The impact of perceptual-motor development on learning disabilities

Ready for a surprise? Here it is: students who have difficulty with school-related skills are frequently seen to have problems with “perceptual-motor integration,” which roughly means awareness of body position. The good news is that training to refine perceptual-motor processes can enhance a person’s ability to read, write, do math, pay attention, etc. This is true for teens and adults as well as children.

I first heard of this topic in a presentation given at the “Raising Functional Adults” symposium in 2013, as described here. Linda Howe is a Perceptual-Motor Consultant whose talk on “The Physical Side of Learning” was an eye-opener for me and many others in attendance. I’m indebted to Linda for providing additional information for this post.

Here’s a quote from her brochure:

Perceptual-motor integration relates to the manner by which the individual takes in sensory information, processes and interprets the information, and then responds automatically to it.

Many children have not developed refined perceptual-motor skills. Frequently, they display very inconsistent behaviors. They may have difficulty in reading, writing, spelling or math. They may have a short attention span and are easily frustrated. These children have been diagnosed as hyperactive, dyslexic, or having minimal brain dysfunction.

Perceptual-motor development happens in sequence as a child matures. For reasons such as premature or traumatic birth, illness, or trauma, among others, stages in development may be missed or disrupted. Not only does this cause difficulties in physical responses, but it also entails substandard development in comparable brain functions. Students impacted in this way struggle or are inconsistent when attempting higher-level tasks, such as copying information from the board.

The student often learns to compensate, but the energy required for compensations frequently drains his/her system. With so much extra energy required for the intake and processing of information, there may not be much energy left for output (= doing schoolwork.) The compensations may also mean it takes longer to complete tasks. Thus, we have a student who is exhausted, frustrated, lagging behind – and who may be told s/he “is not trying hard enough.”

To make these concepts really hit home, let’s look at some of the specific perceptual-motor skills and how deficits in those skills translate to difficulties in the learning process. I’ll give a condensed version of the information Linda presented, but hopefully it’ll get the point across.

The first perceptual motor skill to consider is kinesthetic awareness, which refers to knowing where a given body part is and what it is doing, without having to look at it.

“Well, duh!” you might say. “I know where my right elbow is.” But have you ever taken a class in yoga, or dance, or karate? Been given tips for swinging a bat, racquet, or golf club? Were you perfect in following the instructor’s directions on positioning your body?

Some of us have a strong kinesthetic awareness; some of us goof it up on a regular basis. And some people have a really tough time (apart from issues of flexibility and the like), possibly because there was a disruption in developing that awareness when they were growing up.

Here are a few of the many clues that a person may have deficits in kinesthetic awareness: s/he is constantly moving, may keep arms and hands against the body, may under-respond or over-respond to touch, and/or may be very cautious or very accident-prone.

Related to kinesthetic awareness is physical figure-ground development, in which the person can selectively tense one set of muscles, such as those needed to move one arm. Some kids who have difficulties doing this might tense many other muscles in addition to the ones needed for the movement; others may not produce enough muscle tension to make the appropriate movements.

Once physical figure-ground relationships have been developed, the brain moves on to visual and auditory figure-ground development, where the person can focus on selected stimuli in the environment. Without appropriate figure-ground development, everything is perceived equally – and that leads to being overwhelmed and distracted. You can understand why the inability to filter out the “background” sights and sounds in the classroom while the teacher is talking would lead to struggles in learning.

Among other traits, people with deficits in figure-ground development may have a short attention span; may be excitable; may miss obvious features; and may be daydreamers (as a way to shut out overwhelming external stimuli).

Physical figure-ground development for the following body parts has particular bearing on classroom performance and behavior:

  • Problems with waist differentiation lead to problems with balance. Students with poor waist differentiation may have trouble sitting or standing quietly; may lean on someone or something; are often disruptive in class; and may have a short attention span.
  • If a student has trouble with shoulder differentiation, s/he may have trouble writing, to the point of avoiding it. The student may write slowly, grip the pen or pencil too tightly and press down very hard, or tense the muscles in the face, jaw, or tongue while writing. (I wonder if shoulder differentiation is less of an issue as we increasingly use electronic devices? Then again, my old habit of pressing hard with a pencil seems to have turned into a habit of pushing the heel of my hand down too hard when using a mouse!)

