Many educators and parents are unaware of one potential reason some students perform poorly or inconsistently in school: underlying problems with perceptual-motor integration. This system relates to sensory intake and processing, awareness of body position and differences in muscle tension.

Deficits in these mind-body processes may cause behavioral and learning issues that are mistaken for ADHD or learning disabilities. The good news is that with appropriate training to refine perceptual-motor processes, an underperforming student's ability to learn and perform tasks can be strengthened.

Perceptual-motor development occurs in sequence as a child matures. Events such as premature or traumatic birth, illness or trauma (among others) may cause one or more stages to be missed or disrupted.

Perceptual-motor skills

According to perceptual-motor consultant Linda Howe, M.A., each of the perceptual-motor skills we acquire during development has an impact on school performance.

One of these skills is kinesthetic awareness, which refers to knowing the position of a given body part and what it is doing without having to look at it. Natural athletes and dancers are strong in this skill; most of us improve our awareness as we learn how to swing a bat or achieve a yoga pose.

Possible clues that a student may have deficits in kinesthetic awareness include: constant movement, arms and hands kept against the body, being under-responsive or over-responsive to touch, and/or being cautious or 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 children 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.

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
  • lean on someone or something
  • be disruptive in class
  • have a short attention span

Students with poor shoulder differentiation may have trouble writing, even to the point of avoiding it. The student may

  • write slowly
  • grip the writing implement too tightly and press down very hard
  • tense the muscles in the face, jaw or tongue while writing

During development, once physical figure-ground relationships have been established, the brain moves on to the ability to focus on selected stimuli in the environment. Without appropriate visual and auditory figure-ground development, everything is perceived equally — and that leads to being overwhelmed and distracted. Understandably, the inability to filter out the "background" sights and sounds in the classroom while the teacher is talking leads 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).

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 impact being able to handle tasks where crossing the midline of the body is required.

How would this affect a student?

  • confusion while trying to track lines of text from left to right
  • positioning paper and body awkwardly to avoid crossing the midline when writing
  • poor organization skills
  • difficulty aligning columns of numbers
  • 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 tire easily because listening requires extra concentration. Other typical characteristics are hyperactivity, short attention spans and daydreaming.

In the classroom

Students with perceptual-motor challenges often learn to compensate, but the extra energy this requires frequently drains their systems. With so much effort required for the intake and processing of information, limited energy is left for output (doing schoolwork). Assignments that are completed may take longer than expected.

Teachers and parents may be misled about the severity of the student's challenges because the compensations can mask the amount of effort spent in achieving routine school tasks. Meanwhile, the impacted students are exhausted, frustrated, lagging behind and may be told they "are not trying hard enough."

If perceptual-motor challenges are suspected, a visit and evaluation with a perceptual-motor consultant is the first step in establishing which skills if any are underdeveloped. These specialists tend to be certified professionals in fields such as teaching, nursing, psychology and occupational therapy who have received additional training. Word-of-mouth or an Internet search would be two avenues for locating the nearest specialist.

Once the problematic skills and the severity of the deficits are identified, the consultant typically devises an individualized remedial program with exercises to be practiced at home daily. Periodic re-evaluations lead to adjustments and advancements in the program. The training is not a quick fix and requires commitment to follow through.

When pursued with dedication, such remediation not only results in better school performance but also leads to more confidence, coordination, sociability and self-esteem. At the same time, behavioral problems are likely to diminish.

Children, teens and adults with perceptual-motor deficits are often bright, but their performance in school or at work is likely to be poor or inconsistent and doesn't reflect their level of intelligence. Individuals who have gone through perceptual-motor training typically find their classroom struggles are reduced and their full potential can at last be realized.