How is DCD at influence here?
The One Question to Ask When Encountering Other (Non-Motor) Challenges with Your DCD Child at School
I have found this one question to be a powerful tool. In conversations with teachers and support staff in the school setting, it has helped shift the focus from a challenging behaviour my child may be exhibiting to a deeper understanding of how his DCD is contributing to it. It has allowed me to advocate for empathy in the ways these behaviours should be addressed. It has helped to raise awareness of DCD as a motor condition, as well as the secondary social and emotional challenges DCD kids face every day.
When we first came to the school with my son’s DCD diagnosis, it was immediately clear that this was not a diagnosis that was well understood. The teachers and support staff were, without exception, kind and caring. Some (but not all) had heard of the condition and admitted honestly that they had little experiencing in supporting a child with DCD. I realized that in advocating for support for my son in the school setting, I would need to raise awareness of DCD first.
DCD is a relatively new diagnosis, having been first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1989. (1) However, in a paper published in 2012 titled Awareness and Knowledge of Developmental Coordination Disorder Among Physicians Teachers and Parents researchers found that of the teachers surveyed in the sample, only 23% were familiar with DCD. (As a comparison, 96% reported familiarity with ADHD.) Of that number, when asked to indicate understanding of non-motor challenges of DCD, such as sensory processing challenges, low-self esteem, poor physical fitness, anxiety and depression, responses ranged between 11 and 42%, indicating that while DCD is a little known motor condition, its secondary affects on children are even less understood. (2)
The initial relief of having received a diagnosis for my son, and the belief that this would now provide a clearer path forward toward supports designed for his needs, quickly gave way to the exhaustion of having to defend his diagnosis against new observations and suggestions of further challenges that appeared to be outside the area of motor coordination.
For each observation and suggestion, I would ask myself one question:
How is DCD at influence here?
This question, and its answers, became a powerful tool in raising awareness about DCD and its social and emotional impacts. Here are few examples:
School observation: He is often alone in the playground.
As a parent it is heartbreaking to hear that your child spends their recess breaks alone. We want our children to be surrounded by loving and supportive friends with whom they can play and laugh. Loneliness, exclusion, social isolation and avoidance are not welcome observations for any parent to hear from a school representative.
Leaning on my question as a guidepost, and my knowledge of how my son interacts with peers and friends outside the school setting, I was able to answer this question:
“Watch him,” I suggested. “At the start of recess, you’ll notice that he is happy to run and play with his peers. About half way through, he will start to tire out. What happens then is that the children will run off somewhere else, and he can’t physically keep up and he loses them in the forest. It takes his body so much energy to move, that he can’t keep up for the entire recess time. So when this happens he is happy to sit under a tree to rest. What may follow in subsequent days is that he will choose to be by himself to prevent the disappointment of being left behind.”
Another element often at play for children with DCD is the simple act of changing into a coat and outdoor shoes before heading into the playground. These motor tasks – simple and fast for his peers - can take quite a lot longer for the DCD child. Often he will emerge from the classroom after his peers have dispersed into the far corners of the playground and forest. He starts the recess time alone and after a fruitless search, he chooses to play by himself.
For my son, he will often choose to stay close to the school door. This is so as he is the first back inside, which allows him more time to change so as not to miss the start of class.
Therefore, for the DCD child being alone in the playground may not be a symptom of social issues, but of physical exhaustion, the inability to keep up with the speed of playtime, or simply the time it takes him to perform the motor tasks of changing clothes and shoes.
School observation: He gets very upset when others break the rules.
The suggestion here was a lack of understanding of others and inflexibility. These are not very positive character traits to hear one observe about your child.
For context, his school had a points system whereby any time an adult in the school – be it a staff member, visitor or parent – observed and commented on positive behavior on behalf of a child, points would be awarded. At the end of the month a positive points tally would bring fun rewards such as a pajama or crazy-hair day.
“Consider this,” I suggested, “most other children have little hits of success every single day. They catch somebody in tag, they win the race across the field to be the first one on the swing, they kick the goal, or they shoot the hoop. These are little bursts of achievement that children get every day, many times a day. The DCD child gets none of that. He is the child always caught first at tag, he never wins the running race nor is he ever first to the swing. Getting a ball through the goal posts or a hoop is a rare thing, should somebody pass him the ball at all. But the thing he can excel at is good behavior. He can earn points for his class by following the rules and being respectful. He places a lot of value on this, because this is where he can feel successful. So of course he gets upset when he feels that others are behaving poorly and jeopardizing that.”
To this day, I can still remember the look on the teacher’s face as the light of understanding was lit. When viewed from my son’s perspective, suddenly this wasn’t such a negative behavior, but a totally understandable one.
School observation: He asks too many questions.
Yes, this is something I have been called in to the school to discuss. To be clear, it was framed as a criticism.
I was staggered, and am still flabbergasted to this day that I had to be called in to answer to my child asking too many questions at school. Yet I did, and this is what I said: “It sounds to me like he is very engaged in what is happening in the classroom.”
I was informed that there are times to ask questions and his hand was up at undesignated times and he needed a lot of clarification on instructions for classroom transitions. Also, too many questions are annoying to both the teacher and peers.
“Planning is integral to a DCD child’s success. Things that may come quite naturally to you or I, he will need to make a plan for. During Occupational Therapy, we use the CO-OP approach, which is Goal, Plan, Do, Check. When he asks a lot of questions about what is happening next, he is making a plan. This is what he has been taught to do, and it helps him manage the tasks he has been set.” (3)
Helping the teacher understand the purpose of questions from the point of view of the DCD child helped to reframe the behavior from disruptive and annoying to that of self-agency and advocacy.
When considering our children’s behavior through the prism of DCD, we can help to raise awareness so that the educators, coaches and caregivers of these children understand better the ways the condition impacts not just their motor skills, but also the social and emotional domains of their life as well.
I would like to acknowledge the efforts that school staff go to on a daily basis to support all children of all abilities. In the research study referenced above, 85% of teachers surveyed “feel the education system would currently not be able to accurately support children with DCD due to lack of awareness and knowledge.” (2) It has been my experience that teachers and support staff are open and willing to help in any way they can, given the proper understanding of DCD. As parents, we will often be the front-line of DCD awareness and advocacy on behalf of our child.
This is important work. For any awareness we are able to help grow will help not only our own children but also the next child to come to your school with a DCD diagnosis.
The way DCD impacts a child is as individual as they are. I hope that this one question will help you in raising awareness and assisting others to understand this common but misunderstood condition and the unique ways it impacts your child, and advocate for the supports he/she needs. It has been powerful for our family and I hope it will be for your family too.