Junior infants from poorer areas more likely to lack key skills

Lack of motor abilities due to scarcity of play space or dearth of facilities, research shows

Junior infants from disadvantaged backgrounds with restricted space to play are far more likely to lack crucial motor skills essential to coping with schoolwork, new research suggests.

An assessment of basic skills – from zipping up coats to hopping on the spot – found that over half of those early school-goers from disadvantaged areas are either below or well below average ability compared with just 15 per cent from better off areas.

The deficiency has been put down in part to a lack of opportunity to develop spatial awareness in day-to-day life, whether due to urban crime acting as a disincentive in allowing children out to play, a lack of space in temporary or homeless accommodation, or a simple shortage of local activities and facilities.

While similar research on a decline in fundamental movement skills (FMS) has been applied to activity levels and obesity, PhD researcher and former primary school teacher Sinéad Lambe believes her study is unique in examining children’s ability to navigate schoolwork such as reading and writing.


Motor skills

Ms Lambe, who is conducting her study at Dublin City University (DCU), carried out a series of motor skills tests with 174 junior infant children from 10 classrooms, evenly split between three Deis, or disadvantaged, schools and three non-Deis schools.

The initial round of testing found that in Deis schools 54 per cent of children were below average, 42 per cent were average and 5 per cent were above average.

In the non-Deis schools 15 per cent were below average, 76 per cent were average and 7 per cent were above.

A second round of testing was undertaken after teachers had adopted exercises aimed at improving motor skills, further analysis of which will see if any improvements were made.

Following this, all of the teachers involved said children benefited from spending the first term working on developing motor skills rather than beginning formal writing programmes.

The research deals in particular with bilateral co-ordination, balance, stability, manual dexterity and fine motor control.

Some of the initial findings showed many children unable to hop or follow a maze with a pencil – the latter indicating poor directional awareness and visual tracking which would make handwriting and reading difficult.

Children were also found unable to catch a ball in two hands, demonstrating poor eye-hand co-ordination, again critical for writing. Core strength was “particularly poor”, making sitting in a chair difficult.

Spatial awareness is also important for developing handwriting yet many of the children could not successfully negotiate their environment – issues were identified with using staircases, zipping coats, opening lunch boxes or peeling fruit.

Lack of opportunity

Ms Lambe believes many of the children simply have not had the opportunity to sufficiently develop spatial awareness due to a variety of social and environmental factors, often inhibiting their ability to play and move around.

“Parents [often] don’t let their kids out; they are not on the streets,” she said, adding that in one of the non-Deis schools she attended, by contrast, she was struck by the amount of bikes parked outside.

There are concerns that early difficulties with schoolwork can feed into later years and impair academic performance.

“They are immediately failing because the curriculum in place assumes that they already have these [motor] skills,” Ms Lambe said.

A principal in one of the Deis schools that took part in the study said they had noticed a decline in such skills and ability over the past five to 10 years.

“I definitely think parents are more fearful . . . at one time people were more comfortable letting kids out to play in the inner city,” the principal said.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times