention these days to the social and academic problems that often go along with clumsiness. They’re also developing ways to help these children improve in areas that may, at first glance, appear unrelated.
For example, children with poor physical coordination may have trouble focusing their attention on academic tasks at school as well. Basic concepts like “over,” “under,” and “through,” are often more difficult for them to understand. Researchers have found that clumsy children are at a greater risk for significant social problems starting as early as the first grade. Motor skills form a big part of young children’s self-concepts and how they perceive others. Children who have problems with coordination tend not to have as many friends who will play with them.
Young children develop physical skills at different rates and times. In general, being a few weeks or even a few months late mastering one or two basic feats of coordination, such as sitting up, walking, or running, does not have any long-term consequences. But you should pay closer attention if there is a broader and consistent pattern of delays and difficulties. About five percent of children have noticeable trouble with coordination. In many cases, the problems don’t go away by themselves. Studies have shown that about 50 percent of the children who have these problems at around age five still have them at age nine.
Most of the children seeking help to overcome clumsiness are boys. But it’s unclear whether this is so because they have more problems with coordination or because their parents and teachers have higher expectations for them.
There’s recent evidence that many of the children whom parents and teachers describe as uncoordinated have underlying problems with their sense of balance. Some may have to consciously work at sitting upright the things that other children do automatically by the time they’re toddlers. If you put these children in a classroom where they have to sit in a chair and write a report, much of their energy is concentrated in simply sitting. They can’t pay as much attention to the more advanced task. Providing these children with some extra physical support in their chairs will often improve their school performance.