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.
Improving a child’s physical coordination takes practice. While most children find physical activity fun, those who are clumsy often see sports and games as yet another opportunity to fail or to be rejected. Here are some things you can do to help:
- Play active games with your child. Some of the children whose parents don’t play catch with them and chase them around as toddlers and preschoolers have trouble keeping up physically with their peers by early elementary school. Remember that during the early years it’s more important that your child have fun throwing a ball than that he do it well. If you child is laughing, you’re both doing a good job.
Work on skills that require balance. Balance is fundamental to coordination. Pretend with your child that you’re circus performers as you walk along a line on the sidewalk or on a narrow board. Try roller-skating or ice-skating. Again, begin by focusing on enjoyment more than technique.
- Work on both fine and gross motor skills. The two don’t always go together. Some children are highly skilled at using their fingers for delicate tasks like handwriting or threading beads, but they may be poor at gross motor skills like jumping or running.
- Show some sympathy. If your child says he’s not good at sports and has trouble hitting a ball, let him know that you know how upsetting that can be. If you argue or say it isn’t important, your child is less likely to listen. A good next step is to help your child realize that he is not a total failure. Focus on an activity in which he is more successful. For example, a child who says he’s not good at baseball may actually be quite good at catching a ball. But he may be so distracted by his hitting problems that he only pays attention to that aspect of the sport.
- Enroll your child in an after-school sports program. Unfortunately, some of these programs may make a clumsy child feel even worse. One sign of a good program for young children is that it emphasizes personal accomplishments rather than winning. There should be lots of one-on-one coaching and encouragement. Also, if all the program offers are team sports, your child may become even less enthusiastic and self-confident. Interview the people who run the program. Watch several sessions, and talk with other parents who have children in the program. Remember that young children are much more interested in having fun and improving their skills than in winning.
- Provide a safe environment for your child to build skills. Some one-on-one coaching, either by you, a coach, a teacher, or an older child can help an awkward child catch up with his peers. So will some informal family games that allow you not only to give some discreet pointers, but also to praise progress. Expect your child to test how you will react to failure. (Will you get angry or give up?) Don’t overdo this practice. Twenty minutes a day is usually much more effective than three hours a day.
- Don’t let your child become inactive. Children who feel that they cannot keep up with their peers or perform well enough may respond in ways that make the problem worse. They may avoid all athletic games and become sedentary. You may have to do some unpopular things, such as unplugging the television, to encourage your child to play.