We're excited to share our latest blog post about a problem that affects more children than you might think. Clumsiness.
A friend approached me, anxious about her 9-year-old son. Whilst she felt that her son’s coordination was not up to scratch, he wasn’t eligible for therapy as his motor skills were deemed satisfactory. My friend was at a loss. She described her child’s tendency to knock objects off the table, and complained that at breakfast, a cup of milk was always spilled. The child struggled socially as he was unable to play a game of basketball with his classmates, or even to do simple dance moves to a rhythm.
Does this mother’s predicament sound familiar to you? It is not an uncommon dilemma. Many children exhibit clumsiness, but are not eligible for therapy, leaving the parents at an impasse. While to some, a child’s clumsiness may seem to be an insignificant matter, parents of a clumsy child can attest that this issue has undesirable effects, influencing the child’s everyday life, and often that of those around him.
What is clumsiness?
Before we begin to problem solve, let’s explore what clumsiness actually is.
Clumsiness is defined as awkwardness in coordination, action or movement. Children who are clumsy generally have poor awareness of the body and self. So if you’ve noticed your child too often bumping into things, stepping on objects on the floor and spilling food, these may be signs of what we call clumsiness.
Clumsiness is often observed in children who are experiencing academic challenges and learning disabilities. Often, those suffering from poor coordination will experience irregular breathing- you will notice a lack of consistency in the person’s exhale and they may take shallow breaths, even holding their breath sometimes.
Why is my child clumsy?
If you are finding that your child is clumsy, it may be a result of one or more of the following:
Movement that is not being registered accurately by the nervous system
Decreased awareness of and responsiveness to touch
Decreased awareness of the body’s position and movement
Tactile Discriminative Disorder- a disorder which is manifested by clumsiness and an inability to localize touch, and is usually paired with poor fine motor skills
Unintegrated reflexes- meaning, automatic responses that have failed to develop and mature since infancy
Lack of postural control
Developing your child’s body and spatial awareness is crucial in overcoming the hurdles associated with their clumsiness. If your child is clumsy, they are likely struggling to understand where their body is in relation to other objects, or to other parts of the body. This would explain why they might be exhibiting behaviors such as knocking over a cup of milk, stepping on objects on the floor rather than walking around them, or perhaps tripping over their feet for no apparent reason. Your child is not just absent-minded, they are simply having difficulty gauging the position and movement of parts of their body.
Linked to this is the decreased awareness of and responsiveness to touch which is often observed in a clumsy child. You may notice that your ‘clumsy’ child is left with a dirty face every time he/she eats, or that their spot at the table is left splattered with food stains after a meal. While it is common for children to dirty their faces or the area around them, once a child reaches a certain maturity, they should be able to maintain a certain level of cleanliness most of the time or at least be aware that their face, or whatever is dirty, needs to be cleaned. If they are unable to do so, it may be a sign that their awareness of sensation (in this case, the feeling of the food on their face), is weak.
A great way to stimulate your child’s sense of touch and body awareness is through what’s called roughhousing. Roughhousing involves playing boisterously and enthusiastically with your child, girls included! When playing, freeze the action frequently. Be cautious (but not overly cautious) to ensure that no one gets hurt, and ensure there is an understanding that violent actions such as punching, kicking, biting, scratching and headlocks are not acceptable. When playing, reverse the expected roles- encourage your child to be strong and powerful, while you embellish being fearful, clumsy, and incompetent. If you do something that makes your child laugh, repeat it. If you notice your child becoming very serious with an edge of real anger, stop the activity. Before beginning, it’s important to tune into your child’s mood and reflect their feelings. For example, if your child is relaxed, you may want to begin by sitting next to him/her and sharing in the moment, then slowly revving it up by becoming noisier and more excited. The play should begin with calmness, rise into physical play, reach a peak of super-excitement, and then wind down. Be sure to leave adequate time for the winding down stage, based on the amount of time it takes your child to relax (usually between 20-45 minutes). The constant physical contact the child has with their partner and with other objects as part of the game is effective in enhancing your child’s spatial awareness and responsiveness to touch, thereby decreasing clumsy behavior.
If you’ve noticed your child having difficulty performing activities such as jumping jacks, jump rope, or even walking or running without stumbling, he/she may be struggling to coordinate both sides of the body. A child with this challenge will have difficulty performing jumping jacks as they are unable to coordinate both their right and left arm, and their right and left leg, in an organized fashion.
Encourage your child to perform activities that demand the synchronized use of both sides of the body. An effective exercise can be as simple as pushing or pulling a box, laundry basket, or a sheet with a heavy toy or sibling on it, with both hands.
Feel free to get the family involved! A sibling can hold onto a rope, lying on the floor, and the child can pull their sibling from the other side of the rope, with both hands. If they want, roles can be reversed.
Another activity your child may enjoy is jumping through a hoop, or over sticks, keeping their feet together.
Even walking around the house or garden while winding thread around a spool can help your child to practice coordination.
Children who suffer from clumsiness often have difficulty understanding direction and laterality- awareness of right and left. Your child’s understanding of direction and laterality can be enhanced through the performance of simple, everyday tasks.
Take the following scenario:
Your child has lost his/her shoes. Instead of simply pointing to the shoes sitting under the table and telling the child, “there are your shoes, go and get them”, you may want to say, “your shoes are under the table”. When your child responds by retrieving his/her shoes from under the table, their awareness of direction is being stimulated.
When telling your child to put on their shoes, rather than simply instructing them, “put on your shoes”, it would be more beneficial to say “put on your right shoe first, and then your left shoe”. This will get them thinking about right and left, and repeated scenarios such as these will help to assist your child’s lateral coordination. In fact, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch instructs us to first put on our right shoe, and then our left (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch- Orach Chaim 2:4). Apparently, laterality can be enhanced, simply by following halacha!
Clumsiness may be observed in conjunction with eye-hand-foot coordination difficulties. In other words, the child will struggle to coordinate their eye movement with movement of their hands and feet. This can be manifested in the child’s inability to catch a ball while running. A child with an eye-hand-foot coordination difficulty cannot coordinate the sight of the ball coming toward them, with their feet running to the ball and their hand reaching out to catch it.
To enhance your child’s eye-hand-foot coordination, encourage them to practice a variety of activities that stimulate their vision and the muscles of their hands and feet simultaneously.
If your child likes to play ball, challenge them to bounce or throw up the ball while crossing their legs and to uncross their legs when catching it.
Alternatively, your child can bounce the ball under their leg and catch it on the other side, utilizing vision, their hands, and their legs, in conjunction.
A more relaxing, but still very beneficial activity for your child is swinging on a trapeze. In doing so, your child will be using their eyes, taking in the scene in front of them, their hand muscles by holding onto the swing, and their legs to push their body into the swinging motion.
Whilst you may find your child’s clumsiness to be irritating, it can be effectively worked on from the comfort of your home. Plus, you can get the whole family involved!
To your potential!