What is Motor Planning?
Motor Planning is often described and understood as difficulty with planning and executing the coordination of motor tasks, such as riding a bike, pumping a swing and playing sports. Children with these challenges may be given the diagnosis of dyspraxia.
How does Motor Planning impact social skills?
Dyspraxia is not just about motor coordination or “clumsiness”. What is not talked about and understood are the behavioral and social implications of motor planning challenges. Children with dyspraxia have difficulty coming up with ideas, sharing ideas with others and making quick adaptations in the moment. This often leads to difficulty in play with peers and in interactions with adults – particularly adults who have their own agenda (don’t we all as parents, teachers and therapists?!).
When experiencing challenges with coming up with ideas and developing and adapting plans our dyspraxic sensory kids experience a feeling of threat to their safety and they enter into the primal response of fight or flight. This is more commonly recognized as pushing other kids, taking toys out of kids’ hands, hitting, refusing to participate in classroom and home activities, tantrums when something is different and or when plans change unexpectedly, just to name a few common observable behaviors. Just like any of us who feel threatened, their goal then becomes to regain a sense of security. How do they do this?
Our sensory kids with dyspraxia use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses in ideation, motor planning and adaptation. They request familiar things (foods included). They become the directors of their world – telling other kids how to play the games, telling teachers how they want to solve the math problem or form their letters, telling parents in which order to complete the bedtime routine. They excuse themselves from novel experiences – responding, “I don’t know” when asked what they would like to do, saying “no thanks” when offered to play a new game, or on the more common side of things walking or running away when something new occurs in play or social interactions particularly when it is unexpected. These cues tell us that the social situation they are in is hard for them and there is likely a motor planning weakness to blame. If these subtle cues for regaining security are missed (which they often are in our busy world) then the feeling of threat increases and they may enter fight mode. This is when physical responses are seen – hitting, pushing, spitting. Since the more subtle signs of an underlying motor planning challenge have been missed, this response is seen as bad behavior and often treated as such.
We need to understand the social and behavioral implications of dyspraxia and know the signs that our kids are showing us. By recognizing the “hidden” signs of a challenge in motor planning, as defined above, we can then intervene in a way that will bring them success and eliminate the “bad behaviors” of refusal to participate, aggressive responses, and demanding control.
What you can do to help
Validate that what they are experiencing is something that is hard for them. “I know this is hard.” Reframe it as something that can be overcome, “It is tricky when something is different.” At this point we have helped them regain their sense of security and entered into a state of engagement with them. At this time we can join them in finding the solution by:
- Providing choices: Do you think we should play like …. or like….?”, “Should we use the … or the …. first?”
- Demonstrating ways to engage in the challenging situation: “I think we could try it this way.”
- Wondering with them about the solution. “Hmmmm, what do you think we need to do?”
- Likening it to a familiar experience. “Remember when we ….. This is just like that. What did we do then?”
- Add play and a passion/interest of theirs into the activity. “Let’s race like Lightening McQueen.” “Let’s save the animals (to clean up) just like in Paw Patrol.”
By understanding the underlying sensory motor weakness and validating the emotional response experienced because of this weakness, we can enter a state of mutual problem solving. When we enter shared problem solving with our sensory kids with dyspraxia we are working on the ideation, planning and sequencing capacities that are weak. We are forming positive social habits that lead them into engagement with others. We are reframing their emotional response of “I can’t” to “I can” and building resilience and persistence. We are improving social skills and emotional regulation.
The next time you feel like your child is being “bossy” and “inflexible” or if she is demonstrating challenging social behaviors, think about the possibility of motor planning weaknesses being the cause. Name their experience, validate their emotions and get into a conversation about how to solve the real problem at hand.
Review of Signs of Dyspraxia
Signs of dyspraxia or challenges with motor planning within social interactions
- Refusal to participate in activities
- Taking toys from others
- Repetitive play – playing the same thing over and over
- Throwing toys
- Hitting, biting, spitting
- Walking away from tasks and social interactions before they are completed or “out of nowhere”
- Bossing other kids around, directing play
- Demanding that you do things a certain way
- Frequent requests for familiar toys, foods, activities
If several of these apply to your child you could benefit from a consultation from an Occupational Therapist trained in social emotional development.