Understanding developmental coordination disorder

Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a motor skill disorder that affects as many as one in 20 children.

Another term often used for DCD is dyspraxia. In Australia, DCD is preferred.

Children with DCD perform motor skills below what is expected for their age. DCD interferes with their academic achievement and daily activities and cannot be explained by an intellectual delay, visual impairment, or other neurological conditions that affect movement.

In most cases, a child will not outgrow DCD. Interventions are currently designed to help the child function better in their environment.

Signs of DCD

As an educator you may notice that a student with DCD:

  • has awkward or clumsy movement
  • has difficulty with tasks that require fine motor skills, for example writing, cutting, buttoning clothing, tying shoe laces and/or gross motor skills such as running and jumping
  • has difficulty picking up new skills and may need repetition to help them learn
  • has difficulty using learned skills in different ways
  • has difficulty with handwriting – students with DCD can have difficulty with judging the correct force, produce less output in a given time, and show a deterioration in writing quality when trying to write fast or take a longer time to write well
  • has difficulty moving around without bumping into other people or objects
  • becomes tired quickly, this may cause poor posture
  • avoids tasks they find difficult, such as writing
  • has difficulty getting changed for sport or swimming activities, or difficulty putting a jacket on to play outside
  • struggles getting items in and out of their bags, especially if they are hanging on a hook and/or there are other children jostling them
  • has difficulty eating without making a mess.

Effects of DCD

DCD can vary in each student, from day to day or even task to task. This is likely to be the result of a mix of factors including genetics, environment, and the presence of other developmental disorders.

Effect on learning

Students with DCD often have lower working memory capacity than their peers. This can affect their performance on tasks where they are given multiple steps or are required to follow a specific sequence.  


Effects in the classroom

DCD commonly affects handwriting. Students with DCD may write at a slower pace than their peers. When a student with DCD tries to write more quickly, legibility may become poor. This can impact subjects with a large written component such as maths.  

Poor fine motor skills can impact the student’s ability to use scissors, paste objects, draw or gather up class resources required for new activities.  

As students with DCD tend to bump into things, they may cause distractions in class if they try to navigate their way between tables and other students.  

The physical and cognitive effort required for a student with DCD to perform many in-class tasks can leave them mentally and physically fatigued.  

Children with DCD may also have low muscle tone and fatigue easily, which can affect their sitting posture. It may mean they have a tendency to slouch over their desk or, when sitting on the floor, lean on other students or against other surfaces like walls.  


Effects in the playground

It is difficult for many children with DCD to keep up with their peers in the playground. They may run differently run or find it difficult to catch or kick a ball. This may lead to being left out or picked last when teams are formed.  

Students with DCD who are able to keep up with their peers often fatigue quickly, which means they are unable to play for as long. They may spend less time in organised and free-play activities than children without motor impairment. Withdrawal from activities can be caused by low confidence.  


Effects on behaviour

Students with DCD may be labelled by those who are unaware of their condition as lazy, uncooperative, difficult or distracting. Many of the behaviours that produce these beliefs in others are linked to the student’s motor difficulties. For example:  

  • copying from the board may require extreme physical and cognitive effort for a student with DCD. While focusing on that task, they may miss other instructions, or may not remember them
  • handwriting can leave a child with DCD both physically and cognitively drained. If you finish a handwriting task and move straight into a new activity, the child with DCD may not have the energy or focus that is required and try to avoid it
  • a child with DCD may be disrupting other students and playing up in class – this may be an attempt to hide or deflect attention away from the symptoms of their disorder.

Understanding the drivers behind problematic behaviours in students with DCD will allow the teacher to develop strategies to prevent the child from acting out in the first place.  


Physical effects

Students with DCD may have lower levels of muscle tone. This means their muscles have to work harder to support their posture and movements.

Trying to keep up in class is both cognitively and physically tiring for a student with DCD. Without adequate breaks for rest, they can easily become fatigued.

More information

  • DCD Australia - resources and support group for individuals and families with children living with developmental coordination disorder.
  • Canchild - information and resources for families and teachers
  • Movement Matters - information and videos for families, teachers and employers
  • Dyspraxia Foundation - a UK based support organisation providing helpful information sheets.