Understanding Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD)

By The Understood Team
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Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a lifelong condition that makes it hard to learn motor skills and coordination. It’s not a learning disorder, but it can impact learning. Kids with DCD struggle with physical tasks and activities they need to do both in and out of school.

Learning how to support your child with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a journey. Along the way, you’ll learn about symptoms, treatment options and what schools and professionals can do to help. But there’s so much else to know about DCD, which you may have heard referred to as dyspraxia.

This overview gives you the basics, so you can start helping your child. It also leads to more in-depth information on DCD.

Snapshot: What DCD Is

DCD is a condition that makes it hard to learn coordination and motor skills (including motor planning). At least 5 percent of kids have it. DCD is more common in boys than in girls. Kids don’t outgrow it, but they can improve their motor skills.

DCD isn’t a specific learning disability like dyslexia or dyscalculia. It’s considered a neurodevelopmental disorder, like ADHD. But it can make it hard for kids to do schoolwork and keep up with classroom lessons. It can also make it difficult for them to participate in gym class. DCD often co-occurs with other conditions, and the symptoms may overlap.

Kids with DCD struggle with many of the tasks needed for learning in school. These include writing, copying from the board and organizing their things.

DCD can create challenges outside of school, too. Motor planning problems can make it hard to figure out the steps of self-care routines, like brushing teeth and getting dressed. Kids may have trouble preparing a bowl of cereal with milk for themselves. Trouble with balance may make it hard for them to sit still and eat properly.

DCD is an impairment in movement skills, including:

Weakness in these skills can impact other motor abilities that people use every day. These include:

  • Maintaining balance

  • Being able to quickly change their movement in new situations

  • Moving their body in the right way

  • Learning new movements

  • Predicting the outcome of their movements

  • Finding and using solutions to motor task problems

Kids with DCD may have trouble using feedback from earlier experiences to adjust their movements. For instance, if they position their fork the wrong way, they don’t automatically learn from that and do it right the next time.

They may also have trouble sequencing. So, planning the movements needed to do a task in the right order can be difficult. Trouble with balance can make kids with DCD appear clumsy. They often bump into other people by accident and drop things they’re holding.

Dive Deeper

DCD Signs and Symptoms

Kids develop movement skills at different rates. So, when they’re young, it may be hard to know if their difficulties will pass on their own. But even in preschool (or before), there can be signs that a child has weaknesses and needs intervention to improve.

Below are some signs of DCD at specific ages.

Preschool

  • Has trouble holding and using utensils

  • Has trouble throwing a ball

  • Plays too roughly or often bumps into other kids by accident

  • Has difficulty sitting upright or still

Grades K–2

  • Has trouble holding and using a crayon, a pencil or scissors

  • Doesn’t form or space letters correctly

  • Struggles with going up and down stairs

  • Frequently bumps into people by accident

  • Has trouble with self-care, like brushing teeth

Grades 3–7

  • Takes a long time to write

  • Has trouble cutting foods

  • Has difficulty with basic routines like getting dressed

  • Struggles to line up columns when doing math problems

Tweens and Teens

Download an in-depth list of signs of DCD at all ages. If you’re concerned your child might have DCD, reach out to your child’s doctor. You can use this checklist to walk through signs you’re seeing.

Dive Deeper

Other Issues That Can Co-Occur With DCD

Most kids with DCD have at least one learning or thinking difference, too. ADHD is one of the most common conditions that co-occur with DCD. In fact, half of all kids with DCD also have ADHD.

But DCD can just look like other issues. For example, because of balance problems, kids with DCD often have trouble sitting upright or sitting still. They may move around a lot to keep their bodies up.

Some people might see that behavior and assume it’s fidgeting due to ADHD, even if it’s not. Or they might wrongly attribute it to sensory processing issues, which can also cause kids to fidget and squirm.

Here are some of the issues that often co-occur or share symptoms with DCD.

An assessment for DCD isn’t the same as an evaluation for learning and thinking differences. So if you or your child’s doctor suspect that other issues might also be at play, it’s important to seek a full evaluation to find out.

Dive Deeper

Possible Causes of DCD

Researchers don’t know the cause of DCD, but there are some risk factors. These include:

  • Being a male

  • Being small for gestational age

  • Being born prematurely or with a low birth weight

  • Genetics, or a history of DCD in the family

If you have questions about these risk factors, reach out to your child’s doctor for more information.

How DCD Is Diagnosed

There are a number of professionals who can either diagnose or identify DCD. Ideally, they’ll work as a group to evaluate a child.

Certain types of medical doctor can diagnose DCD. They include:

Before your child is evaluated for DCD, these doctors should rule out any other medical causes for your child’s coordination difficulties.

There are other professionals who may assess for and identify DCD. But they can’t make a diagnosis. These include:

The most common ages to evaluate for DCD are 5 and 6. Evaluators will look at motor and cognitive skills. They’ll ask questions about other factors that could be having an impact, too, in school and home life. They’ll also want to know whether your child has hit certain milestones in development and when symptoms began.

Evaluators use certain tests to assess movement skills. These skills include:

  • Strength

  • Balance

  • Coordination

  • Range of motion

  • Motor planning

  • Fine motor control

Evaluators might look at dexterity by having kids do things like trace and string beads. They might assess visual-perception skills by looking at how well kids can draw a progression of shapes and stay in the lines when drawing.

Dive Deeper

How Professionals Can Help With DCD

A key treatment for DCD is occupational therapy (OT). There are many examples of how occupational therapists can work on challenging motor tasks. They might have kids trace letters on sandpaper to build handwriting skills, for example. Or use a lacing board with different colored laces to practice shoe tying.

A child might get OT for free at school through an IEP or a 504 plan. There are also OTs you can hire privately. Some insurance plans may cover these services.

Kids with DCD may also work with physical therapists on balance and muscle tone.

There are other ways the school can help. It might provide accommodations like extra time on tests and written classwork. Assistive technology, such as dictation (speech-to-text), might also be an option.

Your child will need an IEP or a 504 plan to get formal accommodations. But the teacher might be willing to give your child informal supports to make classroom learning easier.

Dive Deeper

How You Can Help Your Child With DCD

One of the most important things you can do is be an advocate for your child with DCD. That starts with understanding the challenges and letting your child know you’re going to be there every step of the way.

An evaluation will determine if your child is eligible for special education. If so, you’ll be part of the IEP team that puts together the plan of services and supports. You’ll also be able to monitor your child’s progress and make sure the services are working.

There are many ways you can help at home, too. You’re your child’s biggest champion and can help build up your child’s self-esteem. Share success stories of people with motor skills challenges, including actress Cara Delevingne.

Also, with intervention and practice, motor skills often improve. You can help your child build skills.

As you help your child along the journey, it’s important for you to have support, too. Join the Understood Community for advice, insight and inspiration from other parents like you.

You can also reach out to experts through our free Experts Live events. And visit Parenting Coach, where you’ll find hundreds of age-specific tips to help your child with social, emotional and behavioral challenges.

Key Takeaways

  • DCD is a condition that makes it hard for kids to learn motor skills and coordination.

  • Occupational therapy is a key treatment for DCD.

  • Reach out to your child’s doctor if you’re concerned your child has DCD.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Priscila Tamplain, PhD 

is an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and the director of the Developmental Motor Cognition Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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