Neuromotor readiness for school

A study (published in Education 3–13 last month) has revealed that up to 60 per cent of children may be entering the school system without the key physical neuromotor capabilities that lead to future academic success.  Neuromotor development is needed for skills such as hand function, quality of walking, posture, passive muscle tone, coordination, and the ability to perform rapid alternating muscle movements (e.g., fast finger tapping, opening and closing of the fists, foot tapping).

The study looked at the 120 children aged 4-5 and assessed the child’s ability to sit still, develop control of specific eye movements that are required for reading, writing, copying and catching a ball, and hand-eye coordination involved in handwriting.  The first tests took place and have been followed up in subsequent years.

Following the initial assessment, half of the children involved in the study participated in a movement programme. The children who received no additional physical input throughout the school year showed no improvements in their neuromotor function when compared to children who had participated in the Movement for Learn programme.  Sally Goddard Blythe, a psychologist specialising in neurodevelopmental problems who lead the study said, ‘The results show that a daily movement programme, particularly if it’s developmentally appropriate, is helpful in improving children’s neuromotor skills and the physical foundations for learning.

Children who have underdeveloped neuromotor skills show immaturity in skills needed to support motor aspects of learning in the classroom- that is the brain’s ability to develop control over the body’s muscular-skeletal system to produce coordinated movements.  Although for some children this immaturity may be due to possible medical neurological problems, the concern is that too many children are not getting enough opportunities for free movement and gross motor experience in the early years. 

By focusing on more formal methods of learning, for example, sitting and writing learning activities typically encouraged by some to get children ‘school ready’, important aspects of development are being hindered.  Neuro-motor skills provide the foundations for learning success and so there needs to be more emphasis on the importance of physical development.  By running around in the garden, jumping in puddles, climbing on frames, cycling, pushing toys along etc children are actually being given better opportunities to develop skills for more formal learning when they are a little older.  Muscle strength is improved and there is greater self-awareness. They will have the dexterity to be able to control the pencil when they write, use rulers for measuring, follow words when they read etc.

Children who display immaturity in their neuromotor functioning have been linked with under-achievement in terms of reading, writing and mathematics.  There are also indicators that this is linked to conditions such as dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder (DCD) and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Ms Goddard-Blythe noted, ‘Previous research has shown that there is a correlation between immature physical skills and lower educational achievement. The first step to improving learning, in general, is to provide all children with a sound physical foundation to support all motor aspects of subsequent learning.’ 

The researchers concluded that the early years of education up to Year 2 should include the opportunity for children to develop and practise motor skills.   Recommendations are made for further research; particularly in relation to neuromotor screening, appropriate physical development provision prior to and during school; and developmental movement interventions for older children.

Neuromotor Readiness for School: the primitive reflex status of young children at the start and end of their first year at school, is co-authored by Sally Goddard Blythe MSc from the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, Chester; Rebecca Duncombe PhD, independent researcher and co-director of Move, Listen and Learn Ltd; Pat Preedy PhD, Consultant at Neuroway; and Trish Gorely PhD, professor of Physical Activity for Health, Department of Nursing and Midwifery, University of the Highlands and Islands.

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