Laterality involves awareness and coordination between the left and right sides of the body. It’s the ability to use one side of the body and not the other, to use both sides together, and to change smoothly and spontaneously from side to side. Disruptions in developing physical laterality can lead to problems with the brain being able to handle tasks where crossing the midline of the body is required.

How would this impact a student? Possibly, in confusion while trying to track lines of text from left to right; awkward positioning of paper and body so as to avoid crossing the midline when writing; poor organization skills; difficulty in aligning columns of numbers; and reversing letters, numbers, or words while reading or writing.

Visual-motor coordination relates to the ability of the eyes to direct the hands. Deficits with visual-motor integration lead to sloppy work and difficulty in copying. On worksheets, students may skip problems or even a whole row of problems.

One last skill to touch upon, although it doesn’t involve movement, is auditory development. Students with poorly-developed auditory skills often have difficulty processing oral instructions or reading aloud. They have a hard time knowing which sounds to ignore, and they get tired easily because they must concentrate very hard when listening. Other typical characteristics are hyperactivity, short attention spans, and daydreaming.

Here’s a quote from a document that Linda Howe provided:

It is most likely that a child or adult who struggles with learning has deficits in several of the above areas. As a person develops, they will learn to compensate for their difficulties to varying extents, possibly masking the degree of the deficit and the energy required for achievement. An evaluation and consultation is the first step in defining the need for relief and remediation, leading to less stress and more success in life.

Linda’s individualized program begins with an evaluation to determine which perceptual-motor functions are underdeveloped and how severe the deficits are. She then devises a remedial program with exercises that are to be practiced every day at home. After six weeks the client returns to be reevaluated, and the program is advanced. Such a program is not a quick fix, and requires commitment to follow through.

The letters Linda has received from families of past clients testify to the remarkable progress made after following her remedial program. We are talking honor students! Also, we’re talking about fewer behavioral problems and more confidence, coordination, sociability, and self-esteem.

For those of  you who are interested and live in southern California, Linda’s contact information is included on the Resources page.  There isn’t a professional organization for perceptual-motor consultants, so word-of-mouth or doing an internet search may be your best bets for finding a consultant in your area. Perceptual-motor specialists tend to be certified professionals in fields such as teaching, nursing, psychology, and occupational therapy who have gotten additional training.

We all need to be reminded that children, teens and adults with perceptual-motor deficits are often very bright, but their performance in school or at work is likely to be inconsistent and doesn’t reflect their level of intelligence. Any program that will help release their potential is sure to be a benefit to the individuals, their families, and society at large.



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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

8 responses to “The impact of perceptual-motor development on learning disabilities”

  1. Bette Barkley says :

    Very inciteful. As a teacher I feel like I have seen some of the behavior you refer to. I believe that the information provided here is extremely helpful.


    • janet565 says :

      Thanks, Bette! I’m hoping this information will spark lots of “aha!” moments among teachers, parents, and people of all ages who have some of these perceptual-motor deficits.


  2. lynnkelleyauthor says :

    Super interesting, Janet. I imagine this info will become more well known in the future. At least I hope so. Thanks for sharing this knowledge with us. Kudos to Linda for her work in this field!


    • janet565 says :

      Thanks for your comment, Lynn! I agree: Linda and others in her field deserve our heartfelt appreciation for all they do to help struggling students and their families.


  3. Alicia says :

    We started this program with Linda in April for two of our kids and have seen great strides forward in many different areas. She is easy to work with and very encouraging. I feel blessed to have found out about her.


  4. Kate says :

    I was blessed to have Linda work with my daughter 15 years ago when she was 9. She had great difficulty in reading and paying attention in class, couldn’t do the work and was told that she had a bad attitude. After Linda evaluated her and we did the program she recommended, my daughter thrived.

    She completed high school and has an AA degree in ASL. She works full time and is an avid reader.

    I will never forget on the way home after her initial evaluation, my looked at me at said with tears in her eyes, ” I thought I was just stupid”.

    So thankful!


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