Motor and Visuomotor skills
Children need many different motor skills when they start formal schooling. Motor skills are often divided into fine motor and gross motor skills. Motor skills are closely related to many cognitive skills.
Children need many different motor skills when they start formal schooling (e.g., self-care skills, walking and running, use of a pencil, and the manipulation of objects).
Motor skills refer to underlying internal processes responsible for moving the body or parts of the body in space.
Motor skills include (1) movements themselves and (2) cognitive processes that give rise to the movements.
Different names may be found in the literature for motor-related skills, including perceptual-motor, sensorimotor, and psychomotor skills. All these terms are implicated when we are moving our body and our sensory perception and movement systems are working together.
Fine and gross motor skills
Motor skills are often divided into two types of skills:
Fine motor skills involve coordinating small muscle movements. Drawing, writing, speaking, manipulating small objects, or playing instruments are typical fine motor skills.
Gross motor skills involve the body’s large muscles, the orientation and movement of the trunk and limbs, and postures pertaining to balance, such as walking, running, hopping, and playing games and sport.
Motor skills and school performance
Fine motor skills are, in longitudinal studies, associated with academic skills like reading and math. Some studies show that fine motor skills predict stronger early math development than reading development.
Gross motor skills are important for social competencies and physical wellbeing and make engagement in learning and social activities, like games and sports, easier in school.
The exact mechanism that links motor skills to school performance is still unclear.
Cognitive processes and motor skills
There are different kinds of assessment methods and tools to assess motor skills or competencies. In these assessments, three processes are important:
- Motor coordination means that the child must coordinate body movements in directed actions, as for self-care (dressing themselves, tying their shoes), paper-pencil tasks, or manipulating objects (using building blocks).
- Executive functions are needed for focusing and shifting attention, manipulating information in working memory, and inhibiting maladaptive responses to meet adaptive goals.
- Visuospatial skills are for perceiving spatial relationships (e.g., in front, behind, beside) and visualizing objects using cognitive representations in two or three dimensions.
Many of these skills are learned and practiced at the preschool age.
Many motor tasks include numerous steps or phases that require motor planning and spatial sequencing and the use of different tools (e.g., pens, pencils, scissors, keyboards). For children who start school with these skills well developed, it is easier to be at school and concentrate on learning new skills than it is for those who struggle with these basic motor skills.
Based on research, we know that 5–10 percent of children have problems in learning new motor skills and that they are clumsier and slower in their movements than other children in the class. We now know that these children may have a neurodevelopmental disorder called developmental coordination disorder (DCD).
In motor tasks, children need to maintain attention on the task, as when they are copying letters or figures. Executive functions are more important when the child is practicing a new task and is very young. After practicing and learning the task, it is not new anymore and can be executed with fewer cognitive resources such as planning and attention focusing.
At the beginning of school, many motor tasks are new to the child and require a lot of executive functions and control before these skills are automatized.
We can say that a skill is automatized when the child can do it together with another task (e.g., the dual task of writing letters and words while listening to what the teacher is saying).
Visuospatial and visuomotor skills
Many visuospatial skills develop quite early, before a child starts school, and visual processing and manual control develop hand in hand.
The most typical method to assess these skills is design copying (such as the test of visuomotor integration). Copying geometric figures is based on and correlated to both perceptual skills (e.g., the ability to judge line-length, rotate visual stimuli, mentally reproduce a figure in free space) and motors skills (e.g., hand-eye coordination, the use of a pencil, the perception of the direction of movement).
Visuomotor tasks requiring the alignment of movements with perceptual input are quite complex because they require crossmodal integration of different processes (visual, motor) across different networks in the brain. It is thought that because of this complexity, visuomotor integration predicts academic achievement both in reading and maths.
Motor coordination, executive skills, and visuomotor skills in learning
In learning motor coordination, executive functions and visuospatial processes are all needed in the classroom, and they work in combination with other processes (e.g., language, memory) to form a successful basis for learning in school.
Research findings show that visuomotor and executive function skills (especially inhibitory control) can compensate each other in classroom learning. Children with either strong visuomotor integration or strong inhibitory control skills learned as much in print knowledge as children who were strong in both. This compensatory pattern also emerged in phonological awareness and teacher-related classroom behaviour.
