The hidden hurdle: How visual motor and fine motor coordination deficits affect academic achievement

The Hidden Hurdle: How Visual Motor and Fine Motor Coordination Deficits Affect Academic Achievement

Posted by | Sep 5, 2023

Academic success is influenced by multiple cognitive, sensory, and motor skills. Among them, visual motor and fine motor coordination play pivotal roles in a student's ability to excel at academic tasks. These skills, often taken for granted, are essential for activities ranging from handwriting to reading and math. Research indicates that deficits in individual components of the visual motor integration system may underlie, at least in part, academic achievement difficulties for a large proportion of children diagnosed with a learning disability (Carames, Irwin, and Kofler, 2021). Fine motor coordination also appears to be a significant predictor of math ability, playing a pivotal role in the development of early math skills (Pitchford et al., 2016).

Understanding Visual Motor and Fine Motor Coordination

Visual motor coordination refers to our ability to integrate visual information with motor control, allowing us to perform tasks that involve eye-hand coordination. Fine motor coordination, on the other hand, involves precise control of small muscles in the hands and fingers for tasks like writing, drawing, and manipulating objects.

Visual motor and fine motor coordination deficits can manifest in various forms. These deficits can affect someone’s ability to perform everyday tasks, academic activities, and fine motor skills. Disabilities that are commonly associated with visual motor and fine motor coordination deficits include:

Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD): DCD, also known as dyspraxia, is a neurological disorder that affects the development of motor skills. People with DCD often struggle with activities that require coordinated movements, such as tying shoelaces, using utensils, or buttoning clothes. These difficulties can extend to academic tasks like handwriting and drawing.

Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia is a learning disability that specifically affects writing skills. Students with dysgraphia may have trouble with letter formation, spacing, sizing, and overall legibility of their handwriting. This can affect their ability to express themselves in writing and complete assignments that involve handwriting.

Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a common learning disability that primarily affects reading skills. While dyslexia is typically associated with difficulties in phonological processing and word recognition, it can also involve visual motor coordination deficits. People with dyslexia may struggle with tracking lines of text, leading to slower reading speed and comprehension issues.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect attention, impulse control, and executive functions. Individuals with ADHD might exhibit challenges in fine motor coordination because of difficulties in sustaining attention and coordinating movements. This can affect tasks like handwriting and other fine motor activities.

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Some individuals with ASD may experience difficulties with motor coordination, including both fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor coordination deficits can affect tasks like tying shoelaces, manipulating objects, and even engaging in activities that require precise movements.

Sensory Processing Disorder: SPD refers to difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. Individuals with SPD might struggle with motor planning and coordination because of challenges in processing sensory cues that guide movement.

Cerebral Palsy: Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect movement and muscle coordination. While it primarily involves difficulties in gross motor skills, fine motor coordination deficits can also be present, impacting tasks such as grasping objects, manipulating tools, and performing daily living activities.

Genetic and Neurological Disorders: Some genetic and neurological disorders, such as Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and various genetic mutations, can lead to motor coordination deficits. These can vary in severity and may affect both fine and gross motor skills.

It’s important to note that these disabilities exist on a spectrum, and individuals may experience a combination of challenges related to motor coordination along with other cognitive, sensory, and social difficulties. Early identification, intervention, and tailored support are essential for helping individuals with these deficits overcome challenges and thrive in various aspects of life, including academics.

Effect on Reading Skills

Reading is a cornerstone of academic success, and its mastery relies heavily on visual motor and fine motor coordination skills. Consider the act of tracking words on a page while reading. A student with visual motor coordination deficits may struggle to smoothly move their eyes across the lines, leading to difficulty in tracking the text. This can slow down reading speed and comprehension. Furthermore, visual motor coordination is crucial for recognizing letters and words. Children with poor visual motor skills may struggle to discriminate between similar letters (such as B and D) or they may transpose letters within words, leading to spelling errors and reading difficulties.

Effect on Math Skills

Math is another subject deeply affected by visual motor and fine motor coordination. Think about the process of writing down complex mathematical equations or neatly aligning numbers in columns during addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. These tasks require precise fine motor control. Visual motor coordination is also vital in tasks like geometry and graphing. Students need to be able to draw shapes, lines, and graphs accurately, and that hinges on their ability to translate visual information into coordinated motor movements.

Effect on Written Language Skills

Written language skills encompass not only handwriting but also the ability to organize thoughts and ideas coherently on paper. Students with fine motor coordination deficits often struggle with handwriting. Illegible handwriting can impede communication of ideas, as educators and peers may find it challenging to decipher the written work. Additionally, the process of expressing thoughts in writing requires the brain to simultaneously manage fine motor skills and higher-order cognitive processes. When fine motor coordination is compromised, students may struggle to keep up with their thoughts, leading to disjointed and poorly structured writing.

Contributors to Underachievement

Students who struggle with visual motor and fine motor coordination may experience frustration and a sense of inadequacy. Over time, that frustration can lead to disengagement from academic tasks, as they may associate learning with difficulty and disappointment.

Poor fine motor coordination can limit a student's writing output. In classroom settings, this translates into shorter essays, fewer completed assignments, and limited participation in written discussions.

Visual motor coordination deficits can also result in inaccuracies in assignments. In math, a slight misalignment of numbers can lead to incorrect calculations. In reading, tracking errors can cause misinterpretation of the text.

Difficulties in tracking words and letters can hinder reading comprehension. Students may spend so much cognitive effort on decoding words that they struggle to understand the overall meaning of the text.

Addressing the Issue

While visual motor and fine motor coordination deficits can present significant challenges, there are strategies and interventions that can help mitigate their impact on academic achievement:

Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapists are trained to assess and address fine motor and visual motor coordination difficulties. Individualized therapy sessions can improve handwriting, hand strength, and coordination.

Technology Integration: Assistive technologies, such as speech-to-text software and digital note-taking tools, can alleviate the burden of handwriting. This allows students to focus on generating ideas without being impeded by motor difficulties.

Multisensory Learning: Incorporating multisensory activities into the curriculum can help students reinforce their learning through various sensory modalities. For instance, tracing letters in sand or drawing shapes on textured surfaces can engage multiple senses and improve memory retention.

Modified Assignments: Teachers can modify assignments to accommodate students who have fine motor challenges. Allowing typed assignments or providing additional time to complete writing-intensive tasks can level the playing field.

With the right interventions, support, and understanding, students can overcome their challenges with visual motor and fine motor coordination and thrive academically. At Evoke Learning, our online math, writing, and reading tutors work with students who have these deficits to help them develop and apply strategies and identify accommodations that empower them to reach their full potential. Contact us to learn more about our programs and services.

For a deeper dive into the topic of visual motor and fine motor coordination deficits and their effect on academic achievement, the following books may be helpful:

Disconnected Kids by Dr. Robert Melillo

This book explores how underlying brain imbalances can lead to various learning difficulties, including issues related to motor coordination.

The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun by Carol Kranowitz

While not directly about academic achievement, this book provides a wealth of fun and engaging activities designed to enhance sensory and motor skills in children.

Handwriting Without Tears by Jan Olsen

Geared specifically toward educators and parents, this resource offers effective strategies for teaching handwriting to children with varying motor skill levels.

Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare

While not focused solely on motor skills, this book delves into executive function difficulties that often coexist with motor coordination challenges.