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Developmental coordination disorder: how do children learn new movements?

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What did the project achieve?

“Our findings indicate that children with poor coordination may benefit from altered strategies that can help improve their attention while learning new skills,” says Professor Helen Dawes of Oxford Brookes University. “They may also benefit from longer training programmes – and find it easier to master activities like swimming or running rather than sports like football that require a combination of skills.”

Up to one in 20 children in the UK has developmental coordination disorder (DCD), which causes problems with their movement and coordination. Everyday activities such as writing, dressing, or playing sports can be harder for children with DCD than for others. They may start to avoid participating in physical activities, putting them at greater risk of developing future health conditions linked with inactivity.

This research involved 86 young people who took part in a seven-week, twice-weekly exercise programme that included learning a new rhythmic stepping skill.

“At the beginning of the study, young people with poor coordination skills performed the new sporting skill less well and were less consistent compared to those with typical coordination skills,” says Professor Dawes. “While both groups had learnt the new skill by the end of the seven weeks, the young people with poor coordination skills took longer to master it.”

The team also examined the children’s brain activity and structure at the start and end of the programme.

“Brain structure and activity was related to how well the children performed on the sporting skill,” says Professor Dawes. “While we did not identify any obvious differences between the groups, the young people with poorer coordination and movement during the task had different levels of activity in some brain areas.”

Their results are helping to shape the design of a future trial to investigate the best physical therapies for improving movement and coordination skills in children with DCD.

“We hope this information will help doctors and sports coaches to develop new ways to help these young people learn new skills and guide the types of sports and activities they will find easier to learn and enjoy, with the ultimate goal of improving their long-term fitness and quality of life,” says Professor Dawes.

This research was completed on

Evidence suggests up to one in 20 children in the UK has developmental coordination disorder (DCD).1 Children with DCD have problems with movement and coordination. Everyday activities such as writing, getting dressed and playing sports can be harder for children with DCD than for other children. Some children become reluctant to exercise, meaning fitness levels drop. Professor Helen Dawes, of Oxford Brookes University, is investigating how children with DCD learn new physical activities, with the longer-term goal of developing therapies that enable children to overcome some of their movement difficulties so they can be more physically active and fitter.

Action Medical Research and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Charitable Trust are jointly funding this study

How are children’s lives affected now?

“Children with DCD find it difficult to learn physical activities such as writing, running, riding a bike and catching a ball,” says Professor Dawes. “When performing activities like this, children with DCD might be much slower than other children and they may need to put in a great deal of effort and concentration. Children’s difficulties can affect all aspects of life, including education, family life, sports and leisure activities.”

“One of the things that DCD affects the most is children’s participation in sports and their level of physical activity,” adds Professor Dawes. “Children with DCD tend to be aware of their movement difficulties, and rate their own physical or athletic competence as low. Feelings of inadequacy can mean children avoid physical activity both during childhood and throughout adult life, which can affect their fitness, health and wellbeing. It’s important to find new ways to help children with DCD.”

How could this research help?

“We aim to improve understanding of how children with DCD learn new physical skills,” says Professor Dawes. The research involves measuring children’s movement using motion sensors while they’re learning a new skill, and monitoring brain activity using brain scans before and during training to look for under or over activity in their brains.

“Our work could improve understanding of how quickly children can expect to learn new skills, which would help when setting realistic goals for learning,” says Professor Dawes.

“We also hope to improve understanding of how much conscious effort children with DCD have to put in during physical activities, and whether they can learn to do things more automatically, without thinking,” says Professor Dawes. “This could help when deciding whether to encourage children to take up less complex sports, such as swimming or running, or sports like football that require a combination of skills (such as running, kicking, and watching both the ball and other players). Longer term, our findings could help us develop new therapies that enable children with DCD to overcome some of their movement difficulties and live more active lives.”


1.NHS Choices. Developmental co-ordination disorder (dyspraxia) in children. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Dyspraxia-(childhood)/Pages/Introduction.aspx Website accessed 23 February 2016.

2. Lingham R et al. Prevalence of developmental coordination disorder using the DSM-IV at 7 years of age: a UK population-based study. Pediatrics 2009; 123: e693-700.




Project Leader Professor Helen Dawes PhD MMedSci MCSP
Project Team Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg MPhil MSc BScDr Anne Delextrat PhD MSc BScMiss Wala Mahmoud MScDr Patrick Esser PhD BSc
Project Location Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University
Project Location Other Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, University of OxfordDepartment of Sport, Health Science and Social Work, Oxford Brookes University
Project duration 30 months
Date awarded 7 December 2015
Project start date 1 March 2016
Project end date 31 December 2019
Grant amount £191,950
Grant code GN2445


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