How to help the child in the classroom
In the classroom, children meet many new demands on their emerging abilities to control and regulate their emotions and behaviours, including their body movements. Significant individual differences in these abilities are very easy to see in every classroom.
Children with good fine and gross motor skills have more time to spend on other tasks, and they will experience less frustration and fewer negative emotions in the classroom.
Accordingly, children with strong attention, self-control, and working memory may engage more readily with new tasks that require increasingly complex motor skills and experience.
Fine motor skills and emerging literacy skills (reading and writing) are distinctly related. Design copying is related positively with name writing, written expression, and math.
Seven important keys for teaching fundamental motor and visuomotor skills
There are seven important keys for teaching fundamental motor and visuomotor skills:
Show enthusiasm, care, and interest. Without these qualities, teachers won’t be as effective as they could be.
Use visual demonstration with instruction whenever possible. Teachers may even need to physically move the child through some of the actions.
Give praise, encouragement, and feedback. These strategies are essential parts of the learning process. Good feedback – information about what the child has done, to aid his or her improvement – is essential. For example: “I watched the way you held the ball correctly in your fingers,” or “That was great effort; this time let’s put your other foot forward.”
Create a positive, fun learning environment. Sometimes teachers get preoccupied with telling the child what he or she is doing wrong or what he or she has not done instead of focusing on what the child should be doing. And has been doing well. A positive comment indicates approval to a child; the child can then develop trust and a willingness to keep trying.
Keep information simple and easy to follow. Teaching by small-step progression is ideal. Progress may be a lot slower than expected, and so patience definitely becomes a virtue.
Keep the practice sessions short but frequent. By keeping the sessions shorter, you can ensure that physical and mental fatigue do not become factors and that the child’s interest level is sustained.
Avoid showing frustration – be patient. If you feel frustrated, imagine how the child must feel. Frustration on your part is easily picked up by the child and compounds difficulties. Try saying, “I think this is a good place to stop for today. Let’s continue tomorrow.”
Some specific tips and suggestions for motor skill teaching
Ensure that the child is positioned properly for desk work. His or her feet should be flat on the floor, and the height of the desk should allow the child’s shoulders to be relaxed with forearms comfortably supported on the desk.
Set realistic short-term goals. This will ensure that both the child and educator continue to be motivated.
Provide the child with extra time to complete fine motor activities, such as math, printing, writing a story, practical science tasks, and artwork. If speed is necessary, be willing to accept a less accurate product.
Help with tasks that require fine motor skills. If lessons include using scissors, folding paper, or any other task that might cause a child with motor difficulties to struggle, provide plenty of assistance and try to introduce the child to the activity beforehand so that he or she has a chance to practice and get familiar with the physical manipulations required.
Emphasize directions in step-by-step form. Going over task directions and requirements several times is crucial. Try to write task instructions in short sentences and use checklists for assignments with multiple parts. Demonstrating a task and reading directions out loud, in addition to providing a printed version, is helpful for all children as it clarifies the task and ensures that everyone is on the same page.
When copying is not the emphasis, provide the child with prepared worksheets that will allow him or her to focus on the task. Examples include prepared math sheets, pages with pre-printed questions, or fill-in-the-blank exercises for reading comprehension. For study purposes, photocopy notes written by another child.
Have children use pencil grips if they seem to help improve pencil grasp or to reduce pencil pressure on the page.
Use paper that matches the child’s handwriting difficulties. For example, use 1) widely spaced lines for a child who writes with very large lettering; 2) raised, lined paper for a child who has trouble writing within the lines; 3) graph paper for a child whose writing is too large or improperly spaced; 4) graph paper with large squares for a child who has trouble keeping numbers aligned in mathematics.
Focus on the purpose of the lesson. If a creative story is the goal, then accept messy handwriting, uneven spacing, and multiple erasures. If the goal is to have the child learn to set up a math problem correctly, then allow time to do it even if the math problem does not get solved.
Provide additional time for tests and exams that require a lot of written output.